Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Thanks to Olison, who left a comment in my last post, and others who e-mailed me, I've confirmed that my book appeared on German television last night. The program was "Kulturzeit" ("Culture Time") broadcast on the ZDF/3SAT network. Based on the surge of both Web hits and German-language book sales (for a while I was #286 on German Amazon, which is pretty darned high), it must be a pretty popular show. My German publisher seems extremely happy.

I still don't know if this is the program for which I was interviewed last July. German TV reporter/producer Dennis Wagner e-mailed me in June 2006 and said he had a relative dying of cancer, saw a review of my book in a German magazine, read it, and liked it very much. He said he was planning a U.S. trip in July and would appreciate a chance to interview me. We subsequently met in San Francisco. However, at the time he told me he worked for another program on a different station, so I don't know if what appeared last night was his piece or something completely different.

I actually met with Dennis twice. He was on vacation driving down the West Coast with his girlfriend and her three young children, when he thought he'd take advantage of my proximity and interview me. He wanted a photogenic location and I suggested San Francisco's Legion of Honor, an art museum on a bluff overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, about an hour's drive from my home.

Dennis was a very enthusiastic, friendly man, maybe in his early thirties, and I liked him immediately. Unfortunately, the Golden Gate was completely socked in by fog. We drove high and low, all over the Presidio and down to Baker Beach, trying to find a location either above or below the deck of gray clouds, me in the back seat of his rented minivan with curious and adorable non-English-speaking moppets singing songs in German. Even within 20 paces of the bridge's toll booths, we couldn't see a bit of it. Gesturing at a wall of gray fluff and reassuring Dennis, "But it's right there! Big bridge!" did not seem to help.

At last, resolved that the fog wouldn't burn off in time to do us any good, Dennis settled for a road overlooking a golf course rimmed by cyprus trees with the fog billowing through the branches. I think it actually looked pretty cool--telegenically interesting and a bit gloomy, fitting the mood he wanted. If you couldn't shoot a big orange bridge, this was second best.

So Dennis set up his tripod and camera, wired me for sound, asked about two questions... and his battery died. He thought he'd charged it but his Europe-to-USA current adapter must not have worked correctly. He had no backup, no plug that could run off the car battery. We were done. He apologized with much regret, I told him about the American wonder called "Radio Shack," and we parted. Half of my day and his journey of 10,000 miles wasted by a bad transistor.

He contacted me that afternoon to say he'd found a new adapter and would appreciate a chance to meet again the next day--this time with a guaranteed charged battery. I liked Dennis a lot but wasn't thrilled. I might have even grumbled and declined, until he asked pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top. Oh, all right. Dammit.

Back to San Francisco, fog just as impenetrable as before. Back to the exact same spot wearing the same clothes, in case he could salvage some footage from the previous day and stitch it together. He interviewed me for maybe 15 minutes, seemed very satisfied and appreciative, and took off with his girlfriend and moppets toward Santa Cruz.

And that's the last I heard until maybe yesterday. As I said, I'm not sure that was Dennis's piece. If it was, I'm glad he got it together and it was well received. He promised to send me a copy; if I get it, I'll let you know.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ich Liebe Deutschland

My visitor tracking tells me that sometime in the past hour something big involving Mom's Cancer happened in Germany.

I have no idea what. Well, I have a hunch, but it'd be great if one of my trans-Atlantic visitors could tell me what's up.


Pin Me Down

I had a terrific interview yesterday with a woman named Psyche--the first Psyche I can recall meeting--who is the editor of a healthcare-related website that explores the connections between medicine, people, and culture. They do feature articles, book reviews and such, and have the backing of a big-time company, so I suspect they get pretty good traffic. I'll be sure to point you in the right direction when the story appears, which Psyche thought might be March.

Changing subjects....

I signed up for a Family Membership in the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center as soon as I could, shortly after it debuted in 2002, making me a Charter Member of that fine institution. Charter Membership confers no benefits or status I know of, except the indirect bragging rights of having a complete collection of the little lapel pins they send when you enroll or renew. They're cute little collectibles and, since I just got a new one and some of my readers are comic strip fans, I thought I'd share 'em here.

