Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I'm Here!

Everything's fine, just very heavy on deadlines and light on blogging inspiration.

In an upcoming post I'll recap the two cancer-fighting walk/run events I plugged earlier this month. In short: Great! Thanks again to everyone who read about them here and was inspired to help out somehow.

I saw the new Disney movie "Enchanted" a few days ago and thought it was very good. Many nice references to Disney classics that you'll catch if you've seen them a thousand times (during my raising of two girls we wore out tapes of "Little Mermaid," "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," and Disney's "Robin Hood") and know some of their backstory. "Little Mermaid" voice actress Jodi Benson has a good role as Patrick Dempsey's secretary, and I've since read that Paige "Belle" O'Hara and Judi "Pocahontas's singing voice" Kuhn are in it as well, though I didn't catch them at the time. I think the movie's real accomplishment is successfully navigating the fine line between mocking the genre (as with "Shrek") and respecting it (I almost typed "respecting the essential validity of its archetypes" but then pulled the stick out of my rear and thought better of it). And little bits of cartoon at the beginning and end sure made me miss good ol' hand-drawn two-dimensional animation, which I understand John Lasseter has restored to Disney after previous administrations scoured it. Good for him.

Thanksgiving (U.S.) at the in-laws was very nice family time. It occurs to me I haven't often expressed thanks to the people who've bought my book, read my blog, or gone to the time and trouble to send me a note. So ... Thank You. It means a lot. Special appreciation for those few friends who were among the first to find Mom's Cancer online and have stuck with me since.

I expect I'll have more to say soon.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Trip Report

The Mighty Housatonic
(I hope to someday learn how to pronounce that)

One of the nice things about travel is it makes you appreciate home. My wife and I are happy to be back, although I return to face a mountain of work that has to get done before Thanksgiving. You may judge how eager I am to tackle the mountain by the length of this post. Let's see how well I can procrastinate.

Elaborating on my previous post's highlights:

1. Western Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Berkshires. Beautiful country, perfect little villages full of nice people. If there is a single home in the entire region that doesn't look like it belongs in a painting by Grandma Moses, Currier & Ives, or Norman Rockwell, we didn't see it. Ordinary houses well off the beaten path have all the clapboard, dormers, gables, cupolas, cornices, finials, and flying buttresses you could hope for (maybe not flying buttresses). Beautiful brick construction of the type we simply never see in northern California because ours all fell down in 1906. We're pretty sure everyone keeps their one-horse sleighs locked up in their garages until the first snow falls, because that was the only detail missing.

We met several locals who were almost apologetic about the state of their trees' leaves. Leaf tourism is a big deal, and we were alternately told that we'd missed the best colors by a few weeks, that we'd see better color a little farther north, or that the colors were bad everywhere this year. As we explained to a few folks: we're from California. Our standards for fall leaf color are pretty low. However, I don't see anything wrong with vistas like these:

2. Opening of the LitGraphic Exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum. What a beautiful facility. I only realized as we drove to it that the reception was scheduled to begin after sunset, and it was pitch dark by the time we arrived at 5:45 p.m. So of the building exteriors and surrounding landscape, I can only say that the photos I've seen look very nice.

The interior, I can report first-hand, is terrific. Galleries are arrayed around a small central rotunda featuring Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" paintings. Many of Rockwell's huge, stunning originals are on display, in some cases accompanied by the sketches or studies he used in their creation. It's not an enormous place; I'd call it appropriately intimate, in an architectural style that seems to reflect a Rockwell aesthetic without calling attention to itself at the expense of the artwork.

The LitGraphic exhibit occupies three galleries in the back, with one dedicated to "historical" work by artists such as Eisner and Kurtzman, and the other two to more contemporary pieces. A tiny side gallery--almost a corridor--has benches facing two TV monitors that looped five-minute interviews with six of the exhibit's contributors, including me.

Me and my wall.
Watching myself on TV.
Because I'm just that vain.

It's hard to estimate how many people attended the opening reception. More than 100 for sure. Several were museum patrons and members, though the museum staff told me there were many new faces they didn't recognize--presumably people just drawn by the subject matter--and they were thrilled with the turnout. The first person we recognized shortly after we arrived was curator Martin Mahoney, who came to my home to interview me. I also reconnected with Jeremy Clowe, who ran the camera and did a fantastic job editing all the interviews into a great presentation. He worked very hard to find five minutes that did not make me look stupid. We also enjoyed meeting their friends and loved ones as well.

