Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Curb appeal

How's everything over your way?

Here, we are settling into the third week of May. Somewhere around May 19, May 22 maybe. We're not particular.

Yes, we're from the future. Thanks to an aggressive daylight saving program, we sprang forward many, many times, lopping off months. It's easy when you eliminate winter.

Downside: Solemn Spring ceremonies to celebrate rebirth and renewal are awkward, since you can't welcome what didn't go away in the first place.

Trees have leafed out already, fluorescent green. Shrubs have exploded in flowers, spewing their suffocating perfumes and casting nutlets with ochre snowdrifts on the walkways. Everything reaches to the warm sky.

Everything you'd expect of May 19, or maybe May 22.

Everything is Spring — except the water. The water is late summer. The mighty Sacramento River, our Mississippi, winding more than 200 miles out of the Cascade range far north, past Sacramento and down another 100 miles to San Francisco Bay, is syrupy and somnolent, dark green and dying, marking a new ring on the land with each week, lower and lower in its bed. The American River ladles into the Sacramento, trickling over a sandbar.

Lake Tahoe, the great deep sapphire mecca, 100 miles away in the Sierra, runs low too. It's hard to look at the pictures.

By the time you reach May 19 or 22. We'll be in August, the hills sere and probably aflame. The rivers, in autumn, will be ahead of us in the future still, aching for winter that may or may not come.

We're in a drought, of course. You probably heard. The worst ever recorded, some say. Superlatives don't really matter here. Either California will run out of in a year, as a NASA scientist projected, or it won't.

The larger truth remains: We waste precious, fragile, finite water. We are champions of taking it for granted, and we need to change it, feast or famine.

I call a curb appeal on curb appeal.

It's customary in such a crisis to throw around blame, and farmers are the customary target. Though I can't claim to know much more about farming than the average shopper, I can at least claim that much, having reported on the industry for a job.

Farmers, I learned as a reporter, grow food! That we eat! To live! World markets crave California foods, many of which are grown here only. Jobs, economy, esteem, natural resources harnessed.

Maybe some farmers waste water. The farmers I met pay dearly for water, or must wait behind other farmers in a Byzantine construct of laws that give first-serve priority to some over others. For the farmers I met, water is a costly input to be parceled out, so trees and crops get drip irrigation at optimum times of day for optimum use.

You can find exceptions, but this is the rule.

Why grow crops for farm animals to eat? You might challenge. Grow that food for humans! Stop eating meat, I'll say back. Farmers must respond to market demands (for the most part; some crops are grown or not grown for silly reasons to meet some untenable law or the other, but California is largely a market-trigger farm economy, not propped up by subsidies).

In general, yes, farmers use a huge majority of the state's water. But their water goes into food we need and that the world buys. Leave farmers alone in this, except to encourage more efficient irrigation more widely.

The solution is no farther than your own yard.

Having resumed long walks, I tell you it's rare that a lawn is not bright green and lush. Maybe one in 30 homes has a dreary unwatered lawn (like mine) or planned xeriscaping. The rest, full green and growing.

Homes that obviously want from urgent attention elsewhere still have green lawns. Homes with trucks parked diagonally across the front lawn still do not deprive those tires of soft, cool emerald carpet.

Maybe Sacramento is different, I'll grant. People tell me that Sacramento has just relied on two rivers flowing by, and drawn up its water as it has pleased — I'm not native. Water was only recently metered here (yeah, I know, hard to believe), though the cost of water is relatively low and no one seems to care we're in a drought.

That lawn does no good. Oxygen into the atmosphere, maybe, but we can live with the loss. It makes us feel good, I guess. It makes people feel good driving by, triggering in us some sort of pride in our bounteous place the world.

Even the water that sheets off sidewalks and runs into the gutter a block down to the storm drain: "Curb appeal."

We need to change our minds. We are bleeding ourselves out in stupidity.

Ditch your lawns. Let 'em die. Need greenery? Put in native plants on drip irrigation. After one season, you won't need to water. Also, you can live without a lawn. Give it a try.

It might surprise you that California was not covered in vast manicured lawns when the Miwok and Maidu came to this place thousands of years ago. This is a dry so-called Mediterranean climate, but we wash down our driveways like we're Seattle.

This just in: Washington and Oregon, also suffering drought.

Golf courses? Kill your lawns. Golfers? Lump it. Embrace the new challenge. Your Scottish forebears did.

The same goes for houses of worship. If green lawns are what congregates your people, you're not doing your job very well.

Government facilities? Stop watering. Keep only the parks green so the community can share some enjoyment.

You too, apartment complexes. Give renters a break.

In fact, give us all a break. We live for rewards, not punishments. Tax breaks for triggering certain low-water usages. Let's race to the brownest!

This drought may not get worse, but droughts may come more frequently, and a long-term drought is projected by 2020.

Even if we're flush again, so to speak, we need to stop being such pigs with water.

The chairman of Nestlé, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, caught global flak for saying water is not a human right and that a value should be assigned to water as a commodity. He has backpedaled since to make the point I can advocate: We deprive water to those who need it most, and waste the good water we have.

Gov. Jerry Brown (coincidentally, governor during our last great drought of 1976-77) has called for greater water storage as response to this drought. I like Gov. Brown mostly. He has so been there and done that that he manages the state with clear eyes and not much care for what naysayers say.

So I'm flabbergasted that he has not done what I'm asking, what he asked during the last great drought.

Stop wasting our water.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


Wouldn't you want to know the rest of Anna's story?!
Good thing No. 2 about facebook™®: It's a de facto forum of storytellers.

Which ain't surprising, since by its nature facebook™® is a megatool for tales.

Daily — hourly! — you and I read tales there heavy and light, grandiose and haiku, vulnerable and vague, from hither and very, very yon.

I'm delighted that this social medium attracts people who love to tell stories, and tell them so well, whether spun from pure invention or dragged heavily from life.

Also not surprising: Many of the tellers hail from the south — the southern United States and the south of England. Something about those places seem to make it a sin not to tell a good story.

