Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Rider in the Sky

My mom is not going to like this post. I doubt very much that my dad will either, but I am somewhat obligated by circumstance…

There are things in life that are inherently dangerous. Hang gliding, playing football, even crossing the street can be viewed as dangerous. Sure there are different levels of risk involved and everything is relative, but life itself is a risky endeavor. And one thing we all share is our ultimate demise - sooner or later. Riding a motorcycle is among those activities that most would label as dangerous. It’s not for everyone, even for those who are not normally averse to personal risk-taking.

I have been riding a motorcycle on and off since 1982. I have had my share of close calls. And though it seems as if there are more motorcycles on the road today, the great danger is still largely out of the rider’s control. Cars and their drivers can and often do look right through an approaching motorcycle as though it’s not even there - and then proceed accordingly… right into our paths. When I was younger, I didn’t believe that cars were the problem. Rather I believed that by pushing my capabilities as well as those of my machine, I was the primary source of danger… that and a little loose gravel on a twisty mountain road.

And perhaps I was not too far off the mark; maybe I was just lucky to live through those years. But I don’t ride that way anymore. Yet I am still acutely aware of the external danger that still exists - cars. Although when I ride I am always on the lookout for inattentive motorists, I can’t possibly drive for everyone. There has to be a certain amount of faith that my abilities combined with some degree of good fortune will keep me safe. So far, so good - and I log more miles today that I ever have. Furthermore, I ride with equally skilled and attentive riders, some of which have had closer calls than I. But the risk still remains.

On Sunday night one of those friends I sometimes ride with - a skilled and attentive rider - was taken down by a careless motorist. I have heard talk that the driver was drunk, but I don’t know and at this point it really doesn’t much matter. Just a few hours ago he succumbed to his injuries. He was just too broken up. Big Mike was only 46 years old. I saw him just prior to the accident, a commanding presence in any room. He was an extremely talented musician - a giant of a man both figuratively and literally. He loved life and he loved to ride. He shared recently that his mother did not like his motorcycle - likely for the same reason my mother doesn’t like mine - but he pointed out that as an adult he could make that decision (and by inference, other dangerous decisions) for himself.

Unfortunately his mother’s worst fears came to pass. But hopefully she will realize, as we all should, that he was living his life. He was extracting fulfillment from it in a way that perhaps many cannot understand. Life is full of risks and no one wants to live in a bubble. I know that when his motorcycle was in the shop recently, he longed to ride and when he got it back he had a smile a mile wide. Motorcycle riding is not for everyone, but neither is jumping from a bridge with a rubber band tied to your ankles, neither is being a cop or a soldier in Iraq, but for some these are the things that make us feel alive. In some small sense at least, isn’t that what life is all about?

Rest in Peace, Big Mike.

Ride on brother, ride on…

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


By Michael Althouse
The Placer Herald

Since mid-2006 I have worked as a reporter in some capacity or another for Gold Country Media, the parent company of the Placer Herald. It all started as an internship with the Colfax Record; I was simply fulfilling one of the requirements of my Bachelor’s degree in government-journalism at California State University, Sacramento - better known around these parts as Sac State. That internship turned into a part-time reporting position, one I held for about six months before giving it up to concentrate on finishing my degree.

It was only a matter of a few months, however, before I was back at the Record writing stories as a freelancer. Before long I was writing stories for other newspapers in the Gold Country Media family - many of which appeared in the Placer Herald. After graduating from Sac State last December, I had many irons in the fire, but always remained committed to community journalism and the unique service a small paper provides, keeping its community connected.

The nature of the news business has been rocked in recent years by changes in the way news is reported. Nation-wide news organizations have been scrambling to stay afloat in an industry hit by major changes spawned by the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. There has never been more access to more news sources - organizations that can’t adapt won’t survive. Throw in a faltering economy and the picture for a middle-aged aspiring reporter looks mighty bleak.

My role as a reporter with the Placer Herald was a part-time job, but I gave it my full-time commitment. Although I didn’t pursue a career in journalism to get rich, it is also true that a part-time job could never be more than a temporary position for me. It is therefore with a great deal of sadness that I must relinquish my job with the Herald and move on.

