Thursday, August 27, 2015

Glory days

That feeling has come.

The Giants are not going to the World Series.

Maybe not even making the playoffs.

I could be wrong. I hope I'm wrong. I often am, so hope still springs.

But evidence grows. The look is off.

The Look.

Even in the San Francisco Giants' comeback win last night against the Chicago Cubs, the hottest team in baseball (yes, the Cubs! The Chicago team!), the Giants had that look.

Rookie third baseman Matt Duffy crashed into veteran first baseman Brandon Belt as Belt snagged a popup at the pitcher's mound in the fourth inning, and Belt just glared at Duffy, looking tired of it all.

In winning times, Belt would have slapped gloves with Duffy, shrugged it off, smiled and hustled back into position with a snap throw around the horn.

Duffy may not play today or for awhile. The safe bet for Rookie of the Year went on the disabled list with a sprained ankle, which happened as he evaded a pickoff throw at first.

He joins a crowd of stars who can't play.

Rightfielder and team spirit leader Hunter Pence is out for who knows how long … dependable second baseman Joe Panik, gone with a bad back (never good news for a pro athlete) … veteran centerfielder Angel Pagan, on whom mortality is slowly gaining … acrobatic shortstop Brandon Crawford, out because of the same muscle strain Pence is suffering … relief pitcher Jeremy Affeldt, who twice now has torn knee ligaments while playing with his children (and in the past hurt himself going down dugout stairs, and stabbed his hand with a steak knife at home).

Outfielder Gregor Blanco, playing more and more as outfielders go down, and having done something to turn himself into a consistent hitter, has been taking himself out of a few games lately, last night with a sore hip.

Who knows when and if the baseball world will see starter Tim Lincecum again. Maybe not in a Giants uniform, if he does resurface. He's been gone so long, I forget what for. Bad hips, I think; his pitching motion, designed to wring optimum power from his slight body, hurts just to look at it.

(I looked it up: Forearm contusion, from when he was hit with a line drive a couple of months back. That must be some bad bruise.)

Starting veteran pitcher Tim Hudson is hurt. Hulking humble Matt Cain, owner of a perfect game, left something on the operating table last year and is not the pitcher he used to be.

Rookie pitcher Chris Heston, who threw a no-hitter this year, is down at Triple-A Sacramento, resting, I guess, until Major League teams can increase their rosters to 40 players in September.

More players are not going to help. The players themselves will be helped by getting a chance to compete at the Major League level, but the Giants have lost too many key players to make a run for the post-season.

Like I said, I hope I'm wrong. Wouldn't that be something to be wrong about this?

The Cubs looked like the Giants of last year, when San Francisco won its third World Series in five years. A team can't do that without lucky breaks and opponents' timely failures. Talent is huge, but not enough:

Cubs leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber began last night's game with a popup that didn't even get to the pitcher's mound. Catcher Buster Posey crashed into starting pitcher Jake Peavy, the ball dropped to the grass and Schwarber scrambled for second, turning the routine out into a double.

That's the kind of break a playoff-bound team needs. The Giants had it last year, and two years before, and two years before that. The morning hosts on Giants' flagship station KNBR call these "particles," the Giants broadcasters "the Magic Wandoo."

I didn't expect the Giants to go to the playoffs this year. It's greedy to think so. I wish their struggle didn't come through injuries, but I figured they'd put up a good fight and fall short.

The cynic in me (which is most of me) wondered why the Giants made any trades at all this year. The organization fills the stadium every night, and will probably do so for a season or two even if the Giants become awful again. It has a beautiful stadium in a destination city. It doesn't need to spend its considerable money.

I figured the Giants would make a run with its home-grown roster of young players.

But the team got starting pitcher Mike Leake from the Cincinnati Reds. He promptly hurt himself and missed two starts.

After a while, the Giants had to trade just to survive, acquiring outfielder Marlon Byrd from the Reds.

The lineup today will be minor league callups and bench players and fish-out-of-water fielders. I'll need a scorecard to figure out who's who.

The team will go down swinging, but it will go down.

I hope I'm wrong.
Well, time slips away and leaves you with nothing, mister, but boring stories of …

In other baseball news: Am I missing something, or is Major League Baseball's official endorsement of fantasy team site Draft Kings®™ essentially endorsing betting on baseball? Can Pete Rose get in the Hall of Fame now?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Today only!

Feast with me, won't you, on today's low-hanging fruit.

My email has fallen into ruins. Soon and somehow, I need to fix it. But I have found it entertaining to see what spam I attract, and good for my right wrist to press "delete" hundreds of times at a sitting, and click "erase deleted items" at the end.

In a 24-hour period yesterday, I received 314 emails, a typical haul. Eight emails were from people I know, sending me real information about real work — updates on a freelance project, or a matter to take care of in my absence.

The rest is a torrent of sales pitches: Relentless, rolling, arriving in batches of bizarre themes. My computer signals incoming emails with the cartoon sound effect of an arrow finding a hollow target — thock! Were I in my home office all day, this barrage of email would have sounded like an archery tournament.

I attempted literally to chart the emails I hauled in yesterday, to track the themes. I had created a table in a word processing document, listing the addressee, the subject line, and some detail about the email itself. Then I erased each email, one at a time. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Long after I should have quit, I actually did: The list of junk teetered virtually over my head, overwhelming me. Once the trends became clear, I resorted to pen and paper, writing down the theme, then ticking off each repeated email.