Cressida in England, for example, invigorates a familiar game — imagining the lives and purposes of people passing by in the shopping mall or airport — to another level. She has fashioned hilarious and weighty backstories for fellow travelers on her daily train commute, and dispatches the goings-on among the regulars and irregulars, even if all they're really doing is sitting and reading and chatting.

In the world Cressida has created, they are spies and saboteurs, social and professional climbers, and closet clowns, progressing through their sundry struggles in episodic detail that deepens the lives Cressida has forged for them.

If the real people ever found out about these daily stories … or maybe they're really as Cressida describes and she is a journalist on the front lines of British commuter life.

Zane, an English teacher in Mississippi, can describe the day in ordinary heartbeats, can lay his life open about the struggles of family and faith, can deliver Southern satire, and then can let rip a story so raucous I want to ask — but don't know how without offending — "Come on, did that really happen?!"

(He, politely, says it really did.)

What makes the stories so important to me are their power to evoke images — so strong that I have to stop reading and look out the window, watching the pictures build behind my eyes.

And I just have to draw.

Another wonderful storyteller is someone I have swum with (in fact, Cressida and Zane are swimmers: A connection?). She goes by Anna and I imagine a mug of good hot coffee in my hand, across the table from Anna in a shop somewhere, while she tells true tales of her layered life.

Tales that make me feel I have been standing still all my life.

The illustration above comes from one of her stories from childhood. I could not help but draw it.

Anna's dad once gave her opossum babies, she tells, to care for after mama possum was killed. They became her boon companions, hanging on her while she went through life. They even wound their tails over her bicycle handlebars and rode upside down with her.

See? How could you scrub that image from your mind? Why would you ever want to?

While reading that, I had to pick up the nearest black Prismacolor®™ pencil and put down in my sketchbook what I saw building in my head. Then I photocopied the result onto heavy bristol (thanks very much, kindly FedEx Office® technician near my house; no thanks at all to the FedEx Office®™ person in the next nearest office, who didn't even want to try and help), and painted over with watercolor.

It's one of my favorite techniques, because the toner resists water and therefore color, and the blacks remain black.

OK, enough technical talk.

This is about storytellers. I hope Anna turns that story into a book. I hope Cressida turns her tales into a book too; I see many keep asking her to. I hope Zane keeps enriching us with stories of his time and place, so foreign and now so familiar.

Keep telling! I want to keep drawing.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

It's a wheelbarrow day!

Just please don't keep us waiting.
March 16, 1992

Dear Mo,

Today I right a wrong, however weakly.

Today I make good on good intentions, and hope for the best.

For today on your 23rd birthday, I deliver a batch of letters I had written you, starting before you were born.

Back when I addressed you as "Dear Little One."

Maybe you missed the blood draining from my face a couple of weeks ago, when you mentioned in passing the letters your brother had gotten from me years back, letters which began before he was born.

Maybe you didn't notice the horror spinning within me. I hope you didn't. It was horror not only of having delayed this delivery too long, not only of having passed up many special occasions in which I could have delivered. Nor was it just the dread of having flat forgotten to find a good time.

It was the terrible realization that maybe you thought I hadn't written you at all.

It's past noon on your birthday now: Open the package, and you'll see: I finally took the moment.

Happy birthday, Mo!

This letter today establishes a gap of nearly 20 years from the last letter in your package. It is the only public letter among them — for the most part. I have already used a snippet of a letter at the top, written eight days before you were born. I have just a few excerpts from other letters below. The rest I leave to you in your own time to read.

Here's an excerpt now, from Dec. 1, 1993. You were not quite two:
It's plain I've cheated you.
When last I stuffed my letters to you and Liam into their respective folders about a week back, I noticed with regret and not a little surprise that Liam's folder, his third or fourth, bulged, while your one folder had barely plumped. Liam is older, of course, but your envelope should be twice as fat by now.

I had been trying to compensate by writing some of my letters to both of you and then putting them into your folder, but I'm kidding you that way. In truth, I should be writing every letter to both of you, but I liked to give each of you some special message, and often when I'm done writing Liam, I can't think of something special left over to tell you.
What a cad, your Dad! That letter also refers to a friend from college — I don't know who — who recommended I draw my journal to you instead, to make it different and special. That didn't happen.

I tell you now what you already know — what you've known for a long time: Second-born and subsequent children get the short end.

Not out of conspiracy or malice, of course. Quite the opposite: Good-hearted delusion. A poorly trained parent, I didn't know to pace myself, and imbued your brother, and the family he ushered in by being first, with a lot of energy meant to be distributed over the long run, for the family yet to come.

By the time you came along, what energy we had left went into the whole rather than parts, and you got swept into the great machine of Getting By. It's not an excuse, it just is.

First kid gets more photos, gets the videos, gets the limelight, for as long as he or she is a solo act.

I tried to buck the trend, common to many parents, and sometimes it worked. Many of the letters, for example, are addressed to you alone. Many, as the excerpt reveals, are addressed to you both. I knew that was going to be a problem when I wrote them, and I decided way back when not to copy and divide, but to give them to you, and maybe give you another reason for you and your brother to meet and share.

I have included two journals from vacations we took, back when our vacations were sometimes Two! Consecutive! Weeks! and I wanted to memorialize them as Momentous Camping Trips that were Not Work!

You may need my help translating my notoriously torturous handwriting.

Another excerpt from September 23, 1991, your birth still two seasons away:
Ah, well, you and Liam are going to sit together one day at a table in a restaurant, or in a bar, and you're going to discuss what I've written each of you and — judging by the whole of my letters so far — you're going to determine that your Papa is a sad man. I'm hoping that you'll conclude I'm not larger than life, but just about the right size as life, a human Papa who loves you without measure, whose own doubts and fears and anxieties in the midst of joy and love in life offer lessons for you.
It hit me hard last week to realize that moment could be realized, even this day.

First, "Papa" didn't last long, maybe until shortly after you were born. It evolved to "Dad." You just can't enforce a nickname for yourself, though "Mama" hung around far longer. Anyway, your grandfathers had already been given "Papa"-based nicknames.

