Tuesday, February 27, 2007

More from France

This morning I received a very nice e-mail from my French publisher, Editions Ca et La. In addition to saying some kind things about my book that I'll keep to myself, the note pointed me to some good reviews that Le Cancer de Maman has been getting in France that I wanted to pass on. Because I'm a braggart.

The first appeared in "20 Minutes," which my publisher describes as a national free daily newspaper:

A poor and inadvertently humorous translation provided by AltaVista's BabelFish: "The fight against the nicotinism invests to the data base, even if it is in an indirect way, in the Cancer of Mom (éd. Ca & Là), of the American Brian Fies. Published at the origin on the Web site of the author, this log book has reported the tests crossed by its family, when one diagnoses with his mother, smoky for forty-five years, a lung cancer métastasé, with a brain tumour.

"Direct and poignant, the account unrolls without pathos the daily newspaper of the disease, with its batch of hopes and discouragements. Just like it pins the mistakes of the medical profession, whose certain inconsistencies add to the ambient anxiety. The author however defends himself to overpower whoever, affirming in his foreword to have only wanted 'to bear witness to those which needed some'. It is all the force of this upsetting album, rewarded for prestigious Eisner Award into 2005 before gaining, in the United States, a popular and commercial success deserved."

Le Cancer de Maman was also favorably mentioned on the February 17 radio program "Oui FM" (podcast here), and was reviewed on a television health magazine program "Le Magazine de la Sante," near the end of this video. Finally, there was a very positive review posted on ActuaBD, a French website devoted to comic books.

In the comments of my post of February 22, my friend Ronnie considerately translated an online review she found of Le Cancer de Maman and Miriam Engelberg's Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, whose title in French became How Cancer made me Love TV and Crosswords. Which I think is perfect.

By the way, I don't take any of this stuff for granted. It would be hard to describe how grateful I am and how surreal it sometimes seems, that I am even in a position to type words like "my French publisher." Someday, if I can figure out a way not to sound too full of myself, I'll write about how weird it is to have this exciting parallel life as an author that almost never intersects with my boring everyday life. But I probably shouldn't overthink that.

Mom would've been thrilled. Many thanks to Editions Ca et La.


Monday, February 26, 2007

Hanged or Hung?

A few days ago I got a letter that made my week and I suspect will leave a warm ember glowing inside me for quite a while.

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, contacted me about an exhibition they're planning to run between November 2007 and July 2008 called "LitGraphic: The Art of the Graphic Novel." As the letter explains, "This innovative installation will examine the historical use of sequential art as a significant form of visual communication, placing specific emphasis on the art and evolution of the contemporary graphic novel. We are currently exploring the possibility of making this exhibition available to other cultural institutions worldwide."

And then they asked if I'd mind terribly contributing some original work from Mom's Cancer.

Yeah. I think I can come up with something.

The Norman Rockwell Museum....

How cool is that?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Le Cancer de Maman

I'm not entirely sure, but as best I can tell the French edition of Mom's Cancer, titled Le Cancer de Maman, was released this week. I mentioned last November that I'd been looking over a couple of cover designs for the French version. Here's what they went with:

Back in November, Editor Charlie e-mailed it to me without comment, then called later to ask my opinion. "I love it," I said. "Really?" he replied. "I don't." We then engaged in a charming round-robin discussion that went like, "Tell me what you don't like, I really respect your opinion," "No no, it's your book, if you like it that's fine with me," repeat in a loop for 15 minutes. We're a real comedy team.
The sequence of drawings on the cover is taken from a page of the book in which I show Mom's conflicting and wavering sense of responsibility for her illness while at the same time she loses her hair to chemotherapy:

Abrams used a similar treatment of the images on the back cover of the U.S./English edition. I really liked it there and I really liked it here.

Quick Behind-the-Scenes Story #1: in the first French cover design I was shown, the background was a much lighter shade of blue. The highlight on Mom's sweater was white, as in the original art, and I think her sweater was the darker blue-gray tone. It really didn't work in color; it looked like Mom was wearing a sporty ski sweater with a stripe down the sleeve. My only suggestion was to make the highlight a light blue-gray instead of white, and I think they then went ahead and switched the light and dark blue-grays so that the highlight became a shadow. That's fine by me.