I have decided returning to Sac State in pursuit of a Master’s degree was the best of several options. My decision was based in part by the state of the economy and its effect on the news business, but it was also influenced by the fact that I am not a kid anymore. Now 45, the opportunity to obtain an advanced degree and the job security that comes with it might not soon present itself again.

But my view of community journalism has not changed. I firmly believe the small-town newspaper will always have a home in places like Rocklin.

And Rocklin is a very special place.

For a little more than four years, I have called Fair Oaks my home. It is a nice place to live with a great deal of small-town charm. But it is not a city. Neither are the nearby communities of Orangevale, Carmichael, Gold River, Antelope or Arden Arcade, just to name a few. All are unincorporated Sacramento County communities and are therefore dependent upon the county government for many services. Although some of these and other Sacramento County communities have a “Community Planning and Advisory Council” with advisory authority only, and some like Fair Oaks have limited authority in land use decisions through their “Community Planning Councils,” they are still not autonomous; they are still not cities.

But Rocklin is, and it shows. I have dealt with many, many civic leaders - both elected and not - and to a person the pride in their city shows. Although not everyone always agrees, the best interest of the city at large is always present in any discussion. The Rocklin City Council and the city’s staff have always been open and accessible. The city leaders past and present have grown a town that its residents can be proud of - and it all happened locally. In Fair Oaks, most of the decisions are made by county supervisors who don’t live anywhere near me.

The school district in Rocklin is among the best I’ve ever been associated with. The San Juan Unified School District, one of the state’s largest, runs most of the schools in Fair Oaks, but its board comes from a much larger geographic area. The Rocklin Unified School District, despite budgetary constraints combined with rapid growth, has managed to be among the state’s top districts year in and year out. And those running the show live right here in Rocklin.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Fair Oaks - it’s a wonderful place to live, but there is something to be said for local control and the pride that comes when it results in a community that commands the respect Rocklin does.

Part of a reporter’s job is establishing relationships with people; civic leaders, opponents and proponents of a given issue, everyday citizens and other news sources all become part of a reporter’s world. We can’t stay behind a desk, we don’t work in isolation - we have to be outgoing. Although those relationships won’t necessarily come to an end, the regular contact I have had with many of you will, and it is perhaps this aspect of the job that I’ll miss most.

Rocklin, like Colfax before, has grown on me. I care about what happens here as much as I would if I lived here. I’ve had the opportunity to interact on a very personal basis with many of you and it is very hard to say goodbye. Although I might have the opportunity to contribute to the Herald as a freelance writer in the future, it is not the same as sitting here in our office on Pacific Street - only a few minutes away from anywhere in Rocklin. For a few months and in a very real way, Rocklin was my home.

And for that, I am forever grateful.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

These Words

Few things frustrate me as much as starting off with an idea only to see it die after two or three sentences. It doesn’t occur often, thankfully, but on occasion I’ll get up a head of steam… the writing juices are flowing and I’m chomping at the bit (add some procrastination for dramatic effect) and off I go. And then - nothing. I hate deleting completed sentences. Such was just the case. As a matter of fact, ideas have been abundant lately - even for works of fiction, which is not my preferred genre. After resisting, as usual, I finally gave in. I have a little time now with nothing else to do.

Might as well write, right?

Not so fast. Now I have to go back into my memory banks and not only pick out a sufficiently compelling topic, but I also have to re-motivate myself… re-light the fire, as it were. In this case, I chose a subject that has continually irked me for a very long time. As I was speaking with a co-worker regarding my departure from the Placer Herald next week (did I forget to mention? I quit my job to go back to school), the topic came up once again. It has to do with jobs that are historically underpaid and (the former topic of my rant) why. But I couldn’t pull it together. Perhaps it’s too big of a slice to tackle here. Maybe it’s more of a project than a blog post. It could be that at this moment - right here, right now - I am not sufficiently outraged.

But it could be much more. As much as being able to write is a wonderful gift, it is only part of the package. Ability alone never amounts to anything. Motivation and inspiration are also vitally necessary. And (here’s the tricky part)… they all have to happen at the same time. At least this has been my experience. Although it is not unusual to jump-start one component with the application of the others, it always feels like a much heavier burden than when all of the elements occur together naturally. I am always able, often inspired and rarely motivated. Pronounced and profound inspiration will motivate me and, to a lesser extent, overwhelming motivation can inspire, but when the trio is in full-force, the words just write themselves.

