Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Says who?

Fractured, as a reminder to myself that in high school I used to
get laughs by imitating a gay person, sashaying, gesticulating, throaty,
lisping, too loud, flamboyant, clowning a stereotype. I didn't know any
gay people, so who was I hurting? Of course, now I know better.
I've lived a little, as they say. Now I'm way over here on the side,
waving the rainbow flag.
Everybody, may I have your attention, please?!

Conduct all of your pivotal, historic, norm-shattering news so that it happens on Mondays and Wednesdays, from now on. Thank you.

It's not so hard, really, if you focus.

That way I can appear au courant with my commentary, if only for appearance's sake.

This dropping-a-news-bomb-on-Friday business will not do, because then I've gotta wait all the way until Tuesday to say something about it.

Then I'm late to the party with nothing new to say.

In other words, like always.

The habit of creating news for Mondays and Wednesdays allows me to be first with nothing to say. If I can do Tuesday/Thursday blog posts, how hard can it be to pull your weight?

If you're keeping score: U.S. Supreme Court decides corporations are people and that money can flow in vast unlimited anonymous quantities into elections, enabling purchase of our so-called representatives to the highest bidder, and the people say "Meh!" and politicians say, "Amen!"

Supreme Court decides same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, and half the world feels the sky falling and half the politicians say, of all things, let's get rid of the Supreme Court. Right before we turn out the light, because the world's going to end in a cataclysmic fireball of God's retribution any second now, anyway.

This would all be a madcap riot of a movie, of the kind starring Jonathan Winters and Melissa McCarthy and Dick Shawn and Phyllis Diller and Vince Vaughn and a cast of hundreds, were it not so sadly true.

With lightning speed and straight faces, some of the hundreds of Republic presidential candidates have framed Friday's Supreme Court decision as an attack on religion, that priests and pastors will goosestep to the government's bidding or perish, because that's what their base really wants to believe.

We'd all be more free, I guess, if we goosestepped to some religion's orders instead.

The decision has nothing do with religion, but no matter.

(Last week I drove by a Catholic parish, not mine, and saw a banner hanging over the church sign: "God's marriage equals one man plus one woman." The banner actually obliterated the church sign, and my journalism professor taught me that if an image is placed in front of the headline or masthead, the message becomes more important than the headline or masthead. Since I don't drive that route often, I don't know how long the banner had been up, or if it was hung in advent of the Supreme Court decision. It was gone this week. I think it was Our Lady of Overkill.)

The court has enabled civil same-sex marriages across the country, where it had been legal in most states. Same-sex married couples would have the same benefits across all states, and not risk loss of benefits and privileges as a married couple if they happen to move to a state where such marriages had been illegal.

Would. Had been. It ain't over 'til the fat politicians stop singing.

Mike Huckabee has called for civil disobedience, encouraging county and city clerks across the country to ignore the Supreme Court ruling. Rand Paul says marriage should be privatized and government should get out (What would that leave us with? Oh yeah, churches!). Former Supreme Court clerk and attorney before the court Ted Cruz says the court is lawless.

Who plays Mike Huckabee in that madcap movie? Dan Ackroyd?

This is a states' rights issue! They shout. Let the states decide.

Yes, let's put all civil rights back up to popular vote. What's that? African-Americans go back to the back of the bus?! We have so ordered; is it my fault if voting has been made difficult for you because you may be poor and/or African-American? Women? Too bad about the ground you gained, but a gerrymandered majority voted against it.

Substitute any person or group for whom civil rights are now guaranteed, for "gays" or "homosexuals" in the vitriol opponents are spilling over the court's new decision, and you see how silly is this protest.

It is based on some questionable assumptions, from supposedly the highest minds in our society:
  • God made marriage. Hmmm. I believe God can bless a marriage, but I rather think marriage is a human invention, a solution for many problems of the heart and head. I think religion is an invention too, the human reaching up or in to understand the soul, the mystery of beginning, the wonder of the world, of which we feel guilt to be part. Sometimes this invention of religion is created and used for noble purposes, sometimes for control and evil.
  • God made marriage to be between a man and a woman. Again, hmmm. Because the Bible tells us so? Maybe the Bible is inspired by the word of God, as all other such documents; maybe it is a construct decided on over time by various committees of men, to meet certain needs and cause certain effects, and one of those effects is marriage between a man and a woman, effective for begetting more humans, straight or gay.

