Thursday, December 4, 2014

She's Gone

Shocking, body rocking waves of tears flood over me. Do I really sound like that? It's been one day, not even quite.  She's still real, but she's gone.  Her smell is still here.  I want to love on her, she's not there.  The impulse is real, it's physical, I can feel it in my arms, the sensation of grabbing her skin, rubbing her neck, I can still feel it on my hands, but she's not there.  I know she's gone, but I don't, because I turn the corner to see her, expecting her to be there, but she's gone.  I make some coffee and think, I guess I should feed Bella now, but she's not there to eat.  Her homemade food is still in the refrigerator.  Goddamn she's become so fussy about eating late in life.  Wait, she was fussy.  Now she's gone.  I don't need to heat up the food.  There's no dog to eat it.  I sit down at the counter and try to do something normal.  I read ESPN. Suddenly I think, I'm sure Bella wants to go out now, it's about time.  Every morning for the  last 14 years. I turn, she's not there.  She's gone.  Her leash is right over there, but she's not.  She's gone. Forever.  I can see her hills out my window.  She loved those hills.  See that one?  She frenzied every time we got to the top.  It only took  a small glance and she knew.  Butt high in the air, staring at me, waiting for me to move.  The smallest gesture and she's off, I can't touch her, she's too fast.  She's laughing at me, now I'm laughing.  Left.  Right. Low to the ground.  How long can she do this?  I'm back in my kitchen.  She's still gone.  We won't be doing that anymore.  No more getting chased by cows.  No more rolling in shit.  God that made me mad.  And it made me laugh.  Hey Nikki, check out Bella, she rolled in shit again.  Get her outside now.  Now she frenzies again.  Baths make dogs do that.  They all do that.  Around the table.  Rolling crazily on the floor.  She's laughing at me, I can't catch her.  I'd love to give her another bath.  But she's gone.  There's her blanket in the laundry room, her hair all over it.  I pick it up, it still smells like her.  Corn chips.  All dogs smell like corn chips, especially their feet.  I can feel her feet in my hands.  But she's gone.  But she's here, I can see her hair.  I can smell her.  But she's gone. I can't reconcile the difference.  More body rocking waves of tears.  Splitting headache.  I think I just drooled during that wave.  Uncontrollable waves of grief.  Life goes on.  But it doesn't, not today anyway.  I'm in between worlds.  She's here and she's gone.  I pull out the old photos.  There she is as a puppy.  4 months old with fully grown legs, completely out of proportion.  Running, chasing, laughing with the other dogs.  Now she's gone. The dogs link us to the start of our married life.  The others have been gone for awhile and I've reconciled that.  Today, though, Bella's gone and it's confusing.  She's here and she's gone.  I go upstairs.  She was never here, her hips too tired to make it up the stairs.  Refuge for my mind.  I work a little.  Small relief.  I haven't heard Bella go out the dog door this morning.  Oh yeah, she's gone.  She won't do that anymore.  I want so badly to walk downstairs and love on her a little bit. But I can't.  She's gone. I've been through this before.  Time heals all wounds, right?  Maybe.  I don't know.  Not today, though.  She's gone.  I want to see her.  Today.  But she's gone.  It will get better.  But not today.  She's gone.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Power tools

"Is that the first power tool you've ever bought?" Brian asked when I told him about the drill.

"No, smart-ass, when I broke the one you lent me 10 years ago, I bought a new one to replace it, remember?"  I had him on a technicality.  I wouldn't be the first American male to never purchase a power tool until age 43.

"Yeah, well your new drill should have an asterisk by it because it's the first one you ever bought for yourself."

Whatever, let's not quibble here.  Whether it's the first or the second, the point remains that I don't buy or own many power tools.  In fact, I only have two:  A drill and a racket stringer.  There is some controversy as to whether the latter is a power tool, but here are the facts:  It plugs into the wall and it has a mechanical wheel that rotates and stretches racket strings.  I'm sure if you got your finger caught in there it would hurt a little bit.  I believe that qualifies as a power tool.