I charted enough to note the peculiar grammar of the email subject lines, enough to tell me these may not be the people they say they are. They might not even be people; I hope they're not. I'd hate to be the people who slave away in dank cubicles, sending me this stuff.

Let me get the usual players out of the way first. I get a lot of political stuff; maybe you do too. I have not encouraged this. At one time in my young life, I registered as a Democrat. Even though I belong to no party now, that doesn't stop the Democratic Party and anything tangentially related.

So I get "personal" emails from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, usually for money ($3 is the key amount asked for from not only Pelosi but Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, among other leaders). Send $3 or the GOP will destroy us, or the terrorists win, or global warming will end us all. Send $3. My favorite has been when Democratic leaders have asked me to sign a birthday card for President Obama.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sends for money all the time, as does the Human Rights Council, LeftAction (Sign this petition!), Credo Action (Sign that petition!), Everytown for Gun Safety, Environmental Action and some global activist group called Avaaz.

A Democratic-leaning "news" aggregate called The Daily Kos has lived up to its name. "I need Shawn Turner to read this email," it announced yesterday.

It has been a small swarm of email pests, nothing too concerning. Not even the relentless receipt of emails from a congressional candidate named Pete Aguilar, who is running for office somewhere in Southern California and really has no business sending me stuff. My own congressional representative sends far less stuff.

Toss in the other usuals — Angie's List wants me to find a plumber through them; something called AI-AP sends photography and illustration updates even though I never asked; Dodge Ridge sends me ski updates even though I don't ski; Lakeshore Learning sends me store sales even though I haven't taught school in years and all I did was step into their amazingly expensive store a couple of times — and I had still been OK with it.

I could still easily distinguish real emails from the trash.

Now I'm not so sure. I have been afraid lately that I tossed out important emails in my daily delete fest. Real emails are needles in this haystack.

The subjects run in seasonal trends. I had been getting a lot of rather direct sex pitches, from women with exotic names, using strange characters to substitute for dirty words, saying they're lonely.

Those have disappeared, and entirely different themes have taken their place.

When I take the emails as a whole, I wonder what the spamming world thinks of me. I think it has decided I am old and either terrified of it, or am wealthy and lack the sense to hang onto my money.

These are the current trends. In one day I received:
  • Fourteen emails from women with vaguely familiar names — sometimes with asterisks between their first and last names — sending the exact same thing: Some fat-reducing substance endorsed by daytime talk show host Rachael Ray and daytime health huckster Dr. Mehmet Oz.

    The email includes a picture each of Ray and Oz.

    Under the picture of Ray is the caption: Rachael investigates a weird weight loss solution that is quickly gaining popularity in the United States and around the world!

    Under the picture of Oz is the caption: Dr. Oz has not endorsed any product, only the ingredients within Forskolin

    Such as water! Dr. Oz endorses water! Clever doctor, one step ahead of the lawsuits.

    The women with vaguely familiar names always vary the amount of weight Rachael Ray has claimed to have lost from this product, and always refers to a different episode number, such as Episode #0920991.

    Like that makes it authentic.
  • Nine emails about products to seal and protect my garage floors
  • Nine emails about vacation packages — to Ireland! The Bahamas! Africa! On a cruise!
  • Seven emails for a product that tracks my keys by using my smart phone
  • Eleven emails for a diabetes cure
  • Fifteen emails for disease cures in general — two for pulmonary problems, plus gout, anxiety disorders, nerve pain, herpes, hearing loss, ADHD, bad back and bad feet
  • Nine emails for good deals on medical insurance, naturally
  • Ten emails from the vitamin dealer GNC, with one of two pictures: A noir photo a virile young man embracing a woman, the product of desire floating over their heads; or a close crop of a woman's plump legs standing on a scale. Just in case I'm a man or woman
  • Six emails telling me acids are injected into vegetables and that's bad for me. Singer/actress Jennifer Hudson found this out, in a single quixotic campaign, apparently. Thank you, Jennifer Hudson!
  • Three emails for Dr. Oz' memory pills. If Rachael Ray and Dr. Oz are part of these email schemes, to make more money than they already have, shame on their hides!
  • Nine email pitches to replace my windows. These also come from people with vaguely familiar names, and they don't particularly care which brand I pick. Each one, though exactly the same, promotes a different brand
  • Eleven emails for jobs, always from a different person, always with a different number of jobs ideally suited to the résumé I never sent
  • Emails pitching beautiful women, from Colombia, Brazil, the Philippines!
  • Six emails showing how a device the government doesn't want me to know about will pull energy from thin air
  • Nine emails for a pill that stops heart attacks — as seen on NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox!
  • Eight emails that I should buy a walk-in tub
  • Four emails that I should reroof
  • Ten emails to attend online schools, for medical billing, teaching and coding
New trends have emerged. I get more and more emails of variations on Obama as the Antichrist. One from a Mr. Lionel Sanders comes with the title, "Bible Prediction: Obama's Scary Truths Exposed"

It is one of the few of the 314 emails that my powerful email system has color coded and marked as spam. How this one got tagged but not emails suggesting I buy my own jet or yacht (STOP GAWKING AT THE LUXURIOUS YACHTS AT HARBOR!), or buy insurance for my pet, is beyond my puny wisdom.

