Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Up the wall

Itty bitty study for a great big mess …
Lord, what fools we kindergarten parents be!

Hopped up on hope, we storm the school with our philanthropy, certain that we will propel our tiny scholars — nay, the entire school! We'll exalt the entire school! — to unforetold greatness.

We, having chosen private school, nobly accepted paying tuition atop property taxes for propping up public schools. We held out both arms to receive the volunteer tasks our school would heap upon us. Little or no say in the welfare of our children while at school? No problem! Advice and complaint and recommendation — so unchristian!
Please, ma'am, may I have another?
My idyll stretched and thinned and burst by the time our first child made fourth grade. By the time our second was finishing eighth grade and moving on, I had been all scooped out. My hollow husk skritched along the parking lot out to the car for our final ride home from there.

No great loss: A fresh batch of new parents had long before taken my place, toiling in the volunteer vineyards.

With the fall auction upon our old school, I think of the latest group of new parents, and hope they're made of sterner stuff, or at least pace themselves better than I did. A student announced at Mass Sunday she'd be selling raffle tickets outside afterward; just the mention of auction still catches my breath.

Besides the fall auction, our school also conducted a spring fashion show at the time, and soon enough had resurrected a country fair, meaning three big tasks to which parents were to commit time and energy.

Unwilling or unable to perform the vital tasks necessary to carry out these events, I gravitated to the decorating committee. I could paint.

The theme for the first auction in our school-parent career was Alice in Wonderland. Decoration was already well underway, begun in late summer, since it happens only two months after school starts.

The look was decidedly more Disney than Tenniel. Parents were putting the finishing touches of Wonderland characters on plywood cutouts, and I was able to show how to outline the shapes in dark color, to give it the animated character look.

I was useful and could stay, and for several years after helped art-direct the auction and fashion show, and designed signs for the fair.

For several years we did our best with donated cardboard and chicken wire and cheap foam brushes by the bagful and incorrectly mixed paints sold at discount at the end of the hardware store aisle, and no budget whatsoever. 

In our little parish hall, the lobby, walls and especially the little stage had be decorated. Auction attendees would see the stage first as they entered the semi-dark hall for dinner, so it needed the most "wow!" we could wring from it.

In my new zeal, I agreed to design and paint a mural onto a gigantic seamless roll of photographer's backdrop paper, perhaps 10 feet wide. I did not know how to say "no."

The little painting above is the study for it. Call it cubist Disney. I had to madden the Mad Hatter's party by bending his table to fit the shape.

With no space or uninterrupted time at the school, I brought the roll of paper home, the end of it sticking out the car window. I moved the furniture in our little living room to one side and taped the paper to the long wall. The ceiling in our old house slanted down at one end, so one top corner flopped awkwardly. About three feet of the bottom sheet cascaded onto the floor, so I had to roll it carefully to paint the top, then paint the bottom kneeling down.

For most of a week we sat on one side of our living room, legs across chairs across tables, craning necks to watch TV, so I could get the mural done.

Once done and affixed to the wall of the stage with 12 pounds of low-tack tape, I discovered the five-second rule of decoration: No matter how long a decoration takes to create, people will look at it for five seconds before asking, "What'd we order for dinner again, the chicken or the steak?"

Somewhere in a living room or garage nearby, somebody is painting or sewing or gluing or assembling, getting scooped out little by little.

I wish him or her the best.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Reading redux

Fresh, spirited American troops, flushed with victory,
are bringing in thousands of hungry, ragged,
battle-weary prisoners. (News item)

Bill Mauldin won his first Pulitzer Prize with this cartoon
I sold myself short. I cut myself off at the knees.

It could be, in a pathetic attempt to elicit sympathy or scorn about how little I read, I have sinned by omission.

Or I just plain forgot. Because I just plain remembered: I read two other books this year!

One was published in 1900, the other in 1971. This, then, is the least useful book review written.

So I'll be brief.

One book was Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum. It's just what it says, an account of the first solo sailing trip around the world, by the sailor himself, beginning in 1895.

Reading so slooooowly as I do, I had to re-start this book a few times, but not for the story itself, which is fresh and funny and moves fast, despite its era and the leisure of Slocum's circumnavigation.

Slocum, a commercial ship captain at the end of his career, decided to transform a wrecked sloop given him into The Spray, a boat so spritely and sure that many sailors have built their own sloops based on Slocum's rejiggering.

The old solitary salt, Joshua Slocum
The book is fun to read with an atlas alongside so you can trace Slocum's passage around a world that no longer exists.

News apparently traveled fast back then, despite the frustrating lack of smart phones, and ports around the world welcomed Slocum warmly, replenished his stocks in abundance, repaired his boat for free, and wined and dined and feted him as a remarkable man on a remarkable journey.

Slocum held me tense as he navigated the Strait of Magellan, dangerous not only for its cold, wild waters but bandits that seemed to lurk at every bend and bay. Delusional one night, Slocum saw the apparition of one of Columbus' officers, the pilot of the Pinta, conducting The Spray safely through a squall. The ghost, Slocum is sure, guides him through the most perilous stages of his trip.

For many hundreds of miles, Slocum simply set a course, locked the wheel, and went below, reading books. A third of the way into the book, Slocum reveals he didn't know how to swim!

It's a quick read. For you, at least. I finally managed to finish it before needing to return it to my swim buddy Doug before he moved away.

Always dangerous, lending me books. You are warned.

From the American WWII Orphans Network site
My friend Rob from college knew better, and gave me his second copy of The Brass Ring, by cartoonist Bill Mauldin. It's one of several memoirs Mauldin wrote, this one focusing on childhood in wild New Mexico and his life in the Army as a cartoonist.

Mauldin had two stellar careers as a cartoonist, mostly as an editorial cartoonist for the St. Louis Dispatch and the Chicago Sun-Times.