The pins aren't dated but I think I managed to get them in order from top to bottom, left to right: 2002 Grand Opening, Snoopy in 2002, Woodstock in 2003, Charlie Brown in 2004, Lucy in 2005, Linus in 2006, and Retro Peanuts in 2007 (corrections are welcome).

If you're ever in the San Francisco North Bay, love comics, and have a couple hours to kill, I think the Schulz Museum is worth a visit. It has an active corps of volunteers, continuously freshens its exhibits, and seems to take the "research" part of its mission seriously in terms of hosting events and bringing in speakers to explore the art/craft of cartooning and Mr. Schulz's place in it. It's also got a low-key charm that I think captures something of The Man himself.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

At Least My Cats Still Like Me...

...until the day they figure out how to open cans. Then I'm superfluous.

Mildly disappointing news from the American Library Association. As I mentioned in November, the ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) nominated Mom’s Cancer and 231 other books for recognition as the year’s Best Books for Young Adults. Well, at an ALA conference a couple of days ago in Seattle, YALSA trimmed that list to 82 books that became the official honest-to-goodness 2007 Best Books for Young Adults. I didn’t make the cut.

The sting of defeat is somewhat eased by the fact that the honor wasn’t one I expected or sought. In fact, as I said before, I wasn’t even aware I had written a book for young adults (and of course it’s not, although I did deliberately write and draw Mom’s Cancer to be accessible to all readers, including young ones).

In any case, I am genuinely honored to have created one of the year’s Nearly Good Enough Books for Young Adults, still quite an accomplishment when you think about how many thousands of other age-appropriate books were published last year.

I also see that Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, a graphic novel that has amassed quite a roster of honors including being a National Book Award finalist, not only made the Best Books list but was named one of YALSA’s Top Ten. I haven’t met Gene nor read his book, but his success is rightly seen as a vindication for the disreputable medium of graphic novels in the conservative world of prose. Good for him.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

My Old Haunts

The stars of Heaven, now seen in their old haunts--
White Sirius glittering o'er the southern crags,
Orion with his belt, and those fair Seven,
Acquaintances of every little child,
And Jupiter, my own beloved star!

--William Wordsworth
The Prelude

I have relationships with stars, which I think may be unusual but perhaps not as unusual as I think.

I was reminded of that (and of Wordsworth's epic poem, which I studied in college and is one of the few textbooks I've kept all these years) the night before last when I stepped outside and noticed Gemini rising in the east, over beside Orion. I can never look at the constellation of the twins Castor and Pollux without remembering another night almost 20 years ago, right after my wife and I found out she was expecting twins, when I looked up at the sky and smiled because I was looking at their constellation. Not their Zodiac sign (bleah), but the distant suns whose pattern in the sky would always remind me of the happy day I learned they existed.

I'm pretty sure that years later I showed my girls Gemini and tried to explain the significance it held for me. If I recall correctly, they were unimpressed. That's all right.

The reappearance of old friends in the sky marks the seasons for me: Antares, Lyra, Orion of course. My pals Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, about whom I once made up a nifty ditty.* The fuzzy blotch of the Pleiades that always seems to catch me by surprise. I seek out the tiny, obscure constellation Vulpecula and remember freezing nights spent in a small university observatory doing photometry of a dim nova with a physics professor mentor who found it soothing to listen to WWV time signals pinging on the shortwave. And doesn't everyone have a favorite planet? (When I was a kid it was Mars but I'd have to say Jupiter now, although I've flirted with Venus from time to time. Saturn's nice but just too ostentatious for my taste; I don't appreciate a show-off planet that tries too hard.)

Being in the habit of looking up at night gives me an agreeable perspective. There's the notion that somewhere out there, someone you're thinking about might be looking at the very thing you are (I believe astronomers call this the Fievel Mousekewitz Conjecture). Maybe even an alien. There's also the notion I've had while peering through a telescope before, that at that very moment you might be the only person in the universe looking at that particular thing. And there's always the "eternal circle of life" idea that you're just a point in a continuum of people who've looked at virtually the same moon, planets, and stars for millions of years and will continue to do so for millions more.