    Maybe it's true that children grow up optimally when raised by a father and mother, but that's not the only optimum, as changing demographics and family relationships have begun to show.
  • Marriage has been the way to go since "the dawn of time," a phrase I heard a lot over the week. Says who? The Bible again? On what hemisphere, the one in which history has been written? Has marriage really been the same the world over, since this dawn of time? The way to go for what? Romance? Political position? Acquisition of property? Alliance between nations? Production of farmhands.

    Procreation: Couldn't happen without sexual union between man and woman, not until recently. Marriage: Not necessarily so.
  • Marriage is sacred. Divorce shows it is not. Marriage can be sacred, and as Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his majority opinion, same-sex couples are seeking the opportunity for that opportunity to higher ideals that are accorded to couples in traditional marriage; and by extension, the risk of the heartache and damage of divorce.
We truly have important and terrifying and real and urgent problems to solve in your town and mine, in this country, in this world. This is not one of them. Problem solved. Live and let live. Move on. Pray or don't, as per usual.

Pray or don't, pray for love.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Sent packing

I don't know.

You don't know, either.

When and where in this country will we change, that people no longer use guns to kill others, in anger, in hatred, in profit, so profligate?

When will we change our minds, when will we change our actions, and stop not only the terrible mass slaughters by which our country is known the world over, but the daily killings so common they barely make Page 3 in your newspaper?

I don't know. You don't, either.

A kid unloosed from reality, and heavily armed with gifts he was given, slaughtered little children and their teachers at a school in Connecticut. Little children, their teachers' arms trying to shield the rain of bullets. We ached and wrung our hands and pointed fingers and called names, and bought more guns.

A man, who evades whatever help might have come to him, finds his solution by shooting into a darkened theater in Colorado, those about to die probably thinking how real this promotion for a new action movie seems to be.

How awful! we say. What a weirdo! we say. Concealed handgun woulda taken that dude down! we say. End of story!

A young man, mad at the world, goes to a university and shoots and kills innocent stand-ins for those he decides have made him miserable. Which university? Take your pick, unfortunately: You have so many slaughterhouses to choose from.

Now a young man, too young really to be so angry about anything, had seemed to pray with a Bible group before killing nine of its members, including the pastor, Clementa Pinckney, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

If someone in that church had packed a gun, I heard immediately in the aftermath, lives would have been saved. If teachers had been carrying, they could have rained their own bullets on the killer and and slowed or stopped this bloodshed.

Guns in the church, where people try to practice peace. Guns in the classroom, where children spend much of their childhood learning to try and get along.

More guns, against guns. That cannot possibly be the solution. I know it. You know it.

We are so, so far into the insanity of gun deaths that they have now taken on genres, different except for their common intractable solution: We won't get rid of our guns.

Killing a classroom of children hasn't been enough to move us, except to rail at questionable parenting and mental health services. Killing university of students makes us tsk! tsk! and that's about it. Almost killing a congresswoman at an informal meet-and-greet in front of an Arizona grocery store wasn't enough.

Nine church members dead becomes about racial hatred and the still simmering prejudices and fears we hold. It is still not enough.

Each different, each the same: Get more guns.

I don't know what to do. You don't either. People kill more people with guns in the United States, by far, than the rest of the developed world. We accept guns as a constitutional right, almost an expectation. We act as if ultimately we'll make peace through a continental standoff, each of us holding a gun on the other, until the shootings ends.

I do no more than write this and exorcise my confusion. I do not write my Congressional representative. I do not rail publicly against the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby. The debate is so convoluted and bitter and well-financed and entrenched that reform feels like folly.

I'm not advancing the debate here, late as I am anyway to comment, with nothing new or insightful to say.

I do no more than try very hard to treat others as I would like to be treated.

It is not enough. I know. You know.

We have witnessed the solution. In the most grisly and heart-wrenching fashion imaginable, we have seen it: It is love.

The members of Emanuel A.M.E. church accepted their killer into prayer with them, invited him into their holy place. Their grieving survivors immediately forgave the killer.

Churches over the weekend said they would not lock their doors, would not turn anyone away, would not do what anybody would reasonably expect them to do. They would welcome all with love.

The only name I have invoked here is Rev. Pinckney, pastor of the A.M.E. church and a state Senator in South Carolina. By all accounts Pinckney embodied love.