Along those lines, I'm getting emails that the National Security Administration is spying on me right now — which may very well be true — and I can click here for a record of the NSA's report on me.

I get a daily sprinkling of emails for Voice over Internet Protocol phone deals, hair loss, snoring cures, mortgage relief, "weird ab trick" drugs, gift cards (I am a treasured customer of Marriott, where I have never been), a chance at a time-share, copper socks, auto repair, printer ink, business marketing help, divorce discounts, and cannabis oil for my e-cigarette. Ad nauseam.

Three different people told me about the same single stay-at-home mom who made $89,944 a year, and how I can do the same. The graphic on the email indicates she made $88,844, but who's counting?

Who's even paying attention? Not the people — if they are indeed people — sending me email.

Verbatim from one of the electricity-from-thin-air pitches: "80% of On your electric Bill using thin - Air."

From a walk-in tub pitcher: "The cost Of a Walk In - Tub; is less Than The."

What's with the random punctuation? The sentences that stop in mid-sentence?

If this daily sales frenzy has a common denominator, it's that I have to ACT FAST! Almost all the pitches urge that I must act today to take advantage of this amazing SECRET deal that OBAMA doesn't want me to KNOW about!

Somehow I doubt that.

I've gotta fix this thing, before I get a notion to seal my garage floor.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

How I spent my summer vacation

The penultimate pitch; the next one would loft weakly to centerfield
to end the game …
The A's beat the Dodgers 5-2. That's an important detail.

Not the most important, but a satisfying denouement.

It was a win-win for Rob and me: The Oakland A's won (he's happy) and the Los Angeles Dodgers lost (I'm happy).

The Giants didn't gain any ground, losing later that day to the Cardinals. We heard the bad news over the radio on the drive home.

The most important detail is we were Doing Something Out of the Ordinary — not going to work! In the middle of the week! To a ballgame!

An A's game! Quite out of the ordinary for me, not an A's fan.

(I could have been, in an alternate universe. Were I an adult while the A's were winning back-to-back-to-back World Series in the early 1970s, in their garish green and yellow uniforms, retro handlebar mustaches and wild muttonchops dripping from their faces, I would have found them inviting and refreshing.

But I was a kid adhering to inexplicable kid logic in liking the San Francisco Giants, and decided the A's were piratical and anathema.*#

That feeling has stuck, all these years hence.)

In an alternate universe, I would have loved the A's ballpark, now called the®™ Coliseum (naming rights are not always pretty). It feels small inside, close in, intimate. As a kid, I would have lost my breath at first look of the emerald grass, glass flat and carefully brushed by optical illusion to different shades of green, and would have picked the A's for life, just as I had with the Giants on first sight of the grass at Candlestick Park — Giants vs. Cubs doubleheader, almost 43 years to the day before yesterday's game.

Nearly 25 years ago, I sat almost opposite the vantage point of this image, high in the upper deck, now blocked off by great green tarps. My brother-in-law had invited me to Game 4 of the World Series. The Cincinnati Reds swept the A's in four games. A National League fan, I had to sit on my hands that game and withstand the gnashing of teeth around me.

It was the last time I had been to the coliseum.

This was a happy return. Rob had bought some great seats, as you can see, just to the third base side of home plate, about 10 rows back. I have never sat so close; the players appeared actual human size, and strangely not heroic. They loom in closeup on TV, their twitches and mutterings and hard stares and wild shouts writ large. In person this close, their strikeouts and hard groundouts and even their curving rocketed home runs seem ordinary, as if a bunch of fans had climbed down from the stands to play a game of pickup.

Rob and I had hung around in the journalism department back in college, and re-met a year or so ago through the miracle of facebook®™, learning we had migrated to the same city. He reminded me yesterday that I had even taken his place in an apartment with another friend after he went off and graduated.

We were playing hooky in the least delinquent manner, planning ahead, notifying bosses, warning family, changing our out-of-office messages.

"We look exactly like we're going to our one game for the year," I said. We had our wide-brimmed sun-blocking hats, our street clothes like we were going to an after-work mixer (if we were after-work mixers kind of people), our sunscreen to be applied later.

Weekday ballgames used to be called businessmen's specials, and we fit the yesteryear profile, even if our office was two hours back northeast.

We had not a stitch of league-approved baseball gear on, and probably looked out of place joining a sea of jerseyed and hatted fans — overwhelmingly Dodgers' fans — salmon-running into the stadium.

It was the second to last jam we sat in, getting to the ballpark, interstates 80 and 880 having clogged on the way into Oakland. For the briefest moment in our planning, we entertained taking public transportation, and the nostalgic notion of hopping the train from Sacramento right to the porch of the ballpark.

The price quickly put us off. Memo to Amtrak®™ and other purporters of public conveyance: Really?! If you want us to use your ride and ease the traffic mess and reduce our carbon footprint, wouldn't you make the price somewhere approaching reasonable?

The slow jam didn't bother us. We got to catch up. We got to see the architectural details of buildings on the side of the freeways in Oakland, the massive Star Wars™®-inspiring white loading derricks of the Port of Oakland.

Twenty bucks to the attendant at the entrance of the Coliseum parking lot, and after that we were on our own to find a way around the lot without getting hit.

Twenty-two bucks and change for two beers, which tasted good; something about the ballpark. The woman who poured the beers was cheery and genuinely glad to serve us. The beer tasted better.