Second, I don't think I'm a sad man. I wrote the letters during one or another challenging time, no more or less challenging than anyone else goes through, really, except that I was chronicling it. And you may know I am one to examine and amplify my flaws.

Third, I don't know how much of these letters constitute lessons, except by inference and tangent. They are journals entries in letter form: This is how I feel today, this is what I'm doing, this is what you are doing. The little bit of the letters I skimmed talk of things I had forgotten.

Some of it is beautiful, some is grim, all is fresh and full in the telling.

Maybe these letters contain something instructive, but that's for you to decide.

I did not re-read them, just as I did not when I gave your brother his. Perhaps I had in mind that the moments described therein would blossom again if and when you wanted to share any with me.

I wrote many of these while writing for the California Farm Bureau newspaper. Let's just say it and I did not fit, though it took me a heck of a long time to figure it out and then pry my way out. To exercise my fingers at the start of the day, and to inspire a smile on my face, I began to write Liam, and then you.

Often the highlight of my workday was over before my first coffee, when I finished a letter with "Love, Papa."

I created a dummy file containing the letters, in case anyone was snooping around on my computer, and printed the letter as early as I could in the day from the shared dot-matrix office printer, before other reporters and editors would be waiting around for their stories and notes to spit out.

That's why many of your letters unfold accordion style, having come by continuous feed out of a box of paper. Feel the margins, rough, where the perforated printer spool guides had been.

Eventually I broke out of that office and began to transition to working for myself, with a stop writing for a department at the University of California, Davis. It was a better job for me, and the bus ride and the long walk across the Davis campus gave me plenty of time to compose letters in my head. I continued the habit of beginning each day with a letter, after which I printed each letter and deleted the file.

Twenty years ago last week I wrote:
Friday you are three, a darling three. A caring, demanding, all-girl three. You are the kind of three-year-old girl every Mama would love, as Mama is so apt to say in so many ways every day.
Skimming the letters, I see some themes emerge:
  • Some of the way you are now shone through at the start. 
  • Some friendships and relationships and statuses I just assumed would always remain quo, instead came to naught.
  • Some of the way I am now took shape earlier than I thought.
  • I could not wait to come home and see you. Being away for work and occasional travel was very hard. Coming into the house at day's end, with loud shouts from you, were a joy.
My love for you has never wavered, of course. How we express it is different. I feel rootless as a dad, without homework to guide or vital tasks to teach or adventures to join. Probably most dads feel this way when their children go out to lives of their own.

Twenty Memorial Day weekends ago, you declared, "It's a wheelbarrow day!" Mom had bought a wheelbarrow and some garden tools, and we spent the long weekend reclaiming one or another of the yards. It was an ordinary weekend made important if only for the fact that we were together.

"It's a wheelbarrow day!" contained no guile, no irony, just a simple expression of glee for the moment, in the moment. You probably got a ride or two.

It was the kind of moment I hold dearest as a dad.

It was part of the last letter I wrote.

The letters ended just about the time I had gone into business for myself, and shortly before your brother started school — let's bash the first-born once more! It was all I could do to live a radically changed life; I lacked the wits to comment on it.

I'm sorry it took so long to get these to you. I love you without measure.

Let it be a wheelbarrow day once more!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Confessions of a serial liker

Hello, my name is Shawn and I "Like" facebook®™©. A lot, apparently.

More than I realized, anyway.


* … 

Sorry. I've been working to get that under control. 

Do I click "Like" too much? Well, how much is too much? Who can say, really? I didn't even know my "Liking" facebook©™ was possibly profligate until some people recently made note.

People from three different continents.

My proclivities are internationally recognized.

People have been nice in telling me. I think.

I choose to think they were just poking fun.

Here's the thing. I'm not a media socialite. I'm practically a hermit with a computer.

My phone flips open, Star Trek®™ style. The TV show prop probably worked better.

I text my family, and I text people I swim with. And check the time. There ends my relationship with a mobile phone.

I use email on my office computer. Email is the world's finest communication technology, the apex, the zenith, humankind's crowning achievement. Humankind should have stopped there.

But humankind kept going.

I followed humankind as far as facebook™®, and stopped. I even checked out facebook™® for Dummies from the library before using facebook™®. Truly I did.

(Oh, I did open a LinkedIn®™ account once but I don't use it because, as far as I can tell, LinkedIn™® is a site where you practice entering your name and information because nothing happens after that. Except learning someone has been reached another anniversary in his/her job and you should congratulate him/her.)

I don't use Twitter©™ (who'd want to see me yammer in 140-character couplets, and who would I want to follow?), or Pinterest®™ or Instagram™® or Snapchat®©™ or Tumblr®™© or Reddit™ because, although I can name them, I don't understand their use, and don't want to. Most of the vast social media landscape remains unknown and unnamed to me.

facebook™® is what I'm left with, so maybe I "Like" it to death, you know, to compensate for my inadequacies.

But for all my facebook®™ book learnin', I'm still not sure how someone would even know I've embarked on yet another "Liking" spree. Maybe I use facebook®™ differently from others.

Which is thus:
  1. Arising early before chores and work, I scroll the main part of facebook™®, the News Feed®©, I guess it's called, and see what folks have posted since the day before.

    Sometimes I click on the Trending®™ stories just to the right of the News Feed™®, and almost always regret it. I'm weaning myself away from it.
  2. I click on the "Did You Swim Today?" group page to the left of the News Feed™© when I post about my swims, but I "Like" others' swims from the News Feed™®.

