Thursday, May 29, 2014

If not now

I wish to God I knew the answers.

I wish to God it didn't take a new mass killing to renew debate, when so many — so many — die daily by guns in the United States. In my city. Within 10 minute's drive. I shrug. We shrug; worse, we don't know. We don't care.

I wish mass killings weren't so commonplace, a nightmarish norm, real reality TV. An entertainment.

(There's the crime scene, the shrine … now the grieving angry family members … the recriminations … the essayists parsing the causes … ooh look, the gun lobby fires back, so to speak: Don't blame us! The script is familiar.)

I wish to God a grieving father reaching out to another grieving father for solutions actually put us on the path to solutions.

I wish the solution was to send a postcard to your representative, "Not one more." Can't hurt.

I wish to God their reaching out — the father of a victim to the father of an alleged killer — would be enough to make us lose our breath, and in shuddering to catch our breath, make us reconsider ourselves and what we support as a society.

Besides indifference and inaction.

I wish to God my first thought wasn't just, "Jeeezus!" and that my second thought wasn't, "Glad it's not me/my kid/my family." I wish still I could think of something more useful.

I wish to God the critics, the bloggers, the trolls, the spin controllers, the status quo, would all just shut up for about a week, roll their hyperbolic, vitriolic tongues back in their mouths, and consider these fathers' pleas.

I wish it wasn't the out-shoutin', sound-bitin',  gun-rightin', trash-talkin', Sarah Palin, what's-that-have-to-do-with-anythin'? yell fest we get now instead of reasoned discourse.

I wish to God the National Rifle Association used its considerable influence for reasonable solutions — rather than attack any and all calls for change as a threat to all freedoms. They're not.

I wish the Second Amendment wasn't so poorly written. Or such an anachronism.

I wish to God people who feel need to kill others out of vengeance, retribution, loss, anger, torment, justice, loss of reality — what have you — get help they need without losing their human and civil rights.

I wish guns didn't so readily become the help they think they need.

I wish critics didn't say, "Should we ban knives too? Dude killed with knives too! Where you gonna draw the line?! Sharp pencils?!" I wish I had an answer for them.

I wish the alleged killer's roommates saw the signs and saved themselves, or knew how they might save their roommate. I wish the alleged killer's family got the help they sought for their child.

I wish I didn't agree with Michael Moore, who said of the Santa Barbara shootings, "Enjoy the rest of your day, and rest assured this will all happen again very soon." Moore made the flawed but essentially true documentary "Bowling for Columbine," examining — without solving — why gun deaths are vastly more prevalent in the United States than in other countries.

I wish to God our country wasn't exceptional in this way, but in the way we still talk about ourselves, even the most cynical of us: The greatest country in the world, the best, the most innovative, the ones who can figure this out.

I wish to God we didn't think these deaths are the price we pay for admission.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Throw the torch

Disclaimer: I don't know what I'm talking about.

Once only, years ago on a Memorial Day, I spoke these words to the Boy Scouts in my charge. I had memorized it in the weeks before:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw 

The torch; be yours to hold it high. 
If ye break faith with us who die 
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow 
In Flanders fields.

New Scouts sort of squinted into the distance, not knowing what to make of me. Scouts who knew better glanced sidelong my way and then at each other, then poked at the ground with sticks or picked at threads on their uniform patches. They knew this, too, would pass.

Everything I knew about being a Scoutmaster I learned from Normal Rockwell paintings.

Oh, I got all the whats and whens of being an adult Scout leader in training and readings, but we're on our own for the whys, for the space in between the cooking and hiking, the tangible manifestations of Scouting.

That, I suppose, is left up to each adult and what he or she may contribute to the assembled Troop. What I contributed was well-meaning ardor, some imitation of an adult leader with no experience as a Scout and little outward evidence of ever having been a boy.

