Thursday, April 30, 2015

Thumb drive

"You just have to be 10 percent smarter than the machine," says Will, a friend and fellow former Scout leader.

He has said this many times.

Or maybe I have just heard it many times.

Maybe Will has intuited the futility of this particular man against the machines.

Machines are winning.

The latest machine might deliver me the death blow.

I got a smart phone. Yeah, a dumb guy got a smart phone.

Playing hard-to-get with technology, I'm typically the last on my block or my continent to embrace these Tools of Amazing Convenience,™® Doing Things I Never Thought Possible or Even Necessary In Any Measurable Way!©®

I derided such devices as Whiz Bangs. "Get out your Whiz Bang," I'd say to my son. "Tell me where China Beach is from here."

A Whiz Bang of my own finally seemed necessary. At least that's what we're telling ourselves. I need it to conduct business remotely, since I'll be going to a job job but keeping my old job. The family, each of whom has embraced smart phones with something approaching ecstacy (meaning they might actually have affixed the free Apple®™ logo sticker on something others might see), has felt sorry for me.

They have all been helpful. Maura handled the basics, setting up the phone, taking me through "on" and "off" and "volume" and "lock" and "charger," and how none of this is possible without opposable thumbs.

Nancy has shown me some features while driving, but we shouldn't have been doing that so I won't mention it here.

Liam has been trying to solve remotely why my emails won't send from the phone, and how I can schedule my blog to post regularly and link it to a facebook®™ status update.

Which is the only reason I really need a smart phone.

I gave up my flip phone and accomplished all that seemed useful with it. Over the last four years I had moved through the Five Stages of Mobile Phone:
Indifference: I know I have a phone. I don't know where it is. I don't want to look for it. It's always bleating to be recharged. How do I make it stop bleating?

Empathy: My loved ones would like me to find my phone. They think it's a fine idea that I keep track of the phone so they can communicate with me.
Dawn of Man: I answer phone calls ("Are you there?! I can't hear you very well." "Well, neither can I!" "What?!") and learn to text, beginning with several months of the repeated opus, "k." My loved ones learn to frame statements and questions that can be answered with "k."

Renaissance Man: I can type "ok."
Acceptance: I text like a mad fool. My thumb can leap tall buildings.
I had come to love the cumbersome way to text with a flip phone, in which I have to press a keypad button a certain number of times to produce a certain letter, number or punctuation mark.

I got quite good at it, and the more I did it, the more it appealed to my vestigial childhood wonder about cyphers and codes and spies and secrets. They intermix with the wonder of magic and sleight of hand, and American Top 40®™ and animation and paleontology.

I have daydreamed in the last few weeks about a secret code based on my flip phone — a symbol for the position of the keypad button, say, and another symbol for the number of times to press the button,  equals a letter number of punctuation. Probably no punctuation; or maybe sometimes, to throw off the enemy.

How robust would such a code be? Probably not very. I wonder if anyone has made such a code.

I'm right back in third grade, writing notes in lemon juice to send to my childhood friend Lance, who would have to carefully pass the paper over a light bulb to burn the juice traces into visibility. (Owing to the shrinking supply of incandescent bulbs, lemon juice may come back in vogue as a spy medium.)

We each had plastic cards from Pop Tarts™® boxes, the cards incised with symbols. Trace the symbols in certain orders on paper to create messages, the meaning of the symbols known only to Lance and me. And anyone who ate Pop Tarts™.

Typing on the new phone is not code-like. It's foreign and unwieldy, my thumb pressing around every onscreen letter but the one I want. I am saved, grudgingly, by the predictive spelling feature which saves a lot of pressing and guessing.

But I press and slide and tap and double-tap, and pitch and spread my fingers and watch the images slide and bounce like cartoon characters at my sorcerer's gestures, and wonder at this technology, new to me, common to you.

Here's the thing, though: The phone is big. Bigger than my wallet. A phone is my watch, real watches falling off my wrist too frequently when the sweat of my arms saws through leather wristbands.

The flip phone fit in the palm of my hand, and I could hide it without too much trouble when leading a tour of the Old Sacramento Underground. I could direct visitors one way, turn the other and palm my phone out of my costume apron: OK, I'm right on time.

The new phone feels like I'm pulling a surfboard out of my pocket, and looks just as subtle. Tour visitors are going to wonder what the dude in 19th century duds is doing with this otherworldly device spilling out of his hands. (He is just trying to learn the time; look over there, please.)

I have no particular need for the phone 99 percent of the time. I take it out with me to lunch, checking facebook®™ (you can fall far behind if you're not vigilant, which you know). I have even taken photos with the phone. I have even found where the photos are that I have taken.

Yesterday I pushed myself to the technological zenith: Before finishing a three-mile swim, I climbed out onto the far shore of Lake Natoma, took a photo, called up the Internet, checked the water temperature, posted my swim on facebook®™ to other swimmers, and attached the photo — all before I had even finished the swim — and then got back in the water to reach the dock and my car.

In the old days I went home, post about the swim — no photo — sometimes hours after the fact.