The tool wall of shame
Don't get me wrong about tools in general, I have several.  I keep them around in large part due to the fact that other males occasionally walk through my garage.  I have to maintain appearances. The tools hang on a wall of shame in the garage where they linger about, largely unused for long stretches of time.  I have doubles of many of them, a result of borrowing them from somebody else and never returning them (I kept Brian's backup drill for 4 years).   Alternatively, I often go out and buy a duplicate copy of a tool because I can't find the one I own.  When you go four years in between needing wire cutters, why would you assume you have some already, or bother to look for them in the jumbled chaos of the garage? If you see something of yours on that pegboard, let me know and I'll return it as soon as possible. The pegboard you see is organized only because we just moved into a new place.  Give it three months and I won't know where any of those items are.  The next time you see a photo of it, there will be 3 wire cutters hanging there.

Naturally, the first thing I did after buying the power drill was to photograph it.  I didn't see a new shed,  kitchen cabinets, or wine rack in my head when I got it.  No, I saw a photograph waiting to happen.  The lines, colors, and textures are what caught my eye, not its inherit value as a tool.  I think it's pissed at its fate because I can see it sitting there mocking me.

In a matter of 3 days, I've crushed its soul. Something this manly doesn't like to be patronized.  It sits there boasting of its "skil" and 18 velorameters (velocitometers?) of power, knowing it is too much tool for me, the baby skinned suburbanite.  It stands in proud defiance of its fate, a hermetic life of hanging out with the mere mortals of tools,  near the wall of shame, which it drilled holes for, in relative darkness, with intermittent bouts of hole drilling for hanging pictures.  I have asked it to make its own grave, and it knows it.  It also knows the next time you see a photo of the wall of shame and the surrounding space, there will be two of them.  I think a blue one will look good next to the red one in a photographic diptych.

Power Tool?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Chasing The Dream....

Had I been blessed with professional level talent in any sport, I surely would have chased the dream until that well went completely dry.  If I had managed to bullshit myself just enough to believe professional sports could be a reality, I would have been off on that likely fruitless chase.

I knew, though.  I observed the guys around me in college (in various sports), and I knew I didn't have "it".  I was competitive enough to eek out a job as a role player for an NCAA tournament soccer team and that's as high as my dream ever went.  I can't complain about that.  I got to play competitive sports for four more years than most people and I got the chance to play against guys that eventually became professionals.  Plus, I think I may be the only USAFA soccer player to ever receive a red card in the NCAA tournament.  That's something! (I was in a poor defensive position and got beat badly and had to pull the guy down from behind since we were already losing)

There are thousands of athletes every year, though, that have the ability to play at the next level and so they pursue it, spurred on by unlikely tales of mere mortals becoming gods like Tom Brady, a sixth round draft choice and now 3 time Super Bowl Champion.  Some of these guys are highly regarded, and some aren't, but they pursue the dream either way, which means they will toil in the minor leagues and/or obscurity for as long as it takes to make it happen.  These are the athletes that fascinate me.

I had the chance to observe these type of guys over the weekend at the Napa Valley Challenger ATP tennis tournament.  For comparison, think of it in the same way as AA baseball.  There were maybe 200 people there to watch and the players stay with "host" families.  They enter these tournaments to gain ATP "points" so they can increase their overall ranking in the hopes of getting into major tournaments and/or getting a better draw at the major tournaments.  I got to see 4 different guys play singles matches and here's my scientific breakdown of their overall chances of success on the Tour.

1. Sam Querrey - 26 years old, turned pro in 2006 and has $5,462,000 in career earnings

He is the no brainer in the group and is already well established.  With his game he has a legitimate shot at winning a major, the gold standard for a tennis player. He really shouldn't even be playing this type of event.  He grew up in Santa Rosa, though, and apparently didn't want to go to Asia to play tournaments this winter.  Instead, he'll be bullying lesser pros for the next 4 weeks in the Northern California challenger circuit.  He has a gigantic serve and follows it up with a big, nasty forehand.  No one here was even close.  He simply issued swift ass kickings to the guy on the other side of the net.  His winning amount?  $7,200 and a bottle of wine. Now he has $5,469,200!

This is what fascinates me about the whole mindset.  If you know you're going to get your ass kicked by Sam Querrey for the next four weeks and you'll never win a major because there are 50 guys currently better than Querrey and you're not good enough, what keeps you motivated to keep playing? The money?  Check the guys below for more information.