3. Meeting Artists. Dave Sim, Peter Kuper, Howard Cruse, Marc Hempel, and Mark Wheatley all had work in the exhibit and attended the opening. I spent a few minutes and had good conversations with each, during which we said nice things about each other. Dave was great, and Peter and I turned out to have a mutual friend in Editor Charlie (not as big a coincidence as it may seem; Charlie knows everybody). Even artists much cooler, better, and more experienced than I admitted that showing their work in the Norman Rockwell Museum was something of a career highlight, which made me feel a bit less like a freshman at the senior prom.

With "Cerebus" creator Dave Sim.

4. Terry and Robyn Moore. I mention Terry Moore of "Strangers in Paradise" separately because we had a little more time to talk and, maybe, connected in a less superficial way than usual at an event like this. We really had a good visit about writing, the creative process, family, all sorts of stuff. As I wrote in my last post, Terry and Robyn seem like especially nice people I look forward to seeing again whenever I can.

Terry (center) and I chatting with a museum patron who was very proud of the comic-themed tie he'd worn for the occasion.

Dinner following the reception was held at the palatial (literally) Cranwell Resort in nearby Lenox, where I got to know more of the museum's staff, curators and administrators. I was impressed by how excited they seemed to be about hosting the exhibit. They talked about the emergence of a new narrative form and the continuum of telling stories with pictures that linked Norman Rockwell to us. Good food and better company. It was after 11 when we finally parted.

5. Guy Gilchrist. Guy began his professional cartooning career at age 14. Mentored by "Beetle Bailey" creator Mort Walker and often working with his brother Brad, he's had an impressive career that's included "The Muppets" and "Nancy" comic strips as well as many books and commercial art projects. Now he works out of Guy Gilchrist's Cartoonist's Academy in Simsbury, Connecticut, which serves as his studio, a school, and a summer day camp for kids.

The first impression any fan of comics and cartoons would have when entering Guy's academy is jaw-dropping wonder. The walls are covered with original art, some by Guy but most by other great pros: Milt Caniff, Stan Drake, Curt Swan, Cliff Sterrett, Jack Davis, too many others to count or recount. As I told Guy, I think young cartoonists can learn more from looking at original artwork for 10 minutes than they can from a shelf full of books, so he's done them a tremendous service right there. The academy is also outfitted with desks, art supplies, light boxes, and computers for the students to make their own comics and flash animations. It's quite an undertaking.

Guy very graciously treated us to lunch and spent about two hours of his day off with us. He's known a lot of the old-guard East Coast cartooning elite and is quite a raconteur. He's also very generous. I won't embarrass Guy (or me) by revealing how generous; let's just say I'm pretty sure if I'd expressed admiration for his microwave oven, he would have unplugged it from the wall and carried it to my car. All in all, it was one of the nicest, most interesting, insightful and engaging conversation I can recall having with any cartoonist. Thanks, Guy.

Talking cartooning over the foosball table. Guy's students do animation at these computers, hence the cels on the wall for them to study.

6. Historic Boston. Not much to add here, except that we spent a day walking the "Freedom Trail" and seeing all the highlights. A couple of hours were spent in the company of this delightful man, who led a group tour and enhanced our understanding and enjoyment enormously.

My wife Karen and I flanking Revolutionary-era hat maker Nathaniel Balch.

We spent some time exploring the Common, the Public Garden and Beacon Hill, and Boston seems like a perfectly fine city that well deserves it reputation for nighmarish traffic. Now, I expected that in the heart of the city, laid out 250 years before the invention of the auto. Jumbled narrow streets are part of the charm. My real puzzlement and frustration was with the modern stuff, which was a lot more baffling than it ought to be. Tunnels you can't get to, streets with five names within four blocks, interstates to nowhere. And the Massachusetts Turnpike: seriously, what the hell? I'm familiar with the concept of toll roads, but this thing's got booths that take cash, booths that dispense little tickets with teeny Excel spreadsheets printed all over 'em, booths at every exit manned by three guys who collect $1.10 from the six cars per hour that wander through. We went through one booth whose entire purpose seemed to be circling us around to a different booth. To misappropriate an old saying, this is no way to run a railroad.