You don't want to know how much for the sweet Italian sausages and drinks, served by another friendly woman who seemed to know the best way to combat the frustration fans feel over the traffic jam of humanity at the hot dog counter was to greet them warmly and make them glad they bought lunch at her window.

"You gotta splurge every once in a while," said Rob, and he was right.

We sat in the sun, I in my completely sun-blocking camping hat and long-sleeved shirt.

"Aren't you hot?" said the young Dodger fan next to me, wise despite the error of his allegiance. I was, but I wasn't going to tell him. I sat still except for helping the fan in front of me who, along with his mother, started some timely "Let's go, Oakland! (CLAP CLAP clap clap clap)" rally cheers.

The son was wearing a Rickey Henderson No. 24 jersey, old school. Mom swooned for current player Josh Reddick, he of the long auburn locks, and wore the rightfielder's jersey.

Reddick went 0-for-3 yesterday, but it didn't matter. Despite a two-run homer by Dodgers' waning shortstop Jimmy Rollins (who I was sure would die a Philadelphia Phillie), the A's put together a couple of innings of bat-'em-around baseball to cut down the Dodgers and quiet their fans, who left without incident.

Reed-thin starting pitcher Jesse Chavez held the Dodgers to that home run and one other hit over eight innings, striking out Rollins as his final act.

The A's have the worst record in Major League Baseball, but it didn't matter. They beat the leader of the National League West division.

The Dodgers had lost the night before too, the A's winning in a 10th inning walk-off base hit, which I commend highly.

Crawling out of the stadium, on the freeway at 30 mph up I-80 until past Vallejo, we didn't care. We got the chance to talk about everything and nothing. Jon Miller and Duane Kuiper on the radio narrated the Giants' tenuous lead against the Cardinals, then the sad news that the Giants had lost, unable to keep one more home run from escaping the field.

The day flew by too soon, the game ending too fast, as did that one good beer. We were not quite ready for work the next morning, but we'd muddle through.

Just the way summer vacation should be.

* piratical and anathema, two words I didn't use as a kid, and barely know how to use now.
# really good name for an alternate universe alt rock band …

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


They're not what they seem, these giant plants that have sprouted under water, creatures from the green lagoon, growing fast to mammoth proportions on whatever the earth gives them.

Each morning now I must swim over them — sometimes through them — because they ring the shoal around the boat launch at the upper end of my beloved Lake Natoma.

They have made of themselves a vegetative atoll, their many, many bunchy fronds glowing and waving beneath me, wreathing my arms with theirs as I climb and chop over one bush, then dart between two more, huffing and puffing and writhing to find deeper barren water.

It takes a minute to swim through their gauntlet. Their bulk darkens the dark waters. When the water suddenly turns to night, I know a bush hulks ahead, and to zig or zag around it if I can. I don't relax and ease into a rhythm until I'm almost to the other side of the narrow lake.

It makes no sense to me that the bushes flourish around the boat launch, where human traffic is heaviest — not just me, of course, but putt-putt fishing boats and recreational and racing kayaks and canoes and rowing shells and big slobbering dogs and little slobbering children.

But if ducks and geese won't scurry under all that traffic, neither would these plants, I suppose. Fowl are pooping their seeds where they hang out, I suppose, and the plants get a boost from the poop and the sun seeping through the warming water.

A few years ago we swimmers simply dubbed them "big scary plants," a seasonal rite of passage. They all but disappear in winter. In this unusually warm, dry summer, they have grown boldly, the tips of some bushes rising through the water's surface.

A swimmer on my favorite facebook®™© suggested "triffids," after venomous and mobile plants from a John Wyndham science fiction novel and subsequent movie adaptations.

But I know their real name now, and I feel different.

One morning last week I grabbed a rising stem and pulled. It snapped so delicately that it practically jumped into my hand. I was going to photograph and use the Internet to identify it.

It wasn't what I expected. Out of the water it was a limp reddish tube on which hung dozens of thin dark green tubules. They clung weak and thin to the reddish stem by the tension of the water, as if desperate for protection.

In the water the little tubules spread full and dense, seeming to lift and float the stems in bright green glowing clouds, their edges indeterminate but their bodies thick and foreboding.

Milfoil, it's called. I know only because I'd heard the name months before and dismissed it. I was sure it was hydrilla or hydrangea, the carcasses of which I had seen in spring, ringing beaches.

I Googled®™ and voila! Milfoil. Eurasian milfoil, probably, an invasive species.

They exist because of water, full and robust, their tiny fronds billowing and spreading, because of the water. They are not meant for land; they are limp and almost invisible on land.

Kind of like myself.

In the water, I am always present; I must be. The water envelops me, requiring my attention, needing me to be mindful of temperature and density and current, of the streaks of cold which my feet occasionally touch. I cannot take it for granted. I float and glow in the water. I'm sure other swimmers share this feeling.

On land sometimes I feel unsteady and less, somehow. Not always, just sometimes. Not present, not needing to. Distracted. Unmindful.

I know these plants now. They are not scary.

I will miss them come winter.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Is so small

It's everywhere around you, though you may not notice.

Swimmers are dipping in under optimum conditions to cross the vast famous waters between vast famous landforms.

Late summer is the Season of the Big Swims.

They would have escaped my notice, too, until I became what passes for a swimmer a few years ago. Now, through a facebook™® community of swimmers, I sense the big events acutely.