So I decided, somehow, my role was to help with the intangibles, the ideals, the higher plane and all that. In my time as Scoutmaster I had quoted Shakespeare, and from the journals of Meriwether Lewis. It was obvious to all that these words did not come effortlessly, as if from a lifelong reader collecting words as treasures, loosing them at the right moment.

I was learning all this stuff shortly before I was trying to teach it.

And what I was trying to teach by reciting "In Flanders Field," by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian surgeon (published 99 years ago) was … what?

I don't know. I didn't then. Something about patriotism and sacrifice. At the least, I wanted to create a space in the day to consider the solemn chill of those words, written to commemorate the death of a friend in the Second Battle of Ypres in World War I.

We had gathered the boys for a "Scouts' Own," a time for reflection. Scouting in my time as a leader was heavy on reflection, on looking back on the tangibles and how we all felt, what worked, what didn't.

"Scouts' Own" is sometimes confused with a church service, but it really shouldn't be. It was rare in our Troop, convened only at summer camp and on three-day campouts, themselves rare. Memorial Day weekend was always bittersweet: Three days free to camp, but few Scouts free to participate. Over-involved Scouts and their families usually didn't want to give up the weekend.

This Memorial Day campout was different for some reason. Most of the Troop could come. We arranged with park rangers for a service project to clean up trash (and, for some reason, dead birds) from two miles of beach. Patrols could govern and cook and clean and caterwaul among their own, rather than coping awkwardly with a small mishmash of Scouts from different Patrols, which was the norm.

And we could have a Scouts' Own, which meant the Troop had to put up with me and my earnest impositions.

Gestures of patriotism affected me deeply as a kid: Standing for the national anthem before the movie played at the Air Force Base theater … the rare moments watching my dad salute. I guess I wanted to pay forward my feelings at their age. 

The best gesture we could have managed as a Troop would have been to volunteer our time planting flags at veterans' graves, giving each Scout a moment for himself, and whatever he may regard of his time before the name of each of the fallen. But we never could organize a sufficient number of Scouts to participate.

I was only trying to uphold meaning for the day, a day of remembrance and service, and not of shopping. Nor politics. Nor even patriotism, especially as a synonym for jingoism. An ideal that is supposed to make the United States special is the freedom to question our representatives, to counter status quo. I fear it's a freedom we forsake, or that it's drowning in sound and money.

(I speak only as a citizen who has never served in the armed service, who knows nothing of it, or of war, only the freedom to have chosen not to serve.)

We should fight as we truly need as a country, but we should also question our wars. We should exercise our right to petition government and challenge actions on our behalf.

But we should always love the warrior, going for us, going in our stead, no matter the war.

Warriors are fewer and fewer, and we are loving them less. Only 13 percent of the U.S. population are veterans. Fewer than 1 percent are active personnel.

I admit to hating our suspicious wars in Iraq and the war that goes on in Afghanistan, and I'm guilty of letting hate turn into frustration and indifference. I could never do enough for those who serve, but I don't do near enough in trying.

No matter what, though, those who serve deserve whatever we as a nation can give, as soon as it's needed. It is a lowly crime that veterans and their families must work so hard to get the aid that should be accorded them on demand. It is the lowliest of crimes that our Congress — and by extension, we — have cut veterans' benefits, mainly because we can. As the percentage of our veterans dwindles — as we become detached from our veterans as a population — so does their voice and force in protest, and their power to vote for the other candidate.

Our help to veterans should be sacrosanct, untouched by our vile politics. It should be immediate and the best available.

(Yeah, it's more of a Veterans' Day post, but it's on my mind now and I can't shake it).

Nor can I shake this from childhood, a poem by Randall Jarrell from a school anthology that I read mostly because it's short. Its brevity of horrible necessity — for us, for me — burned into memory:
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Your room is ready, Mr. Elephant

Different time, same old thorny issues … this illustration says three things: (1) the digital
iteration is locked away in a storage device I can't get to any more, it's so old, so this is a
photocopy of the archived issue; (2) I had Adobe®™ Illustrator©® and wasn't afraid to use
it; and (3) money makes the world go 'round …
How's everything out your way?