However, it's a poor guest who leaves badmouthing his host, so I'll wrap up by saying we had a wonderful time in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and only regret we didn't have a chance to see everyone we wanted to. Also, I have never seen so many Dunkin' Donuts franchises in my life.

UPDATE: At the request of exactly one person, I've linked the first four photos above to higher-resolution version of the same. OK, Sherwood?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Mini-Memo from Boston

Weather Report: Chilly but clear, perfect for our Nor'east trip so far.

Highlight #1: Western Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Highlight #2: My work on a wall at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Holy cow.

Highlight #3: Dave Sim, Peter Kuper, Howard Cruse, Marc Hempel, Mark Wheatley.

Highlight #4: Especially Terry Moore ("Strangers in Paradise") and his wife Robyn. Nice, nice, nice people. I feel like I made new friends for life.

Highlight #5: Two hours with cartoonist Guy Gilchrist, a kind, generous, and entertaining gentleman. And he bought the pizza.

Highlight #6: Historic Boston. Never been here before, and I love going someplace and having my perspective rearranged. The places in the history books are real, many within a short walk of each other. Cool.

Pictures and more maybe late Wednesday.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Quick Reminder...

...about two worthy causes this weekend that I'm sure would appreciate your physical, financial, or moral support.

On Saturday in Tonawanda, New York, a 5K run and after-party will benefit Lindsay's Legacy, with funds going to the Rhabdomyosarcoma Research Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and to Carly's Club, Roswell Park Cancer Institute's pediatric fundraising division.

Sunday in Los Angeles is the National Lung Cancer Partnership's "Free to Breathe" walk-run. My thanks to my friends and readers who already donated to Nurse Sis's fundraising team, "Mom's Heroes." It's much appreciated. 5K and 8K runs will begin at 8:30 a.m., followed by 1.4-mile and 5K walks at 8:35 a.m. Same-day registration opens at 7 a.m. The event happens at Lake Balboa Park in scenic Encino, where Interstate 101 hits 405.

I imagine that there are dozens of similar events happening in communities near you that would love to have your help, support and participation as well. Look for them!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Meet Momo

This great statue of the Michael Ende character Momo arrived yesterday, my award for winning the German Youth Literature Prize for nonfiction, about which I blogged back on October 12 and 17. It really is a beautiful piece of work, depicting Momo standing on a round clock face with a tortoise named Cassiopeia at her feet and a "time lily" in her hands. I admit I haven't read the book--although very popular in Europe, it apparently only had a small U.S. printing 20 years ago--but I think I'll have to seek it out. Again, my genuine appreciation to everyone involved for the honor.

The sculpture is heavy bronze, with "Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis" inscribed on the front of the base and "2007" on the back. It's hard to get a sense of how truly impressive Momo is by herself, so I took a photo of her with ordinary, everyday objects found around my household to provide a sense of scale:

Please forgive me. I needed the picture anyway and couldn't resist.

Monday, November 05, 2007

LitGraphic at the Norman Rockwell Museum

Lions released from a zoo in war-torn Baghdad; a mother's battle with lung cancer; an American expatriate searching for her identity in Mexico--serious subject matter for any medium, but particularly so for a new wave of critically acclaimed and commercially successful long form comic books. In these illustrated stories, called graphic novels (a mostly grown-up version of the comic book), themes explored include culture, society, and current events, and topics range from heart-wrenching to thought-provoking to risqué....

Next weekend my wife and I will be taking our first trip to Massachusetts for the opening of the "LitGraphic" exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. The show opens November 10 and runs until May 26, 2008, and has nine pages of original art from Mom's Cancer among other work by Jessica Abel, R. Crumb, Howard Cruse, Steve Ditko, Will Eisner, Milt Gross, Peter Kuper, Harvey Kurtzman, Frank Miller, Terry Moore, Dave Sim, Art Spiegelman, and many more.

These Rockwell folks are the same ones who flew a camera crew across the country to interview me and sent an 18-wheeler to my house to pick up nine sheets of paper, and they impress me as a first-class organization all the way. I'm also impressed by the many activities the museum is planning in conjunction with the exhibit throughout its run: children's programs, workshops, artists' visits, symposia for educators. They're not just hanging drawings on the walls, they're doing something with them. Cool.