    Occasionally I follow the thread of comments, but my "Liking" pattern here is hit and miss.
  3. When I write a blog, I post a link to it on the News Feed™® and to my "Shawn C Turner Artist" page; I'm not entirely sure why I have a Shawn C Turner Artist page, when I already have a "Shawn C Turner" page, which I don't visit, but I do.
  4. I click on the icons at the top when I get a friend request, or a message, or a new post.
  5. I "Like" posts throughout the day, but with less frequency.
That's it. Which means I ignore:
  • All the other stuff on the left, the roster of groups and friends, etc.
  • All the ads, including "Suggested Posts"®™ that run in my News Feed™©
  • The running list along the right side, of actions facebook®™ users have taken, "Liking" and commenting on posts, and befriending people
  • The roster on the lower right side, of users who are on facebook®™at the moment, and what media they're using to be there, whether by mobile phone or computer.
Maybe it's one of those places where users can parse my "Liking" tendencies. Maybe that's where I would also notice others' patterns of "Likes," because I don't see them. Occasionally I see the little boxes on the lower left appear and dissolve, announcing when someone has acted on a post I have also acted on, but that's not the same thing.

I use facebook®™ as a way to share in others' extraordinary accomplishments, mostly about swimming, and thoughtful causes and amazing phenomena.

And I don't "Like" everything, you should know. Despite apparent appearances, I'm discriminating. Over time I've developed a personal facebook®™ code about what I read and "Like," and what I don't. You have a code too, I'm sure. Maybe you haven't written yours down, but you have one.

Quoting the bard Barbossa, him of The Black Pearl: "The code is more what you call guidelines than actual rules." Meaning, I manage to muck up my own code now and again, as you'll see.

I "Like"
  • Posts about swimming, of almost any kind, sometimes even surfing, but not fishing, which I get a lot of, for some reason.

    I even "Like" the same post multiple times if it appears on pages "Did You Swim Today?" — the only page on which I participate — and "Train Hard. Swim Fast. Have Fun," "WeSwimBecauseWeCan," "I Attack at Dawn," and the German "Bist deu Hoit Guschwimmen?" which are swim-related pages I don't contribute to but which people have added me to without asking.

    I even "Like" posts with accompanying selfies that look like the selfie attached to the swimmer's post the day before that, and the one before that.

    I even "Like" posts that seek advice and I don't have any.

    That's how much I like swimming posts.
  • I even "Like" posts from the German version of "Did You Swim Today?" even though they no longer come with automatic translation and I have to copy and paste the posts into another translator to figure out whether to like them.
  • Posts from swimmers who are also visual artists, and display their works in progress.
  • Posts from swimmers who tell witty episodic stories about their terrestrial lives.
  • Posts from a small selection of bloggers whom I follow.
  • Posts from a friend I knew in high school with a penchant for aggregating interesting Internet items about design, visual arts and science. I often set these aside for nighttime viewing.
  • Posts from a selection of people I knew in high school. But it's complicated. See Appendix, "Where I'm wildly inconsistent."
  • The rare post one or the other of my children has made. facebook®™ is not their thing; if I see any of their posts, they originated from some other social medium.
  • Posts by those whom I want to cheer on in their various endeavors and walks of life.
  • Posts from people I know who share a viewpoint I hadn't considered. Sometimes.
  • Posts about political viewpoints I agree with and feel that somehow, some way, I can do something about.
  • Posts showing others' creativity, though I'm not very consistent.
  • Posts about ocean life.
  • Posts someone frequently puts up about national parks, for which I'm a sentimental sucker. The poster is a swimmer, but doesn't post a lot about swimming.

I don't "Like"
  • Swim posts that smack of advertising and promotion. They get a lot of my "Likes" before I realize they're more about money than the shared like of swimming.
  • Pictures of food, unless the post has something to do with swimming, and even then it takes me two or three reads to make sure swimming is mentioned, and that the food is related to swimming, such as reference to post swim brekkie, as Brits sometimes say.

    I'm not a fan of looking at food or drink people are going to consume, or the empty plate where a meal had been. I don't understand this compulsion.
  • Pictures of people's children. It makes me uneasy. I generally don't think kids should be on facebook®™, and if grownups are sharing them, I wish they'd fine-tune their filters to be shown to a select few.

    I am very glad facebook®™ didn't exist when our kids were young.

    Again though, see the "Where I'm wildly inconsistent" appendix.

  • Profile pictures, unless they're really, really swim related. Same goes for cover photos.
  • Pictures of someone's fabulous vacation, unless swimming is involved, and then not always.
  • So-called "vaguebook" posts that require a chain of commenting to glean what the original post is about.
  • Most illustrated aphorisms and memes, unless they're about something I'm feeling right at the moment.
  • Pictures and videos of dogs and cats.
  • Suggestions I listen to a song. Music is so subjective and I rarely align with the suggestions.
  • Political viewpoints I don't agree with, natch. Though usually I don't comment. I'm not going to change minds and vice versa.
  • Almost all "Throwback Thursday" posts.
  • "Click bait," up to and including quizzes of any sort, the myriad and endless "what country/Harry Potter character/vegetable/god/color/diva/internal organ would you be?" or any of the "You'll never believe what she found inside this buried doghouse!" variations.

    It's taken some time and will, but I don't go to these places anymore.
Appendix: Where I'm wildly inconsistent:
  • I "Like" some childhood acquaintances' posts but not others. facebook®™ is powerful for bringing people together, and sometimes we'll reacquaint. It's interesting to gather tangentially what this or that person has grown up to become — though it feels weird knowing this — and I gather they infer likewise, and sometimes that's good enough.
  • I "Like" some relatives' posts but not others, and it has a lot to do with the nature of the posts or my relative relationship. I can't imagine I'm unique this way.

    I "Like" some relatives' pictures of their children, but not others, which is my wildest inconsistency. I should probably stop "Liking" all kids' photos.
On the whole, I like facebook®™ as a forum to celebrate the life's vast variations outside my little office, even the variations in swimmers' lives worldwide, which you might mistakenly perceive as lacking variation.

I like its power to buoy and encourage, and to share a laugh or a thought.

I like its human kind. Click "Like" if you agree.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Play ball already!

Never have I been more anxious for the baseball season to begin, but not for the obvious reason.

I just want the San Francisco Giants™® to Shut. The hell. Up!

Really, the Giants©™ had just won their third World Series®™ in five years. You'd think the team could just bank all its publicity on that amazing fact.

You would be wrong.