We here are terribly, terribly excited! Terribly! We are over the moon! — or so I'm told — because now the Sacramento Kings™® of the NBA©® can finally have its new stadium right downtown!

The Sacramento City Council™ voted 7-2 Tuesday for the $477 million stadium and financing plans to make it possible!

Key to the plan is that we as citizen/drivers need to pay more for parking downtown — and park much, much more frequently!

Sacramento's mayor, former NBA player and three-time All-star Kevin Johnson™, called the vote Sacramento's finest hour!

Now cancer will abate, everyone will have good jobs, and rain will fall precisely on our lawns and between the farm rows each early morning!


The stadium issue has been going on for a long time. This hot mess of an illustration (above) is from 11 years ago, and the hue and cry for a new stadium was already an old and familiar sound. Since then the Kings and their arena have starred in a constant melodrama, pushed over and pulled from the brink many times, mere days away from leaving for Anaheim, then Seattle.

The specter of the arena has been moved around like a king on a chess board, inciting this and that political force to mess with the city. Now it's about three miles north of downtown in the floodplain called the Natoma District. Proponents say the stadium, called Sleep Train®™ Arena, is old and small and past its usefulness.

The proposed new stadium, which can also host concerts and ice hockey games, has been moved over the years to the abandoned railyards, slowly being gussied up … out to the state fairgrounds … and now right next to Interstate 5 and the chokepoint of the city's major freeways, where proponents say it will cause absolutely no congestion problems for games and concerts. None at all!

Past owners became villains, outside forces got caught trying to manipulate votes, the whole schmear. Most people, I'm guessing, stopped listening and caring long ago.

Now it's done. Opponent groups will block and parry once more with lawsuits and allegations — misuse of public money, hidden financial bombshells if the economy goes south — but it's done.

New Kings owner Vivek Ranadive has said the new stadium — a chrome-plated crown-shaped thing, judging from the renderings — will become a California icon, as memorable on postcards as the Hollywood sign and the Golden Gate Bridge.

It won't, of course, but Ranadive condenses the whole. Damn. Problem:

Sacramento is forever trying to be what it's not.

By forever, I mean since the Gold Rush, when Sacramento became a boom service and supply town for the mining camps, but never eclipsed San Francisco's might with its perfect port and gateway to the world.

Even after it became one of the greatest railroad cities in the world, Sacramento still served other regions' growth, and most of the Big Four (merchants Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins) who created the great Central Pacific Railroad chose San Francisco for their ostentations.

Maybe for the heart of the 20th Century Sacramento filled its suit nicely, a place of industry and military bases and government, a walkable place with trolley cars. A big small city. I'm judging from what I read and see in books. But the bases closed and industry has shrunk.

Sacramento is, of course, the capital, the hub of government, its mainstay, but I've heard outsiders many times say, "This is the capital?" They're expecting the height of San Francisco or the breadth of Los Angeles, not Sacramento's pale copy of each.

And that's OK with me. It's never been OK with Sacramento, which is really a small Midwestern city nestled at the confluence of two Midwestern rivers out here in California. It can be a fine Midwestern city, promoting small-town ideas of caring for its own, or trying to.

But people in power and money want it to be Seattle, a truly great port city, with amazing centers of culture and entertainment that seem organic — and amazing heartbreaking problems.

Sacramento has the heartbreaking problems, of chronic crime and dearth of services, especially for its poorest communities.

The arena is supposed to solve all, and that's where the city's attention has gone for years. It'll become the keystone for its Seattle-ization. More likely, though, it'll be the same small Midwestern city, but with a chrome dome.

Once the arena is finished, the city will look around and say, "Hey, where did all these problems come from?" They were here all along; they'll still be here, exacerbated by neglect and diverted resources.

The mayor, whose platform has been the NBA®© — he was instrumental last month in representing NBA™® players for the lifetime ban on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for racist comments he was caught making — will likely be off to higher office by then.

