Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Other Side of the Table.

(Please pardon the battling analogies in this one.)

The first and last comic book conventions I had ever attended were as a representative of Marvel. Growing up in Mass, I never was exposed to large organized comic book gatherings, and even after I’d come to NYC in college, they never seemed to have much draw for me. Though I loved comics, I loved the stories and the art, but didn’t have great need to meet the writers or the artists. So I just never went.

But when I did go with Marvel, I realized there are two basic types of attendees. There are the exhibitors and professionals and sellers who populate one side of the table, showing their wares and reviewing portfolios and describing upcoming projects. They are the Purveyors. On the other side are the Receivers; those who paid to get into the convention, which I never had, and who were there to soak it all in. Don’t get me wrong—I loved conventions. They were pure fun that, like so much of my job at Marvel, I felt privileged to be able to call a part of my job. But it was part of a job. I tried to take it seriously, to deliver on what I was being paid to be there for. I would go into the convention and go straight to the Marvel booth, unload my coat and other detritus of comic book salesmanship (which included a ad of tracing paper for overlays in reviewing portfolios, and copies of my own upcoming books to build excitement) and knuckle under to review portfolios and push the titles I was editing. I’d review the rest of the floor in chunks, during the periodic breaks, so that by the time the convention ended-and in many cases conventions went on for two or three days—I’d have reviewed the whole floor. That was then.

This time, I was on the other side of the table. This was the first convention I’d paid to get into, and for some reason that was intimidating. On top of that, I had been out of comics, out of Marvel, for ten years. I felt like I had made a significant contribution, helping to launching careers of key individuals such as Alex Ross, Kurt Busiek, Larry Wachowski, Steve Skroce, and stop me if this is becoming too obscure or whiney… My point is, I felt like I did something over ten years, then jumped overboard and spent the next ten years on the shore of the river, watching the boat move slowly on, and I tracked alongside on the shore. I looked up from time to time, but mostly kept to my path at the side. If I went back in, who would the boat be populated by now? Would anyone remember me? Would that time aboard have counted for anything, aside from worn initials carved into the railing?

I wandered several tables, trying to take in the whole Con with my son. That part was so special, able to introduce him, feeling the pride and the closeness of this shared experience. I mean, it was my first con, too, really.

The thing that amazed me most was how few friendly, familiar faces I saw. Self publishers Stick and Kyle Baker, embedded publishers like Rob Tokar at TokyoPop, and Whilce Portacio at the DC booth, were fantastic to see. I heard others were present, like Don Hudson and Carl Potts, but couldn’t find them and didn’t see them that day. The only table I couldn’t get close to was, ironically, the Marvel table. There was a roped-off line for people wanting to get signatures from the Dark Tower creative team. I waved to some people I knew like Chris Eliopolous, who was my intern and who therefore credits me with getting him into comics (don’t tell him it was his own enormous creative talent and drive that did it, and that I was just pleased to have worked with him-I need the extra credit). But for the most part, I stayed off the grey carpet that defined the booth area, staying instead on the maroon of the pathway surrounding it. It felt somehow portentous. Given my feelings about Marvel expressed in the last blog, this was where I was; not just on the other side of the table, but outside the carpet, away from the action, on the outside waving in. I started to wonder if I was grasping at something in sad desperation, and more, wondering what that something was.

After lunch was when I headed upstairs to the Artists Alley. That was, I realized after getting some food in me, where I was most likely to see people who would see me, with recognition. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

And I was right. I can’t name all the people I saw there, or express the sadness at those I missed, their chairs sitting empty under nametags that read something like war memorials to my tired mind. I heard more than once from those I wandered past that it was like “old home week” at this convention. It was then I realized, it wasn’t the job I missed, or even the other side of the table. It was the people that made the experience what it was. It was the people I missed. And this past year for me has been about reconnecting with those people, and realizing we’re all still on the same side of the table. With some notable exceptions for those amazing people I met who influenced me in untold wasy, like Jack Able and Mark Greunwald, the people are all still there.

The best greeting was from Paris Cullins, who embraced me like a long lost brother. He’d been my first pick for the regular artist on a title called HyperKind in the tragically short-lived BarkerVerse, and remains to this day the one person I would trade talent with, as I thought his drawings were amazing, though his work ethic maddeningly inconsistent. There was ten years worth of change in the faces and the forms and the hair of the players. But there was also a sense of shared experience, of veteran camaraderie. We remembered when, back in the day, (in my best buzzed Robbie Carosella impression; “old Marvel…”). Marc, Dave, Steve, Sara, Mike, Darrel, Don, Hector, Renee, Kenny, and a host of others I didn’t see and/or who weren’t there, flooded back to mind. We were young kings (and queens), funky Tuts, big fish in a small river that was really a big one, once you left our little inlets.