He spoke to a group visiting his church two years ago, telling them the history of his church and the story of Denmark Vesey, a leader of the church who plotted to lead a slave rebellion 193 years ago and was executed for it. Pinckney said:
Could we not argue that America is about freedom — whether we live it out or not? But it's really about freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness. And that is what church is all about: Freedom to worship and freedom from sin, freedom to be full of what God intends us to be, and to have equality in the sight of God.

And sometimes you got to make noise to do that. Sometimes you may even have to die like Denmark Vesey to do that. Sometimes you have to march, struggle and be unpopular to do that.
Ultimately, love will win out. At great cost, we have seen, and more devastating cost to come, no doubt. But love, corny and simplistic as it sounds, is the answer.

Boy Scouts — all about trying to get along — learn to shake with their left hands. The tradition of the standard handshake is that two people, upon greeting, have emptied their weapon hands: I will not harm you. The left-hand shake supposedly comes to Scouting from the Ashanti people of Ghana; warriors hold their shields in their left hand. To present the left hand in greeting means: I trust you not to harm me.

The answer is in your hand, empty and held in greeting. I know it. You do too.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Doing it all wrong

It was important to tell my kids before telling you:

A birthday card from my daughter,
cleverly repurposing my own art.
My favorite part of the Disney®™ movie Mulan comes when Fa Mulan returns home, having saved China from Hun attack, and brings her ailing father precious symbols of the rescued dynasty.

Despite her heroics, Fa Mulan had dishonored her father by going to war in his stead, disguised as a man, and has come to pay tribute even though she knows it will not blot the dishonor.

Mulan, kneeling before Fa Zhou in the cherry orchard, presents the gifts.

Fa Zhou, amazed and grateful for Mulan's return, casts the gift sword and medallion aside and kneels to embrace his daughter.

"The greatest gift and honor," he says, "is having you for daughter."

My son had made this — sophisticatedly na├»ve.
Gets me every time — as it gets just about every parent who watches that quiet moment. It was very difficult to say this to my own daughter, and I teared up texting it to my son. I'm tearing up now.

Damn you, Disney!™®

What I inferred from that movie moment — what I tried to convey to my kids — is how proud I am of them, not for what they have accomplished, which amazes me on its own, but for their being and space in this world, for their adventure in which I have gotten to play a part. I will always be proud of them.

For Father's and Mother's Day, the children should get the gifts — for having made fatherhood and motherhood possible, for bringing forth the harrowing, hilarious, poignant, promising, marathon sprint that is trying to be a parent.

The guest should play host on these days.

The gift to me is them.

I do birthdays wrong too.

Mostly I do a feint and parry about birthdays, not being a big fan. Why? It's complicated and silly.

I'd just as soon let the day pass like any other.

But lately I've noticed what some others do, others with more generous hearts, who host their birthdays, who celebrate the day for others' sake, not their own. Maybe I've noticed because I'm the opposite by nature.

The people who come to celebrate these birthdays become the focus. Sometimes someone else benefits, a charity, say, or someone for whom a celebration is long overdue.

I'm mulling this celebration sea change. Give me some time, but I'll turn these holidays around.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Long as God can grow it

I don't miss hair.

Supercuts™® misses my hair. That's $20 guaranteed it was getting every two months, including tip; not to mention another $5 I gave each time to the woman who runs the cash register and sweeps the hair. Not many give her a tip, I bet. And now that spigot is dry, my free-spending days over.
Give me a head with hair,
long beautiful hair. 
If they had thought this through, the haircutters at Supercuts©™ would have talked me out of clipping my hair clear to the skull. They would have refused to fish out the No. 0 blade, or lied and said it was broken. They would have applied the steroid cream themselves, to get my quarter-sized random bald spots to regrow.

Too late now. Cha – not! – ching!

Since shaving it all off, I have met people who don't know me any other way but bald. I have also come across old acquaintances who, bamboozled by this hairless masquerade, have looked right at and through me, without a second glance or — presumably — thought.
Give me down-to-there hair,
shoulder length or longer.
I'm staying this way, most of all because it's easier. It is the logical conclusion to my personal grooming, which included getting my hair cut so short it rendered combing useless.

I wear slip-on shoes too, and I'd go barefoot if society and prudence didn't vilify it. Yeah, I'm lazy.

Bald doesn't look too bad on me. I mean that literally: I don't look so bad that family and co-workers are begging me to glue on hair ASAP. So, hearing no objections, I'm keeping it.