Sure, it colors my view that:
  • I'm not a basketball fan, or a hockey fan or a goer to concerts or whatever else is planned. We took our kids once to a Kings game through a Scouting promotion, and calculated afterward that we could have bought the tickets, the promoted McDonalds™® Happy Meal®©, even the promotional miniature non-bouncing basketball, for much less on our own. And
  • I have no civic pride.
For 27 years of living here, I still feel like I'm passing through. Sacramento's got some things I love — a century-old bike trail along the rivers that couldn't be built in today's fierce real-estate hunger, my wonderful Lake Natoma — but the city has never entranced me.

I have never thought, "I want to go downtown," and I rarely go.

That's just me. I'm weird. It's just where I live. Sorry, Sacramento.

The stadium will replace a has-been downtown mall, which is good. It'll spark a downtown revival, I suppose, and developments are underway already to anticipate the arena's catalytic conversion.

But it's a great big want for a monied minority, and the city has great big needs — not least of which are the needs of those whom the arena will displace downtown — and serious attention must be paid.

From my perch as a permanent tourist, I'm still trying to figure out what Sacramento's trying to pull.

Terribly, terribly exciting!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I love oxymoron in the springtime

Warm perfume of sycamores this time of year always makes me wistful and not a little sorry.

Their sweet-butter aroma triggers memories of madness, long hours awash in stress — and loving every hateful minute. It's a wonder I associate the sweet smell because I don't remember taking time to stop and enjoy it. I was too busy helping run the Art Directors and Artists Club annual conference showcasing the best in design.

It was a lifetime ago. My children were just learning to walk.

(ADAC's demise is a sore subject about which I've talked on and on and on. Read if you really must.)

Volunteer run, ADAC put on an annual miracle producing the conference, tricking the best in visual arts to come to our humble spaces and talk to us of their greatness.

The secret: We worked our butts off through constant collective events known as the "work party." It was the best thing ever for me, whose definition of "party" is rather parochial. Provide pizza and soda, and that's a party in my book.

In the early days, work and pizza and soda held equal balance, dozens and dozens of artists and designers all volunteering to stage ADAC events and talk about their craft as they worked and tried not to drip grease on the brilliant work of famous people.

As the club winnowed awa, teetering against the growing competition of other conferences as the nature of visual art changed, the work parties became WORK parties, emphasis on the former. Pizza all but disappeared. The work had to get done, by fewer and fewer people.

Someone less enthralled than I with the nirvana of working alongside actual designers and illustrators, pointed out the irony — nay, the stupidity! — of calling these events work parties.

While the club was beating its last, we tried to make lemonade from this oxymoronic lemon. These stencils are for a promotion calling members to yet another work party. I doubt pizza was gotten for the event. I just tried to appeal to members' visceral visual sense, to act for the commonweal.

At one point toward the end we turned the phrase into our badge of honor, with T-shirts designed by my friend Will Suckow, with the corporate sounding slogan:

Work. Party. ADAC


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Hidden away

The view from our window of a golden morning across Carquinez Strait.
"How about Benicia?"

So we went to Benicia for our anniversary. A lifetime of living near it and this year we finally went.

There never seemed a reason to go. We are of the great through-traffic world, the one that has to get from northern to southern California, or from Sacramento to San Francisco. So we travel the major freeways — 80 to The City, I-5 or 99 to Los Angeles, 680 to bypass the clustertruck of the Bay Area to get to 101.

We are in a hurry, no time for byroads.

The road to Benicia is 780, a spur of 680, a byroad, but why go? Benicia is not on the way to anything.

Besides, Benicia appears to be no more than so many gargantuan oil tanks the color of school buses, clinging to the hills like mussels at low tide. We've seen Benicia, and it does not beckon.

Or have we? And why does it not?