No profound conclusion. It's just nice to see Gemini again.


* Sample lyrics: "Zubenlegenubi, Zubeneschamali, yeah yeah yeah!"

Saturday, January 20, 2007

What I Drew Today

My family's been into Girl Scouts since my girls were wee little Brownies and my wife became their troop leader. But now they've got their Gold Awards (the Girl Scouts' "Eagle") and gone to college, and with my kids out of the program my wife's trying to ease out of her obligations but still likes the people and helps out when she can.

So the local Girl Scout council is having a dinner to honor two long-time volunteers. They know I can draw so they asked my wife if she'd ask me to do a cartoon for the event to put on flyers and such. She said "please" and I said yes.

Now, the deal with Girl Scouts is that both Scouts and adult leaders pick "camp names" they use for all troop functions. Their camp names become such a strong part of their identities that sometimes that's the only name by which they know each other--I mean, there are actually grown women I've known for 10 years only as "Ziggy" and "Snow White." The two volunteer leaders being honored are "Flamingo" and "Parrot."

So I drew this.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Al Hirschfeld

All the cool cartoonist/bloggers are linking to the video clip below and, although I'm not much of a joiner, I enjoyed it and thought I'd post it, too. Al Hirschfeld, who died in 2003 at the age of 99, was the dean of classy caricature, particularly of the Broadway theater scene. Mr. Hirschfeld had a distinctive, instantly recognizable style that served him well for about 80 years, and the YouTube clip below shows him drawing a caricature of Paul Newman in the revival of "Our Town."

Purely from a technical standpoint, it's a treat to watch him work. I caught a couple of details. I appreciated how loosely he held his pencil during the preliminary sketch, and the construction lines he would erase later that helped him define the figure. Given how incredibly flowing and spontaneous his finished work looks--all graceful swooping lines and curls--I was surprised by how deliberately he inked. Very slow and disciplined. Many tiny scritches that melded into the one inevitable line he intended. I learned something from that. I also liked his wife's gentle nagging ("I'll stop whenever you say." "Stop.")

If you know who Hirschfeld was or appreciate the craft of cartooning, I think you'll like this seven-minute film. Keeping in mind that everybody needs to discover the techniques and tools that work best for them, it's illuminating to see what a master can accomplish with the most basic tools available: ink and nib.

More Cancer Stories

CNN continues its fine online reporting on cancer today with an article stating that cancer deaths in the United States have dropped for the second straight year, an accomplishment the network says confirms "that a corner has been turned in the war on cancer."

The drop from 2002 to 2003 was the first annual decrease in total cancer deaths since 1930. But the decline was slight, and experts were hesitant to say whether it was a cause for celebration or just a statistical fluke. The trend seems to be real, Cancer Society officials said.

"It's not only continuing. The decrease in the second year is much larger," said Ahmedin Jemal, a researcher at the organization.

Cancer deaths dropped to 553,888 in 2004, down from 556,902 in 2003 and 557,271 in 2002, the Cancer Society found....

I'll take good news where I can find it, but I wonder whether a two-year drop of 3,383 out of 1,114,173 (or 0.3%) really is statistically significant. Also, my sense is less that "a corner has been turned" than that cancer treatment, detection, and public education and awareness have all incrementally improved to the point that they can now just barely keep up. Still, that's something I suppose.

I can't immediately find numbers for the years cited above, but the American Cancer Society estimates that 1,445,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2007. Let's round off and say 1.5 million diagnoses versus half a million deaths: one out of three. Although odds of survival vary greatly with the type of cancer, an overall two-out-of-three chance is a lot better than it used to be. Still, my idea of "turning a corner" is when those odds become three out of four, four out of five, five out of six, and better.

I'm not a physician--I don't even play one in the comics--but I really don't think it'll take much longer to achieve that. There's some amazing stuff on the horizon.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Cancer Stories

CNN's website is running a good package of stories on cancer today, including a new commentary by Lance Armstrong and first-hand accounts e-mailed to the network by several people confronting the disease.