Baldness used to be bad, as in, there's something wrong with you. As in, you shouldn't be bald if you can help it.

One of my great uncles was bald — smooth and shiny as if he had never, ever had hair. I remember thinking — all other evidence to the contrary — something must be wrong with him. But I never asked what. How do you ask? How does a little kid ask?

Yul Brynner always looked like something was wrong with him. Of course, it didn't help that he played assassins and angry killer robot cowboys a lot of the time.
Flow it, show it,
long as God can grow it,
my hair.
Baldness must have landed Telly Savalas a lot of roles — for crazy, angry, rogue soldiers and cops and criminals.

The laugh of last resort on any sitcom or variety show was for a famously coiffured celebrity guest to become suddenly bald, the skin cap pulled down tight and glued pat. Remember! You howled at the nonplussed TV star, brought low by the worst possible indignation: Being bald.

Baldness is visual shorthand for cancer, and it's sad, of course, when someone loses hair who doesn't want or deserve to, who can't help it.

But baldness ain't so bad anymore, not that I can tell anyway. A lot more people than you think have gone bald by nature or will, just one of the curious things I noticed only while living the bald life.

This is the age of Aquarius.
Knotted, polka-dotted, twisted,
beaded, braided, powdered,
flowered and confetti'd,
bangled, tangled,
spangled and spaghetti'd.
No one seems to follow any fashion for hair anymore. To each, truly, his or her own. In family photos, hair used to place people squarely in a certain decade, or even within one half of a decade or the other. Everyone seemed to wear a variation of some celebrity's hair. No more.

Hair is a bangled, tangled celebration now, a personal firework. Riding the train to work has been to stand curbside at the parade of hair. Gargantuan afros; tightly braided ropes of hair, bundled into a ponytail; oh-so-carefully sculpted bodybuilder/Realtor®™helmets; long, straight, heavy hair, like the kind you see in hair care commercials; courageous comb-overs, crazy I-don't-care hair, no hair.

No one seems to model his or her hair on anyone else's. Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding.

To which I just have to say:
Giddy glup gloopy nibby nabby noopy la la la lo lo
Sabba sibby sabba nooby abba nabba le le le lo

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Bride of Itch-a-Sketch™®

Because a friend had posted an entrancing photo online, and somehow I couldn't not draw it, so goofy and beautiful

Because if this friend from high school, a mad scientist and creator and lover of arts, didn't curate the odd and artful on the Internet, I would miss a lot, including the photo on which this is based.

Because I couldn't help noticing how lithe the dancer's musculature, and my own prejudice that such a dancer from the 1920s wouldn't have, well, a dancer's body.

Because I had a ball-point pen lying around and wanted to play with fine hatching and crosshatching on soft paper, luxuriating in the soft pull of the roller ball on paper.

Because it's been a while since I've opened the Itch-A-Sketch™® department of ShawnDRAWN©®, and needed to breathe new life into the neglected franchise, wherein I find random doodles from my sketchbook.

Because, by coincidence, I wrote about the creator of the Major League Baseball logo when I introduced Itch-A-Sketch®™ for years ago. The creator of that logo, Jerry Dior, died last month.

That's why.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Do you hear what I hear?

As usual one morning, I clicked on YouTube®™ to use as my radio for the workday.

That's my habit: Find a song or artist I like, start the song, collapse the YouTube™® page and draw or write to the music.

I can't be the only one who uses YouTube©™ this way, because lately YouTube™ has begun automatically playing other similar songs in succession, without my say-so.

I have to flip a switch now if I want the hit parade to stop.

At first I stopped each song manually as it ended, and found another song I liked. In a short time, though, I was letting YouTube™® do the work, just loading up one song after another. Whatever.

I didn't like Pandora™® for this same reason: Instead of playing the artist I wanted, Pandora®™ algorithms would find songs that math says I'd also like.

Try listening to Iris DeMent with her yodeling helium voice, for example, and your Pandora®™ channel is likely to be hijacked by Alison Krauss. A fine singer, lovely to listen to, but not if you really, really want to listen to Iris DeMent. Math is sometimes wrong.

Now, though, I've surrendered. Sort of.

I choose mixes now. Someone makes these up, I guess. Some YouTube™® fan or subscriber compiles his or her own collection of songs by artist or genre, and posts them to share.
(Here I must confess my part in the ruin of the music industry, and the cavalier nature with which I can click on an artist's entire new album — or even an entire movie! Not that I do! — which someone has posted on YouTube™®, and about which no one seems to be bothered. Including me.