Only a few attempts reach the non-swimming (some have dubbed "swuggle") world.

Perhaps, for example, you land lubbers saw the blurb, on Page 3 of your hometown newspaper, headlined, "Swimmer becomes first woman to reach Farallones."

That was Kimberley Chambers last week, swimming 30 miles from the Farallon Islands under the Golden Gate Bridge. Only four swimmers had succeeded before her, all men.

The first swimmer succeeded in 1967, and then came a nearly 50-year gap until in the last two years the attempts spiked, ushering in a quick spate of successes.

Kimberley is also one of fewer than 10 people who have swum the seven classic marathon ocean crossings — The English Channel between England and France, the North Sea Channel between Ireland and Scotland, the Molokai Channel in Hawaii, Cook Strait between the islands of New Zealand, Tsugaru Strait between the main islands of Japan, the Strait of Gibraltar at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, and the distance between Catalina Island and the mainland of California.

A week before the Farallones success by Kimberley, a New Zealander living in California, an Australian-Californian named Simon Dominguez attempted to be first to reverse the route, swimming under the Golden Gate to find the tiny and spiny rock outcropping of the Farallones, far out in the cold blue Pacific.

The most real of dangers stopped him, when a great white shark approached him three miles from his destination. Sharks flock to feast on the breeding seal and sea elephant populations there.

Even the powerful sports-talk radio station KNBR in San Francisco spoke of Kimberley and Simon — not by name, mind you — interrupting the steady chatter diet of San Francisco Giants, National Football League, Golden State Warriors and prize fights to mention how crazy two people were to have done the impossible.

You might also have read, "Woman swims a triple crossing of the English Channel."  That was Chloë McCardel, an Australian who completed her feat in 36 hours. She swam the first leg of the 21-mile crossing (though it's far more than 21 miles after tides push swimmers around) in just over 11 hours — and swam even faster on her second leg.

McCardel also set a record last year, swimming 80 miles nonstop in the Bahamas.

These are swims you may have heard about, and I have had the pleasure of meeting Kimberley and swimming with Simon, who last year also crossed the English Channel. A documentary film crew is preparing a movie of Simon's attempt.

Here are some swims you might not have heard about, no less monumental.

France heard Bel's roar.
Annabel "Bel" Lavers last week also crossed the English Channel.

Having met her in the facebook™® community, I got to design a logo for her event, which her crew wore on their hooded sweatshirts.

Ebullient and funny, Bel seemed to attract a global following for her attempt. Many in the United Kingdom stayed up through the night to watch her 17-hour crossing, following a real-time GPS beacon blip across their computer screens.

Bel's blog includes a thorough question-and-answer about preparing for an English Channel swim, so comprehensive it makes me want to jump in and go. She also swam for charity.

As did Ion Lazarenco Tiron, a Moldavian who lives in Ireland, this week having completed the cold North Channel between Ireland and Scotland, raising money for the people in Moldova. Though he had announced his attempt a while back, he went silent for a long time until finally announcing his finish yesterday.

Ion Tiron swims the North Sea for his homeland.
I got to design something to commemorate his success too.

I'm leaving out so many stories, of Londoner Simon Fullerton attempting the North Sea before a painful shoulder forced him out, and of Philip Hodges, in Cambridge by way of Australia, also taking on the North Sea, and of many others crossing the English Channel.

More swimmers I have met will soon be crossing from the Channel Islands off California to the mainland. Still others have crossed England's great lake, Windermere, in the meantime.

I missed the opportunity finally to crew a long-distance swim, for my friend "fast" Karl Kingery, who swam with me almost every day at Lake Natoma near Sacramento until he moved to Colorado for a job.

Karl late last month swam the 21-mile length of Lake Tahoe.

When I texted him from afar, excited about him being able to cross Tahoe under the full moon, the taciturn mountain man swimmer replied simply, "Finished it yesterday. How was the full moon?!"

I had flubbed the date of the swim, and his eloquent summary came in three words, "Finished it yesterday."

While Karl crossed Lake Tahoe, marathon swimmer Craig Lenning was to embark on a triple crossing. Unfortunately, their pilot boat went dead in the water, Craig got out, ending his swim to help with the boat, and Karl finished his crossing.

In the jade, meditative waters of my lake, regarding the bridges towering above my head in the growing amber sunlight, I think of them, their accomplishments and heroic attempts, and dream.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Into the void

This is very "inside baseball."

[You'll be relieved to know this is not about baseball —]

I manage a popular tour program in Old Sacramento, the site of the original city. It's not popular because of me, of course, but having been involved since its beginning, I count myself fortunate.

Starting as a guide six years ago, I became the program's manager in spring.

The tour shows and tells the city's remarkable story, about its leaders who in the 1860s started raising the center of the city to fend off frequent floods. Visitors get to go where the Sacramento used to be, and see the city from underneath, lifted above their heads.

I love these tours. I love leading them, love the challenge of spinning the tale so that visitors can wrap their heads around the gargantuan problem and improbable solution. I love the extra challenge of helping schoolchildren see Gold Rush history leap out of their textbooks into crazy reality.

I love making people laugh. I love seeing them shake their heads at its early leaders' organized lunacy. I love the little gasps from visitors when they realize the historic giants who once tread the same streets and alleys they're walking.