Querrey unloading on a forehand.

2. Jared Donaldson - Age 17.  Turned Pro August 2014. $81,477 career earnings.

This I understand.  The dude is 17 and is just starting out so it makes sense for him to play the challengers.  Plus, he made $81,000 in his first 6 weeks, that's not too bad.  It looks like he has some serious game and in fact made it into the U.S. Open draw in August, where he lost in straight sets.  I'm jumping on this bandwagon right now.

With these crazy arm angles, I don't understand how more tennis players don't require Tommy John surgery.  This motion is the same as throwing curveballs all day long.

Big game.  Unloading on a forehand.

Check out the compression on this ball.  Shot of the weekend.

3. Tim Smyczek - Age 26, Turned Pro 26, $639,000 career earnings.

This is where it starts to get dicey.  His career earnings break down to $79,875 per year.  That's not bad, right?  Now we have to factor in travel, and paying a coach, and training, and whatever else.  Now  I'm guessing we're down to about $3,425 in income per year.  Couple that with the fact that he's simply not good enough to win a major and you really have to ask why?  He's an effort guy.  He chases down a lot of balls, only to have them rammed down his throat on the next shot by the bigger, stronger, harder hitting Sam Querrey.  Yet, he's a top 100 player.  Out of the billions of humans on this earth, only 99 people can play this game better than he can.  And yet, he's so far removed from winning a major.  I suppose it's enough to keep you going to be able to say that you were the top 100 in anything in this world.  At this point, though, I recommend he pursue being a lawyer as indicated on his bio.

Tim chasing a ball down.

Here he is chasing down another one.

Got his racket on it.

Back in the corner, chasing down another bomb.

Alex Bolt Facing backwards as he chases down a ball.

4. Alex Bolt - Age 21, Turned Pro 2010, $112,000 career earnings

 The photo above is how this kid looked most of the day against Querrey.  Nothing about his game stands out.  He was little more than a sparring partner in this match.  He's not as fast as Smyczek and not anymore powerful.   His career earnings breakdown doesn't look good either.   I wonder how long he'll try to keep this dream alive?

Me and the fellas have already talked about it and we're going to see if we can get him signed up for our beer league.  Nobody will know the difference.

Friday, September 5, 2014


I never saw myself retiring from the Air Force, and I damned sure never imagined Perry doing it either. The guy currently drawing a retirement paycheck from the U.S. Government is the same guy that stood up in Arnold Hall circa 1994 and asked if it was O.K. to have both his nipples pierced.

Arnold Hall is a 3,000 seat venue used for many things including world class concerts, shows and events for cadets and the public at large.  For the general public it's a terrific place to see an intimate show.  For cadets it's a place to A.) get yelled at  B.) fall asleep or C.) both.

As basic cadets we flooded the theater in a giant horde at the end of each day to be told we sucked ass that day or we were doing great.  Inevitably it turned into a pep rally with us waving our caps and shouting "Keep The Pride '95".  This scenario was great for getting things off your chest in a passive aggressive way by shouting subversive things like "you're a douche" or "lick my b*lls" at the cadre.  They couldn't hear us, we looked enthusiastic, so it didn't matter.  We felt better, though.  In the end we didn't care what they said, we looked at it as a way to try and nod off for a few blissful moments.

As upperclassmen, Arnold Hall represented hours and hours of torture in the form of briefings.  The speakers might range from a 4 star general to the Cadet Wing Commander covering any array of topics pertinent to the Air Force.  It was during one of these cadet briefings that Perry had his shining moment.

Out in front of the Irish Bank

In 1994 tattoos and piercings were much less common than they are today and the regulations were somewhat unclear on what was allowed.  Perry came back to the dorms one weekend with both nipples pierced and was unclear on whether he had violated regulations.  Like any good rule follower, Perry stood up in Arnold Hall in front of the entire class of 1995 and asked "theoretically" if it was OK to have dual nipple piercings.   In perfect cadet fashion the Wing Commander responded, "Maybe you shouldn't be here".  This response is the reason we liked to shout "You're a douche" as basic cadets.  Hilarious, douchey cadet, but you didn't answer the question.  Perry had the last laugh, however.