Quick Behind-the-Scenes Story #2: Last I heard, the French publisher had rejected this cover and was going to go with one that looked very much like the profile of Mom used in the English and German editions. If they switched back to this one it's a surprise to me, but this is what's showing up on Amazon.fr and elsewhere so I guess that's it. Again, fine by me.

I hope to have some hard copies in my hands soon. It's a cool and vaguely unsettling experience to see my work translated into other languages. I've said before that writing a book feels a little like sending kids off to college, in that you don't really know how they're doing or who they're hanging around with when they escape your grasp. In this case, my kids moved to another country and returned speaking a language I don't understand.

Which is still fine by me.
A Follow-Up Comment on my Recent Book Reviews: I am informed by someone who knows and loves me very much that I am, as I feared, an enormous wheezing bag of hot gas.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Graphic Novel Reviews 2

Before diving into my thoughts on the three graphic novels below, I'd like to apply the first two paragraphs of my previous post here as well. I'm not an expert on graphic novels nor a professional reviewer. I'm just a guy who wrote one, and who has some thoughts on a few good ones.

Also, as I mentioned in a recent post, I'm very uneasy recommending anything to anyone. I don't like that responsibility. If you buy a book I like and discover not only that you hate it but that my judgment and sanity are marginal at best, there's a fair chance you're right and I'm wrong. But I won't refund your money.

Pyongyang by Guy Delisle. Born in Canada and now living in France, Delisle is an animator who worked for two months in North Korea, where he supervised a squad of anonymous artists with the laborious task of drawing cartoons for French television. Pyongyang is a wonderfully observed look at the country that shows both keen compassion for the people and horror over the oppressive bubble in which they live.

The adjective "Orwellian" is overused, too casually applied to anything vaguely authoritarian, nationalistic, or propagandistic. Pyongyang presents a rare case in which no other word will do. I can only accept Delisle's word that the one book he took along on his trip was Orwell's 1984, because no writer would dare invent a detail so "on the nose." The North Korea he describes is 1984 realized: a country of institutionalized paranoia where neighbors vanish in the night, foreigners aren't allowed outdoors without a handler, portraits of Dear Leader hang in every room and stare from pins on every lapel, and monstrous monuments to ego consume all the meager energy and resources the country can muster. Delisle sketches a portrait of a Potemkin Village of impressive facades, empty boulevards, unfinished grand hotels, and magnificent subways to nowhere, all built to impress a world that never arrives.

Delisle has a good ear for truths that remain unspoken. Riding with his guide, he realizes he's never seen a handicapped person during his stay. His guide replies that there are none. Incredulous, Delisle reasons with him: Some small percentage of humanity everywhere is handicapped. "We're a very homogenous nation," replies the guide. "All North Koreans are born strong, intelligent, and healthy." As far as Delisle can tell, his guide believes it. Delisle doesn't have to ask and cannot answer the question that lingers in the lie: what happens to all the imperfect people?

I very much appreciated Delisle's eye for the telling detail. He knows an important foreign delegation has checked into his hotel because the lights in the lobby are on and the restaurant has fresh melon. He notes the many "volunteers" doing absurd manual labor. Studying the toothpicks in a restaurant, Delisle deduces that they're individually hand-carved. In a visit to a museum documenting the glory of Kim Il-Sung, he notices that a miner's pick displayed on the wall is not the same one shown in the photo taken at its supposed presentation, and realizes the futility of asking about the inconsistency or expecting a sane answer.

Pyongyang also captures Delisle's stir-craziness as he visits the few people (all foreigners) he's allowed to see, eats and parties at the few establishments (again, all for foreigners) he's allowed to visit, and tries to make sense of a country and people that defy rationality and are either too indoctrinated or cowed to admit it. He's going nuts after a couple of months; what must it be like to be born and raised there? In an insightful passage Delisle echoes Orwell when he writes,"At a certain level of oppression, truth hardly matters, because the greater the lie, the greater the show of power. And the greater the terror for all. A mute, hidden terror."