Benicia, we learn, is behind the forbidding tank farm. You can see part of it from the George Miller Jr. Memorial Bridge on 680 over the Carquinez Strait, but you don't know what you're looking at. Benicia is cleverly disguised behind the thrumming menace of commerce and industry.

I'd scouted the joint months before. Doug, my swimming friend, once invited his buddies to join him in the waters of the strait, where he swims occasionally after work from nearby Fairfield.

A town exists, by God, beyond the oil tanks! An actual town with a city park and a bandstand! Craftsman bungalows and quirky architectural one-offs and Victorian mansions and shopping centers. Multiple parks along the shoreline and a bustling main street (First Street), every shop open.
(Doug may have a hard time getting us to join him again for a swim there, though. We went near sundown at low tide, and a half-mile out from shore I was creeped out to discover I was still swimming in only two feet of water, my hand scraping through the sludge as I stroked. Creatures bumped into some of us — not me! — and one squirmed out from under Doug as he stepped on the soft shallows in the concrete-colored opaque water. We think they might have been sturgeon.

(A man greeted us at the boat lunch when we came back in. He was a silhouette in the new evening. I was breathing hard with the anxiety of a tide seeming to pull me away in these strange waters with their strange creatures. The man said he lived in Benicia 20 years and made his way to the park every day. The sight of us drew him to the water that evening because he thought we might be porpoises; we were rarer even than that: He said he had never seen swimmers in that water before.)
Nancy got us room at an inn by the water, near a ramshackle boatworks that proudly flew a U.S. and California flag. We were high above a beautifully sculpted walkway, part of a trail that girdles the entire Bay Area. The walkway is terraced here and there with inviting concrete benches and stools, where the many, many dogs of Benicia led their many, many owners.

And we did what we always do: Walked, to see what we could see and discover what we were never planning to find. First Street, on closer look, is restaurants and real estate offices and antique stores and aromatic gift shops. Nothing anyone really needs, but all the businesses are open.

Benicia was an early capital of the state. I've never heard a consistent story why the capital is Sacramento; I've read the capitol building in Benicia was never big enough to comfortably accommodate the Legislature, or that Sacramento won in a battle of land and politics and pride and gamesmanship.

The capitol building in Benicia certainly is cozy, a two-story saltbox, but it would house the full Assembly and Senate. Those lawmakers, though, would have to make their own decisions and conduct their own research and be their own selves. Benicia doesn't have room for politicians' handlers.

Still, I wonder how Sacramento got to be the capital, except for the grit and obstinance of people long ago, with gifts I lack. Benicia is toward the back of the San Francisco Bay, past the northern lobe of this great harbor, called San Pablo Bay. The water is brackish here, worsened, I imagine, by the shipping that goes on here now.

Farther east as the strait narrows, the waters divide into the archipelago of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where the rivers empty.

Even today it's not easy to wend one's way through that maze to find the dripping tendril of the Sacramento River.

Imagining the headache navigation was 160 years ago, I picture myself among the pioneers of the state, the one in the back of the crowd who, having come to Benicia, might have said, "This is close enough. Let's just stop here, guys. Whaddya say, guys, call it good?"

It's got a nice view of the head of the strait, and it's a straight shot southwest to the Golden Gate. Even I could find that.

But these folks who made Sacramento capital, they're made of stronger stuff.

Besides, you have to really like wind here. Really, really like it. The Delta Breeze that saves Sacramento on summer evenings reaches wild puberty in Benicia.

In our entire time at the inn, the flags flying at the boatworks next door never slacked, rippling full staff to the east.

Practiced lotus eaters, we knew how to get out of the wind in style, watching it push the sage-colored water of the strait into whitecaps from the many windows of our room or, better still, with an anniversary tradition we started last year: Sipping beers and watching the San Francisco Giants play on the big screen at a corner bar.

The hated Dodgers beat the Giants Saturday, but the Giants rallied back Sunday, our anniversary; a Mother's Day gift for Nancy. Our son and his girlfriend spent the day with us and gifted us with India pale ales they had just made, serious tangy beer.