But Time is that river, and it keeps on flowing whether you’re on the boat or walking alongside on the shore. And on the shore, you’re just one of the hundreds watching it flow. I could be a little sad at that, but not for too long. For me, there wasn’t enough room on the boat for all that I wanted to be, all I needed to experience. I never would’ve left if I hadn’t been thrown over into the life raft, but the raft was comfortable, and helped me make it to a safe shore. The ride was fun, but I like the land.

This side of the table suits me just fine.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dark and Gritty and Sad...

Maybe Danny Glover was right. In Lethal Weapon, his recurring line is “I’m getting too old for this s#*t.” Maybe that’s my problem. But I feel sad for Marvel.

I spent a few hours reading through my friend’s collection of recent Marvel Comics, specifically all the issues of the series-changing Civil War, pitting hero against Hero in a story of super hero power registration that’s supposed to be evocative at once of the Patriot Act and the movie The Incredibles, on acid. It was more evocative of my belief that editors are not doing their job.

When I was at Marvel, part of the editors job is to shepherd great stories; to hire great artists and writers, brainstorm with them to produce brilliant and beautiful stories that thrilled, entertained, provoked thought and provided excitement. But another important duty was to safeguard the characters. You could have a great idea, where Captain America lost both his legs and had to learn crime fighting from a wheelchair, and say, man wouldn’t that shake up the status quo? Sure it would. It might even run for 12, or let’s be generous, 24 issues, a full 2 years. And when the writer with the great idea gets bored, and wants to move on, and has fully exploited his great ideas, it’s up to the next writer to figure out how Cap regrows his legs so that we can tell stories that return to the core. Editors had to make sure at the start that they weren’t knee-jerking into a no, and would let creators creative latitude to play with a character, But editors also needed to play through the idea, and assure that that the idea of cutting off his legs wasn’t just stupid, and short-sighted, if it was, to be strong enough to say no. It’s the editors job to make sure, in terms of story, that there’s an inherent strength to the story, and something real to be explored, and also that there was out built into every storyline, a plan to get back to the core, however far afield the story may seem to go. The better that built in is, the more believable it is, and the smoother the transition back to the core, the better the editor.

What I’ve noticed with the latest storylines in comics is that the core seems to have been abandoned. Thor is dead. Iron Man has been transformed into a manipulative fascist. Spider-man’s identity is revealed to the world. Speedball, the lightest, funniest of the Marvel characters outside of MadCap, has been transformed into Penance, a character who has spikes that torture him as he moves, built into his costume. And a host of characters have been killed, last resort of the hack. People read stories for the specific purpose of finding out how the heroes survive. The death of heroes might’ve been daring fifteen years ago, but now its just desperate. I could go on and on, but all these so-called character developments add up to two problems, IMHO.

One is that the core is violated. Comics, like movies, have the strongest concepts when they can be boiled down to a few sentences. An eccentric candy millionaire sends out golden tickets in candy bars to kids across the world, as a device to pick his new successor. Charlie Bucket wins one, as do a group of other kids. One by one their greedy, mean spirited attitudes remove them from the tour, until Charlie is selected at the end, and becomes the successor to the Chocolate factory Empire; Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and assumes the powers of a spider including strength agility, and an uncanny spider sense. By not stopping a robber who would later kill his beloved uncle, he learns that with great power comes responsibility, and becomes the Amazing Spider Man; Last survivor of the doomed planet Krypton, Superman, with the ability to leap tall buildings, bend steel in his bare hands, bla bla bla, and who disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper, fights a battle for truth, Justice and the American way. Short. Clear. What Civil War has done is add two or three sentences onto the core, and done so in such a way that it cannot be undone. They’ve betrayed the core, and while for some that’s exciting in the short term, in the long term they’ve ripped all the fun and the hope out of the stories.

So, two is that the comics are darkened. And how dark and gritty can comics become before they’re no substitute for watching the freaking evening news? I don’t know if there is one mainstream Marvel comic I would want my 9-year-old to read. Happily, his favorite is Sonic the Hedgehog, published by Archie Comics, one of the last mainstream bastions of comics for kids. There, the hero faces desperate circumstances, maybe even faces a devastating loss, but finds a way. He finds a way. That’s what it’s about, people. Life is about finding a way, and getting somewhere better. And if it’s not, then isn’t that the reason we turn to escapist fiction in the first place? The idea that there are no “fun” comics in at Marvel anymore is the saddest element of all. Putting on the geek hat now. In past years, there’s been ThunderStrike, and Speedball, and a host of others that worked to fill a need for light, happy, wacky fun stories of high quality. Okay, hat off.