Despite the evident mind-bending authoritarianism, Delisle never fears for his own safety. He's an honored guest. The only dread in Pyongyang arises when Delisle realizes how his playful prodding puts his handlers, whom he regards with sympathy and affection, at risk. He loans his copy of 1984 to a man who returns it, badly shaken. Near the end of the book Delisle manages to ditch his translator and take a solo stroll through the city. He's surprised that his obvious alienness doesn't attract any attention until he realizes that everyone is afraid to be seen speaking to him. When he returns, his translator is a wreck; the penalty for losing his charge for even a few minutes is clearly dire.

Delisle's grayscale artwork (the grays look like pencil or charcoal but could be wash, it's hard for me to tell) is well done and appropriate for his subject. He uses his animator's skills to bring motion, mood, and life to simple drawings that clearly communicate their point without extraneous detail. To my mind, that's what cartooning is about. It occurs to me I haven't mentioned how funny a writer Delisle is; I very much appreciated his wry, dry sense of humor in the face of the dark absurdity of North Korea. Delisle is a good traveling companion and I enjoyed Pyongyang very much.

Epileptic by David B. Epileptic is perhaps the best marriage of form and content I can recall. Born Pierre-Francois Beauchard, David B. is a French cartoonist who tells the story of growing up with his sister Florence and older brother, Jean-Christophe, whose epilepsy dominates David's youth and proves impossible to escape as an adult.

The artwork in Epileptic is really remarkable, if probably not to everyone's taste. Stark black and white, with grays achieved only through cross-hatching, David B.'s drawings carry uncommon narrative weight. Some look like woodcuts hacked from blocks with an urgency and anger that matches the passages they illustrate. Others are delicate and detailed. Able to draw with great clarity and tenderness, David B.'s hand turns abstract, surrealistic, dark, dense, jumbled and ugly as his life does the same.

Epileptic is an ambitious, challenging, difficult book that I think is worth the effort. It has 361 dense pages (full points to David B. for endurance!) and I'd be hard pressed to describe what exactly happens in at least 200 of them. David B. dedicates a lot of room to conveying haunted mood, internal musings, and fevered memories rather than advancing his plot, but that's clearly by choice. When he does turn to plot--as when describing his parents' heartbreaking attempts to help Jean-Christophe via a series of quacks and gurus, or his struggles to escape Jean-Christophe's suffocating shadow and find his own identity in art school--he does so very effectively. And David B.'s honest depiction of his own fear, jealousy, loathing, compassion, cruelty and humor in the face of his brother's illness is remarkably brave and self-aware. He's not afraid to show himself in a very unflattering light.

I first read Epileptic perhaps a year ago, and find that it's one of those unsettling stories that won't quite lie still in my mind. Every so often a memory or image from the book bubbles to the surface and draws me back for a second look. Somehow, Epileptic always floats to the top of the pile of books beside my desk. The good ones do.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. Two conflict-of-interest disclosures: First, this book is put out by my publisher Abrams, so I'm shilling for the home team. Second, I met Jeff at last year's San Diego Comic-Con, we've corresponded since, he may be the nicest guy on the planet, and I consider him a friend.

Through our mutual editor Charlie I was able to read an early proof of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which is enjoying its debut at the New York Comic-Con this weekend. Printed in Jeff's hand-lettered font and illustrated with his simple but clean and evocative line drawings, Diary tells the first-person story of middle-school student Greg Heffley and his family, friends, and tormentors. Jeff developed Diary online at Funbrain.com, where it drew an enthusiastic following of young fans. His story, structured as a series of incidents loosely built around the school year, grew to more than 1300 pages (!) that Abrams plans to publish in three books (I believe the online material was significantly edited for print).