(It's almost quaint now that I click on a YouTube™® music video and told it has been blocked by the publisher.

(That sound is intellectual property rights and creative control and ownership crashing and burning in a chain reaction. Good luck making a living with your art. But I digress.)
Choosing a mix gives me a bit more control about the music chain I'll listen to for that block of work time. Or so I tell myself.

So, on this particular morning, I saw something called "My Mix" on YouTube™®.

"My" doesn't mean much to me in the digital world. Countless applications and devices are labeled "My." Register for college classes, check your health record, chances are the secured page you use starts with the words "My."

"My" sketchbook holds meaning for me, a tangible object I hold dear but which no one else would want or use.  But "My" health record is ephemeral and vague, not really mine; I just happened to type in the write password to get the information. You could also go to your health record, and it would be called "My" health record. Not "Shawn's" health record or "Tom's" or "Belinda's." "My" this or that.

It's nameless and faceless.

So I just assumed whoever had collected this mix just labeled it "My Mix," choosing to be nameless and faceless, and posted it anonymously in the ether, in case someone else — like me — would enjoy it.

I clicked on "My Mix," because the first song was one I'd listened to recently and liked enough to listen again and again, "Holland 1945" by Neutral Milk Hotel.

Next was "Let Go" by Frou Frou, and I like the soundtrack from the movie, "Garden State," and had been listening to it in the last few weeks.

Then something by Sufjan Stevens, his new "Carrie and Lowell," sour-sweet and haunting. Then OK Go's cover of the Pixies' "Gigantic," which I found by accident not long ago and listened to repeatedly.

Then it was "Let the Mystery Be," by Iris DeMent, helium-high and yelping.

"Huh!" I thought to myself at this point, "Someone else likes my varied choices in music."

I mean, I'm not the only one with an eclectic taste in music. It's just weird that the maker of "My Mix" has the same eclectic taste.

Kate Rusby is next in the mix, singing "The Wild Goose." OK, not so strange: She's a folk singer, in the same genre as DeMent. People who like Iris would like Kate. We're on a first-name basis.

Then comes a song by Jeff Buckley I hadn't heard before, but I like his aching version of "Hallelujah." Maybe this "My Mix" maker is a bigger Buckley fan than I. I let the song roll. Not bad.

Next is John Hartford. Hey, I love John Hartford! There's not enough of him on YouTube™®, nothing at all from his great album "Headin' Down into the Mystery Below." That's kind of a hard shift from Buckley to Hartford, but cool that this "My Mix" person likes them both.

Then Regina Spektor singing "How," and Missy Higgins singing "Everyone's Waiting," and Pink singing "Raise Your Glass." Some of my favorite songs lately, two of them melancholy and heavy with hope, the last a "Who cares what the world thinks?!" anthem.

Then Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," my absolutely favorite piece of music.

OK, what's going on?

How could this anonymous YouTube®™ poster like almost all the music I do? It's possible, I guess, but so, so remote. What are the percentages?

Seriously, I want to know: What are the percentages?

Then it dawned on me.

"My Mix" is literally my music. Algorithms and software have remembered and aggregated the music I've listened to over time on YouTube®™; more algorithms and digital voodoo found similar songs, then threw them all together into a collection. Just for me.


Isn't it creepy?

No human particularly cares about my music choices — at least, I really hope no one cares — but some humans made it so a Web site would track my movements and regurgitate my choices for repeated consumption.

And pock the music choices with ads I might want to watch. For things I might want to buy.

At the same time, I notice facebook®™ has begun dredging up memories I posted from two years before. Memories that I no longer even remember. I guess I'm supposed to repost and regurgitate?

I guess I'm not supposed to creep out over the idea that something is putting my life into pigeonholes, never quite to go away, but to revisit me randomly, in a way that I suppose is meant to be friendly and helpful but really makes me want to look in the closet for hidden cameras.

 I'm going for a walk now. Take no offense if I don't tell you where. I'm going to hum a secret song.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

First-world battle scars

"Of all the things!"
"Look what happened!" I say, to anyone I can buttonhole for a few slack moments, and hold out my smart phone, to establish:
  • I have a smart phone now, with which I know how to take photos, and
  • I have a photo I think is worth showing
"Oh, no!" anyone says in response, or "What the …?!" or "Some people!"