Even though it began as a part-time gig, tour guiding affected my life disproportionately. No other force caused (1) hair to grow on my face and (2) the whiskers to dance over my face over the last six years, crawling across my lip and then into horrid and wheezy mutton chops. Now they have settled into a salt-and-pepper mustache and a white beard on my chin like the bristles of an artist's brush.

I ate the first interpretive guide whole and burped up dozens of questions for clarity and expansion, which I'm sure annoyed the tour creators. I wanted to know the complete story; I wanted to own it. Some other guides kidded me about being the go-to guide with all the answers, but it was an illusion: I just happened to have answers to the exact questions they asked.

Now the guide ranks include an archaeologist, a historian, an anthropology student, three teachers, and several who drink history in great gulps and spur our collective fascination for chasing the mysteries that still remain about raising the city. I take a seat far back from them.

Forgive my braggadocio, but I'm good at this. Like the other guides, I have crafted a walking story, timed to let the space where we're walking add emphasis to what I'm telling. I have devised activities that help visitors take part in this barely believable solution to save the city. I stuffed enough knowledge in my back pocket to vary the tour and answer many out-of-the-blue questions.

I take advantage of our audio system to sing to visitors in the quiet spots, something I can only really do in character, and over time I have played three characters, complete with accents. It makes me laugh when visitors wonder on social media review sites what part of Ireland I'm from.

Most days these days I portray a man named Joel Johnson, one of those responsible for lifting the city. I present him as a taciturn Yankee with a dry wit.

I am well satisfied that I do a good job leading the Underground Tour.

Unless you're talking about the Underground Adult Tour.

I do not do a good job with the adult tour.

During the adult tour, up is down for me. In is out. Light is dark; good, evil. I cannot cope. I am under water in a horrid waking, walking dream.

The museum that operates the tour developed the adult tour about three years ago, and it's been a huge success. It sells out fast, in small part because it's offered only two or three nights a week during the season — in large part because it promises the seamy, bawdy side of the early city, full of stinking saloons, grifters, gamblers, criminals and cutthroats. Sacramento was a vacuum during the Gold Rush, a void with no government, no law, no moral code. Anything went, until civilization wrestled it to the ground.

The adult tour is a half-hour longer, costs a bit more, and ends at an Old Sacramento saloon with a commemorative shot glass and discounts on drinks, so it's for visitors 21 and older.

And I can't give them. I've tried, several times, and I'm horrible. Other guides of the adult tour say they wish I'd stop saying that; they tell me I'm being too hard on myself.

I'm not, though. I'm really, really bad. As good as I may think I am on the general tour, I'm just as awful on the adult tour. Awfuler.

All the other adult guides are masterful. They own the extra time and peculiar stage, with its blush-inducing topics.

But even they want a change to the tour, so the guides and I have embarked on a project the previous manager had started, to differentiate the adult tour from general tour — to keep it from being, as my predecessor described, "the regular tour with a half-hour of sex and violence tacked on."

We're not yet sure what shape the new tour will take, but guides are trying small experiments with their tours for the remainder of this season — reversing the tour route, welcoming visitors at different points on the tour route rather than the traditional beginning, interacting with the second guide who up to now only helped distribute equipment and locked the doors behind the group. We plan to unveil a new tour, whatever it will be, next season.

As a part-time guide, I had the luxury of ignoring the adult tour and distancing myself from my failure at it. I lose that luxury as manager, not only helping craft the new tour but, owing to staffing hiccups, having to give an adult tour once again!

Which I have done so twice since being manager. It has not gone well.

The first time came apart because of my old foibles, trying to deliver adult topics in a way that didn't cause me to mumble and clear my throat. I had difficulty pacing myself so that we ended up at the saloon on time, and trying to figure out what to say in the expanded time.

I missed all my marks, blew my transitions, lost my train of thought, which then promptly ran me over.

Another staffing hiccup last week required that I pick myself up and try again.

A private company ordered two adult tours.

The demographics of an adult tour are hard to pin down. Many come as part of a date night, priming their evening with lurid tales. Some come because they want to hear history without the distraction of children on tour. A few, the most disappointed of the population, come hoping to see ghosts.

Private companies add another layer of mystery. Many businesses buy the general daytime tours as an activity for their employees, usually including lunch or dinner in Old Sacramento. "Staff development days," we sometimes call them. Most enjoy the change of scenery and the crazy story we spin; a small few check their watches and track emails during the tour instead.

Adult tours with private companies are rare but not unheard of, so they're harder for me to gauge. I hoped for the best last week, and resolved to experiment with my tour.

I decided the way to make the tour space come alive was to talk with people from long ago, as if they were present in the underground spaces with us. I would relay the conversation to the visitors. That way, the prostitutes could talk about their work without it coming from me. A business owner from 1860s Sacramento could describe devastating flood damage, channeling me.

I described my idea to veteran guides, got frowns and sidelong nods ("eh …" is the translation), and went ahead anyway. I had nothing to lose, and I could wrap my own head around the adult tour this way.

Thursday was its debut. The company's tour bus got lost and the group was late. Onto my tour stepped about 20 young men: Big, tall, strong go-getters, I could see that right away. They reminded me of the young men who ran a huge farming corporation I used to cover as a reporter long ago, men I described to myself as "golden boys."

The group had one woman, who appeared to be a recruiter for the company. The men were all company interns, jockeying for full-time careers. They were in town for some training event, and this was their scheduled Different Thing To Do in the evening. The men didn't really know each other, having come from many parts of the country. Two young men from the same town didn't even know each other.