P-Mac telling his story at Vesuvio cafe a haven for beat poets back in the day including Jack Kerouac

Fast forward about 20 years to present day San Francisco and I get a message from Perry telling me he's attending the San Francisco Academy Of Art on the G.I. Bill.   I'm pretty sure he's kidding so we agree to meet up in SF and hang out.  We sit down and go over the details over a few beers and it turns out he's not lying about the G.I. Bill.  In an effort to recruit and maintain personnel after 9/11, the government beefed up the G.I. Bill as an incentive.  As a result,  Perry's tuition is fully paid and he is getting a substantial living expense (in addition to his retirement pay).  I think it might be the greatest legal scam I've ever heard of.   He got over, and I love it.   It helps me with the chip on my shoulder that was put there 25 years ago by a senatorial panel that said I wasn't "Academy material".   In honor of Perry's achievement I sit here at my desk, gold trucker hat in hand, gently swaying, and chant "You're a douche" to all those who told us we wouldn't make it or shouldn't have been there.

Our waiter at Original Joe's.  I highly recommend the burgers at this place.

Earl Thomas at Biscuits and Blues. I've never seen a bad show here.  World class musicians at a small venue.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

My Travel Partner

This was taken at the (insert SF neighborhood) place where we ate the truffle pasta

Most of the places we go are Nikki's idea.  If I made the decisions we would only see the inside of the local Irish pub.  Sometimes on my birthday we spend the whole time going from one Irish pub to another, and it's great.  For me.  Nikki has broader ambitions than to smell farts and eat dirt encrusted peanuts in various locales (coupled with a Guinness!).  I don't get it, but I indulge her suggestions.

Typically when she suggests a place, I roll my eyes and ask, "Really?"  "Are you sure?"  There's never a reason for this other than to post the opening protest like a flag in the ground.  The negotiation now has a starting point.  This way, when I later concede, I will be perceived as the compromiser.  I don't think she reads these things, so she'll never know.

She's a little more sophisticated in her choices than I am.  She like wineries and fine food with a touch of class.  She does a lot of research and thinking about where we should go.  It's never last moment.  It's nice because the choices are 90% good (a 10%er is the Rock Wall Winery in Alameda where the wine tasted like wet dish sponge).  The bad part is that her choices involve intricate ties to past events which means I get asked about them in the course of trying to decide where to go this weekend.  Example:

Nikki:  I was thinking about going to Rock Wall this weekend.

Me:  Really?  Are you sure? (see above).

Nikki: Yes, don't you remember the time when we ate at that pizza place in Half Moon Bay and they served us the Rock Wall, it was the last bottle they had and we loved it?

Me:  (mind furiously racing, trying to recall something, anything, resembling what she just described.  Nothing!)  Of course, that was great time.  We should definitely go to Rock Wall.

I'm sure I got the details above wrong.

We've rarely had a downright terrible experience, though.  The closest we've come to "bad" is having over-saturated truffle pasta while sitting next to a table full of spoiled kids, the kind who demand their parents do something, and the parents acquiesce.  Of course, I can't remember the name of the place, but I know it was in some small sub-section of a San Francisco neighborhood.

* It seems there are at least 1,500 different neighborhoods in the SF area.  Asking me if I remember the time we ate the delicious meal in Noe Valley is not effective.  Ask me about a cheeseburger, though, and it's highly likely I can tell you the street name.

Sometimes we bicker in the car, but it's never serious.  It's usually some variation of me planting the flag and asking "Are You Sure, there's an Irish Pub right down the street?"  

The fact of the matter is that she makes excellent choices.  We always have fun, and I always get to shoot a few photos.  Despite all of my complaints there's nobody else I would rather have these experiences with.  She's my travel partner.

Etude Winery in Napa. I made her take a break from wine tasting to go to this back area for a quick photo.

Dragon Rouge in Alameda.  Excellent Vietnamese food.

Beef wrapped mango at the Dragon Rouge.  Really, truly awesome.

Spring Rolls at Dragon Rouge

Rocker at Squaw Valley. Can you tell who's choice this was?