You, like me, have no stomach for marketing.

I love the Giants®©. I tell people I'm not a baseball fan: I'm a Giants™® fan. My interest in baseball extends to the Giants©™ and whomever they're playing.

I'm not going to not follow the Giants®™ for another season. But the Giants™® and their promotional media will not risk that chance.

They are in my face, literally, many times per day.

I'm not talking about the preseason scuttlebutt: Ace pitcher Tim Lincecum has his fastball back, and he's reunited with his dad to retrieve his unique technique! Pitcher Matt Cain has returned from elbow surgery, better than before! Catcher Buster Posey is refreshed! New third baseman Casey McGehee looks solid!

File it all under "Hope (1 Each) Eternally Springing." It's what you expect to hear right before the season starts, when every team's in first place, every team has a chance.

What drives me nuts is the miscellany that must be aimed at the casual fan who likes the idea of the Giants, if not the actual team and all that pitching and strategy and baseball stuff.

I blame myself, of course. It's my fault because I "liked" the Giants'©® facebook™® page. So check yourself before you wreck yourself — even if your relationship with social media is minimal and passive

How do the Giants®© pester me? Let me count the ways.

No, way too much counting. I'll just touch on a few of the ridiculous lowlights:
  • Pictures of a bunch of signed baseballs — can you guess which player's autograph is which?
  • Behind-the-scenes pictures of Team Picture Day — as in, pictures of players not posing, before they pose. What?
  • Pitcher Madison Bumgarner pitches to Buster Posey for the first time ever! Posey homers!
  • Vote for Buster Posey as The Face of Major League Baseball©®!
  • Oh, please please please vote for Buster Posey!
  • Don't let (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim outfielder) Mike Trout be The Face of Major League Baseball®™! Vote Posey!
  • Did you vote for Buster Posey?! Do it now!
  • We said Now!
  • You did it! Buster Posey is The Face of Major League Baseball®™!
  • Day 1 highlights of Spring Training. Also Day 2, Day 3, etc.
  • Actor Will Ferrell, promoting a movie or maybe just himself (he's the next generation's Bill Murray), plays for 10 Cactus League teams in one day, including catcher for the Giants.™® What?
  • Where are the Giants'®™© World Series®™ trophies now? Visit them now at ____________.
And on it goes, all day, every day. Just so much puffery.

I'm not really sure what it means that Buster Posey is The Face of Major League Baseball™®. Why is it even necessary? It may have something to do with drumming up sales of Posey memorabilia, but people tell me I'm a cynic.

Buy your Posey jersey! Let's buy two!

As for the trophies, ugh. My enjoyment of the Giants' spectacular season ended with the very first moments of the on-field celebration of Game 7, when third baseman Pablo Sandoval caught the last out in foul territory and the players rushed toward Bumgarner, the Series'™® Most Valuable Player,©® on the mound.

Everything else — the Giants' fourth locker-room celebration of the season, complete with exploding champagne and beer bottles and ski goggles … the parade through San Francisco and the long string of speeches — feels like such empty preening, something meant for the players alone that we talk ourselves into watching, like the Oscars.™®

I'm not going to stand in line and look at their trophies.

I will, however, tune the radio and listen to the first pitch of the season, if I can, Monday, April 6, first pitch 7:10 p.m. And I'll follow every pitch for the rest of the season if I can, win or lose. (And why be greedy? The Giants have three championships in five years. I'm not gonna sweat if they don't do win another.)

Opening Day can't come soon enough.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Kiss the buoys and make me cry

Clong! sang the buoy.

It's big as a washing machine, round and spiky and metal as Sputnik, a bobbing yellow enamel-coated and tattooed orb, glinting in the sun.

It's not supposed to sing or make noise, though. It's not that kind of buoy.

It was made to monitor time and tide, discreetly despite its sunny hue.

But it had never met my two front teeth before.

More on that later.

The buoy would get no attention at all if not for regular visits from the Kelp Krawlers. They're open-water swimmers who use the buoy to mark routes through the marine sanctuary off Pacific Grove in Monterey Bay.

My wish to swim with the Kelp Krawlers is almost as old as my wish to swim open water. While dreaming of an Alcatraz crossing four years ago, I began to dream of joining the Kelp Krawlers in the gorgeous and foreboding Monterey Bay, a place I have visited vicariously through writer John Steinbeck and biologist Ed Ricketts and painter Bruce Ariss.

But finding a way to be in Pacific Grove at 11:15 on a Sunday, when the main group meets, has proven harder than I thought.

It happened for the first time last weekend, and only then because Nancy and I had dropped her mom off to visit friends farther south, and were making our way home to Sacramento. Still, we weren't certain we could stick around. Daylight Saving made it possible, though, the time change robbing us of an hour but shoving us that much closer to the swim start time.

Heaven ain't Iowa. It's Pacific Grove. Though largely unattainable, like heaven, Pacific Grove at least has generous visiting privileges. Dozens of available parking spaces line the rocky storybook coastline on Ocean View Boulevard. Take your pick, especially at 9 a.m. on a Sunday.

Which we did. We were very early. I was eager.

Finding a space close by Lovers Point (fun fact: It was once called Lovers of Jesus Point as a church retreat venue), we passed the hours walking along the trail that overlooks the rocky coast, its massive adobe-colored boulders softened and lacerated by time and wave, and dotted here and there with resting harbor seals.

Pacific Grove is hyper-real, hyper-California, the Eyvind Earle postcard you'd send to your snowbound relatives to make them hate you. You half-expect a truck commercial to break out at any minute; to turn a street corner and suddenly find yourself in another section of Disneyland®™.

You can walk right along the shoreline through carpets of delicate ice plant, amid towering succulents with red and blue rockets of flowers, all the way north into Monterey or south around the point to the state Asilomar retreat if you want, right in front of grand sweeping houses, right before the great sweep of the dark blue bay.

I always thought that if we ever won the utterly remote chance to live in Pacific Grove, we'd never own a TV because we'd spend morning and evening down by the ocean, always finding something better to watch.