History remembers Mauldin best for his first cartooning career — a national service, more like.  Mauldin created Willie and Joe, two bedraggled, world-bearing infantry Everymen, standing in for their flesh-and-blood brethren fighting on the line in World War II.

Mauldin drew the two as true-to-life as he could mirror the infantry's daily struggles, for Army publications written for soldiers. Some Army brass gave Mauldin a Jeep®™ and he roamed the front collecting material for his cartoons, and finding jerry-rigged ways to print his division's newspaper amid the wreckage of southern Europe.

Gen. George S. Patton hated Mauldin's work and wanted it stopped and Mauldin arrested, saying he ruined morale. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander in the European Theater, backed Mauldin for his giving vent to soldiers' frustrations.

The Brass Ring struck me for Mauldin's bald ambition, which I begrudge and envy at once. Having grown up in rural poverty, Mauldin saw cartooning as a one-way ticket to riches and a better life; it reminded me of crime novelist Mickey Spillane's motivation, which was almost wholly to make money. Maybe Mauldin found his better life, but the war found him along the way, and his passion then became an unforgotten touchstone of the war.

Mauldin was a cheeky and breezy writer, making for readers a comfortable conversation at the corner of the bar. All that's missing is the beer. The Brass Ring reproduces many of his best Willie and Joe cartoons. You'd like it.

Maybe you can borrow my copy.

For those keeping score at home, that's five books in 2014.

• • •
In other news:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Having a fit

My swimming life will now flash before your eyes:
  • Age seven or eight — Fell into my aunt's pool, finding the edge only with a lot of death-panic flailing. My younger cousin, thinking she was being treated to a planned comedy rather than real tragedy, laughed.
  • Age eight — Finally put my face in water, on purpose, at my older cousins' encouragement one summer at their neighborhood pool in northeastern Washington. Discovered a brave new world.
  • Age nine — Took swim lessons at the high school. Liked it, except for the 200-yard test swim, which I never completed. The regret of never having become a Shark, and settling for Sea Lion or whatever the penultimate swim lesson designation is called, is a burden I carry still.
  • Age 10 — Bested my older cousins in one thing only: Being able to keep my clenched fist in a bucket of ice water for far longer than they could. They are amazed, or adept at ladling out compliments on their visiting twerp. The moment prefigured events far away in time and distance.
  • Teenage — Swam about once a year, in pools.
  • High school —Tried out for the water polo team. Owing to embarrassing inability and unwillingness to wear a Speedo®™, I lasted one day.
  • Young adulthood — Continued to swim once a year, or less, into adulthood, but only if I really had to. The public and I couldn't abide my going shirtless.
  • Fatherhood — Participated in the daily Polar Bear Swim at son's Boy Scout summer camp, mostly trying to be a role model in getting up very early, getting organized, and braving cold water before the rest of camp arose. Realized I absolutely loved it, and swam the 50 yards as slowly as I could, savoring the cold while all around me boys yelped in agony.
  • Further fatherhood —Crawled onto shore of a tiny lake somewhere in the San Joaquin Valley, absolutely sure my heart was going to explode and I would die in front of other adult leaders after swimming a 50-yard test for a Boy Scout canoe training campout. After my heart didn't, in fact, explode, I decided I must take steps to prevent nearly dying in this manner ever again.
  • Fatherhood still — Swam the mile at next summer's Boy Scout camp. It felt like 100 miles. But I did it.
  • Older fatherhood — Certified as a lifeguard at the next summer's Boy Scout camp, just in case our Troop ever wanted to go swimming or canoeing, which it mostly didn't.
  • More fatherhood — Swam a mile at the next summer's Boy Scout camp. And the next.
  • Older adulthood — Decided I like this swimming business, as the only thing I can do regularly in hopes of getting in shape. Start in a pool, a mile a morning.
  • Nearly five years ago — Tried the open water of Lake Natoma on a cold February morning.
The rest being history.

Scouting, you can see, played a big part in my evolution as a swimmer. Despite its flaws, one of them fundamental, Scouting is an extremely important laboratory for growth, not only for boys but for the adults who volunteer to guide them. Without Scouting, I would not be in my beloved Natoma almost every day.

The Mile Swim, BSA®™, though, makes me laugh.

Among the Big Deals for the average Scout — and the average adult leading the average Scout — the Mile Swim, BSA©®, has to rank high. Most adults, I'm guessing, would balk at the idea of swimming a mile, and involuntarily shiver at the thought of swimming a cold lake.

Yet when a Scout or adult leader completes a mile under official supervised conditions, he or she receives a wallet card announcing:
You have proved yourself to be a strong swimmer and are commended for this fine accomplishment. It means that you are making yourself prepared for a possible emergency in the water and are working toward physical fitness. The emblem shows that you have reached a worthwhile goal. Don't stop here. Continue to improve your stamina.

Please remember to never swim alone.
Excuse me?! "Working toward physical fitness?" I read the back of the card for the first time after my third Mile Swim, BSA ®™and immediately wanted to throw the writer of these two paragraphs into the nearest lake and tell him/her to work toward physical fitness.

I can't climb rock faces, but I doubt a rock-climbing Scout could swim a mile. Give swimmers some credit, BSA!

The front of the card puzzles me too. It verifies that I swam under safe conditions and qualified for the Mile Swim, BSA.

Qualified? I swam it, damn it!

The first mile was at Camp Winton along the Lower Bear River Reservoir, as close to natural as a human-made lake could come, blue and sparkling as sapphire, high in a granite Sierra cradle. I didn't wear goggles, couldn't see the far shore except as a shimmering gray-green mass above a shimmering blue mass, could barely see my canoe support, the life-vested Scouts leaning over the thwarts and constantly pointing out my course.

One Scout finished in 19 minutes. I didn't know anything about swimming a mile, but I knew that was fast, especially since it took me three times as long.