No more. A new era has dawned.

The phone sits at my elbow as I type, a black obelisk as imposing and mysterious as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It holds unimaginable power, untold wealth of capabilities and conveniences.

I sense its urge of obligation, like The Ring to Bilbo. I won't see the masses, together but alone, gazing down into their machines anymore … because I'll become one of them.


Maybe tomorrow. Although: What time is it?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Well, hey, hey, workin' man

It's a big job just gettin' by with nine kids and a wife,
but I've been a workin' man dang near all my life
Well, two kids, gone on their own, and the wife is not counting on me to work.

I mean, she likes it very much that I work, but has never waited around to see if I could outproduce her.

I can't.

And I ain't been a workin' man near all my life, not like my dad. Not like my sister, who has worked longer and harder in her life than I in mine.

But I'll keep on working, as long as these two hands are fit to use. Maybe not the work Merle Haggard is celebrating in song, but work.

So I'm working a new job, trying to maintain the old life.

I keep my nose on the grindstone, work hard every day
Might get a little tired on the weekend, after I draw my pay
But I'll go back workin.' Come Monday morning I'm right back with the crew
It's oddly funny how many iterations work has taken in my life. You've probably had many jobs too. That's the way of things, I guess.

I thought I'd be a foreign correspondent out of college, a title without any real meaning or support of thought. Go around the world looking like something out of the French Foreign Legion, write about things, retire. That's what I pictured.

Here's my advice: Go out with a better plan than that.

Work life has been a lot of trying this, maybe that, hitching up this passion, checking out this thing. As a result, I have been a newspaper reporter, copywriter, teacher, retail clerk, editor, graphic designer and illustrator. Stitched through most of my work life I have been an illustrator in one form or another. I can't help it.
Hey hey, the workin' man, the workin' man like me
I ain't never been on welfare, that's one place I won't be
Cause I'll be workin,' long as my two hands are fit to use
Bills need paying, battered savings need reparations. Illustrating is wonderful work, which I recommend highly. It just doesn't always fulfill the bills-need-paying criteria.

I'm in a new position, challenging for me, at an office, interacting with people all day long, keeping track of multiple chains of responsibility, being mindful of the welfare of others. Foreign in almost every way from my illustration career.

I pack a lunch again. I have doubled my wardrobe (two new pair of dress pants and shoes).
Sometimes I think about leavin,' do a little bummin' around
I wanna throw my bills out the window, catch a train to another town

But I go back workin.' I gotta buy my kids a brand new pair of shoes
I catch the train to work! It's not the real kind of public transportation, not the kind that saves riders money and the environment its health. It looks more like an eccentric extravagance: I drive east to Lake Natoma 10 miles, where I swim early, then drive a little farther to the very end of the Light Rail in our county, and ride the train 22 miles west to the Sacramento River, all the way from one end to the other, along the old route of the Sacramento Valley Railroad.

At day's end, I take the train back, get in my car and come home.

To take public transportation from my home to work would mean a ridiculous and long figure eight of bus and train transfers. We condemn public transportation by our stubbornness.
Yeah, drink a little beer in the tavern,
Cry a little bit of these workin' man blues
This latest iteration will take getting used to, which is expected. I'm trying hard to keep swimming as many times as I can, and I'm maintaining my illustration projects. I got a smart phone, the last on earth to do so, closing the circle on personal technology, but right now I don't know if I can post this blog as regularly.

I'm hanging onto my old ways, hoping the new job somehow eventually enriches them. I'll miss some swims. I won't visit facebook®™ swimmers as often, or maybe even blog as often, at least for a while.

Please be patient, as I'll try to be with myself.

As long as these two hands are fit to use.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Fantasy swim league

My Devil's Tower … my No. 23 … my Moby Dick
Meet my white whale.

Du jour.

When they come to take me away, you'll wonder about the image I'd been scribbling over and over just before.

I'll spare you the mystery: I'm toiling in my own sweatshop, forging the chains of my foolish obsession, which is to create an entity of swimmers in our Lake Natoma.

A swimming group already exists at the lake, and I belong to it, but I've explained before that I prefer the colder, starkly beautiful stretch of the upper lake, while the swim group stays at the lower more popular end, ringed with beachgoers and etched with rowers.

That swimming group also swims neighboring Folsom Lake when it has sufficient water, but I prefer Natoma exclusively.

This needs another tweak or three, but reflects the wildness
of the upper lake, particularly in late fall. The Rainbow
Bridge looms.
Only three I know of swim upper Natoma regularly, and only one swims regularly with me, and then only when our schedules mesh. One other regular swimmer returned to school, another moved away.

So even in the best of circumstances, it's not a big group.

But I dream of such a group: Natoma Open Water, or NOW. It doesn't really have to be big, just a steady, friendly presence on the lake, a regular group gathered solely for the love of swimming Lake Natoma.

Groups exist around the swimming globe — Coney Island and the Atlantic states, along California's coast and western Washington, Australia, throughout the United Kingdom, just to name a few. Some are huge, all are going ventures.