Achadinha cheese company in Petaluma.  This is the Donna Pacheco (no relation).  Here I confirmed my last name is pronounced PAW-SHAY-KO.  The name of the company is pronounced AW-SHUH-DEEN-YA

Achadinha cheese maker.  There are 600 head of goats right there on the farm.  We got to sample cheese with an aroma of goat shit lingering in the air.   

Monday, July 14, 2014

Landon Is Drunk Brian

I've heard Brian and Amy say their youngest son Landon is like drunk Brian.  Apparently he's pretty mischievous and displays behaviors you might expect to see from a drunk 40 year old at a winery.  I've never witnessed the kid acting like that, but I've seen his dad do it a couple times and it's always good for a laugh.

Over the weekend we all headed up North to Coppola Winery for a tour and dinner.  We're members there and have occasion to eat and taste wine several times. The food and wine are excellent but the best part may be the resort atmosphere.  On the grounds is a large pool where reservations must be made in advance.  It's the only winery in the valley with a pool.  Now, I don't really care about that, but apparently some people like to swim.  What I do like, however, are the two full service bars, one located outside in a tikki hut style surrounding, and the other indoors for when it gets too hot.   Having a full service bar is unusual for a winery, let alone two.  I enjoy wine tasting, but I'm usually good after about 15 minutes, which makes the bar even more enticing.  While Nikki and Amy set about trying to taste all 15 varietals, I took Brian over to the bar to explore the differences and subtle nuances of bourbon/whiskey/scotch.

Brian is still in the infantile stages of bourbon tasting, so he corrupted a perfectly good Jameson with ginger ale.  On the second one, though, he got the soda on the side and actually tried it straight.  His face puckered up immediately.  He still needs some work.  I had a couple of Blanton's, which has become my favorite, recently surpassing Woodford Reserve at the top of my list.  I'm no expert, but I'm trying to learn and experience more.

As such, we got into a conversation about the differences between Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey.  There are legal definitions for all three and we were researching the differences when the Bro next to us at the bar chimed in (unsolicited), "It has to be aged in Oak, that's about all I know".   Thank god we got that information out of him.  Useful.

Which leads me down another road.  Bars used to be a place where you could go to brag and tell tall tales about any manner of things and not be found out, at least not while you were there.  The advent of smart phones, however, has eliminated that aspect of the communal gathering.  I'm not sure if it's good or bad, but I'm leaning towards bad.  It's generally fun to listen to people who are full of shit, which this guy definitely was.  Another point:  Why do people feel the need to chime in about things they know absolutely nothing about?  I've always been fascinated by that.

Unbeknownst to me, Brian was slowly transforming into Landon.  The bourbon began to take it's toll and by the end of dinner, Brian was off and running.  Literally.  He ran down into the vineyard clearing, ready to show himself in his most childlike state, which he did eventually.  Out of respect, I have agreed not to show the final act, but you might imagine what came next.   It was good for a laugh.

I think the winery will still have us back unless there is videotape of the general area, in which case it might all be over.  Although, in reality, he showed much less skin that what I saw at the pool.  And less offensive in many cases.


Brian in a moment of repose, imbibing his first Bourbon.  He has not yet become Landon.

Nikki and Amy.  Brian is running, behind them, down to the clearing.

The inside bar.  The bro with the shades on his head provided us with invaluable information.

The bartender actually knew what he was talking about in regards to bourbon.  That's a Blanton's on the left.  Note to self: Try "Hooker's House" bourbon, a Sonoma County spirit.

Brian in the clearing, waiting for the right moment to unleash the albino moon.

I believe this is a neoclassical Roman pose.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road...

"It's a fragile thing, This life we lead,
If I think too much I can get overwhelmed by the grace by which we live our lives with death over our shoulders" - Eddie Vedder "Sirens"

"I never thought it would get to this point", Ron said as we hugged in the reception line after Amanda's service.  I nodded my head in a vain effort to acknowledge the pain and loss.  I didn't have the words.  Almost 9 months to the day had passed since we gathered in the park to take photos.  Amanda's quarterly scans a week prior found a spot on her tibia, a relapse of the neuroblastoma that was in remission for two years.  When I first heard the news from Michelle I experienced the same sense of vertigo I felt 22 years ago.  Diagnosis. Treatment/surgery. Remission. Relapse. Experimental treatment. Devastation.  My mother lost her battle with cancer at the age of 43.  As with Amanda, it was much too soon.