When Editor Charlie introduced me to Diary I was a bit puzzled. He told me very little except "Check this out," and I approached it as an adult expecting a faux-naive adult take on young teens, but it wasn't as knowing or arch (or "ironic" in the currently fashionable meaning of the term) as I anticipated. It was sweet and mildly subversive, meandering good-naturedly from one episode to the next without a lot of jeopardy or drama. It was understated and sincere. I didn't get it. Then Charlie explained that its fans were kids and the book would be aimed at the youth market, and everything clicked. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is too good for grown-ups.

Which is not to say there aren't layers for an adult to appreciate. What really makes Diary's story and characters work for me is how well Jeff observes and remembers the unthinking narcissism of that age. When friends take the rap for offenses actually committed by Greg, his response is unreserved relief that he didn't get caught, without a trace of guilt, responsibility, or urge to "do the right thing." Indeed, as far as Greg is concerned, his unjustly punished friends did the right thing by "taking one for the team"--the "team" being Greg. Greg's universe revolves around Greg but, because there's not a molecule of malice in his heart, he remains a very sympathetic, likeable character throughout. It's a very tricky characterization to pull off and I think Jeff does it remarkably well. Making it look easy is the mark of a skilled and thoughtful cartoonist.

As a former boy myself, Diary felt true and right to me. There's no accounting for taste and hardly any way to predict what the public will take to its heart, and less so when that public is kids. But I believe Diary of a Wimpy Kid has the potential to really catch on and become the start of a terrific series of books and more for Jeff. If it realizes the success I hope it does, it'll be well deserved.

UPDATE: On February 22, the Publisher's Weekly website posted a very nice article about Jeff and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It even quotes Editor Charlie and mentions me, which I appreciate very much. Good stuff.


Monday, February 19, 2007

Graphic Novel Reviews 1

Someone e-mailed to ask what graphic novels I'd recommend. I appreciate the question and, since I wrote a graphic novel, might be expected to have a ready answer. In fact I read a lot of books, but don't confine myself to graphic novels by a long shot; if one happens to catch my eye and make it into the rotation, I read it. But I miss most of them and don't consider myself a student of--or, heaven forbid, an expert on--the form.
I also think I'm harder on graphic novels than some of their readers are because I don't condescend to them or only compare them to other graphic novels, but to all the great and terrible books I've ever read. I never think, "This book is good for a graphic novel," and I have yet to find a graphic novel that's earned a place in the Pantheon of "Best Books I've Ever Read." My standards are high. With that caveat, these are my thoughts on a few good ones.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Beginning with the hardest.... In an earlier post I wrote that I liked Fun Home but maybe not as much as everyone else seemed to; I had some reservations about it. In another post, I explained my policy of refraining from saying negative things about other people's creative work. In contemplating this review, I wrestled with that. But Fun Home is a book that deserves to be wrestled with, so I hope the thoughts that follow are read with the understanding of how much I respect Ms. Bechdel's accomplishment.
Fun Home is Bechdel's autobiographical story of growing up in a smart, talented, damaged family. Her father is the local funeral director who is revealed to his adult daughter Alison to be gay, and whose possible suicide closely follows Bechdel's coming out as a lesbian. It's a powerful, well-drawn tour de force, buttressed by Bechdel's meticulous attention to detail which in turn draws on journals she kept during her teen years.
The story is organized into chapters, each of which captures a particular theme or thread, so that over the course of the book the same event might be shown two or three times. Some reviewers have complimented this approach for allowing the reader to look into the prism of Bechdel's life through different facets, each adding layers and depth. Perhaps the repetition reflects Bechdel's changing perspective throughout her life. I understand that.
Yet I thought Bechdel's chapter divisions were simply the most straightforward way to tell those particular tales within tales, and while reading Fun Home I was struck by how powerful it might have been if her narrative threads had been woven throughout the story as a seamless fabric to deliver the same richness in one pass, instead of as stitched-together patches worn threadbare through repetition (and now I'm done with that metaphor). We discover the secret of Roy the babysitter twice, and I didn't learn any more the second time than I did the first. On the other hand, Bechdel waits until more than halfway through the book (Page 135 out of 232) to introduce her childhood obsessive-compulsive disorder, a fascinating insight that would have enriched material that preceded it.