We got hot chocolate on shore and first dibs for breakfast in the dining hall — the Nobel Prizes of swimming, as far as I was concerned.

My second mile was at Camp Whitsett in the southern Sierra Nevada, where the camp dammed up a creek in the summer to create a lake. It was narrow and grassy and we had to swim back and forth between pylons to get our mile in. At the end, the swim director signed our yellow cards and literally ran off to do something else, camps being chronically understaffed. We were left alone to return to our campsites, no fanfare, no reward, except internal.

My third mile was at Camp Royaneh in the redwood ridges north of San Francisco. It used to dam up a creek, too, until environmental regulations prohibited it. The swim was in a pool of the oddest design, about 1 1/2 feet at the shallow end (despite all kinds of space in which to build a pool!) and finished in skin-scraping stucco. I lost a few knuckles earning that card, and really really missed the Lower Bear River Reservoir.

It took a long time, many stops and starts in my Lifetime Fitness Plan®™, but I have my own reservoir now, more of a serpentine in color and shape, and I took the card's words to heart. "Don't stop here," it admonished, and I didn't.

Though I often swim alone. Don't tell the BSA.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

I Was a Teenage Wedding Announcement Illustrator*

* It was post-post-post teen age, and I did it once.

It'll be a cold day in Hell …
You know someone, who knows someone, who thinks they know someone who might be getting married and heard about you through someone and is this something you think you can do? I have just revealed to you the secret of how freelance illustration works.

I bring it up now because I'm locked in the umpteenth cage match with myself over illustration style and whether I should have one.

I don't think I have one — some who know me say I have a certain way of addressing subjects through illustration, though I'm not quite sure what that means — and after the last dust-up with myself, close as the outcome was, I stand firm:

I don't want a style.

I have always enjoyed the adventure of finding a solution through illustration, which is what illustration means to me, visual problem solving, visual storytelling (a concept reinforced through a fun mini-course I'm taking).

Problems require different solutions, stories travel different paths. So must illustration, I've decided.

Soaring boar
The little devil above begged a style I hadn't drawn until that moment, a look that must have bubbled up from years of looking at art and imagery and unconsciously cataloging it.

The friend of a friend of friends who were getting married wanted an announcement supporting the idea that nobody could possibly believe these friends would ever marry. But they did. So, Hell froze over (Beelzebub skiing), and pigs flew, and water flowed uphill.

The newly wedded couple made a little folded booklet of these three images — no words, just a spot illustration on each panel, for which I was immensely grateful — and the final panel announced the theretofore impossible wedding.

Given a do-over, I would have
created something different
here. It doesn't fit the style
of the other two. With another
chance, I'd like to convey better
water flowing uphill.
The couple wanted simple black and white, and this job might have come before I had a handle on computer graphics, so I went to brush and ink and a simple figurative look emerged, dictated largely by the brush and the small size in which the illustrations would be printed.

So what's the problem?

Glad you asked: The problem is that so many of the big names in illustration — the illustrators other illustrators stare at and slobber over and deride in silence over our drawing tables — have distinct styles.

Some risk all by having two — two! — styles, but the biggies stick with one.

The guy I always consider in this internal debate is James Yang. Everything (OK, almost everything) is drawn the same way: Humans with flat half-moon or rounded rectangle shapes of color, squarish bumps or triangles for noses on the side of the head shape, line and circle for the nostrils, long ellipsoid eyes, simple mounded shapes for body. Primitive and immediate. Texture and patterns added; occasional suggestion of 3D or perspective, but only occasional.

Yang gets a lot of colossal work solving visual problems with the same tight menu of elements, and more power to him. My jealousy is misdirected because his success has much to do with marketing and promotion and experience and reputation and the James Yang brand.

I could list many, many illustrators with distinct style — and a shorter list of illustrators with two styles — but you don't want that.

Nor would any fellow illustrators reading this want it, because it may reinforce the unwarranted notion that one style is sacrosanct.

My issue is really more about marketing and promotion and experience and reputation and brand; I want to turn the idea on its head, that I have no style (which many would agree) but the breadth to solve many problems in many ways.

My challenge: Build a better megaphone.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Same as it ever was

A moment inspired by an early moment in
The Sirens of Titan.
I don't read much. Which may be plain to you.

It's quite possible I type more than I read, which is a bad recipe for good typing. Or writing.

Reading has always been … such … a … chore. As a kid, I couldn't overmatch the notion there was always something else I could be doing. As an adult, I'm sure there's always something else I should be doing.

Yes, yes, reading transports and enriches and transforms and immerses. I understand that. I have even felt these a few times. But reading always feels to me like extravagance, excess, impediment, like purposeful time wastage — and I waste too much time already.

What's more, when I do read, it's usually before bed, so to read at any other time induces a Pavlovian reaction to sleep. I'm done after five minutes.

What's even more, the ocean of books I am supposed to read as a useful citizen of the world is whipped to killer waves, a ceaseless storm swallowing up the shore all around, and I am small and hopeless in my inner tube.

Behold, then, the miracle that is me, reading two books at once! A little bit of each in sequence, not simultaneously, of course.

Not only that, get a load of me already drawing parallels between these two disparate works — and with the way I think at this point in my life.

It's very early yet and I could be wrong as wrong can be about these comparisons. At worst, I'll get another post out of this, a mea culpa.

One book is A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn.

The other is The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut.

Should I finish them, they will be major conquests in my barely perceptible onslaught against the family library, or what I call, "What are all these books and where did they come from?"

I picked up Vonnegut because, beaten about the corners already, it could take the abuse a recent family camping trip might render. Zinn's History is fat and hardbound and pristine and unwieldy, and wouldn't fit in the car.