When I received the phone call from Michelle to do the photos I immediately felt a weight I haven't felt before when shooting.  I'm typically a bit nervous and anxious prior to taking photos because in my mind I'm convinced nothing will work and I'll disappoint those involved.  This was different, though.  I understood what the stakes were and the whole experience took on a completely different level of importance.

I've often pondered the importance of taking photos and I've run through the gamut of what it means to take "important" or "significant" or "artistic" shots and I've never come to any sort of conclusion about the end result and what makes it worthwhile.  In the end I suppose my only criteria is that I hope to strip away all of the pretense and capture the essence of the person and/or the moment.  The camera is simply a passport, an invitation into the most intimate moments in a person's life.  If you allow it to happen, it's a way to tell a person's story.

I didn't know much of Amanda's story prior to that day last September.  I knew about it peripherally because Nikki and Michelle were in the same book club for a time, but I had never spent any time with her.  In short, her clinical story goes like this:  She was originally diagnosed at 16 months and underwent surgery and chemotherapy, was in remission for about 2 years and then relapsed in August of 2013, and succumbed to the disease in May 2014.  However, no clinical summary can encapsulate any of us, and it certainly didn't encapsulate Amanda.

As I sat through her beautiful service a picture of the real person emerged and I learned so many things about this sweet spirit.  She loved animals, she loved to dance, she loved to play, she called Ron her hero, and she loved Elton John.  I heard many stories about these and other things, and I heard a lot of stories about her strength.

Three of her caregivers (therapists) got up to speak and related stories of her strength and her spirit and how she pushed forward despite the pain she surely must have felt day in and day out.  Due to the disease, she was developmentally delayed and she often communicated via sign language and gestures.  When she accepted a caregiver as worthy, she grabbed their hands and pulled them to her heart, or wrapped them around herself, signaling she wanted a hug. I received similar acceptance the day we took photos.

In the photo at the top of the page, Amanda gave me true photographic access, the kind all photographers strive for during the process.   Prior to this shot she smiled and did her best to be interested, but that was mainly because her parents were involved and giving her guidance.  She could see the nearby playground and naturally that was what she focused on.  Upon seeing this, I recommended we go spend some time there to let her play.  After 20 or so minutes at the playground we moved over to the grass and without prompting, she sat down in the pose you see.  There's no way I could have posed her better, nor could I have coaxed a better gesture out of her.  I like to think she was thanking me (and us) for going to the playground, but who knows.  Once thing is certain, though, the pose was her choice.  She let me in.

In addition to being verbally delayed, the disease made learning to walk a big challenge as well.  The therapists related stories of her determination to walk, spurred on by the reward of toys and the desire to walk down the hall where the other kids were playing.   On the day we took photos I could see it wasn't easy for her to walk, but she was determined to do it, especially with her parents holding her hand.

Ron and Michelle held her hand literally and metaphorically through the entire process of her treatment.  Their background in biology made a huge impact in providing input and feedback to her doctors and making sure she had the best treatment available.  I was awed by their strength as they each stood up at the memorial service and told all of us what Amanda meant to them.  They were eloquent, funny, touching, and strong.  They talked about her personal quirks and they talked about her treatment and how they plan to raise funds for neuroblastoma research moving forward.  In doing so, they plan on continuing to tell her story in the hopes it will help others.

In the end, I suppose that's what I try to do with the camera.  I try to tell other people's stories and I hope to gain insight in the process.  Although I'm overwhelmed with a tremendous amount of sadness at her passing, I'm also honored to have been just a small part of her story.  She'll never know it, but she taught me some things, she gave me insights I wouldn't have had before, and she gave me clear focus as to what matters.  As I continue to walk along in this fragile existence, I'll take those things with me and I'll tell her story to anybody who will listen.

A fund has been set up in Amanda's name at the St. Baldrick's foundation for Pediatric Cancer Research.