In other words: Totally incongruous group for an Adult Tour. They were not dating, nor were they necessarily interested in history, let alone the history of this city into which had just been dropped.

A better guide would have adapted immediately and changed the tour on the fly to mine for the group's interest.

I was not that guide.

I went ahead with my experiment, talking to the air, miming close-approaching trains and a tangle of tent ropes. The young men gazed in every direction but mine, being polite. The woman stared at me.

The sweat glistening my face and soaking my shirt was not from the humid evening air.

On I plodded, looking for traction, puddling in sweat. Just when I thought I had gained some, asking the other tour guide to explain an archaeological site that I, as a 19th Century character, wouldn't know about, the tour itself felt like it was falling into a dark hole, never to be retrieved.

Only an hour more of this.

I picked up pace when I started talking about the mechanics of lifting the city, which fell in line with the kind of business the interns were in. I went into general-tour mode, saying much of the same things I say during the daytime.

Eventually, I hurried the group along to the saloon, coming in only a few moments after the earlier tour, deciding that they might find respite with the other group of interns, and regale each other with this last hour or so in their lives they would never get back.

Expecting to hear better news from the other guide, a master at delivery, I learned afterward that her group was just as ill fit as mine. I could pin the blame for my tour solely on me, but when a much better guide still struggled, I know that the blame still fell fairly and squarely on me:

I should have known to ask the group's organizers about its purpose and makeup. With advance knowledge, I could have recommended a general tour, or dropped my melodramatic pretense and given the group a no-frills, frank tour about the city's unseemly beginnings.

A better manager would have done that.

Maybe, sooner rather than later, I'll become one.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The long view

You will agree I have shown tremendous restraint from boring you about my San Francisco Giants.

My last post dedicated to the team was in May.


I have shut up through most of summer.

Indulge me here, then.

I'll be brief and be gone.

The Giants sit two games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, which is the best place to be right now.

The Dodgers can't dodge this target.

The Giants play mostly great baseball. Their ace, pitcher Madison Bumgarner, struck out nine Atlanta Braves last night as the team won 6-1 and Bumgarner notched his 12th victory. Third baseman Matt Duffy makes his case for Rookie of the Year just about every game.

Frenetic right fielder Hunter Pence is back from injury and energizing the game. So is left fielder Nori Aoki, his broken foot healed and his bat back in the leadoff spot.

Sensational sophomore Joe Panik hurt his back (Argh!) and rookie call-up Kelby Tomlinson got a hit in his first Major League at-bat two nights ago — dedicating it to a batboy from one of his minor league teams, who died this week — and last night drove in three runs, going 2 for 4. Broadcasters are already calling him Clark Kent for his glasses and resemblance.

All-Star™® superstar catcher Buster Posey is hitting .332, quietly shredding the league in his "aw shucks" way.

It's all good. And I don't care.

I care, but I'm not invested in the outcome the way I was last year. I may have reached baseball nirvana, being able to enjoy The Giants for entertainment alone.

Sure, I shout aloud in the empty living room why Angel Pagan is batting leadoff when Aoki is healed and ready to go. But I wince in empathy — meteoric salary aside — to watch Pagan struggle in center field, his knees betraying him on fly balls he used to chase down.

I hold my head in both hands when closer Santiago Casilla comes in the last inning with a lead and then gives it up or walks batters in needless agony. But then I get over it.

It's. For. Fun.

A radio talk show caller told the host last week how nervous the Giants were making him, the shaky way starting pitcher Matt Cain was throwing after a long injury rehab. Keep in mind the Giants had just won 11 of the last 12 games.

You often hear how sports is escapism, to help us forget about life's trials for a while and luxuriate in the spectacle. But I wonder sometimes whether, for too many people, sports and celebrity becomes a substitute for life's trials and real issues. They have become the things we fret and worry about instead of the difficult and life-changing things we should worry about.

Real life may be futile, but sports certainly is: The general manager is not listening to you, Mr. and Mrs. Radio Show Caller, when you insist the Giants retrieve third baseman Pablo Sandoval from the struggling Boston Red Sox and move Matt Duffy to his natural position at second.

Yell all you want, nothing's going to happen on your say-so.

Join the vast crowd, cheering and commiserating too, and use the game to recharge yourself for what really matters.

Now the Giants try to cut through a swath of winning teams (The Cubs? The Chicago Cubs? Those Cubs?) before finishing the season against the hated Dodgers and much of the National League West.

The Giants may go the World Series again this year. Or they may not. Whatever.


In other news: Goodbye, Jon Stewart. What The Sacramento Bee said.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015


Critter Crawl swimmers get the signal to start, riding the tide to the left into town. Photo courtesy of skh.
The Ladder – oh, The Ladder!
Early in the swim, past the Coast Guard station. I'm pulling my orange
Butt Buoy™® in the center. Photo courtesy of Lynn Carlin.
  • As in choked off, all our paths but one blocked on our way to the Humboldt Bay Critter Crawl in Eureka.

    Highway 20 off Interstate 5, our preference, was cut off by the fast-spreading Rocky Fire against Clear Lake, covering 64,000 acres and driving out 12,000 residents.

    Highway 36 out of Red Bluff, which we took last year and didn't like, solely and unfairly because of a lunch proprietor, was closed as firefighters battled a string of fires along its route.