The group I dream of can include triathletes, but it wouldn't be a triathlete's group, or a group just for racers, or just for distance swimmers. They could belong to this group, but the common denominator would the simple love of swimming this water.

I've been working on an identity for that group for as long as I've swum Natoma, and I'm still at it.

Now I'm obsessed with the bridges of upper Natoma, the graceful imprint of humans on the natural landscape (not counting the granite channel partly shaped by dynamite in the state's early years).

The upper lake (formerly the trunk of the American River) narrows, and three bridges cross it:
A work in progress, a long way from finishing. I like the
force of negative spacing to "build" the new
Lake Natoma Crossing and using the background
as a third color, but it still doesn't tell the story from
a swimmer's perspective.
  • A century-old iron truss bridge built for cars and wagons but now solely for pedestrians
  • The stout Rainbow Bridge, nearly a century old, named for the concrete arch that seems to hold it up
  • And the new Lake Natoma Crossing, sometimes called the new Rainbow Bridge for its long fluted arches between the trestles, that mirror the arch of the old bridge. I'm just starting on the research, but I'm told the arches don't really have a structural purpose, and their inclusion became a debate of costs vs. aesthetics. The better decision won.
The bridges are best enjoyed from the water. From the streets only drivers on the old Rainbow Bridge can see the arches of the new bridge, and vice versa. The new bridge just feels like a four-lane freeway from the road.

It's a gorgeous sculpture beneath, where I am: Tapered arches and capped tapered columns, wasted on all but the aquatic. So now I'm trying to capture that elegance and turn it into an icon which may become a logo for a T-shirt for a group that may never exist except in my head.

It portrays the green water, at least … and the cold.
As my regular swim buddy David eloquently explains, "What for?"

It's not like swimmers flock to this place.

Still, I dream. I dream of being a friend of the lake, participating in beach cleanups and joining other nonprofit groups assisting in general maintenance. I dream of scheduling group swims for different routes. We have given names to the landmarks, and already dreamed up routes and swam them. We could have embroidered badges for completion of each route each year, just as the Sydney, Australia, Bold and Beautiful group does.

I dream of open-water introduction swims, much as Suzie Dods and the Dolphin Club do in San Francisco Bay's Aquatic Park.

Way too early … needs so much work, but going in the
right direction …
I dream of races. I haven't dreamed of them for a while, but an opportunity to show off upper Natoma
to La Jolla long-distance swimmer Tom Hecker this week has revived the possibility. He really enjoyed the early-morning trek beneath the bridges and thought almost immediately of a 2.4-mile swim here.

Word is sanctioned swims used to take place here, but someone told me many participants declared the water too cold, and the event was eventually no more. I dream of making the low temperature a selling point.

An group with an identity that uses and stewards the lake, that collaborates with all the other users and maybe raises the profile of the lake and the idea of open-water swimming to pool swimmer and anybody — like me — who never knew open-water swimming could be such a wonderful part of life: That's what sometimes peppers our after-swim chats around cups of hot cocoa.

It's high up and far off.

For now at least, I can work on the T-shirt.

This old one has franchise possibilities …

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Home of the brave face

Dear Mr. San Francisco Giants,

I don't expect you to win another World Series this year. I don't think you expect a World Series ring this year, either.

Not that you're not going to try, I expect.

Word is you've got a lot of money sitting around, which you could spend on talent enough to chase another title, but I think you're holding back, seeing how honest a shot you can make of a title run with the considerable talent you have, then maybe spending big next year after your players have rested up with a regular-length season. After all, you're trending toward championships every other year.

Keep us interested this year, make us hungry next year: Good strategy all around.

I'm happy watching your considerable talent take that honest shot.

I just didn't expect you to forget how to win. Four and 10? Eight losses in a row?

That noise, by the way, is righteous laughter from everyone who wants to see you go down. The high cackle is from Dodgers' fans, showing up tonight.

Quit fooling around.

Unless that's your problem, and the game isn't any fun. In which case, start fooling around.

Try to win at least every other game.

Until then, I'll slap a smile on my face and stay tuned.

Yours very truly,

A. Nony Mous

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Thoughts while mowing

This post comes from nothing and goes nowhere. Assess your participation accordingly.

I had to mow the lawn late last week. Not because it needed mowing: Really it didn't.

We haven't watered it in a year and a half. All I accomplished was lopping the heads off volunteer wheat that had found sanctuary around the mailbox post, and slicing through some of the tall thick blades representing the last spots of green lawn, growing despite every deprivation.

The most our claptrap push mower can do is gum the grass anyway, so that the trompe l'oleil of shorn lawn is really performed by my feet, shuffling for traction to shove the mower ahead another stride.

I mowed in order to cast off one ritual and take up another, just for a moment, just for a change. This one, at least, gave me cleansing sun.

Life has been ritual and rut lately, habit and order. Obey the dog's summons to wake, turn on computer, start the hot water, let the dog out, have her treat ready, check the computer, pour the dog food, add a dash of hot water she likes, pour the coffee. Sit. Work. Bid good morning to the inhabitants of our home as they pass my office door. If it's Tuesday, I must be doing what I did Monday.