I'm trying very hard not to read anything about Zinn's History, even though I'm suspicious. I pried it off the shelf because I had missed a lot of U.S. history in school (long story) and thought I could get it all back in one fell tome.

It reads like a well supported opinion piece, and I'm afraid by the time I flop exhausted onto the last page (688, before the bibliography!) I'll end up with many more thorny questions than answers.

Zinn's point so far, which I gather stitches his book together — the Constitution is set and the country is just now trying to figure out how to behave when I left off — is essentially: Them that has, gets.

Columbus showed up and began the brutal decimation of native cultures through might and greed. White Europe found nothing wrong and everything right with similarly decimating Africa and turning its people into chattel for its own gain, with ready new markets in the New World. Colonists wanted the western lands, and too bad for the Indians who lived there. The insular rich colonists were only too happy to let their lesser displaced citizens and white former servants fight the Indians because, you know, less muss and fuss.

So were the Colonial people in power too ready to rally their lessers to fight their battles against the British, with just enough romance in the Declaration of Independence to delude the lessers into some unrealizable idea of the American Dream — without disrupting the power base and their holdings.

Land barons got to keep their ill-gotten land under new rule. Slaves would still be slaves, Indians would be driven into the ground, women had no say, no rights.

All men are created equal. Except not you or you. Definitely not you, who don't fit the strict definition of "men."

Power and money rule, is Zinn's theme. Same as it ever was.

I slog ahead in glacial anticipation of how all of this turns out.

Vonnegut says the same thing, though he means: Same at it ever was, since the beginning of time until the unending end.

By not reading much, my literary DNA is gunked up with a lot of John Steinbeck and Vonnegut. Something about the way Vonnegut voices his ideas fits like snug proteins between the cadence of my thoughts.

Vonnegut writes a lot about humankind's inhumanity and cruelty and madness, its pointless quest for just about anything. Slaughterhouse-Five was about as reasonable a reaction as could be to witnessing the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, in which Vonnegut wrote of Tralfamadorians, alien people who exist throughout all time at once and see the great arc of absurdity and want us to chill out because it's always this way and always will be.

I understand I'll encounter the planet Tralfamadore soon enough in The Sirens of Titan.

Though one is science-y fiction and the other may end up being a weighty screed, the two books speak to the same thought: All this craziness and unfairness? All this injustice? It's been going on for a while. The pattern is quite predictable and traceable, actually.

Each book implies the unanswered question: What are you gonna do about it?

Oh, just remembered — I finished another book not long ago: Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, by James S. Hirsch: It was our son's and came to our house some time ago to gather dust.

My favorite player whom I never saw play, Willie Mays troubled me as an adult because he came off in interviews as arrogant. For the longest time I stayed away from the book because of it, unwilling to mess up my romantic manufactured memories of Mays as player.

But Hirsch's book revealed Mays is just being frank. He is probably the best player ever, gifted and able and willing to play the game the way no one has before or since, so to him such brilliance is just a recitation of facts. In fact he is shy and suspicious of adults and more comfortable around children.

A deeply flawed and inconsistent person — and aren't we all, except spared the public stage? — Mays was sure and supreme on the field. The book describes the Giants' (New York and San Francisco) rocky and rollercoaster existence, punctuated a few years by triumph. Mostly though, heartbreak and disappointment, games so important at the time now just so many statistics trampled underfoot. Such is baseball.

Same as it ever was, as I listened to the Giants lose to the Arizona Diamondbacks last night, knowing the Los Angeles Dodgers had beaten the Colorado Rockies, dropping the Giants to four games out of first place in the National League West behind L.A. with only a week and a half more regular season baseball to play.

What are you gonna do about it?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Up in the sky!

Holy harmonic convergence!

Tim Burton's Batman was in the bargain theaters by this time 25 years ago, and we've got a 2-for-1 show unfolding for California governor now.

(Fun fact: The governor now, Jerry Brown, was the governor before George "Duke Man" Deukmejian a quarter-century ago. Hey, it's hard to develop new storylines in the comics business!)

Deukmejian was fun: Fun to caricature, fun to lampoon. He was the law-and-order chief. His reign seemed so quaint, though it was not so long ago. As governor he vetoed a bill, passed by both houses of the Legislature, that would have banned discrimination against gays and lesbians.

As a lawmaker, he authored California's capital punishment laws, now sitting in limbo since a District Court judge ruled it cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution because death row inmates must wait so long for sentences to be carried out. Deukmejian's working now to shorten that wait time and skoosh the law under the constitutional seal of approval.

Lots of fun suffering among California's citizens as Deukmejian vowed no new taxes to help anybody — except maybe those who would profit a bit more.

Now the battle is between elder statesman Brown and Republican Neel Kashkari, trying to be — and somehow not to be — a younger version of windmill-tilting Brown.

This is one of my favorite cartoons.


In other news, a first: I'm re-running my vigil post of Sept. 11, 2011, since today is the 13th anniversary. It's also my late father-in-law's birthday, unfortunately overshadowed by the falling World Trade Center towers these many years.

In what's becoming a grim tradition in our nation's politics, each president must now pass an intractable war to the to his/her successor. President Obama received Afghanistan, and now gives to the next president the fang-end of a war against a country without borders, held together with a merciless ideology.

The U.S. will wage air strikes against the Islamic State, but no ground troops, President Obama said yesterday. Not while he's president anyway, I suppose.

The House GOP sought former Vice President Dick Cheney's advice on what to do about the coming war. Of course it did: Ask the guy who engineered getting the United States into a blundering and wasteful war into Iraq and Afghanistan, how to blunder and waste some more with the resources of a nation fatigued by waste and blunder.