At a lull in the afternoon I leafed through the 1950 Blue and Gold, the yearbook of the University of California, Berkeley. It was the best choice from the inn's near-empty bookshelf, which held three books by Donald Trump, Lee Iacocca's autobiography, some old yacht parts manuals and even older directories. Remember directories?

The Blue and Gold is huge, well designed with watercolors of the campus by watercolorist Maurice Logan dividing the sections. UC Santa Barbara's campus was just about to be built in 1950. UC Riverside was no more than an agricultural research station. UCLA was a kid brother.

I looked without success for people who might be famous or notable today. I did find many senior women who aspired to be married by June or July, or who wished enthusiastically and publicly to do nothing at all.

Then I looked over at my energetic persevering wife, who had found a rare quiet moment to read in the sunny corner of the room, who did marry me soon after college but did not gush about it.

I'm trying to imagine the colorless world that would exist if Nancy had decided to do nothing at all.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The burden light

Look what our daughter Mo made for us! On her iPad™®! Captures us and our merry misadventures in
startling precision — including our hands-free driving style and chilling habit of not watching the road.
Good thing Pearly's along for the ride: She's the only one paying attention. The coast must be clear.
Nothing matches the feeling of May 11, 1985, say about 12:22 p.m., for lightness of being. For utter freedom yet utter bond, to someone's hand, Nancy's hand, 29 years ago last weekend.

Despite all the responsibility and weight and angst usually accorded to marriage, we lifted off the face of the earth that day in delight, and have roamed ever since.

Out of St. Joseph's Church in Auburn we stepped, into the sunny warm new afternoon, onto a terraced lawn, bordered with roses, as I remember. Out of the circle of our collective lives we stepped, breaking its hold, creating a new and different connection to it.

Now it begins, I recall thinking. Now we start. Where? Don't really know. Using what for money? We'll figure that out. I have a job (which helped our parents' blessings, I suppose). You'll get a job. We'll start there.

We'd only just begun.

Remember that Paul Williams/Roger Nichols song, that so, so — so! — corny song The Carpenters made famous? It's so, so true. Its sentiments fused with me since third grade, when I saw The Crocker Bank commercial that first used the song.

Which, now that I write it, seems an unlikely thing for a man to say of his third-grade self.

The full Carpenters' version carries the line toward the end, when the music abates a bit: "And when the evening comes, we smile. So much of life ahead …"

Though the song was never a conscious part of our day — never used at the wedding Mass for example, or played at the reception in Nancy's family backyard — its words prophesied. We smiled through the day, through the golden soft light of evening, in the little Gold Rush town and its towering teetering twisty concrete sidewalks, where we honeymooned.

Without a clue what's next, we went ahead through the week, through the year, through our lives, together.

Were someone to ask the secret of our longevity, I'd treasure the compliment but then disclose I haven't the foggiest. It's always helped from the start, I think, that we are best friends and take it pretty easy on each other, neither inclined to make demands of the other, but to trust, which we've found as easy to do as breathing.

We prefer experiences to things on these occasions — like our weekend trip to Benicia, brief travelogue to come — and we give each other our space and room, as we always have, as far back as our days in college when we made our separate ways through social gatherings, and reconnected at points in between and at our parting.

Those who know us well would agree Nancy carries more than her share of our getting through the day, and I run to keep up, doing what I can in dim compensation.

With some shame and a weird measure of pride for my wife last week, I saw with new eyes the gift of a small decorative plate, hanging near the fridge. Written:
When two fond hearts
as one unite
the yoke is easy
the burden light
We've changed in ways unexpected but which really shouldn't surprise us, and we have adapted with the changes.

And we've remained the same.

Inscribed in my wedding ring is "Love in all ways," and in Nancy's, "Always in love," a phrase given us in college by a couple who counseled us.

I know that from memory because the ring wouldn't come off if I tried, my knuckles thickened and a bit sore from the onset of arthritis and the reaffirmation of passing years. We change and we stay the same.