    If Highway 299 out of Redding turned out to be closed too, we were going to decide then whether we could muster enough madness to risk continuing to Yreka, or maybe even up into Oregon, and work our way south again to the ocean.

    But we didn't have to succumb. Though open, 299 revealed a hellscape of fires raging to the south. Smoke flattened mountain ridges into vast burned edges of paper, sepia in front of umber in front of deathly dark gray, against a tobacco-stained sky. The sun became a neon disk that smoke eventually swallowed. Night fell early.

    The fires, once Somewhere Over There, marked by the distant bank of dirty fog off to the west, were upon us.

    Everywhere the smoke smothered, filling our car, obscuring the lights of Weaverville and Junction City and Salyer and Burnt Ranch and Willow Creek. Fire engines crowded around most of the hotels, spilled out of the grocery story parking lots. Townsfolk walked around in the nuclear summer, having little choice.

    "We're off for fun on the coast, la de da," I couldn't help thinking as we passed. "The best of luck with all your homes and loved ones. Tootles!"
  • As in choked down a delicious Mexican skillet breakfast at a place in Eureka called Kristina's, which we patronized last year as one of the few places open on a Sunday. (Don't blame Eureka; blame us, California's worst explorers).

    It was my only worry about swimming Sunday morning: Having enough fuel.

    I had swum last year's inaugural event, created by veterinarian and swimmer Sarah Green to benefit the North Coast Marine Mammal Center, and had no problem flying with the flood tide along the 4.5-mile route from the bay mouth into the city marina.

    I just didn't want to run down before I ran aground. The big breakfast did the trick.

    The world, being warmer, meant I didn't have to fear the water temperature. The bay was only a few degrees lower than Lake Natoma this time of year — last year the bay was almost 10 degrees colder.
  • As in choked, or gagged, on the salt water of the bay, having been away from the ocean for months.

    The color of serpentine, swirled and pocked, the water filled my mouth and roughened my throat, and chafed my arms. I coughed and retched it out, and loved every moment, this too-rare chance to return to the ocean.

    It also meant reuniting with swimmers I've gotten to know in the last few years: Rob Dumouchel who showed me what it's like to swim Avila Beach down near San Luis Obispo, and who now lives in the Eureka area; Allison Bayne, kayaker extraordinaire; Lisa Amarao and Cathy Harrington, teammates on the 24-hour swim relay in San Francisco Bay; Chris Blakeslee, a Channel swimmer and swim ambassador known to other swimmers as El Sharko; Sarah and her co-conspirator in business and life and this swim, Bill Wood.

    Their event had doubled in size, revealing Eureka's open-water swimming possibilities to us outsiders.

    Despite the tide, I found it hard to sense my movement through the water, the bay being wide and the landmarks unfamiliar, pulp mills — is that the same one or a different one? — to the left and Eureka to the right. I resorted to counting strokes to gauge distance, distantly remembering last year's effort required roughly 4,000 strokes.

    Carol, who kayaked for me, kept the line, and I followed her and sighted on stand-up paddlers ahead. Carol's line alerted me not to get swept by tide too far left of our destination.

    Jellyfish lay in the bay, but I missed them all, didn't even learn about them until after. I plowed through clump after clump of eel grass, the blade of one scratching my arm; I imagined it was a jellyfish sting.

    My wife Nancy watched from the M/V Madaket, a boat that's been plying the bay for 105 years. It's the last of a fleet of ferries that used to transport workers to the sawmills on the spit that forms Humboldt Bay. Sarah furnished the boat for spectators.

    When I saw the marina, I used what was left in me to try and overtake the swimmer ahead. I managed to close the distance. It wasn't a race: My favorite kind of swim event.
  • As in choked, or lost my nerve, with The Ladder. I remembered The Ladder from last year. It's painted yellow this year, which really didn't help. If anything, it loomed larger in my thoughts toward the finish, a sunny lemon spectre.

    Swimmers have to climb the ladder onto a boat slip at the end. It holds onto the dock like a grappling hook, untethered.

    I'd almost rather have swum back against the tide than climbed The Ladder. It leaned in under my weight as I climbed, my body going under the dock. Swimmers stood on the dock watching me; a crowd behind me in the parking lot cheered the swimmers, watching me.

    Success depended on my using what strength was left over from the swim, and on some deft shift of bulk, which substituted for upper body strength. I moved my arms at the right moment over the top of the ladder, flopping like a beached sea elephant, pushing myself ahead an inch until I could work a knee onto the dock, and then the rest of me.

    I hoped no one was taking video.

    Behind me, swimmers coming in were swept sidelong by tide, running aground in shallow water below the parking lot. I wanted to have run aground too.

    Behind me, too, I could finally sense the distance we had just traveled. The starting point lay far away, around a corner of the city, impossible to see from our finish at Woodley Island.
  • As in choked up, to find myself awash in kind words over the shirt I got to design for this year's Critter Crawl, and to hear people appreciate the puzzle pieces of positive and negative space, revealing critters mammalian and avian and human.

    It was more than reward to see so many swimmers already wearing their shirts before swim instructions began.
  • As in choked up about leaving too soon. Having raced to the swim, we had to race back, taking
    Highway 101 south around the fires, the land turning to leather as summer wanes, the rivers dwindling to rivulets.

    We are taking our time next year.