Same ol', same ol.'

So I stumbled into the garage and out into the light instead. To mow. To write. That's where I wrestle with the big snags, the jammed ice of ideas or problems or sentences or sense. Just like you use washing laundry and mopping floors, I use walking the dog and washing dishes and mowing: To disengage the mind for work while the body is distracted with its own pattern of toil.

To the steady strum and ter-packeta-kacketa of the mower, I listened to the thrum in my disengaged head:
What is wrong with me?
What is wrong with me?
What is wrong with me?
What is wrong with me?
What is wrong with me?
I toyed with every emphasis of the words because I was processing a steady diet of the same message lately: Humans are social animals. I've been hearing it more and more, or paying closer and closer attention, from the media I consume steadily — National Public Radio programs, left on all day, and San Francisco Giants broadcasts, which is seasonal fare.

We social creatures gather around a meal and good food, NPR often tells me (and really, is there a worse medium for food and cooking than radio? But NPR plows on). That is the way of us. It's our nature to gather for music, for art.

Come out to the game! the Giants plead between innings. Tickets still available! That's where everyone else will be!

Not me.

I don't think any of those things. Humans are social, I agree, and I'm grateful for that, having been begotten, and having begotten myself. But humans differ widely in their socializing, and I think I'm at the shallow end. So I wonder:
What is wrong with me?
What makes me like that, if any culprit could be found — if any need be? I am comfortable being alone for long stretches, for much of each day. It suits the nonlinear way I work, the flitty way I become curious about one thing and look for answers while abandoning the other thing I was working on at the time. I like to amuse myself with things I find funny but which don't depend on others' humor. I enjoy wrestling myself over thoughts and ideas and philosophies, though I recognize I may not be coming up with the best answers and guidelines in the vacuum of my own bubble.

I love creative collaborations, but the stuff I do lends itself to long periods between cooperative work.
What is wrong with me?
If it's quirk of me to feel more comfortable by myself, it's been part of me a long time. As long as I can remember, I can stay in conversations only for so long before I wander off in my mind, springing off some word I heard in the conversation, and I'm leaping far away toward other ideas until something brings me back.

I stick with conversations when it's about stuff I need to know, or fanciful funny stuff, made up for entertainment solely. After-swim conversations are a lot like that; good example, swim buddy David one day brought up the out-of-the-blue notion of us building a rustic lodge at the boat dock where we usually swim. See? Just utter stupidity: Let's just clear space and start building, gin up some fake-vintage photos of people holding up fish by their gills. Tack up old oars and faded life buoys and do everything possible to make the lodge look like it's been there a while, so that when the state park people eventually come to protest this illegal structure, we can act like it's been there a long while, long enough to be grandfathered into any land use agreement.

We laugh as we alternately add to this absurd scenario, like bricks in a lodge wall.

Coming from nothing and going nowhere: A conversation like that requires one to be present, to build on the nonsense that came before.

Ordinary conversation about the ordinary goings on of an ordinary day? I'm apt to opt out, and soon. People who know me know that.

Some I know have expressed surprise that I can talk so much when I lead tours of the Sacramento Underground, but then I'm playing a character with a concrete story to tell.
What is wrong with me?
This being far less social, is it wrong? Maybe it's not healthy to be solitary too much, maybe better to balance it out among people. If I'm being rude in doing so, I suppose that's bad. The older I get, the ruder I appear, I'm sure, because I'm more likely to seek solitude among people without explaining myself or pretending I like to be in on an ordinary conversation about the day.

I'd like to stick with the conversation, but I really can't.

The media I consume implies solitude or shyness or social awkwardness may be wrong, but I don't take offense. Most people are social creatures, I understand, and the media is casting a wide net to the consumers who are listening and buying.

I don't write this for pity, and certainly not for praise. It is, as they say, what it is. Lord knows atrocities and injustices and really wrong things are going on right now that I could and should express my frustration over instead. I don't really know why I write this post at all, except to follow a trail of thought and see where it goes. You're kind to stick around this long for so much navel gazing.
What is wrong with me?
Our son is with friends right now at a music festival. He loves that stuff. So does our daughter, who likes to attend concerts with her cousins.

The running joke in our family is my obligatory knee-jerk comment, "Why don't you just buy a CD? It's cheaper and you can listen to it over and over?" Which is entirely true and sensible.

But they like what thousands and thousands of others like: The shared experience, people hearing and seeing and smelling the same as you, finding something transcendent.

They can keep it. I can't imagine wanting to be in a crowd at a concert. Maybe it's a phobia. Maybe I'm pulling my curmudgeon card, because I don't crave to be amid so many people. I become uneasy. The same goes for baseball, for as much as I like the old ballgame, I don't necessarily like being taken out to it. Broadcasters, for one thing, do such a wonderful job of telling the story of a game that to be in the stadium is to be disconnected from the game, even if I'm literally right in front of the action.