This is not an example of that. This is a case of persistent and varied inspiration finally producing some motivation, but in a moment when I am not profoundly inspired. These words are not writing themselves. These words are not coming easily. These are words of desperation. I have to get something out and after watching inspiration come and inspiration go, this is what I am left with - a look inward to see, again, what makes me tick. That should be enough - but it’s not.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Peter Pawn and Clara Clucker

I am not a morning person. But for someone who values sleeping in, who has no need to rise before the sun and who rarely goes to bed before 11 p.m., I find myself wide awake at 5 a.m. all too often. In my head will be a story angle, the beginning, middle or end of an as yet unwritten book… an urge to commit something to writing. There is usually no peace until I get it out of my head.

And still, I resist. I am not a morning person.

I own two computers. My MacBook Pro is a little less than two years old. It resides in my home office; it goes to work with me; and very soon it will be my constant companion at school. My other machine, a slightly older 12-inch Apple iBook G4, was my primary computer before the MacBook Pro came along. I don’t have a TV in my bedroom, but my G4 serves a similar purpose. Unlike a TV, however, it can receive as well as transmit. When the urge to write strikes at 5 a.m., the means is a short reach away.

In my experience, some of my clearest thoughts come to me in the wee, pre-dawn hours. Perhaps the hustle and bustle of modern life hasn’t had a chance to pollute them yet. Maybe my freshly rested (or exercised?) brain is more active at 5 a.m. I guess the scientists probably have a theory, but the fact remains that some of my best work comes when I’d much rather be sleeping. I never intentionally wake up this early to write, yet that’s exactly what happens – or would happen if I quit fighting it – all too frequently.

This morning I woke to the memory of Peter Pawn and Clara Clucker. Who's Peter Pawn and Clara Clucker? Well, they’re not real people. In fact, they are not people at all. Peter Pawn is, or was, a pawn. Not a pawn in the metaphoric sense; he was a real pawn – and not a fancy one either. Some pawns come from marble chess sets or are made of some kind of metal or cut glass, but not Peter. He came from a cheap plastic chess set. We don’t know what ever became of the rest of Peter’s family – either side.

Clara Clucker was a chicken. Like Peter, she was not a real chicken and unlike Peter, she was not a pawn. Well maybe a pawn in the metaphoric sense, but we need not make this that complicated. Clara was a little rubber chicken. At about 2 ½ inches tall, she towered over Peter - who was, after all, only a pawn. Peter and Clara lived in a yellow 1974 Mercury Capri that belonged to my dear friend Michelle Jacobson.

Hanging out on the dashboard of a Mercury Capri might sound like an ideal way for two inanimate objects to wile away the hours. For Clara, it probably was. With a larger stature and being made of rubber, she was far more sure-footed than Peter. Every time Michelle took a turn, stepped on the gas or suddenly stopped, Peter fell down to our feet and got lost. Fortunately for Peter, the ’74 Capri came equipped with a dashboard-mounted light that could be swiveled out and aimed so that when Peter got lost, we could find him again. The light had a name – of course. It was the “Peter Pawn Finder Light.”

I haven’t seen Peter or Clara since sometime in late 1981. Michelle and I graduated from our respective and neighboring high schools earlier that year. Although naming a pawn and a rubber chicken might sound somewhat childish, at just 18 years old… we still were children, really. She was a very smart cookie, much smarter than I. She was enrolled at Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo and was studying agriculture – she always wanted to help people. In the spring 0f 1982 she was in the back seat of a car that was hit by a drunk driver. She was the only one in the accident that was even hurt - and she never stood a chance.

In my 18 plus years up to that point in my life, death had never struck so close to home. We were very close – not lovers, but friends. I didn’t know how to deal with it then and perhaps I still don’t. I can only imagine what ever became of Peter and Clara. Peter – and Clara, too, must truly be lost. And I don’t think there is a finder light that bright.

There is no moral to this story.

It has no point; not all stories need one.