I also found the shifts in time occasionally confusing--is Alison in elementary school now, or college?--with insufficient cues to keep my bearings. Easy reply: if I can't keep up, that's my problem. Yet I'm a motivated, attentive reader, eager to meet Bechdel halfway. I'm also a writer from the school of thought that anything pulling readers out of the story and interrupting their flow is a flaw, not a strength. My flow was interrupted.
A lot's been written about the connections Bechdel builds between her family and literature, notably the work of James Joyce and to a lesser extent Camus, Proust, and others. To a point, that's great: literature was the foundation of her family's intellectual life and there were surely times when she really was reminded of literary themes and characters. The references add texture. But through no fault of Bechdel's, I think reviewers are too impressed by this; I'm nagged by the suspicion that they like the Proust, Camus and Joyce stuff because it makes them feel smart.
In fact it's a short cut, and a fine one. I used it in Mom's Cancer when I put my father in the role of Philip Nolan in Hale's "Man Without a Country." If you write a story about two boys and explicitly compare them to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, you want your readers to map the relationship of Twain's characters onto yours without doing the heavy lifting yourself. You hope the juju rubs off. But drawing parallels between your story and Joyce's doesn't make it Joycean (not that that was Bechdel's intent, but it's a claim I've seen some make). Again, I'm only mildly critical of Bechdel's over-reliance on Proust, Camus and Joyce--just a bit too much salt in the soup for my taste, and surely more impressive choices than, say, Jacqueline Susann--and it's to her credit that it's not an embarrassing over-reach. But great literature is great because it leads, not follows; it is not that which cites, but that which is cited.
So my first gripe was a difference of opinion about structural choices (the reviewer's biggest pitfall: reviewing the work you wanted instead of the one you got?) and my second gripe was really more with Bechdel's critics than her. My third gripe is entirely a matter of taste and where I may be on shakiest ground. There's a style of autobiography that just chafes me, in which the protagonist is the most sensitive, perceptive person who ever lived and no one ever experienced life quite as deeply as he or she did. And there's some of that--even a little goes a long way with me--in Fun Home, particularly when Bechdel discovers sex.
Bechdel's early relationships are not just the sometimes sweet, sometimes hurtful, sometimes embarrassing episodes of discovery they are for everyone else on Earth. They are literally mythic adventures that conjure Odysseus in the Cyclops's cave, Scylla and Charybdis, and eye-rolling ruffles and flourishes. And because Bechdel is a lesbian, she imbues her romances with tremendous political, historical, and literary significance as well. It's all way too much weight to rest on the shoulders of two girls just gettin' it on.
As I say, a matter of style and taste. I don't like "overwrought" and tried very hard to avoid it in Mom's Cancer, in which I portrayed the worst thing that ever happened to my family with the awareness that it was not the worst thing that ever happened to anyone ever. In fact, it was routine and banal; the fact that suffering is so unexceptional is partly why it's so sad. Most people navigate life's setbacks and joys without accompanying thunderclaps from Zeus. From my perspective, Bechdel fell into snares I worked to skirt.
Finally, Fun Home confronts an issue to which I'm sensitive: the autobiographer's responsibility to tell their story as they honestly see it versus the pain such honesty can cause. I've read interviews in which Bechdel acknowledges that her mother and family were very hurt by how they were portrayed. In addition, Bechdel's book outed her father to his community and speculated without proof that he killed himself when he was unable to respond on either count. I am genuinely ambivalent on this question--meaning I really don't know how I feel about it.
I know for certain that if my mother had been unhappy with or distressed by Mom's Cancer, I would have killed it. No question. If my sisters or father had been hurt, I would have tried my best to be fair and address their concerns. I might have agreed to take them out of the book. I think at the very least you owe your subjects--who are at their most vulnerable and never asked to be characters in your by-definition-narcissistic story--the humility of realizing that your perspective is as biased and limited as theirs. I never thought my right to tell my story or the world's need to read it trumped my family's rights to dignity and privacy. It just wasn't that important; it wouldn't have been worth it. Was Fun Home worth it? I don't know, but I'd sure love to hear Bechdel's mother's side of the story someday. Problem is, she's too dignified and private to tell it.
Am I saying I'm right and Bechdel's wrong? No. Only that I faced some of the same questions she did and arrived at different answers. Hence my mixed feelings. Maybe she's just a better journalist than I am.*
Such are my reservations, explained in good faith as best I could. I liked Bechdel's two-color ink-and-wash artwork very much. Despite patches where I think she made dubious choices and over-cranked the melodrama, I do recommend Fun Home as a good, smart, sensitively observed portrait of an interestingly twisted family and an exemplar of some of the best qualities graphic novels have to offer.
* Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