I wonder what was asked:
  • Dick, how may we, too, profit from this war?
  • Dick, how can we make more major mistakes, but then somehow never be held accountable for them and, even better, show up on the board of directors at a defense contractor after our term of office is up?
  • Dick, do you think the Islamic State has hold of the thousands of weapons that went missing during the Iraq war? What's that you say? You don't care! Well then, we don't either!
  • Dick, what about billions unaccounted for? It went where? Oh, mum's the word.
I wonder what Dick told them:
  •  Don't worry, boys, no matter who loses — we still win!
Herewith, a truncation of my post from September 2011, 10 years after the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and an attempt on the White House:
On 9/11
No superlatives can ever contain the horror and shock and sadness and disbelief of Sept. 11, 2001 — though we all will try in many and varied ways as the tenth anniversary approaches this weekend.

In the news media, the effort has already begun in earnest. News anchors introduce the myriad angles on the anniversary, their chins pointed slightly lower to their chests, their eyebrows arranged just so, conveying a calculated look of somber observation.

But we never truly grieved that impossible horror, never got a chance, even though the innumerable tributes under way say that we did. The Bush administration, helped by the mainstream media's lack of backbone, co-opted that day as a symbol to make us afraid of one another.

Our leaders used it to incite two protracted, misguided and ruinous wars we still wage against dubious enemies, begun on the basis of outright lies. Instead of having nothing to fear but fear itself, we have accepted the offer of fear by itself, which at first did frighten us but now has dulled and callused us, enabling the puppet masters of big oil, banking and military industry to profit mightily in our torpor.

Mission accomplished.

All the while, we still send women and men into the teeth of these wars — and will still, for years — yet barely receive them when they return damaged or dead, and the nation has fragmented.

The redemption and healing that should have followed those terrible events have been tainted by what followed instead. I can't consume any of the 9/11 remembrances and never-before-heard audiotapes, can't stop for a moment to regard that day for its own sake, without immediately linking it to the bloody horror of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are WTF? funhouse-mirror countermeasures in search of phantom WMDs. It's impossible to mourn because it's impossible not to be angry — at this absurd sequence of events, at myself for succumbing to indifference and impotence.

Those people who fell from the World Trade Center towers to their doom — such nightmarish visions! — might as well have disappeared into the desert sands around Fallujah, for all that we got to consider their horror and loss, to themselves, their families, their employers, their communities. They became fodder for what I still believe is George W. Bush's intent to salvage the legacy of his father.

Since 9/11/2001, we have become Lord of the Flies, reduced to our baser selves. Psychiatrist Justin Frank of Washington, D.C. holds a similar view, that we have become babies, viewing the world in black and white and Us versus Them.

Opposition to our nation's response — to war, to torture, to degradation, to community-endorsed hatred of Muslims, even to this strange semantic casting of ourselves as The Homeland — means being unpatriotic.

And patriots, as we know through the doublespeaky Patriot Act, willingly give up many of our freedoms in exchange for what we want to think is our comfort and safety. Air traveler with a Middle Eastern kinda name? Sure, haul him away without benefit of a doubt, just so long as I can stop feeling the fear you keep waving in front of me.

You can trace all of this to obvious outcomes, such as a divided, uncompromising Congress, and to the accepted notion now that compromise is bad (when in fact compromise is the nature of action in a representative government).

You can trace it to our economic crisis, to jobs lost at a bewildering rate, to the banks that took our money to stay in business despite being criminally bad at it, to us no longer having the money to teach our children well or keep our bridges up and pay people to do all of that.

Hand in glove, you can trace it to the artless propaganda that divides us. I'm not so naive as to believe propaganda hasn't always bedeviled us, but it used to be sophisticated. Now it's an open wound. Even before an idea rises into public view, haters of that idea create words to kill it and replace it with new ideas that make us afraid.

Propagandists repeat that simple anti-idea ad infinitum until the idea wilts in its dense shadow. So we have "Obamacare," "death panels," and the anti-ideas that President Obama is a "socialist" with designs to ruin this country, that he is Muslim (with the presumption that this is a bad thing), that he is not a citizen, that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, and on and on. Just shouted and bellowed over and over again, without regard to merit, until the shouts and bellows become the new normal.

Tell lies often enough, and they become the truth. 

If not for the path down the rabbit hole that we took after 9/11, we wouldn't have the Tea Party, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Fox News. Hey, you say, those are all right-leaning people and entities! Don't you like right-wingers? Love 'em, actually. We should be a people of diverse ideas working toward the pursuit of happiness. I hate that they exist solely because of the artless propaganda that the fallout from 9/11 made fashionable.

It has begotten the abysmal meanness in which our governments still deny and delay needed medical care to those who suffered from environmental toxins as they rescued the people from the World Trade Center collapse.

I'm looking for signs — glimmers — that we still may truly heal from 9/11/2001. When will the time come that all divisions cease, and our tragedy against ourselves and the world dim in memory.


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Yet so far away

Yesterday — somehow, some way — I swam two lengths of my beloved Lake Natoma.

It is one giant leap for me, one small splash for swimmingkind.

And all so ludicrous not too long ago.

Not too long ago — really, just three months back — I would amaze myself with the occasional 2.4-mile swim to a little island called Texas Hill near the middle of the lake. A mammoth swim.

Each time, I would crawl out of the water like I was reenacting the evolution of land animals.

Once a year, on Independence Day, I'd swim the length of the lake, impossible without a support boat and three stops to eat and drink. I was jelly at the end.

Now, every seven to 10 days a small group of us, sometimes just two, swim the length of the lake, a bit more than 4 1/2 miles. No support boat, no fuel except what we ingest before jumping in.

Swim buddy Sarah, gifted with the superpower of suggestion, compelled David — our other conspirator — and me to swim longer more regularly. It was the right time; we had exhausted the shoulda couldas, worn ourselves out with a couple of years of talking about it. Time to act.

Now two miles seems short, and we curse our conflicting schedules for it.

Sarah's been bugging us for a while to swim two lengths. We joked and made up names for the out-of-reach route instead, as we had begun to name our other routes.