Plus, few people around are really watching the game, and someone in your section will inevitably exhort all the other bored nonwatchers to start The Wave, an utter abomination of baseball fandom. Yeah, definitely I'm pulling the curmudgeon card.
What is wrong with me?
Maybe I've got it right — or maybe less wrong — and we humans could stand a bit less socializing and more introspection.

Maybe all of us need more balance. One reason I love swimming with others is the balance of aloneness and individual challenge in the water, bookended by conversations about stupid amusing things and tips and shared advice on the swim. And cocoa. Just enough cocoa, just enough conversation and socializing.

Hmmm. So where was I?

I wonder if the grass needs mowing.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Out of whole cloth

Lovely Nancy modeling her shirt, in Giants colors, of course!
Client: Myself (cheeky!)
Need: A T-shirt
Challenge: Somehow capture in one image an event that defies terse description
Namely, the 24-hour Swim Relay, two editions now complete in San Francisco's Aquatic Park.

The shirts for the event arrived in the last couple of weeks, thanks to the valiant and generous Anthony McCarley, fellow relay swimmer, who willed them into being.

(Shout out to Jeff and Red Leaf for great work making them!)

The relay registration included bright custom swim caps so swimmers could be seen and identified throughout the event. I got to design the cap's inaugural image and this year's. I imagined T-shirts for this year's event, but didn't bring it up, just presented the art. Mostly I was sensitive to the event's costs and didn't want to muck it up for Suzie Dods, the event creator and chief organizer; if shirts weren't going to fit the operational budget, I didn't want to press it.

The inaugural relay image
For the first event, I harnessed what I knew about Aquatic Park, having swum there a couple of times, and incorporated swirling wave shapes and a stylized pocket watch to depict time. The image folded in the Golden Gate Bridge, the Balclutha sailing ship moored in the park, the city skyline, a sea lion and the flag buoy, well known to swimmers there.

My thought was that if I took the words off one version, it could be printed "backward" on one side of the cap, and the images from a distance would look like Hermes' wings on the swimmers' heads.

We were in a rush, though, and the image ended up the same on both sides.

Actually, the image on this year's caps is a detail from the artwork I envisioned for a T-shirt, which had too many moving parts to reproduce small.

After I wrote about the art and my experiences at the second relay in February, Anthony organized a shirt order.

Having gone through a 24-hour swim, I wanted this year to honor the shared experience, and became my own client in a design exercise.

Earliest known image of the 2015
design. Do others exist?
Historians can only hope. And dig.
To me, the key moment of the swim the first year was early morning, 3 or 4 a.m., not quite three-fourths of the way through the relay.

By that time, teams had gone four, five, even six rounds of non-stop relay, with two or three more rounds before the 24-hours were up. Most people are not awake that hour of the day, let alone swimming in cold water barely distinguishable from the dark sky, the last amber lights of San Francisco twinkling and dripping and squiggling.

Swimming that early hour, I was awake in a dream I had never imagined, moving the right parts in the right way somehow, but shifting in time and space, the continent slamming up close then drifting away, seeming never to draw nearer until eventually, without warning, it did.

Driving rain — the only real storm of 2014 — and pitching water enhanced my uneasy joy.

Day and night, dark and light, victory and
futility, reality and dream.
Swimmers waiting their turn meanwhile clawed their way into sleeping bags and fought for warm sleep.

It was a dizzy, surreal time, down being up and in becoming out, everything going and going and going, the hours stretching and flexing.

How to explain that in image? My pencil sniffed around for solutions, trying out a yin yang of water and darkness. More sketching eked out an infinity loop. Then —

A Möbius strip! A wonderful symbol for this event. I had to make one out of paper to see how it would work.

The style came immediately to mind. I envisioned a linoleum cut look, for some reason, a carved heavy real thing for an unreal thing, a writhing sea battle frozen at the moment. The final art is digital. Someday I'd like to try real linoleum cut.
This looked almost too pat, and I wanted something
more organic and free.

As the strip folded in on itself, I wanted to make the recessed and folded-under portions night, and give them heavy contrast to the raking waves of day.

Next I needed to place elements. Swimmers of course: As many as I could fit.

Cathy Harrington, on watch kayaking many hours for the swimmers that first relay, became the model for all the kayakers keeping vigil in the heavy rain.

(Though rain threatened for this year's event, it was mild and spotty compared to last February's storm.)

At one point last year one of the storied wooden row boats from the host venue South End Rowing Club was in the water in the wee hours, volunteers festooned with Christmas tree lights, watching us from within.

I put a boat in the final art and used the stern to inscribe the year and location.

Taking shape
A sea lion had to show up, of course. A great black bull appeared for part of last year's swim, but I missed seeing any this year.

Of course, the flag buoy had to make it, as did the iconic symbol of the Bay, the breathtaking bridge.

Both of them went upside down, to represent the effect that night swimming had on me. To fit all the figures, I distributed parts and pieces — a foot disappearing over one horizon, an arm revealed under a fold.

I added Lisa Amorao and her head-mounted camera, to represent all those who documented our endeavor so beautifully.

Cathy got to swim the event this year; she and Lisa and I swam on the same team.

Before getting too far, I explored the same theme with an infinity loop shape, and eventually took it to full art after sketching possibilities over and over.