A kiss for luck, and we're on our way.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Slow-cooked selfie

Today marks a big step.

Students I work with will begin their formal self portraits that will show at a festival and a gallery later this month.

They're young adults with developmental disabilities, and once a week I frustrate them no end with my take on art. For weeks we've been working in charcoal, a medium made maddeningly complex by its simplicity. We've been practicing line and shape and shadow and light and blending and full-out making mistakes — the last of which I preach above all other techniques.

Each week I try to walk my talk, demonstrating the next step and happily making mistakes along the way.

This is the week's result, in which I finally followed the Law of Leave Well Enough Alone and stopped before one more mistake could do me in.

It's based on a photo Dan Simonelli snapped of me during his guided tour of La Jolla Cove's wonders last month. I wish a sea lion had really photobombed me, but that's artistic license; one swam beneath me, so I'm giving it its due.

The students I'm helping are adding to their portraits things they love, so here's mine.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

First-world pet peeves

I got trouble, right here in River City.

To wit: The worthless ephemera that bedevils my days and distracts me from being a useful citizen of the world.

Let me bore you with details:

Vanity, thy name is obvious: If you're going to the trouble and expense of getting a vanity license plate, why get one that says:
It's for a Brown Audi SQ5 sport utility vehicle. I can tell because the vehicle right in front of me at the stoplight is brown, and the chrome raised letters on the tailgate — not a foot from the license plate — reads SQ5.

Really, that's how you want to fritter money and paperwork?

(I changed the color and car model to protect the real Captain Obvious; but If you happen own a Brown Audi SQ5 with this license plate, what's the matter with you?)

Almost as bad: Whoever gets a plate that reads, for example, 
MY C250
Thanks, "My." Also, you could have just gotten a regular plate for the same effect.

If you're gonna do this, do it right. Roaming the Interwebs right now is a picture of a white Nissan Cube with Utah plates that spell out the chemical signature of a sugar (glucose) molecule C6H12O6.

My aunt's husband did it right, too, way back when vanity plates were a novelty. His made the legendary Herb Caen's San Francisco Chronicle column, as I understand it, for 2TH FERY (he was an orthodontist) and 7ISENUF (for his new blended family).

Everything else is a wasteful gesture.


Paper trail: Last Easter, while Nancy was away taking care of her parents, I was a bachelor in need of six items at Safeway®™.
(Yes, I've stored away a blog item for more than a year.)
For that, the cashier gave me a receipt and assorted coupons amounting to 19 inches of paper (right).

They fluttered like heraldic banners behind me until I stopped at an empty checkout stand to fold them, four times, into my wallet.

It's bedtime literature. Now I know
  • my cashier's name
  • that I needed three more points for a free sandwich, which I never eventually got — mostly because I don't read my receipts
  • that I can take an online survey (in which I might have asked why Safeway©™why it needs 19 inches of paper to document six grocery items)
  • that the gasoline discount program requires a great deal of explanation
How much might Safeway®™ save by not telling me these things?

The receipt does nothing more now than fill a file drawer of other multiply folded pieces of paper, deferring their cyclical journey to the recycling bin until the taxman saith I can.


Johnny Football loves you: I hate ESPN™© because ESPN®™ hates baseball.

The sports network seems to do it all it can to avoid covering baseball. I'd bet a fair bit of money that if you turned to SportCenter™® right at this moment, somebody will be talking about quarterback Johnny Manziel and his chances in the upcoming National Football League draft. ESPN©™ loves Johnny Manziel, can't stop talking about him, because it if does, it might have to talk about baseball.

Baseball season has begun, so like sucking on a toothache I flip to ESPN™® just in case it has changed its policy on covering baseball. Nope. Johnny Manziel®™. National Basketball Association playoffs. Johnny Manziel©™. National Hockey League playoffs. NFL draft.