It's always a treat to visit, and next I was going to swim it.

The Kelp Krawlers are a big bunch, 30 or 40 of them gathering above Lovers Point Beach, and that isn't even the largest gathering, I'm told. It's lucky if two other people join me to swim my beloved Lake Natoma.

A guy named Chris was shepherding the Krawlers, gathering them up in the parking lot. All but four were wearing wetsuits. One who was not, besides me, is John Ratto, whom I've met through my favorite facebook®™ page, "Did You Swim Today?"

John lives in Pacific Grove. He said he owns a TV. His loss.

The beach at Lovers Point is a smaller replica of the cove far south in La Jolla, where I got to swim last April. Each features a terraced stone-and-concrete amphitheater that drops from a lovely park to the water and opens northwest to the curve of land in the distance. Lovers Point Beach faces the redwood-covered hills that rise more than 20 miles away, above Santa Cruz at the north end of the  bay.

In each place, the bright sand beach and topaz shallows form the amphitheater stage, inviting you in.

At an unseen signal, all the swimmers began making their way down to the stage, past beachcombers beginning to stake out their morning.

Most of the Krawlers were heading north to the round yellow buoy, about a mile round trip. I opted for the smaller group swimming a triangle of about a mile and a half around two buoys.

"I usually take off first because these guys will eventually pass me up," John said, and dove into water that looked too shallow. But I followed, and soon flew over undersea gardens that waved languidly in the blue sand. The gardens fell away and the water darkened to jade. Waves started to lift and drop me, a reminder I was far from my placid home lake, as I kept watch on John. He hugged the point a bit closer than he had recommended, but I kept a wider berth just in case.

Giant kelp snaked up from the bottom of the little cove here and there, and sometimes I had to climb over their heavy thick fronds. The kelp pushed back so hard that it seemed like a giant spring, holding up the water surface.

Another look up and I suddenly saw the flashing black arms. Sure enough, swimmers who started a few moments later have sped past. I began to follow them — when I could see them. The ocean constantly opened and shut the world from me.

I counted strokes, as usual, but I wasn't sure what for. I didn't really know where I was going or when I'd get there.

It's the wildest water I've ever swum, just a bit wilder than off Laguna Beach where I got to swim last year. I looked down into the deep green water and considered the wildness that might be swimming below in this sanctuary. But I never saw anything.

I was the last in the group to arrive at the first buoy, a tall yellow cylinder.

"Every new swimmer kisses the buoy," one swimmer explained. So I leaned in and deftly left a kiss. The buoy felt light, like plastic, and warm from the early sun.

I asked John how these conditions compare to most swims. About the usual, he said.

Next stop, said Chris, we'll sight on Cabrillo Point to the north, where the Hopkins Marine Station sits. The next buoy will be just to the left of the point. Somewhere. I followed the flashing arms.

Chris, I soon realized, was swimming behind the group, making sure all made it and were going in the right direction.

"You're keeping a good line," he said as I stopped with him one time. The waves seemed to get larger and jumbled. The world appeared and disappeared; I tried to practice sighting when I felt my body lift.

I counted strokes again, for no good reason, just out of habit.

In one rising wave I finally caught sight of the round yellow buoy, and a few dark heads bobbing around it.

"In answer to your question," said John, "this is not how the water usually is. The swells are getting bigger."

"OK, kiss the buoy," a swimmer said. This buoy was not light and warm and plastic. I grabbed onto the grass-covered steel frame around its girth and leaned in for the kiss. In the swells the buoy pitched forward.


"Ooh, I think I chipped my tooth,"  I said, even before my tongue found the grit where the back of my tooth had been, the one the dentist had fixed already.

I'm a terrible buoy kisser. My swim friend Lisa Amorao has managed to leave perfect lipstick marks on this very same buoy. I've seen the pictures.

No pain, no blood, though. I judged it a worthwhile token of the journey I had waited so long to make. My tongue remained occupied as I sighted on the base of the amphitheater of Lovers Point Beach for home.

New swims always carry trepidation — How far to the next point? Will I tire out before I reach it? Should I keep calm or start flailing harder? Where is everybody? Will current take me where I shouldn't be? What's down below?

My worries eased and dissipated with each stroke toward the beach. John was just ahead of me so I followed him in.

Chris' worries eased too, I'm sure. After all, he was just taking my word for it that I knew how to swim open water.

Into the clear blue water of the beach I planted feet again in the sand, always the best part of a swim: The finish. Swimmers did what swimmers do, stand on the shore looking out onto the water, not so wild looking from this vantage, and share their adventure of having crossed it.

The water was 57 Fahrenheit, said John, warmer than usual for this time of year — warmer than Natoma — and not as clear as some days.

"It's Zen swimming," answered Chris, when I asked him how they find their way off around the cove. After a while, he said, you just know where the next buoy is, and you get a feel for distance and direction.

The only remedy, I decided, was to figure out how to join the Kelp Krawlers more often.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Reading the room

In a single day last week, I relived my short, hapless teaching career — persistent dread, barely suppressed by random ephemeral bursts of joy.

Just as with my career, by the time I finally figured out what I was doing, it was all over. 

I was tired by day's end, but also pensive and hopeful. Including the hope I didn't scar kids along the way.

Just as with my career.

It was the week a lot of schools celebrate reading, coinciding with the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, Dr. Seuss.

The Cat in the Hat, Seuss' iconic creation, serves as poster imp for the celebration.

I see from facebook®™ that children in England and elsewhere were celebrating a similar event, dressing as their favorite book characters, for example.

As part of the celebration, Priscilla Mariscal invited me and other members of the larger community to be guest readers.

Priscilla is a teaching specialist at a school a few miles from where I live. I had done some design work for her.

She wanted readers to share picture books for younger grades, and the opening chapter of a book to older grades, maybe enticing students to want to read the rest. Then she wanted readers to spend a moment in each class talking about how reading is important to guest readers' lives.

Tell me how much time you have available, and what grades you'd like to work with, Priscilla asked in the invitation. Plug me in wherever you need me, I said, and figured I'd read to a wide variety of grades.