--Janet Malcolm

Next: Three much easier and shorter graphic novel reviews.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Peter Ellenshaw

If you think the image above is a photograph, you've been fooled by the prodigious talent of Peter Ellenshaw, who I am sad to learn has died at the age of 93. Mr. Ellenshaw was a master of the nearly lost art of matte painting, the movie special effects process in which live-action film footage is projected onto or composited into a photo-realistic landscape painted on glass, combining them into one. It's a terrific combination of artistry and technology that, when done right, goes unnoticed. I was a great admirer of his work years before I knew it. These days those types of effects are mostly computer-generated, and while much has been gained by that advance I think quite a bit of style, vision, and artistry have been lost.
Mr. Ellenshaw was born in Britain and began working for Walt Disney in the 1950s on movies such as "Treasure Island," "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "Mary Poppins," "The Love Bug," "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," "The Black Hole," and (years after his official retirement) "Dick Tracy," creating bustling seaports, London parks, San Francisco streetscapes, and entire universes with paint. He also worked for Stanley Kubrick on "Spartacus" and produced artwork for Disneyland. In addition, Mr. Ellenshaw did the movie-going world a great service by teaching the ropes to his son Harrison, who made his own mark in matte painting, notably with "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back."
Mary Poppins portrayed by Julie Andrews;
everything else portrayed by Peter Ellenshaw.
Winner of an Oscar for "Mary Poppins" and named a "Disney Legend" in 1993, Mr. Ellenshaw was also reportedly one of the kindest, humblest, most generous people in the business. A better tribute with more examples of Mr. Ellenshaw's artwork can be found on writer Brian Sibley's blog, and the Ellenshaw family has its own website with a tribute and samples of his work as well. You can't feel too bad when someone passes away after a long life well-lived, but Mr. Ellenshaw will be appreciated and missed.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

How Deep Is My Love

After passionately despising the Bee Gees' Saturday Night Fever and everything it represents with every subatomic particle of my being for the past 30 years, I have in recent months come to believe it is actually a very good album with some outstanding songs.

I can recall no other instance in my life in which my opinion about anything has swung so dramatically from one extreme to the other. Maybe concerning Chagall. And onions.

That is all.

Deadline Doom and Misc.

Sorry! I'm working on multiple deadlines for a few days.... Little time to be thoughtful or witty. Don't know how I will excuse my thoughtlessness and witlessness in the future.

Last weekend my wife and I spent a day visiting our girls in college, where they seem to be doing very well and have their heads screwed on right. I've accepted an invitation from my alma mater--not entirely coincidentally the same university my girls attend--to speak to a group of physics students about their potential futures (no, not the eventual heat death of the universe, although you have to be careful with physicists: they think large-scale and long-term). I've got a "Science Career Day" talk that I've given to high school kids and can tailor for this crowd, and I really enjoy doing it. I've made kind of an interesting career for myself that wasn't really planned and took a couple of decades to pull together, and I think I can talk about some approaches to life and work they may not have considered. It'll be fun to be on campus and see a few of my old professors again.

Kid Sis is in town spending a few days with us, which is very nice. Lots of rain. And now I'm just stalling so I don't have to face my deadlines. Back to work.

Friday, February 09, 2007

¡Buenos Dias!

Remember last week, when I wrote that my website and blog suddenly got an enormous slug of visitors from Germany and I had no idea why? Same thing today, only this time it's Mexico.