6:16 a.m., 7 August 2008

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


This is why I always have a camera with me.

Click on the picture to see why that camera should always be kept clean!

Sunday, August 03, 2008


Blog author's note: This post was written in March 2007, posted here briefly and then moved to my secondary blog, Been Some Places, Seen Some Things (see link on sidebar). I don't remember why. In any case, I will be consolidating the two blogs over the next several weeks - this is the first transplant.

Upon deciding to write a story that dealt with objectively examining the changes in photography ushered in by the digital revolution, I was somewhat surprised to find that I had two conflicting biases. My story, however, was written based on the research I have done, not some preconceived notion, however subliminal it might have been. Furthermore, it should come as no surprise that reporters often have a particular mindset when going into a story. The good ones, however, won’t let it influence how the story is written.

I wanted to be able to write about how photography will always, at its core, be about film. I wanted to report that the purity of the traditional photographic techniques would always keep film’s quality at least just beyond what digital could deliver. I was willing to grant that the advantages of digital far outweigh film in every area save one: Purity (read “quality”). At worst, I wanted to concede that it would be many, many years before digital would overtake film in this isolated, albeit significant area.

But I can’t. I can report about the heart-felt passions of a few traditional photographers and that aficionados of “artistic” photography say so, but much to my dismay, I cannot defend the medium in light of what I have learned. However, I am only slightly disappointed, for as much as I have a tendency towards nostalgia, so too do I have one towards technology. This story has touched both interests and to some extent has satisfied both - and neither.

As technology evolves, it changes the way we do things. I have not worked out a long-division problem - armed with my trusty pencil - in a very long time. Yet I can remember when solving mathematical problems in this manner was the norm. Hand-held (and smaller) calculators have changed the way we do math. The ubiquitous personal computer, cable and satellite TV, robotics and any number of recent technological innovations have changed the world in much more profound ways than just as it applies directly to a specific industry.

“Professional” photographic technology is now available to the masses. Whether using automatic settings or fiddling around with the manual modes, these digital wonders allow the everyday person to do the things only the pros using professional equipment were able to do in days gone by. Furthermore, with instantly available results, trial and error is far more cost effective. Wait; allow me to rephrase that… it’s free. No processing cost or waiting for the results only to correlate the settings used to the frames on a negative. Today, it’s all about right here, right now.

And all that access sounds good. Indeed it is - but. What about the ability to frame and compose the shot… to be able to “see” the image before it is rendered - digitally or otherwise? How many trials and errors does it take? Professional photographer and Professor of Photography at California State University, Sacramento, Nigel Poor laments that the ease of taking literally hundreds of shots “takes the preciousness out of it.” The “art” of photography appears to be among the casualties of the digital revolution. Of course, it is not the only one.

However, classic photography will likely never completely die. It is said that portrait painters viewed the new technology of photography well over 100 years ago with the same trepidation as film photographers view digital imagery today. And although it is safe to say that the vast majority of portraits are photographed (now digitally), portrait painters are still painting portraits. Many in the world of art photography claim that black and white film photography has a quality that has eluded digital thus far. It is a very subjective assessment, but like other “ancient” technologies, traditional photography will still have a place in the world. Art always has had a staying power that transcends technology.

My story, therefore, tells the story of film obsolescence, but not its death knell. Indeed, the industry of film photography will likely continue to atrophy, but it will never completely die. And the fundamentals are still the same. Light still behaves as it always has and the physics that determines how it interacts with lenses, exposures, apertures, and the like is pretty much set in stone. These fundamentals still need to be mastered if one wishes to succeed in the business of photography.

Freelance news photographer Michael Kirby said simply, “I think every teacher should teach the fundamentals. There seems to be this attitude that says, ‘It doesn’t matter how it looks, I’ll fix it later with Photoshop.’ I think it’s a crime.” And he shoots almost entirely digitally. The last holdouts in the world of film photography, large format and motion picture film are fast losing their market. The major consumer roadblock of cost doesn’t have as much impact in the professional ranks. Digital large format and cinematic equipment is a reality - it’s expensive, but it’s here and it has a market.