With weeks of lead time, I went into full white-knuckle-fear mode to prepare. Just as with my career.

Step 1: Raid our household library. On the shelf in our dark hallway sit most of the books our kids have left. The collection comprises picture books we had bought when our kids were tiny, or books they had collected when they could read to themselves. An incomplete series of Harry Potter books, for example, and classics by E.B. White.

I found two books that might work for the younger grades: Bently and Egg, written and illustrated in muted mid-20th Century style by William Joyce, and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, written by Jon Scieszca and illustrated by Lane Smith.

We bought the first for our daughter when she was very young, and I remember that it was pleasant — not uproarious, but nice.

The Stinky Cheese Man is the uproarious one. It not only parodies folk and fairy tales, but plays with the conventions of a book, twisting type, rearranging the book's end papers, crushing several characters under the table of contents, even making fun of the bar code on the back. Our children loved it.

But what did I have for older kids? I pulled two anthologies and stuck in Post-It®™ notes where I found potential pieces. Casey at the Bat? Hey, I liked that as a kid, and it turns out the poet, Ernest Thayer, may have been writing about Stockton, a city just an hour south of us.

I was working feverishly to make connections, exercising my creaky teacher skills.

Second step: Mine other resources. One book came immediately to mind, but I'd have to get it at the library: Call it Courage, written and illustrated by Armstrong Sperry. It was one of the first chapter books I had read, about a boy facing his worst fears alone and surviving a wild and terrible adventure among the wild atolls of ancient Polynesia. Even when I didn't know from illustration, I was beguiled by Sperry's spare line that still managed to describe grand and distant landscapes.

I researched the South Pacific atoll where the boy hero lived, and looked up the Polynesian words so I could explain them. I read and re-read the opening chapter aloud, deciding it was the perfect length for the allotted 20 minutes.

I was ready.

In the school library, Priscilla and the librarian had decorated tables with propped-up Dr. Seuss books. Teachers had made snack foods for the guest readers and the students who would escort us from class to class. Someone had skewered banana and strawberry slices to make edible Cat in the Hat hats. Another had made cups of blue Jell-O™ and inserted Swedish fish, evoking One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish.

Yes, we could eat green eggs and ham if we wanted.

My schedule, I learned, would keep me throughout the school day. My student escort, wearing a Cat in the Hat hat, led me across campus. You'd have a hard time finding a more culturally diverse school than this.

First stop, second grade. The teacher ushered me to a desk near the front of the classroom, where a video camera pointed town to the surface of the desk. By placing the book under the camera, I could project the pages onto a screen all the students could see easily. No having to walk around so all the students could see the pictures. The teacher even offered a microphone, which I declined.

It was fun and awkward, twisting my body in the chair so it could seem like I was reading to them in the traditional way. I made the voices and sang the songs as I did to my own children, and was so glad that they could follow the thread of the story.

The teacher asked her students what the moral was. A couple of second graders answered. I wasn't even aware the story had a moral, but I kept my mouth shut about it.

Second stop, fifth grade. I read a story called The Dancing Skeleton, by Cynthia DeFelice, a funny kind of bayou story about a ghost who tormented his widow, finally dancing until his skeleton fell apart and he stopped his torment. A student said she didn't believe in ghosts.

I read Casey at the Bat, front-loading the poem with all kinds of details. Students didn't seem as dejected as I had been to learn mighty Casey had struck out at the end, crushing fans' dreams. I don't think baseball was their thing.

Third stop, first grade. Did I want to read Bently and Egg again? Would that bore my student escort, who had to sit through it? But the first graders immediately saw The Stinky Cheese Man poking out of my armload of books, and screamed for me to read it.

Afterward, the teacher told the students I had tricked them by making them tell the real fairy tale so we could then read the parody. I was glad and amazed that students knew all old stories. The Stinky Cheese Man doesn't really work without knowing them.

Fourth stop, fourth grade. Perfect! I'll unleash Call it Courage! I set the time and place of the story, and drew pictures to explain an albatross and an outrigger, both of which are important to its telling.

Then I read.

Have you ever noticed how a book you loved in childhood, a book that you have read aloud to yourself to test its worth for a classroom read, suddenly becomes the most time-sucking instrument of boredom you could have unleashed on poor, unsuspecting children?

I didn't notice this until three pages into Call it Courage. The dialogue was spare, the words and phrases suddenly syrupy and heavy, conjuring no images whatsoever, only white noise and sleepiness.

Three pages in, though, I could not stop. I had to keep going, keep reading with all the brightness I could muster. I willed the glands on my forehead not to sweat, the glands in my mouth to keep producing saliva. None of them complied. Just as in my career.

It reminded me of too many times as a teacher, unrolling a lesson, trying to plan for every variable, only to watch the lesson implode under the one variable I hadn't expected, didn't even know to worry about. The jammed photocopier, the unannounced assembly, the crashed server in the computer lab. I had to find a Plan B as nonchalantly as possible on the fly, when Plan A wasn't all that promising to begin with.

With two pages of Chapter 1 left, my student escort was pointing to her watch with great energy: I was running out of time. And yet I still had to read, and read, and read some more to finish this chapter, with hope slipping away that the students would like to read this to themselves. The students tolerated me gamely. I had no time to talk about how reading was important to me, and they probably had no more patience to hear it anyway. I left as quietly as I could, knowing I had killed any chance the students would ever want to read Call it Courage.

Fifth stop, fifth grade. The teacher and class let me read aloud the book they were close to finishing, Holes by Louis Sachar. It was one of the books in my armload. I read a couple of chapters but stopped before the end; it wouldn't have been fair for me to finish their work. Students were creating their own graphic-novel summaries of the book.

Sixth stop, fourth through sixth grade. No more Call it Courage! I put it away in my car, along with a few more books I now judged too boring for read-alouds.

With this class I chose The Dancing Skeleton (the earlier class seemed to like it) and Tîa Miseria, a trickster tale about a woman who cheats Death.