Of course I'm thrilled and honored to have my work in the exhibit. Also puzzled, but I'll try to act like I belong there. When we were exchanging paperwork, the curator mentioned that there's a decent chance this exhibit will travel to other museums after it closes next May. If so, it could be years before I get my pictures back. That's all right. I'll just be jealous if they end up better-traveled than me.

My wife and I are making a little vacation out of the trip, spending a couple of days in Boston afterward. As you might imagine, we're watching the weather pretty closely; hope Hurricane Hugo is long gone and all the electricity's back on by them. We're also getting more invitations from friends in the Northeast than we can possibly accept. I hope there are no hard feelings when we can't see everyone. It's very nice to be asked, thanks.

Pictures and stories will follow I'm sure.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

I Can'nae Change the Laws of Physics, Cap'n!

That's my oven. It's a 20-year-old Whirlpool with the oven underneath, a microwave on top, and controls for both at the upper right. Yesterday, the control panel went dark. Dead. Joined the choir invisible. Same for the microwave. The oven still worked, although if we wanted to do something fancy like set a delayed cooking time--not that we ever have before--we were out of luck. We couldn't live like that ... like animals. Something had to be done.

It is understood that repairing a broken microwave costs more than replacing it. This wasn't just the microwave, though; it was the whole control panel, too, and they're both integrated with the oven. Either we would have to call in a sure-to-be-exorbitantly priced repairperson or replace the whole darn thing, and what are the odds we'd ever find anything that'd fit into our 20-year-old cabinet hole? Neither option was appealing.

This morning I figured I'd take a peek at its guts. Just in case there happened to be a huge, clearly labeled switch inside that had somehow flipped from "Work" to "Don't Work," because if it were more complicated than that I was pretty sure I was out of luck. I turned off the circuit breaker, unscrewed the control panel at upper right...
"What should I tell the paramedics?" asked my wife.
"Probably 220 volts," answered I.
And there, sitting fat and pretty under a tangle of wires with a big blinking neon arrow pointing at it saying "Look Here!" was a 20-amp fuse. Gingerly reaching in (yeah, I know what a capacitor looks like), I pulled the fuse and checked it with my multimeter. Resistance = infinity; that's a hopeful sign (a good fuse would have had a resistance near zero). Called the hardware store half a mile away, went and picked up a new fuse for $3.75, and popped it in. Asking my wife to watch the oven and scream in panic if she saw sparks or flames, I flipped the circuit breaker and.....

It worked.

I think I now understand how a soldier feels dragging a wounded buddy to safety under fire. How a surgeon feels pulling a patient back from death's icy grip. But mostly, I now know what it feels like to be this guy:


Friday, November 02, 2007

Congrats to Kid Sis; Curses upon Bill Gates

Hey, there's a writer in the family! My sister Elisabeth ("Kid Sis") wrote a screenplay that just won first prize in the 2007 Screenwriting Expo Screenplay Competition!

She won in the "Thriller" category for a movie script titled "Pistoleras," which I have read and she hopes to put into production soon--just as soon as she splices together another independent film she just finished shooting. The awards are sponsored by Creative Screenwriting magazine and I'm sure will draw the attention of investors and scouts looking for emerging talent. If anybody wants to back a feminist spaghetti Western set in a Mexican bordello, I can hook you up.

Gosh, if I hadn't let her read my comics and taken her to see "Star Wars" 30 years ago, who knows where she'd be today? That's right, I'm taking the credit.

We're proud of you, kid.

The Gates of Hell
Bill Gates and I are going to have a long talk someday. Sometime yesterday morning, he sat in his Redmond lair stroking his long-haired cat and pushed a button that made two months of my e-mails disappear. It took me most of the afternoon to figure out where they'd gone and how to get them back where they belonged. Grrrrrr.

I don't wanna hear from you smug Mac or Linux cultists. I've used Macs in professional settings and found them just as temperamental and prone to bog down or crash in the middle of The Big Job as PCs. My experience has not convinced me of their superiority. I don't have the time or interest to tackle Linux. When my computer is acting up, I can usually figure out the problem and I like being able to tinker under the hood. The downside of that: sometimes you have to tinker under the hood. Still, I'm considering making my next box a Mac just because I don't want to have anything to do with Vista. Everything Microsoft has done in the past decade seems based on the assumption that they know how I want to use my computer better than I do, and Vista looks like the worst yet.

Bill Gates owes me an afternoon.