This is the ESPN coverage breakdown:
  • Football — NFL, college and draft blather — 87 percent
  • Basketball — NBA, college and the umpteenth edition of who's the best: Michael Jordan®™, LeBron James©™ or Kobe Bryant®©? (And isn't Kevin Durant™ worthy of consideration?) — 7 percent
  • Lacrosse and auto racing — 2 percent
  • Tiger Woods®™ — 2 percent
  • Hockey — 1 percent
  • New York Yankees®©, Boston Red Sox™® and Los Angeles Dodgers©® — 0.8 percent
  • The rest of baseball, including how the San Francisco Giants®™ are never gonna win the World Series™® — 0.2 percent
I'm biased, of course. I understand, too, that two U.S. sports are in hot playoff races. I understand, three, that baseball is long and boring, not driven by personalities the way football and basketball are. But even in the long summer, when baseball plays alone on the sports horizon, ESPN will see what Johnny Manziel® is up to, and find an excuse to get a bunch of ex-coaches in suits and ties to run around a miniaturized football field on set and re-enact plays from a 2013 wild-card game.

[On the other hand, I like an ESPN®™ show, Highly Questionable, that I stumbled on last week. It's just two sports commentators, Dan Le Batard and Bomani Jones — and Dan's dad, Gonzalo, a big fan of sports and a bigger fan of his son (he leads into commercials with, "Coming up next on my son's TV show …") — sitting at a tiny chrome-and-Formica™© kitchen table answering video-clip-aided current events questions, some of them about sports.

[The hosts like each other. It's like having coffee with three people who know way more about sports than me, but don't make me feel bad about it.]


OK, got that out of my system. Until next time.


Now to important matters: Happy birthday to Jeanette Shearer and Willie Mays.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


Everything old is new again.

Ergo, I got to do this illustration.

It's for the Old Sacramento Underground tours, where I've been a guide since its inception five years ago.

This year the tour changed radically, creating consternation for the veteran guides and freaking out
the new ones.

We have learned to embrace change.

Steve Ball's design of the rack card, part of the
tour's promotional campaign
by Branded Sac
The new tour concentrates on Sacramento's novel position in the world — an elevated position. It has been lifted above the floodplain and the raging rivers that tried to claim it many times. Few cities can claim as much — Chicago being one.

The tours used to spend at least half the time telling the story of the gold rush that brought people here, but almost all of Northern California can tell that story in some way. Granted, Sacramento is an important part of that story, but new information and understanding compelled the tour program to concentrate on the strange-but-true story of its lifting.

Enter: A quick sketch I made three years ago (left).

It's for a T-shirt concept, back when the Old Sacramento Underground  program thought it was going to roll out a new shirt for the tour. It didn't.

But the concept played well for the new tour program, it turned out, and the slogan has the potential to work on several levels. The program is trying to attract younger goers.

Being the opposite of a younger person, I'm not sure whether "jacked up" still resonates as a phrase, but at least we can fall back to the literal meaning: The city has been jacked up.

New ads and promotional materials, featuring one of Old Sacramento's premier buildings, the B.F. Hastings & Co., on one gigantic jack, are rolling out. The illustration has a twist of the macabre, with a falling resident and furniture, and a cow floating in an early flood. The floods killed many early residents and destroyed livestock, their bodies sometimes lodging between buildings in the aftermath.

Art director Steve Ball of Branded Sac, whom I've had the pleasure of knowing for many years, wanted something with an engraved look. This was my first go (left), and because I had it engraved in my mind, I went to the computer immediately:

Same building, different look. Not quite what the group was going for.

Back to the drawing board, I riffed on the original concept. I pictured a Sam Brannan mover-and-shaker type lifting up the city. But it all came down to one big jack and one tiny building.

The compelling image was the one in the middle (below), a single building rising in forced perspective over one mammoth jack.

Of course, the real buildings were raised by hundreds of jacks and dozens of men, each turning the jacks a quarter-turn in unison. Fractions of inches a day.
That sketch was refined further …
… until it got closer to final art …