It has Spanish phrases. First I praised students in the class who speak more than one language, which I said makes them very powerful. Next I apologized for the Spanish I would no doubt mispronounce.

Tía Miseria is a funny tale, and the students laughed. One student, a diplomat, complimented me on my Spanish.

I had finally found my groove. Two more classes to go, both sixth grade. I decided to finish with a winning formula: Tîa Miseria and another ghost story, The Golden Arm, retold by Mark Twain.

The day was finishing up, languishing in the afternoon doldrums, and I figured the students needed a jolt. Twain's retelling gives them just that. It's a perfect read-aloud campfire story. It builds to high tension — a dead woman moaning for her stolen golden arm — before the storyteller suddenly shouts to scare listeners.

I told the last class that their teacher was doing the right thing by making them write and rewrite all the time, because it comes in handy when they get to be my age. The only time I'm not reading, I said, is when I'm driving. I'm even rewriting sentences in my head while I'm walking the dog.

Priscilla and the staff thanked readers for giving of themselves, though I think the teachers deserve the greater thanks for organizing such a grand gesture for their students.

Back home I shelved each book with a gentle pat, glad I could give them another workout after all these years.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Gym membership renewed, year 5

New pass — cheaper than last year's! — amid the detritus
of an inveterate doodler.
Another year!

One year more, for swimming my beloved Lake Natoma whenever I feel like (within reason and daylight … ), whenever I can, any day of the year.

Christmas! New Years! Sadie Hawkins Day! That's right, I said Sadie Hawkins Day!! Damn the limits!

Well, except March 31, 2016, when this contract expires.

But that's not gonna happen. I'll be in line that day buying the 2017 pass, probably after a swim. Bet on it!

Not that there is ever any line to buy the pass. I'm just melodramatizing my zeal.

This pass is so much more than a convenience and amazing bargain. It's a symbol, a trophy I award myself.

It means I plan to embrace the water at Natoma for as long as I can, one year at a time. This marks the beginning of my fifth year.

Since buying last year's pass, I have migrated farther up the lake to its northernmost point, where the water is coldest, and have nearly tripled the difference of an average daily swim. During the year our swim buddy ranks have thinned, from as many as five in spring, to one other swim buddy now. Life happens when you're making other plans, right?

Seems silly to design group t-shirts now.

I have swum the lake's length 10 times at least, and swum a double length once.

The pass marks my passion to do more — more lengths as a matter of course, a few more double lengths. Maybe permission to dream of officially epic swims, and let my body and mind toughen over time for that possibility, in the cold green water of the lake.

Distances and dreams aren't as important as to me as perseverance, and the realization I have swum at least five days a week for seven straight years, the first three in a pool at 4:30 a.m.

It's something grand for me that I'm glad to do, and hope fervently to keep doing.

I bought this year's pass at the ranger kiosk at the lower lake, Nimbus Flat. I usually buy it at the labyrinthine central offices of the California Department of Parks and Recreation in downtown Sacramento. I always forget in which of the nondescript towers the little windowless park pass office is, and I have to sign in at the front desk, and wear a little badge. So much Big Brother bother.

By buying it instead from the parks attendant at the kiosk, out in the fresh open air, I came away with additional swag I wouldn't have gotten otherwise.

I got:
Last year's pass became quite
the conversation piece:
"Hey," says the state park attendant,
"Why is 'January' crossed out and
replaced with 'February?'"
"The guy at the parks office made
a mistake," I explain.
"Why didn't he just issue a new pass?"
"Hey, what am I, Scotland Yard?
How would I know?"
No, I didn't say that. I say,
"I don't know."
(Pause for scrutiny.)
"Well, all right, then."
(Attendant waves me through.)
Repeat nine or 10 times.

  • A receipt! 
  • A recap of state parks rules. Nothing prohibits swimming, I see, though I'm forbidden to destroy or disturb natural resources. Destroy? No. But I couldn't say whether natural resources find me disturbing.
  • A pamphlet on how to reserve campsites in the California parks system. It's eight pages of very tiny type to explain this succinct concept: Good luck and God be with you. The state could write that on a Post-it®™ note.
  • A list of all the places we can and cannot go (mostly Southern California beaches) with the pass. 
  • A map of the state parks system, to go with the many other maps we already have. It feels weird that it's a 2013 map, but why spend my tax money if you don't need to?
  • A Guide to Eating Fish Caught in Folsom Lake and Lake Natoma. Trout 16 inches or shorter, as well as bluegill and green sunfish, are low in mercury. If you're not a woman 18-45, a woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding, or a child 1 to 17 years old, eat two servings per week if you want. Try the trout, the pamphlet says: it's high in Omega-3s!

    But don't eat any kind of bass, chinook salmon, catfish or trout longer than 16 inches. They're high in mercury. That goes for everybody.

    These things I did not know. Also, there are no known fish that have just medium levels of mercury. I don't know why. The pamphlet doesn't explain.
  • A pamphlet for Folsom Lake State Recreation Area. It's embarrassingly pro-Folsom Lake. Lake Natoma is the poor distant cousin, seen on the map but not heard from very much. Oh well, more for us swimmers.
  • A pamphlet for pumping wastewater from your boat, and how to prevent water pollution.
The receipt reveals a markdown in price. Last year's pass was $150, to commemorate the 150th anniversary o the parks system. It seems strange and ballsy to charge more money for such a commemoration, but I'm not in marketing.

I also got a wallet card that would have gotten me into All the Places No One Wants to Visit. It was free. I tried going to one of those places. It was closed. On a Sunday. Sunday feels like the kind of day one of these places would be open so folks could visit. You know, to give it a fighting chance. But I'm not in charge.

At either price, the pass is a bargain. If more people bought them, California's parks wouldn't be in such woeful shape, where gleaming water fountains stand broken and a bare water pipe sticks up out of the ground nearby instead, with a Cold War-era bubbler screwed to the top.

If you go to a California park or historic site even once a week, you should buy one and save yourself serious money. Do it for my sake.

I'm going swimming.