A month back, to prime the pump for the double, we swam the traditional length — boat dock at lower Natoma to dock at upper Natoma — then added a round trip up the narrow rocky canyon to the boundary of Folsom Prison, for a total distance of 7 1/2 miles.

Common sense follows that we'd build up stamina for the double. A couple of more times of the length plus the prison boundary, for example. Then downstream and back up to Willow Creek, an additional two miles or so, with a lot where we could park and drive back to the starting point; swim that a couple of times. Then the length and up to Texas Hill and back to Willow Creek once or twice.

But we lack common sense.

With half a day off, Sarah and I made plans for Monday's swim. Sarah stashed food under a bench at lower Natoma; I kept mine in the tow float "butt buoy" I tether to myself. We parked our cars at the upper end.

Should we keep one car at the lower lake, just in case? Sarah asked.

No, we decided. We were like Cortés, burning his ships on reaching the New World. Conquer or die.

Or we could get out and walk back along the paved trail, if we really needed.

Hopes nosing out doubts, we plied the route, knowing from previous swims where the reeds and plants had overgrown in the shallow water, ready to trap us if we weren't paying attention. We knew where to look for any rowers; we knew one side of Texas Hill is better than the other for smooth unfettered passage.

We knew the chop was just a bunch of bumpy water. Adjust, roll a little more to breathe, deal with it. We knew the distant landmarks would remain distant for longer than we wished, and to be patient. We kept each other in sight.

At the lower dock we stopped and got out, violating international swimming rules, ate our stash and wondered aloud about walking back. In our hearts, though, we knew we could finish this, even if our shoulders and backs balked. A long moment of stretching and back in we went.

The water felt silky, aches went away, replaced by new aches elsewhere. Upstream was our usual route, and we knew it well, knew not to get too excited at every turn.

Along the way I thought, "This is really something!"

Followed by a new thought: It's really nothing.

It's all relative, of course. On my favorite facebook®™ page, Did You Swim Today?, swimmers around the world celebrate someone's first mile, or first open water swim, or first swim ever.

We also celebrate the gargantuan swims, the famous channel crossings, this time of year happening with stunning frequency. At times last week, it seemed a caravan of swimmers was crossing the English Channel, one right after the other, in the water at the same time along the tide-driven reverse "S" route from England to France.

Our long Natoma swim wasn't even as long as the six-hour qualifying swims English Channel swimmers must endure.

Within the last week, several teams and soloists have crossed the English Channel, including the oldest ever — 73-year-old heart surgeon Otto Thaning of South Africa — and the youngest to have completed what's called the Triple Crown. In addition to the English Channel, 16-year-old Charlotte Samuels of New Jersey has also swum around Manhattan Island and the Catalina Channel off California.

A 70-year-old Australian, Cyril Baldock, swam the Channel last month, holding the title of oldest crosser for only a couple of weeks.

In July, a Massachusetts woman, Elaine Howley, became the first to swim the 34-mile length of Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho. A northern California woman, Patti Bauernfeind, last month became only the second to swim the 25 miles across Monterey Bay, followed shortly after by Kimberly Rutherford (see a great video of her Lake Tahoe ice mile with long-distance swimmer Scott Tapley).

In Southern California last week, Peter Hayden became the first swimmer to circumnavigate Anacapa Island in the Channel Islands chain. (Channel swimmer Lynn Kubasek takes you on the journey with her video documentation.) Hayden topped it off by swimming 12 miles into the mainland. Shortly after, Julian Rusinek also swam from Anacapa to the mainland, last year having been the first to swim from San Miguel to Santa Rosa islands.

(Editor's addendum for Sept. 10: Carol Schumacher Hayden swam from Anacapa to the mainland this day. She just happens to be married to Peter Hayden.)

A New Zealand woman named Kimberley Chambers, who lives and works in the Bay Area, last month became only the sixth swimmer to have completed the Ocean's Seven Challenge — The English Channel, Catalina Channel, Cook Strait of New Zealand, Molokai Channel in Hawaii, Tsugaru Channel in Japan, Strait of Gibraltar at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, and the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland.

Just two months after finishing the 12-mile Tsugaru Strait, Kimberley capped her challenge with the North Channel, swimming through clots of poisonous lion's mane jellyfish. The constant stinging and exhausting swim briefly hospitalized her.

Kimberley writes eloquently and personally about her swims; I'm one of many waiting anxiously for her North Channel swim account.

Read also Jason Betley's blog, accounting his English Channel swim to raise money for the hospital that treated his son's brain tumor.

facebook®™ has enabled me to correspond with many of these stars of long-distance swimming.

I'm leaving out so many swims, only because we have so many to keep track of, including valiant but aborted long-distance attempts.

My Natoma swim only deepens my appreciation of theirs, magnifying the greatness of their feats.

Yet …

Now I'm wondering, and asking. Now I'm dreaming. Now a fire has begun burning about what if? All the swims I've swum this point seemed unreachable until I slowly reached them, after all. What could I reach in time? How far can we swim regularly when winter drops the water temperature? What else is possible?

Maybe. Just maybe.

In other news:

Ray Rice won't be play football in two weeks after all.

He may never play again in the NFL, now that video has surfaced showing him knock his fiancée — now his wife — unconscious with a punch that sent her sprawling against the wall of a casino elevator, a punch that appears to have driven her headfirst into a metal railing. The second punch he landed in that elevator.

A video that supposedly no on knew about. The Baltimore Ravens, Rice's employer until yesterday, and the NFL: We're surprised as anyone by this video!

Yeah, right.

Confronted with — or exposed by? — undeniable and appalling proof, the Ravens cut the contract of their star running back. The NFL, rather than suspending Rice for two games, suspended him indefinitely and required any team considering putting Rice on their roster to check with the NFL first.