Their stories sound too familiar to me: determination, frustration, optimism and despair. When people started writing me about Mom's Cancer I was surprised how many of them told me "it was like you were writing about my family" when the story was quite specifically about mine. I get the same sense from reading the CNN stories: these people could be in my family, too.

The main story begins here, with short profiles of the cancer patients/survivors/warriors (some people are pretty sensitive about how they're referred to) here and the Armstrong piece here. Related stories are accessible via convenient links. Worthwhile stuff, I think. Good for CNN.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

One Strike and You're Out

Blogger was messed up for a while but seems to be back on track now....

I read something in the newspaper today that, combined with my previous post on writing, reminded me of an informal mental checklist I maintain. It’s a collection of little phrases or tricks that as far as I’m concerned every writer should be allowed to use once, and only once—preferably before the age of 25—and then never again.

What set me off this morning? In connection with fires now burning in southern California, the words “wind-whipped flames.”

I used “wind-whipped flames” once as a young reporter covering a grass fire at a dump, where it really was windy and the flames really were whipping. An editor flagged it and told me it was a pretty poor cliché (I thought I’d invented it), and I’ve been alert to it since. Television news readers are worse offenders than newspaper reporters, probably because “wind-whipped” is fun to say. It's almost poetic.

“Predawn darkness.” Another one I was surprised to learn I hadn’t invented. I believe I got away with it, but immediately started reading and hearing it everywhere. Again, it’s kind of poetic. I think it evokes the sense of still anticipation when the sky just begins to lighten in the east. But it’s poor journalism—how much more accurate to write that an event happened under clear skies at 4:15 a.m., if those facts are relevant at all—and, as a cliché, poorer prose. Remove it from the quiver.

Others off the top of my head that catch my eye or ear:
* Combing or sorting through charred rubble.
* Densely wooded area. You mean a forest?
* Firestorm of protest.
* Rain failed to dampen (a party, a game, a protest, spirits).
* Anything moving a step closer to reality.
* Closure. If I’m ever in a situation so unfortunate that a writer or reporter asks me when I think I will “get closure,” I hope I have the presence of mind to punch him or her in the face.

“The story about the story.” This is pretty common, even among writers who are otherwise professional and exemplary. In my case, it worked like this: my newspaper editor noted that a Friday the 13th was coming up and wanted a little feature about it. No one else wanted to touch it, but I had an inspiration and volunteered. I would write a story about how hard it was to write a Friday the 13th story. I confess it was kind of cute: I wrote about calling the contacts on my beat—mayors, city council members, the fire chief—and asking if anything bad had ever happened to them on that date. For the most part nothing had, and that non-story was my story. My one misfire was a councilman who said yes, in fact, his daughter had died on a Friday the 13th. Crap. Of course I apologized and left him out of the article, as journalistically suspect as that might have been (a good reporter would never dismiss evidence that disagreed with their thesis. Tough cookies.). I thought myself quite clever and original until, again, I started seeing the device everywhere. It’s not clever and original; in fact, it’s desperate and sophomoric. So get it out of your system when you’re a sophomore.

It’s hard to avoid using clichés if you don’t know they’re clichés, and everybody falls into the trap sometimes (perhaps even by writing things like “falls into the trap”). Cliches serve a literary purpose as shorthand that instantly communicates a concept that may be otherwise hard or clumsy to explain. If you twist them a bit, they can even be rejuvenated (“It’s a gift horse. Don’t look in its mouth.”).

The cliches that really grate on my brain are the lazy automatic ones that people use without considering what they mean or if they provide useful information. They are combinations of words that no one would ever say in real life. Every word should serve a conscious purpose; that’s the ideal I always aim for and will always fall short of.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Readin' and Writin'

Yesterday my wife took me to see "The Holiday," a film in which Kate Winslet (above left) and Cameron Diaz play women who try to mend their broken hearts by swapping their homes in England and Hollywood for two weeks over Christmas. It's what some would call a "chick flick," a genre for which I actually have some tolerance, and I think I spoil no surprises by revealing that hearts are indeed healed with the help of Jack Black (above right) and Jude Law. I appreciated the fact that the emotional arcs for the Winslet and Diaz characters weren't mirror images of each other--they start out in different places and end up in different places--and I think the filmmakers even pull off the improbable use of Black as a semi-romantic lead.