It is heartening to know that the art of traditional photography will likely never die - that there will remain enough interest to keep some manufacturers in business and enough still practicing the art to pass it on to future generations. However, it will never enjoy the prominence it did. It is equally encouraging to realize that with the technology advancing at the rate it is, there will be greater access and consequently greater production of imagery. In that respect, everybody wins.

Saturday, August 02, 2008


Drivel. I’m afraid that’s all my writing has amounted to of late. Much of what I’ve come up with has not risen to be anything much, really. Oh, I guess the lacing of the words and punctuation is competent enough, but what if those words don’t really mean anything - or at least anything new. So much of what I’ve written, with a couple of notable exceptions, has just been more of the same. I am still crawling inside my head, but I keep exploring the same old places.

I’m not sure this piece will hold much for the reader. I’m just a little bit disgusted by what I have been producing here and this might come off as so much wining - creative wining perhaps, but wining all the same. It isn’t exactly writer’s block, but the words aren’t flowing like they once did either. I guess I can force something out - my last post is a perfect example. It should have been allowed to die a natural death - but no, I felt that I had to post something profound. And it was… profoundly bad.

So why not just take it down? Hmmm… not sure, really. I could. I’ve taken down a handful of posts for a few different reasons - lacking literary substance has been among them. But it is always hard to take down even poorly written or conceived posts. Once created, they sort of become alive. However, that is not why I chose to leave a series of less than inspired recent posts up. One reason is quite simple - they fill space. In these lean times, getting any words even marginally worthy of posting is not a frequent occurrence.

But more than the need to fill space, these posts represent a piece of a larger picture. They are part of a progression that, taken in its entirety, shows far more than a momentary struggle. And although the struggle that transpires in these posts might indicate turmoil in my life, oddly enough just the opposite is true. I am entering a new and exciting phase in my life - again. I am in a slow building and very deep personal relationship with an outstanding, intriguing woman. Socially, professionally, academically and in my family life... I sure can’t complain. There just isn’t anything wrong in my immediate world.

It’s just a little bit scary. I mean how long can it last? And do I really need my own personal drama to inspire me to write something compelling? Isn’t there enough contradiction in the world? Aren’t there enough injustices to get my blood boiling? Is there nothing that can motivate me to scream ENOUGH? Or… am I just becoming so jaded that nothing much fazes me anymore? I don’t believe so, but something has got to give. Maybe my outrage must begin with me.

We’ll see…

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Journey


Simultaneously exhilarating and intimidating, it is also, apparently, unavoidable. Historically it has been unwelcome when things were good - when I was satisfied with my life - but, curiously, even when things were “bad,” change was not exactly welcomed with open arms. Accepting change has always been a struggle. It’s not due to fear of the unknown necessarily; indeed, often the changes coming down are very predictable. And it’s not because the resulting change might be for the worse. Even with a perspective today that is responsible for creating the very change I sometimes dread, moving away from familiarity still causes me some angst.

It is, in a word, uncomfortable. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but I do believe that we are creatures of comfort. The evidence is abundant. Although other species manipulate their environments for a number of reasons, comfort and safety are high on the list and none have taken it to the level that our species has. I don’t want to get into the “goodness” or “badness” of how we have changed the world to benefit us, I am only pointing out our penchant for comfort. It is obvious.

When taking this desire for familiarity - this need for comfort - to the cerebral level, it often manifests as anomalies in my routine that induce stress. Even if that routine is not a regular routine, major shifts in direction can be cause for consternation. In the coming weeks I will be moving back into the world of academia. So how does that represent any real change after experiencing so much recent success as an undergraduate? It’s a fair question and to be perfectly honest my familiarity with this particular institution absolutely mitigates my trepidation. But this is grad school and in that respect it is totally new ground for me.

As the beginning of the semester approaches, some of those differences are becoming more apparent. It is also quite obvious that this will be a far greater academic challenge than my undergraduate degree was. Similarities aside, this is way different, unknown and… exciting. But it’s also a little intimidating. Ok, a lot intimidating. Fortunately, my outlook on life now embraces the positive aspects of change and although my life is really very good right now - will it feel the same in a year? How about five years? Although seeking comfort is a noble enough quest, it cannot become stagnation. I used to seek the end, now I welcome the journey.