Whatever brought you here, I really appreciate your interest in my family's story. Gracias.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Rocket Man

In response to my previous post linking to the "Jet-Man" movie (and how cool was that?), Barry12 left a comment that asked, "But it's an interesting question... Would you ever learn to fly or skydive? I know you like outer space, but would you really go up? I'm honest, not me!"

I love pretty much everything about flying and do have some mild interest in learning to pilot an airplane, but I haven't been sufficiently motivated to do anything about it. I know it's a time-consuming and expensive hobby that I'm not likely to have either the time or expenses to pursue. I also know I'd never get my wife aboard any aircraft piloted by me, which would take a lot of the fun and potential usefulness out of it.

As for whether I'd ever skydive? I might give it a shot....

I jumped three or four times when I was in college. These days, I guess novice skydivers are taken up to 10,000 feet to do a tandem jump with an experienced skydiver strapped to their backs, but back in the good ol' days they started out with several solo static-line jumps at around 3,000 feet before graduating to higher altitudes and longer free-falls.

By the way, if your skydiving school isn't run out of a broken-down VW van, you're doing it wrong.

Skydiving was a pretty great experience but also an expensive thrill for a poor starving student, so I kind of drifted away. Any thoughts I had about taking it up again were quashed a year or two later when my jumpmaster--one of those cool-as-ice Chuck Yeager guys who'd been leaping out of planes since the Korean War--was killed doing it. That sobered me up.

Would I go into space? Not if it were just as a tourist looking for a thrill. I think that'd be too selfish a risk for an adult with a family depending on him. But if I had the necessary skills and training, and most importantly a legitimate reason related to science or exploration to be there, then yeah. I'd do it. Because then the risk would be for a purpose greater than satisfying my own jollies.

I don't have a lot of respect for daredevils who die jumping out of planes or climbing rocks only to leave grieving widows and orphans. When you're young and alone, go for it with my blessing. But deciding to have a family means committing to something more important than your individual desires. If you decide to face mortal danger, it ought to be for something worthwhile that your survivors could at least honor and respect. In my opinion, giving your life for an adrenaline rush is indefensible narcissism; giving your life because you're a cop, firefighter or soldier protecting others--or an astronaut helping humanity find a larger place in the universe--is a much better trade I think.

So based on my own standards: No, I would probably not really fly the jet wing thing in the movie. But I'd like to think there was a time I would have....

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Hey, Honey!

I figured out what I want for Christmas!

I also just wanted to mention again that if you ever e-mailed me at any address ending in "momscancer.com" and I didn't reply, I wasn't being rude. There's a fair chance I never got it. My site host is economical (cheap) and does a good job keeping my "Mom's Cancer" website up and running, but I discovered several months ago that it handles e-mail very poorly--letters seem to have about a 50/50 chance of disappearing into a black hole--so I set up the very reliable brianfies[at]comcast.net as my main point of contact. However, I still get a trickle of e-mail into the old addresses and it always makes me worry how much I've missed. If you wrote me and I didn't reply within a couple of days, I probably didn't see it. Sorry.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ich Liebe Dennis Wagner

Man, this is too good.

Dennis Wagner, the German journalist who interviewed me last July, left a comment in my previous post to which I immediately and enthusiastically replied privately. I somehow missed an e-mail from him in September, about which I feel bad (not really my fault, but I can still feel bad about it). Dennis pointed me to this:

What a sensitive, creative report! When we met, Dennis told me how he envisioned animating some of my artwork and asked my permission to do so. I think he did a fantastic job, both technically and in his selection of images. Very, very cool.

My only criticism is that I wish Dennis had left his Ugly Lens at home. I swear, I don't really have an enormous bobble head with squinty bag-rimmed eyes (all right, maybe I'm packing eye bags--but just little tiny over-night eye bags, not enormous steamer-trunk eye bags). Don't watch this video with small children, easily startled pets, or sensitive houseplants in the room, because I'm hideous.

Many thanks, Dennis. Aside from my face, I thought it was wonderful.