In the end, the original idea of a loosely triangular tableau felt more centered than the figure-eight version.

Anthony suggested offering three shirt colors to the relay swimmers, including San Francisco Giants orange with black ink (he knows his audience! Sorry, Cathy!) and arranged for all the ordering, printing and shipping.

It was quite an undertaking after the fact.

Let us just say that Anthony is beneficent and chivalrous, using this undertaking to celebrate his chance to take part in the event.

Let us also say that swimmers have asked for another round of shirt orders, which makes me smile.
Infinity loop. One problem: Each surface remains its own, never crossing.
Thanks, Anthony. And:
The shirt pocket pays tribute to Suzie Dods, who in her
yellow sou'easter ran the show.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Than curse the darkness

All this talk of drought and who's wasting more water than whom got me remembering when darkness was on the face of the deep and we were lost but then were found, redeemed utterly by a stranger.

Thirty winters ago.

Nancy had come to visit me in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, and we planned to shop for wedding bands. First stop, Corcoran, where I had the job of covering the town council for my newspaper. Corcoran was headquarters for the world's two largest cotton growers at the time, and the council members worked for one company or the other. Probably they complained about high cable TV rates that council meeting. They usually did.

After that, we would head to Visalia, the next big city over.

A newcomer to the valley, I knew only this:
  • Everywhere was planted — something I shouldn't have been surprised by as an agriculture reporter, but still — and every season elicited its own aromas on the land: the sharp comfort of corn silage ripening, the synthetic skunk squirt of cotton being defoliated, the honey-butter bloom of oranges.
  • Tule fog came from the ground up rather than from the ocean in, and it was evil and insidious.
  • Perpendicularity ruled, and roads either went north-south or east-west, forever, with rare deviation.
It felt like all I needed to know.
My duties in Corcoran done, we headed east on one of the roads out of town. Which one? Who cared?! It was a road, we could go east on it. Eventually it would reach Highway 99 and we could determine then whether to go north or south to reach Visalia.

The night was crisp and clear, liberating enough. The winter fog instills real fear that a car might crash into you any moment, day or night; drivers move slow enough in the opaqueness to find the next dotted line dividing the road, hoping no one is coming up behind. But clear sky meant easy driving. We had taken Nancy's Ford®™ Maverick, a relic in metallic avocado that she had prolonged with meticulous care past its prime.

We talked and laughed and planned and assumed. Assumed this road would go on forever.

About three miles out of town, we suddenly saw shadows cast from our headlights and spreading horizontally, then growing and shrinking and growing as our car bumped along the work-worn road.

The road I thought would head forever east suddenly ended without warning to a T.

There's a thing cotton growers do at this time of year called pre-irrigation. It's one of those words people say without thinking much about it, because it's a silly word otherwise. I think it means pre-planting irrigation, because it's irrigation, plain and simple, nothing "pre" about it.

I can't remember if growers form the planting beds first, but either way, they flooded the cotton fields into a vast swamp of chocolate slurry.

So much water that some of the slurry spilled out onto the road.

Something I didn't have reason to know until we approached that T.

I braked, but the car didn't. It kept going as if I had left my foot on the gas. Nor did it respond to the steering wheel. It was a runaway sled, going where it would. Until the very last moment, when the wheels found traction too late.

This was a moment to find out who we are in a time of crisis. I am a screamer and a shouter, a loud repeater of dire wishes and regrets and woe. Nancy is calm and sensible.

Answering my mantra of gibberish, Nancy assured me she was not dead, not even hurt. She had to look up and to her left to assure me, because I sat nearly on top of her. The Maverick had nosed at an angle into the muddy ditch opposite the T, the right front stuck at the bottom.

The back of the car stuck its red-lit butt into the night air.

We climbed out the driver's side, slipped up the ditch, and … where to? Corcoran was three miles back west, just an orange wafer of sodium light on the horizon. In the distance a rare here and there, a little dome of yellow light: Farm houses.

We headed first to the nearest house, sitting alone in the emptiness.

Walking onto the property, we saw little lightning flashes just to the side of the house, then the thunder of dogs' voices as dark shapes galloped toward us, bellowing. The shapes gained definition in the porch light. It took a moment to realize that the dogs were tethered to a monorail of wire (the lightning flashes) that surrounded the house, and the dogs patrolled the perimeter in loud deterrence. It worked. We called to the house, but couldn't have been heard above the angry protests.

Back to the car we went, then up the road we had come from, where another little of dome of light lay next. After reaching Corcoran, it would be another 20 miles to Hanford, where I lived.

We passed the reflectorized sign warning drivers about the T in the road. The sign had been clipped off its post sometime back, and lay useless in the mud at the side of the road.

It was hard not to think of the things one thinks about on a dark winter night in an unknown land made stranger by the spare and shifting light. For example, it was hard not to think of the kid from these parts who had months before been convicted of hiring friends to kill his successful farming parents because they would not give him what he thought he deserved.

On the empty road in the watery void of southern Kings County, no one can hear you scream.