Would any team consider it? I'm not surprised by much anymore.

The NFL looks extremely pathetic on this, with dim hope of being better without real reform and major changes in the league and the legal system that allowed this crime to go so lightly punished, until the truth emerged.

Rice's wife has criticized the NFL and the news media for her husband's consequences.

Is money the only thing that matters anymore?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Too true to be good

Not that I have to — no one can accuse me of responsible journalism — but I'm revisiting the National Football League's weak punishment of a player who knocked his fiancée unconscious.

I wrote about it in July. Now I'm providing an update, just like a professional would.

Because last week the NFL changed its mind.

Not about Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens star running back who beat his girlfriend. He still "suffers" a puny two-game suspension. Critics widely and rightly howled and the NFL said, "What?! What'd I do?!"

"Oh, that!" the NFL said, answering its own question, and decided to punish any future wife and girlfriend beaters — and any future husband and boyfriend beaters, since it applies to all NFL players and employees — more severely.

The punishment now could be at least six games and commensurate income for the first offense, and loss of a season — at least — for a second offense. A player/employee would have to petition for reinstatement, and may be banned for life.

I'm trying to picture the junior assistant to the assistant for NFL social media marketing analytics, say, facing a six-game suspension for spouse/partner abuse; I guess that makes sense? Permit me to be unfair, but I think that person just gets fired straight away, even before courts weigh in.

Players? I tend to agree with radio talk show hosts Tom Tolbert and Ray Ratto at KNBR 680 (sue me: I sometimes accidentally leave sports radio on after the Giants game has ended) who say justice tilts to favor those who make the NFL money.

Superstar Peyton Manning, quarterback for the Denver Broncos, would not face a six-game suspension for a similar violation, said Ratto. "Mitigating circumstances" would arise suddenly, giving the NFL a way for Manning to play regardless, for the sake of fans and bettors and their money.

Three weeks from now, Ray Rice will still get to play.

"My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in announcing the policy change. "I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will."

Besides announcing longer suspensions, Goodell outlined some steps that include better education of rookies and partnerships with abuse prevention programs.

I'm trying to think what I think about all this:
  • Congratulations on your enlightenment?
  • Amazing, because The New York Times indicates Roger Goodell never admits a mistake
  • What took so long?
  • Why are you really doing this?
Travis Waldron of the liberal blog thinkprogress.org suggests the change of mind is more change of scenery — that it doesn't really change anything, that Goodell already had the power all along to suspend Ray Rice for more games. The policy, Waldron says, spins on the use of the word "could," meaning suspension is no guarantee, and the degree of punishment could depend on a player's value to the NFL.

The players' union followed up Goodell's announcement, emphasizing that players must benefit from due process of law.

As if on cue, San Francisco 49ers player Ray McDonald was arrested on charges of domestic abuse over the weekend, allegedly hitting his pregnant girlfriend. We didn't have to wait long for a test of the NFL's policy change.

Ray McDonald's coach, Jim Harbaugh, told KNBR he has zero tolerance for domestic abuse. He also said let the legal system handle this. Ray McDonald practiced with the team right after the incident.

Employees in other professions are often suspended with pay for similar incidents.
"With very few exceptions," Goodell said, "NFL personnel conduct themselves in an exemplary way."

Statistically, maybe. But those very few exceptions have become my image of the NFL.

The San Diego Union-Tribune even carries a database of arrests and citations of NFL players since 2000 — infractions more serious than speeding tickets — and out rolls a long list, more than 700 separate cases. They include drug possession, driving under the influence, domestic violence, child abuse, assault and battery at nightclubs and strip clubs, fights with police, crashing  cars into houses and other cars, brandishing guns, possessing illegal weapons, ad nauseam.

Not included — because he's not a player — is Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who was suspended six games and fined $500,000 last week after he pleaded guilty to driving under the influence. He showed up at training camp one day in July handing out $100 bills to fans.

Even tossing out:
  • Pending charges, yet to be resolved in court;
  • Recreational marijuana use — and the NFL just tossed out a player for a year based on its stringent substance abuse standard, despite its legality in two states where the NFL plays, and several more in which crimes for marijuana use are being dropped;
  • Possibly overzealous police officers; and even
  • Domestic abuse charges, which trigger automatic arrests in many states because of the crime's severity;
That's still a lot of mayhem.

The database lists 19 arrests alone for the 49ers — who would be my team except it was last my team when John Brodie was quarterback and Gene Washington was wide receiver and I was eight — including four separate arrests for linebacker Aldon Smith, allegedly for making a bomb threat in an airport, illegally possessing an assault weapon, and two instances of driving under the influence, once when he allegedly drove into a tree.

Last week Smith was suspended for nine games.

I'm trying to sort this out. What is it about football — considerable and analogous mayhem brews in college football too — that engenders this crime wave? Baseball has crime, even spousal abuse, but mostly substance abuse and deeds of stupidity that would be amusing if they weren't so awful, and nowhere near the NFL's volume. Basketball has its trouble too, and some of it coincides at the night clubs and strip clubs with football, and around weapons.

But football is exemplary as a trouble factory.

Is it the gladiator, macho culture of football? Is it a byproduct of the behavior we seem to looooooooooove — love love love! — on the field? Is it an acceptable byproduct? Is it the price someone must pay so that we can our Sundays (and Monday and Thursday nights) for football?

Do we live vicariously through players' reckless lives? Do we secretly want to be like them, not only hitting hard and juking on the field but playing hard and fast off? Do we think the most reckless players off the field make the most ruthless players on?

Why do we forgive — or worse, ignore — behavior we wouldn't wish on ourselves, our families and friends, our neighborhoods, so that we can watch football and buy all the football stuff?

I'd like to think the NFL saw the blatant error of its ways in changing (or appearing to change) its policy on domestic abuse. But I can't help but think it saw the dent in its bottom line.