What really impressed me about the movie, and the reason I'm bothering to write about it, is something hinted at by the full bookshelf behind the characters in the photo above: it is a love letter to writing. Winslet's character is a newspaper reporter and Law's is a book editor. Houses are full of cabinets that are packed with books (I noted that the set decorator seemed to have a fondness for Jonathan Franzen). And in what my wife and I agreed was the best subplot in the movie, Eli Wallach plays an elderly neighbor of Winslet's who was one of the great screenwriters in the Golden Age of Hollywood, his dusty study studded with honors and Oscars (and books). Winslet befriends him and tries to convince him to accept the gratitude of younger generations of writers who revere the words he wrote. I thought theirs was the most warmly satisfying relationship in the film. This through-line of literary appreciation was an unexpected pleasure and added depth to what could have been a pleasant but routine romantic romp.*

Reading and writing have always been important to me. Writing is how I've earned a living for about half of my adult life. I knew I was going to buy the house we live in now when I walked into the family room and saw that the owner had surrounded the fireplace with floor-to-ceiling oak bookshelves. One of the two big rules my wife and I made when we had children was that if either of the girls asked us to read a book with them we'd drop whatever else we were doing to do it. (The other big rule was that we'd never contradict each other's discipline or permission decisions even if we privately thought the other was wrong. "Divide and conquer" never worked on us.) As the girls got older we pretty much bought any books they wanted, which can get expensive but was still cheaper than the clothes, cars, make-up, music and bail money their peers demanded from their parents. I can't guarantee my child-rearing tips will work--in fact, I'm increasingly convinced that babies emerge pretty much as the people they're going to be, and if either of my girls had been wired to become a delinquent moron I don't know how we could've stopped them--but I'm ecstatic at our results.

I don't like recommending things. Any things. It's too much responsibility. I'd feel terrible if I advised someone to spend their time and money on a movie, book, restaurant, CD, piece of hardware, piece of software, or barber and they hated it--and worse, doubted my taste and sanity for inflicting it on them. So I'm not recommending "The Holiday," just mentioning something about it I enjoyed and appreciated. If you decide to see it it's your fault, not mine.


*I tried real hard to think of another word here besides "romp." Couldn't do it. Sorry.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

How Low Can You Go?

This morning I received the e-mail below, a twist on the classic Nigerian spammer con game that took me aback. This shameless appeal to take pity on a terminal cancer patient was a new one on me. It also raised an interesting question: is this e-mail as ubiquitous as the Nigerian one and just happened to end up in the mailbox of a guy who wrote a book about terminal cancer? Or was it somehow tailored and targeted to cancer-themed sites and people? If the latter, I'm kind of impressed by their work ethic, if not their skills in grammar or persuasion.

Anyway, I find it simultaneously sad and funny, and I guess you can't warn people too often that Internet offers of something for nothing always deserve deletion. Coincidentally, I also received a very realistic-looking phishing e-mail purporting to be from my bank and demanding that I immediately confirm my account information for them. Nope, sorry.

It's a dangerous Web out there, kids.

Hello, You may be surprised to receive this mail, as you read this, don't feel so sorry for me because I know everyone will die someday.

My name is [deleted], a business woman in London. I have been diagnosed with esophageal cancer which was discovered very late due to my laxity in caring for my health. It has defiled all forms of medication right now and I have only few hours left to live, according to medical experts. I have never particularly lived my life so well as I never really cared for anyone not even me but my business. Though I am very rich, but I was never generous, I was always hostile to people and I only focus on my business as that was the only thing I cared for in my life. But now I regret all this as I now know that there is more to life than just wanting to have or make all the money in the world. I believed when God gives me a second chance to come to this world I would live my life in a different way from how I have lived now, but now that God has called me through this way I willed most of my properties and access to my immediate and extended family and as well as few close friends.