The hood of my car has been cratered, the photo clearly shows. I have a series of pics, I say: Thumb through it. The deep indentation appears to be of a human body; you can almost make out the fetal position of the landing.

Instead of diffusing available light in a sleek curved smooth sheet, the hood now captures every manner of light and dark, dimpled and dappled. It bears peaks, creating a valley.

Whatever happened to it, happened last week, while I was swimming my usual spot at an unusual time, when the late afternoon was purpling and the mosquitoes had begun again to dance over the water.

(It could have happened before this, when I had parked the car in a multi-level garage near the light rail station. But I back into every parking space — once a Boy Scout leader, always a Boy Scout leader — and would have noticed the ruined hood on my way around the front, just as I did upon exiting the water. The new topography was obvious from 25 yards away.)

"What the …?" I said aloud. A half-dozen cars were parked near the boat launch, untouched. A fisherman was unloading his truck. He had only been there five minutes before, he said, and heard a noise but saw nothing; though he immediately blamed kayakers who might have dropped their boat on my hood and not left a note.

Kayakers would have had to pummel my hood, swinging their boats like hammers, to have done this damage, and would have left scrapes and marks. This was from a soft heavy object, no evidence left save the soft folds into the hard metal.

The hood (or "bonnet," as British swimmers said when I showed them the photo) still opens. The car still drives.

I'm stuck at "What the …?" grimly amused at the damage. My best guess is someone decided to take a running jump over the car and perform a piledriver. Or someone dared another to dent the hood. Or someone threw another onto the hood.

Some have said meteors. Rogue Canada Geese. Monster trout. One said it's reminiscent of a 1970s prank: I'd been "Starsky'd," after the TV show "Starsky and Hutch," where the protagonists were forever sliding or stomping across cars, including their own.

"We get a lot of idiots in the park," the ranger said in sympathy when he took my report.

I'll go through the motions of talking to the insurance company, report and photos in hand, seeing what can be done.

Probably very little.

"I would not have been so calm as you," someone told me.

It's not calm so much as resignation, and I guess the event has exercised me a bit, or else I wouldn't be showing the photo around so much.

"Of all the things you could do to a car!" I'd say.

Then I heard on the news about an Iraqi man whose car ISIS had blown up, because he had been a police officer. ISIS threw him in jail too.

At least I've got a car, I realized. I can go anywhere I've a mind to.

"Of all the things!"
It's a Taurus we've owned most of its life. We bought it off my sister, who had gotten it as a fleet car from her old job — remember when companies had fleet cars?

It was low mileage, and in good shape. The Taurus is the cockroach of automobiles, beetlesque (at least, the first models) and indestructible.

It still bears the deep crease behind the front left tire, imprinted only 10 miles from home as we returned from my hometown, to conduct the wake after my mom's death. We couldn't avoid the end table laying late at night in one of the freeway lanes. A leg of hit the car square, a home run in any park.

"Of all the things!" we said.
But … we had a car. We got to go a long way away and say goodbye. The car drove just fine.
The driver's side has a rolling dent where a car careened into it about a year ago. Our daughter in college had gone to visit a friend, parked the car at the curb, and sometime that night in a car used her car for a bumper and sheared off the sideview mirror. No note, no evidence except for the damage.

The mirror had stayed more or less put in the cool Oregon weather with many crisscrossings of duct tape, but wilted back home in the scorch of Sacramento. Then my brothers-in-law Joel and Greg found a matching mirror at a pick-and-pull and installed the mirror as our daughter's graduation present.
At least we had cars enough to let our daughter get around to work and school, far away.
Thieves broke into another car a few years ago at my beloved lake, grabbing stuff from mine and the cars of all whom I'd been swimming with, plus some vacationers'. Insurance paid for the broken window. The contents were useful but not vital, and not within reach of recouping through insurance. I kept bringing the car to the lake until we donated it.
At least we had cars enough to donate one.
My old red Ford Explorer, dubbed the Vomit Comet because two Scouts got carsick on either side of the car on one outing, carried a long bright yellow scar for many years.

I saw the metal pole protecting an electrical box at the apartment complex where I was helping some people do charity work. I just forgot about it backing out.

I kept the gash as a badge, a note to self that I had the means to help someone else, which far outweighed any inconvenience I might have incurred.

Many freelance auto body repair men, rolling up to me in supermarket parking lots or even in the next lane on the freeway, offered to repair the gash. I turned them down.