I don't think I said any of this out loud. We weighed our options instead, when I wasn't apologizing over and over again.

Suddenly, the empty road came to life. Funny how one approaching vehicle on a disquieting night can make you feel you've been running a race.

The truck's singing tires lowered their pitch as its headlights caught us. We didn't necessarily look toward the car; I was hoping, in fact, it would just drive on. Our safest bet would be to walk back to Corcoran and find a payphone.

Anybody, after all — literally, anybody! — could be in that car, good or bad.

Or bad.

"Everything all right?" came the voice from the dark open window, the truck squeaking to a rumbly stop.

"Our car ran into the ditch," I explained.

Classic slasher movie opening.

The cabin light of the man's truck came on, and an angel smiled.

He was headed home from work, didn't see too many people walking this road, especially dressed for mall jewelry-store shopping. He was a part-time farmer — I wish I could remember his name! — a self-sufficient type, the kind who had a motor winch strapped to his front bumper.

He drove us back to our car, stamped and wrestled through the mud to cable up Nancy's car and pull it out of the ditch, dragged it back to Corcoran to the auto shop owned by a guy he knew, drove us all the way back to Hanford, and disappeared into the night, refusing repeated offers of our meager cash for his kindness. He checked in on us later to make sure the Maverick's busted axle was being taken care of.

Nancy took my car back to the coast where she also worked as a reporter. I hitched a ride with my roommate to work for the week, until the next weekend when Nancy could come and fetch her car.

We got the rings another time, another place. What didn't kill us, I guess, made us stronger. Mine is engraved, "Love in all ways," hers "Always in love."

Thirty winters ago.

Seems like we've yet to pay forward what that man did for us on a black empty night. I hope he is warm and comfortable. He deserves to be.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Out of habit

Here's the Giants' chance to go 162-0.

Or: It's gonna be a long season.

I hope it's long and glorious, but I'll settle for just plain ol' long, the next six months of re-grooving the daily habit of following the San Francisco Giants, fresh off their third World Series championship in five years.

Have I mentioned that before?

(I know, you are probably one of the very very few who have made it to this paragraph. My baseball posts are not popular reading. Thanks for hanging with the curve.)

For the next six months we in this household expect to watch the Giants at dinnertime, just as we did last night as the Giants squeaked past the Arizona Diamondbacks 5-4 in the Opening Day game. But the Giants have trouble with two starting pitchers right off the bat (pun intended), and their superstar rightfielder is out for April with a broken arm. That 162-0 record might be in jeopardy.

Or I expect to be listening to games on the office radio during luxurious mid-week day games. I will count on my four companions — broadcasters Jon Miller, Dave Flemming, Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper — to cheer and jeer and tell with their golden voices.

(I expect as well to shirk my duties as a National Public Radio listener to check in on the morning baseball aftermath at Giants flagship station KNBR, the Murph and Mac Show, and their regular interviews with Giants and broadcasters. If they ain't talkin' baseball, I ain't listening, so I've dismissed KNBR the last six months.

(This is also a good place to mark the passing of longtime Giants broadcaster Lon Simmons. As a narrow-minded baseball fan, I don't have a lot of history with Simmons, a Hall of Fame™® broadcaster who called all kinds of sports.

(What I remember is that Simmons required you to listen to games differently than other broadcasters, to pay closer attention. He wouldn't say, for example, "Barr winds up … here's the pitch … just a little high and outside." Simmons would say, after a long moment filled only with the noise of the crowd, "Ball one!" and maybe not say anything again until, "Strike!")

Starting yesterday, we have sloughed off the tolerable and semi-dark last six months, when we replaced ballgames for "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune" (though I had left the room by then) and Sitcoms We Otherwise Deemed Beneath Us ("The Middle," we found out, is genuinely funny in a loopy way, and carves dangerously close to the truth).

I may have to switch over to reruns of "Bob's Burgers" at 9:30 PST (I'm a latecomer to that show but now I'm hooked). By June 1, I'll have weaned myself from that habit too.

It's all baseball from then on. Everything's exciting and new!

I'm in, win or lose. I swear!

In other news:

I couldn't fit this anywhere else, but had to post it: The best email sex products come-on (so to speak) I've gotten yet:

A complete line of products for bed flaccidity

Because, of course, nothing heats the juices quite like "bed flaccidity!"

Also, I get a new round of consistent demands that I paint my garage floors, seek college scholarships for my children and get myself into luxurious senior citizen housing. Good to see what my swim friend Dave calls "spray and pray" non-targeted advertising isn't dead. Eventually, advertisers figure, they'll strike it rich with me.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

See and be seen

Cameras: Good or evil? Discuss.

I'm in a love-hate relationship with cameras. Eighty-five percent hate. No, 90 percent …

… Ninety-three percent hate, 7 percent love.

I'm lean on the love.

I hate being in front of a camera (creeping petulance) as much as behind one (childhood anxiety).

Social media, then, has rendered me useless.

If ever you see a selfie I've taken, know that the Apocalypse has come.