I want God to be merciful to me and accept my soul and so with that reason I decided to give alms to CHARITY ORGANISATIONS, as I want this to be one of the last good deed I did on earth, so far I have distributed money to some Charity Organization in countries like India and Africa. Now that my health has deteriorated so badly, I cannot do this myself anymore.

I once asked my family members to close one of my accounts and distribute the funds which I have there to CHARITY ORGANSATION in Rwanda and Pakistan; they refused and kept the money to themselves. Hence, I do not trust them anymore, as they seem not to be contended with what I have left for them. The last of the funds which no one knows of, is the cash deposit in one of the banks here. I want to know if you can be of good help to dispatch these funds to CHARITY organizations. I have set aside 20% of the total amount $1,500,000.00 One million five hundred thousand dollars) for you and your time and patience for carrying out this duties. This means you will keep $300,000 (three hundred thousand dollars) for yourself and donate the rest to any charity organisation. May God be with you as you have decided to take a bold step to heal the world with me or even in my demise. I am going in for an operation now, and I don't think I will make it. And this hurts.

If you can give me this assistance, you can then contact my lawyer who will assist you in getting the funds to you in my absence if i die or not. He would give you more details. His name is [deleted] and his email address is [deleted]. He would guide you through receiving the funds.

Best Regards,
[Mrs. Spammy McLarceny]

Monday, January 01, 2007

Look Back with Thanks

I'm not much for New Year's resolutions but can't help looking back at 2006 with great gratitude and a sense of accomplishment. A lot of people helped make it an amazing year for me, especially since the release of Mom's Cancer in the spring:

My family [insert boilerplate heart-felt tribute here]. Thanks.

Everyone who bought my book, checked it out of a library, found it in their local cancer resource center, or mentioned it to a friend. No award or reward means more to me than knowing I created something you thought deserved your time and money. I take my obligation to you very seriously and hope I didn't disappoint.

The friends I've made through the book, most of them online but good friends nonetheless. Ronniecat, Mike Peterson, Sherwood Harrington, D.D. Degg, Laurianne's sister Lynda, Sarah Trejo, Dave Grant, and many more.

The cartoonists--some long-established, some just starting out--who sent me a note, shared a tip, gave me some encouragement, and otherwise welcomed me into their community: Mike Lynch, Patricia Storms, Arnold Wagner, Paul Giambarba, Jeff Kinney, Otis Frampton, Stephan Pastis, Lynn Johnston, Ted Slampyak, Darrin Bell, Michael Jantze, Bob Weber Jr., Raina Telgemeier, and many others who've sent professional and personal kindness in my direction.

My editor and friend Charlie Kochman, who pulled Mom's Cancer from the slush pile, made it into a better book than I imagined it could be, and introduced me to people and places I never thought I'd know. Visiting the Society of Illustrators and meeting Chip Kidd, Walt Simonson, Joe DeVito, Irwin Hasen, Jerry Robinson, Kyle Baker, Mort Gerberg and others was all pretty cool, but the real treat has been getting to know Charlie and his girlfiend Rachel, who is better than he deserves.

Members of the press who wrote reviews and features about Mom's Cancer. I know they were just doing their jobs, but they still chose to do them about me and I appreciate it. In particular, Jen Contino of The Pulse webzine, Melissa Block of NPR's "All Things Considered," and Liz Szabo of USA Today went above and beyond their professional responsibilities to reveal unexpected kindness and humanity.

Sue Lord, Vicki, Jerry, and the staff at Comic-Con International who made my experience there as both a Special Guest and fan a wonderful time I'll never forget.

Dr. Scott Bolhack, Paige, and their colleagues who made my visit and talk to the TLC HealthCare Medical Research Foundation in Tucson, Arizona a true lifetime highlight.

Some special people lost to cancer in the past year, including Lynne White, Miriam Engelberg, and friends or relatives of friends whose names I'll keep private. Too many good people gone too soon.

I'm looking forward to new experiences, friends, and creative projects in 2007. My apologies to anyone I should have mentioned but didn't (this list is off the top of my head, an increasingly cluttered venue), and my thanks to you all.