I might do the same with the crushed hood. Just keep it like that. I don't really care how bad it looks or what people might think. It's a funny reminder that I have freedom to steal away to my favorite lake and wash off burdens in the cold water.

I cried because I had no shoes.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Appropos of nothing

Two figures now figure more and more prominently in my life these days — Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln.

Mostly it's circumstance. Also, age.

If youth is wasted on the young, so is history. Now that I'm not young, history has grown richer and more rewarding. Maybe I have a more patient regard for mortality.

Mark Twain roamed, however briefly, the streets I roam every day. He wrote for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise newspaper, and talked the Sacramento Union into sending him to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) from whence he would send occasional features.

Twain had a thing or two to say about Sacramento in its youth, and I quote him when the occasion warrants, on tour of the Old Sacramento Underground.

He found lifting the city to protect it from flooding a foolish marvel. Of course, being Twain, he made it sound as if the city was lifting only the streets, but leaving the buildings where they are.
"Some people call it a priceless blessing, because children who fall out of second story windows now cannot break their necks as they formerly did," he wrote. "That this may be regarded in the light of a blessing is, of course, open to grave argument."
It's mostly funny to adults on tour. I'm not sure children and teenagers like it. Ah, youth!

Two key anniversaries came up last month. One that just hopped away was the annual Jumping Frog contest in Calaveras County, the so-called Gold Country. Twain brought that event into being by the force of words alone, buttressing a story he'd been told about a jumping frog contest during the Gold Rush. The short story catapulted Twain to fame.

Key to the story is covert tampering and corruption — even before FIFA! — a frog made to eat buckshot and so impede its ability to jump.

Which is why I drew this cartoon 25 years ago, thinking of the fun Twain might have had when someone wanted to enter an imported goliath frog from Africa to compete in the jumping frog contest.

Contest officials protested and forbade the imported frogs — only American bullfrogs would do.

Of course, there's no story in that. Twain knew. A strange frog, leaping and bounding above and beyond the pack — that's the punchline. Competitors would have demanded to know the secret. The imported-frog owner should have sneaked the frog in and asked forgiveness rather than permission.

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated 150 years ago last month. He never came to California, but I read lately he entertained notions of retiring here. He got so much love from the new state, and returned in kind. California's admission to the Union tipped the balance toward free states over slave states, the gold found was helping finance Union war efforts, and several of the key military minds — those who eventually helped turn the war in Union favor — came from California.

Lincoln's dream of one nation lay gleaming in the ground in Old Sacramento. Most people walk over it without notice. I try to stop my tour groups and regard it:

The western end of the great Transcontinental Railroad.

A coast-to-coast line of defense and supply, the railroad would truly make the states United. Lincoln was fascinated by the idea and spoke at length and depth with Granville Dodge, the visionary engineer behind the Union Pacific, being built westward from Omaha, Nebraska. Surely he would have buttonholed Theodore Judah, the brains behind the Central Pacific Railroad being built eastward from Sacramento to join the Union Pacific, had Judah not died young before his plans could take shape.

Political power from slave states fought for dismemberment of California, so that Southern California — or whatever that state would have been called — would be another slave state and restore the balance of free vs. slave. A railroad stretching coast to coast from the south would have strengthened that divisive plan.

It was all the more important that the Transcontinental Railroad trace a northerly route and help hold the country together. So important, perhaps, that the "Big Four" directors of the Central Pacific Railroad — Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Leland Stanford — took advantage of Lincoln's zeal and distractions over the Civil War to bamboozle the federal government into awarding far more in subsidies and real estate than the railroad should rightfully have gotten.

Twain probably liked that story. I imagine he would have enjoyed telling it.

People on tour often ask about ghosts. Though I let them down gently, I do feel Twain walking the shady sloping alleys of the old town, blowing smoke literally and figuratively. And I can see Lincoln in the day's heat, arms akimbo, near the Central Pacific depot, kicking at his dream, gleaming in the earth.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Chicot and the man

An homage …
To understand Zane Hodge, you need to know the Zane Hodge Index.

Of course, if that's all you know about the man, consider yourself poor.

Zane didn't create the index. He inspired it, through the force of life that bursts through his writing and presence on the Internet.

Others marveled at his feats, and the eponymous Index was begat.

The Index is a multiplier that compares your swim to Zane's, to determine how difficult your swim really is.

Every so often an epic swim on the facebook®™ page "Did you swim today?" is calibrated on the Index.