The 7 percent love I reserve for good photography and photographers. Also I'm not above using photos for reference in drawing. I'm just not good at photography. Likely I'm jealous. Maybe because I have always liked to draw and deep down I think photography is cheating, somehow. Sure, stand before landscape, press a button and leave, while I'm still drawing this umpteenth leaf!

Which is stupid, of course, because I know photographers who can make the world sing fuller than life with their work. Thankfully our kids did not carry my aversion to carrying cameras, and like them as a tool of art and documentary.

My grandma gave me a Kodak®™ Brownie® when I was eight or nine. I think it was a Brownie® Hawkeye™, a round-edged cube of bakelite™® the color of dark roast coffee. You looked down into the magnifying-lens viewfinder, pressed the button, then turned the knob on the side to advance the film.

It was the age in which things are tossed at children in hopes something sticks, a future forged. Here's a book: Maybe you'll be a scholar. Here's a microscope, kid: You're gonna be a scientist! Models, paint sets, magic tricks, all part of the parent-child parry and thrust of Whatever Will He Become?!

Parents long to see this in their hometown newspaper: "Well, my mom brought home a chemistry set, and that's really all it took. Sorry, is my Nobel Prize blinding you?"

The camera was one of those offerings of hope. And I loved it.

I loved the potential of it, anyway.

The Brownie was the ideal gift since we were just then making a trip to Disneyland®™, grandma in tow. Not only joy, but archived joy!

I got sick. Really sick. Earache, flu-like, what-the-heck-is-the-matter-with-him? sick. Not sick enough to cut the trip short, just too sick for me to care about Disneyland®™ or living or breathing.

At night I lolled in agony in the motel room, keeping my parents up round-the-clock.

By day the PeopleMover®, now defunct, became my friend, snaking about Disneyland®™ at not quite enough speed or amplitude to induce vomiting. On the occasions when my vision cleared, when extreme gravity wasn't pulling the camera violently from my hand to the ground, I took pictures.

None of which you'll see. None exists.

Excited to look back on my Disneyland®™ trip and reclaim good memories from the barf bag, I got my film back from the base exchange to find: I had doubly exposed every image. Every single one. Even triple exposed some.

Grandma ghosted into the topiary … the Matterhorn collapsing into the parking lot … Cinderella's castle crash landing on Knott's Berry Farm … Mickey Mouse as the manic gremlin in your daymares.

See that knob on the side of the camera? You have to turn it after every press of the button. I forgot and forgot and forgot.

I've disliked cameras ever since.

Silly, right? But there you go.

Bad luck, too, since I had to use a camera in my early years as a news reporter. Humble apologies, still, to my readers.

I just could never get what I see with my eyes to come out on film. I took one photo class in college. Ansel Adams was in the class, I think, and shredded the curve. Even when I got the blacks black and the whites white and the midtones ideal, it was always the same: C+.

Being in front of the camera is another matter, to which I summarize: Harrumph!

Also, Why?!

I'm of the age in which all would-be photos of me are group shots, mostly with family, some with friends. Different combinations of people, different backgrounds, same basic concept.

Stand close together. Closer! You're going to have to lean in. Lean in, I said! Now smile! Come on, smile! You always do that!! Why can't you smile?! Now we have to take another!

My dad delighted in screwing up group photos, pulling a face or flashing a finger. Maybe he just didn't like photos of himself, either. If given no other choice, I carry on the tradition. There aren't a lot of photos of me. Memories suffice for me; my pockets are chronically empty of cameras.

Here's the thing: In my mind I'm tall and thin and lithe. A mirror, conspiring with my brain, will sometimes even bear this out. A camera, with one exception, will betray me.
The miraculous exception: My son
captured this of me returning from
Alcatraz. Everything flexes except
for flab, cleverly hidden by limbs.
(Also, it's nearly four years ago,
so less flab to camouflage.)

I know at my core I'm not supposed to fret about body image, but the superficial me has a big mouth and won't shut up.

What few photos emerge of me anymore involve swimming, where after a lifetime of feeling need to cover up, I have laid myself nearly naked to the world, and do so almost daily. That's a big deal for a lot of swimmers, I think, this coming out. It may even be a needless barrier that keeps people from swimming.

No illusions remain for a body stuffed in jammers — the longish swim shorts I wear — and the camera's truth is brutal.

Recent swimming candids reveal: I am not thin and lithe! One could say, with oblique politeness, that I probably float well.

Oh, well.

The truth hurts, but also helps. The camera's honesty reminds me I could stand to lose some weight, for a variety of reasons. Faithful swimming alone is not enough.

Stringent additional measures are called for. Vigilance is all, less for vanity than vitality.

Maybe in the near future I'll have blundered into view of a camera and look closer to the person in my mind. Just don't expect a photo op.
. . .

In other news: Gov. Jerry Brown got hold of my Tuesday post, thank goodness, and finally implemented emergency measures to save water in California's unprecedented drought. Maybe two years too late, but it's not nothing.

"We're in a new era," Brown said yesterday. "The idea of your nice little green grass getting water every day, that's going to be a thing of the past."

 You're welcome. Now, do your part!