Money, in all matters, talks.

In other news:

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tripping down victory lane

Stains untouched since the fourth quarter of the 20th Century.
As the story goes, my childhood friend Brian LaMay got a Hot Wheels®™© car every time he set the dinner table.

Maybe this is true. Now that I've reconnected with Brian, I'll have to ask.

Until then, I should not discount this story as a ploy my mom used to discourage sloth and promote industry from her seven-year-old.

If so, she picked an extremely effective one. Mine was a Hot Wheels®©-based economy, the cars my currency. I lived for them during two important years of my childhood.

They came out right about the time I would be interested in hot rods and dragsters.The cars were the first thing I remember saving for.

I'd collect the dimes Mrs. Christopher paid next-door neighbor Buddy and me for ridding her sidewalk junipers of fallen leaves. We worked 47 straight days, as I recall, from before sunup in grueling heat in the Sisyphean task of plucking leaves from the prickly plants' poisonous maw — for the princely recompense of a dime.

My toys were well loved.
Seven or eight dimes got me a new car at Uncle Tom's Toys in town; with each car came a little tin badge (Matching Collector's Button®™) cut in the shape of a tire with a picture of the car in the hollow; bend the little tab on the edge and wear the badge on your shirt collar. Why? I don't know.

What I also don't know: How Uncle Tom's Toys got to be the name of a store.

My collection, you can gather, was hard won and small.

Christmas loomed large in this economy. Christmas signaled a windfall. Christmas was bags of unmarked cash, falling out the back of an armored car, except it happened every year at an appointed time, so you knew where to stand when the booty spilled.

Hot Wheels®© products went forth and multiplied on Christmas.

Deeply conflicted, I tell you now that my Christmas miracle was seeing — first through a glass darkly and then in unmistakable psychedelic glow — the great tangle of orange-sherbet colored track already assembled to the assortment of devices that propelled the Hot Wheels™® cars — perpetually, in theory — along that track. I was a very young capitalist tool.

Also I got this, the Popup 12 Car Collector's Case.

All the online auction sites indicate the collector's case was issued in 1967, when I was five, but I couldn't possibly have gotten it then. That was during my I-may-or-may-not-own-Matchbox™®-cars-but-I-have-no-idea-how-many-or-where-they-are-because-I'm-only-five-years-old phase. I'm gonna say this beauty showed up when I was seven and far more mature.

Besides holding cars, the vinyl-covered case opens to reveal a grandstand that pops up, with tabs in front of the grandstand to which you can attach the track, known originally as Hot Strip®™Trak (Google™® "Hot Strip" at your peril).

I attached the track once, maybe, to see how it worked: Not too well. The acrid vinyl popup never really stayed popped up, and wanted to revert to its packaged state, swallowing any attached track.

It still held cars, though. Where they are now, I have no idea. They surely included:
Splittin' Image, designed by Ira Gilford
(Someone's collector pic; my actual car is dim memory)
  • Splittin' Image (which was a play on "Spittin' Image," a phrase I'd never heard at the time, so the joke was lost on me)
  • Silhouette, with its clear plastic bubble canopy
  • Boss Hoss Silver Special, a steroid-enhanced metallic-painted Mustang
  • Beatnik Bandit, another bubble canopy car; Hot Wheels™© alone kept the bubble canopy industry alive
  • Nitty Gritty Kitty, a souped-up Cougar, my favorite for unknown reasons
  • A McLaren M6A, based on the Le Mans-style racer
  • (And definitely maybe) not only The Snake but The Mongoose, probably the two most famous funny cars in history; the snake ate its tail on this one — the real funny cars were sponsored by Hot Wheels®©™
    Beatnik Bandit, designed by Harry Bradley based on real
    car designed by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth

    (Collector's pic)
I did not own:
  • The Custom Volkswagen Bug, world's tiniest Hot Wheel®©, easiest to lose
  • The Hot Heap, a classic hot rod
  • The S'Cool Bus, a yellow bus funny car; the body could be lifted and propped over the chassis
  • The Red Baron, a hot rod with a silver German infantry helmet, based on a model, based on a car
  • Any of the Indy style cars
Buddy owned most of those and I coveted them, of course. As far as I know, we made no trades. A dime is a dime.

The printing was misregistered, engendering ghostly images
all over the case. Mr. Hamburger Slinger has a huge crowd in
the stands, yet three stools, no waiting.
The cover of my collector's case shows two driverless cars racing side by side just past the grandstand, the sky on fire.

The picture has always puzzled me because I wondered how much the artist knew about Hot Wheels®© when given the assignment.

Though the wheels are faithful to the distinctive five-spoke metallic mag design and the red line along the tread — the hallmark of the early cars — and the track surface is vaguely orange, the cars pictured didn't match the product.

"Here are pictures of the wheels," Mattel® told the artist. "We're still figuring out what the cars look like. Use your imagination."

Billboards, I guess, on a decal affixed to
one side of the cars' compartments,
set quaintly on lattice-work stands.
During my brief love affair with Hot Wheels©®™, I acquired every banked turn, loop, jump, starting gate, finishing gate, lap counter, Super Charger™® (battery operated) and Rod Runner©™(manually operated) perpetual motions devices to push the cars along the track. Set gingerly on wire springs, the Hot Wheels®™© cars were surprisingly fast. We either spent hours building tracks or, getting bored quickly, pushed them around on the kitchen floor.

When the affair ended, my room looked like a city corporation yard, haystacks of track strewn about … raspberry-colored plastic biscuits to join the tracks, scattered by the hundreds … and myriad peripheral devices. All thrown away in one classic I'm-tired-of-asking-you-to-clean-this-room! parental swoop.

The crowd goes wild.
The collector's case alone remains, my memories held bound by the nifty metal snap.