My swims always fall short.

Probably always will.

As Zane regularly swims in warm ponds teeming with roiling, hammering, jostling, spiny, whiskered catfish — more catfish than water, from the tone of it, so stultifying that Zane wears pink duct tape to seal his nostrils — chances are you have no shot of approaching a 1 on the Zane Hodge Index.

It's the degree of difficulty that'll get you every time.

Degree of difficulty.

That says Zane Hodge in so many ways.

Mind you, I have not met the man, but I feel like I've sat with him on his porch in the Mississippi Delta, or stood at a safe distance from the hand-hewn weight-lifting machine he has devised in his back yard.

I have been with him in the sanctuary of small, cool, white clapboard churches that he has visited in search of a home where he might preach, and along levee roads lush and spooky. I have ridden in a rattling bucket of a truck down a dirt road apiece to the store, and waded with him across a slough in the damp dark night, doing something I oughtn't.

I have deeply regretted not meeting his dad, who died unexpectedly three years ago. Zane wrote a vivid memorial to him, composed while he was running. His dad taught him to run, in a time and place when few people considered long-distance running respectable.

Zane writes about running a lot — often with a laboratory skeleton named Buddy Bones — and swimming, and weightlifting, and ways to be healthy, for his blog Endangered Swimmer, which I found through his regular facebook™®© posts.

In between his training summaries, he lays open his life, eloquently walking his talk as a college English instructor. He is big-hearted and humble and complicated, and his life is fascinating to read.

He's funny and poignant and alarming, sometimes all at once, such as the series of detailed confessions about how he and his friend Poot schemed to burn down abandoned houses when they were teenagers.

If that sounds like a tale befitting of Twain, others hearken to American Tall Tales, the kind with absurd heroes like Pecos Bill and Mike Fink.

Or Randy Beets.

Zane has a running feud — make that a swimming feud — with Beets. They battle one another at an event called Swim the Suck, a fall 10-mile swim of the Tennessee River Gorge, and at smaller events here and there in between.

The feuding goes on all year, but builds to high heat just before Swim the Suck, and include a steady barrage of photos of Zane's colleagues and students wielding the same sign: "It's gunna be a beetsdown!"

It's unrelenting. Randy Beets rarely fires back on social media against Zane's coordinated torrent of taunting.

Other people have joined this battle against Beets, and take it seriously. At least, I think they're taking it seriously. I can never be too sure in the world Zane describes for readers.

Zane even has a facebook®™ page dedicated to this cause, called "Vicarious Butt Beets," (I'm not entirely sure why it's called that), itself a spinoff of another "Did you swim today?" page.

Lately Zane has taken to YouTube®™ and at press time has come up with videos listing 16 reasons he hates Randy Beets (he even says the Bible tells him so), such as being too tall, having big feet, and using a cooking thermometer to measure water temperature.

Zane and Randy Beets annually embarrass each other and themselves at the Big ASS Awards Banquet (the celebration of an amalgamation of several groups, the Association of Sports Swimmers, the Association of Sports Shufflers, and the Association of Sports Syclists — I'd say it's fictional, but I may draw ire), where accusations have been thrown as frequently as inquiries and lawsuits.

It's all there in Zane's blog.

A writer named Jay Unver (there's a joke in that name somewhere, but I'm too dense to get it) regularly interviews Zane, giving him many chances to crow about his ongoing battle and frequent triumphs over Randy Beets.

Beets is big and impressive, but pales compared to Zane's biggest degree of difficulty, against his biggest enemy.

Zane hates diabetes even more.

This weekend he swims the Chicot Challenge, an epic swim he devised for himself to raise money for the Diabetes Foundation of Mississippi. Chicot Lake is in Arkansas, an ancient bend of the Mississippi River, sealed off west of the current river course to form a long, narrow, C-shaped lake.

Zane has swum ever longer distances of that lake in his three years of this challenge. Marking his fourth challenge, this weekend Zane plans to ply 19 miles of the lake.

He frets and second-guesses about it from time to time, questioning whether his training will enable him to meet his challenge. It's all in his blog, the measure of a mindful man.

He'll make it. I keep telling him.

It's his birthday today. He's asking folks to give to his cause here instead of birthday gestures. If you hate diabetes or admire a life well lived, or just love good storytelling, throw some money to his challenge.

Happy birthday, Zane.

And let me know: What am I gonna do with all this pink duct tape?