In talking about this to others, the subject of self publishing, or going to a smaller publisher comes up. This segues into analogy two; you could create the best car in the world, and build your own factory to produce it. Your Tucker could be the best car since the original Tucker, and you may even sell one in every state. But that’s still fifty. Fifty cars won’t change the world. Many of the people who might want a Tucker would never even hear about it, let alone see it. Your dream car, high in quality and potential, will nonetheless be doomed to obscurity. If you could’ve gotten your car to Ford, or GM, or Toyota, or Honda, your car may have changed the way cars are made. But going with the big guys you key into the major distribution and connections nationwide that come standard with larger outfits. That would have made a difference. Marvel and DC and the big car manufacturers. But it seems (outside of Vertigo) like they’re not interested in anybody’s Tucker. Tuck that.

I hope attending the convention will change my mind.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Ride

Frame: I just got back on Sunday night from a trip to NYC for the big NY Con, with Big T. This was my first time back in the city in several years, and my first foray back into the comics world in about 10 years. I blogged through the weekend, writing longhand, and will transpose some of those notes here over the next few days. So the days blogged here will not correspond to real time.

Yesterday Big T and I took a ride from Mass down to NYC, my old stomping grounds. Actually those stomping grounds consisted mostly of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, and where we’re actually staying is on the upper West Side, but it’s the same idea. Okay, it’s not at all the same. But I’m here nonetheless.

The ride down was notable as it allowed some Dad-Son talk time, but also notable in the fact that there wasn’t a lot to talk about. We touch base a few times a week at bedtime with the typical “How are things at school?” “How’s your Teacher Mrs. M?”, “How’s your buddy D doing?” “How’s your writing going?”. It’s a crap shoot, where sometimes he’s waiting to unload, and at other times ever ready with a ubiquitous “fine” at every turn. But without setting up the scenario now, I’m going to get less-than-“fine” when he turns into a close-mouthed teen whose annoyed at those kind of questions. Anyway, because we talk, we found here that there wasn't a lot to talk about. The ride then became all about anticipation of going into the city, which Big T had done more recently than I had. So I guess the anticipation, and the trepidation, was all mine.

I never had those kind of talks with my Dad, and just really started to in the weeks before he died of the big C. We had a strange relationship growing up as I was the last child, and clearly unplanned, and I think coming at a time that he had assumed he wouldn’t be having anymore kids. We talked about, but never achieved, some father-son hunting trips (I’ve never been hunting and don’t think I missed much), some father-son fishing trips (we managed two of those and I was never the kind to get up before the sun to go out in the cold to fish. I still love fishing while camping, and I think Big T and Lil T also both enjoy it.

The biggest thing that my Dad did for me was, when I was at a pre-college program at the Philadelphia College of Art in the summer of my Junior year of high school. I was going out to see a movie with some friends, two girls and a guy I didn’t like very much. He was about two years older than we were-again the others and myself being sophomores and juniors in High School, and he being old enough to have graduated, but nonetheless in the same summer program. The key to the story here is that he was old enough to buy, and unbeknownst to me had bought a bottle of wine to drink before we saw the movie. I believe it was Quadrophenia, playing at a revival house. So we took the train, and got off near the theater, and he led us into a local neighborhood to get buzzed before the movie. Something about drinking cheap wine out of a paper bag sitting on a curb didn’t fit into my self image, so I opted out. It seemed somehow desperate, and sad. But at the same time I didn’t have the self possession to just walk away from them or tell them how stupid I thought it was. So as a result, I’m standing a few feet away while they drank, and the guy got rowdier. An old lady kept peeking out of her curtains at the group, and the guy got the brilliant idea to flip her off. Minutes later is when the cops showed up.

We were all brought into the local station, and the guy, being of legal drinking age, was the only one who was released. I had to call my parents in Mass, three states away, and explain in a “I barely believe myself, so there’s no way you’re going to buy this” voice that I got picked up for underage drinking when I hadn’t even actually been drinking, or even touched the damned paper bag. The point of this story is, my Dad came down, and got it straightened out, and I never had to appear in court. The charges were dropped. I was never sure how, or if he did it, but in a town as racist as Philly was in those days (my experiences with that are another story) it felt like an accomplishment. And the best part was, he never questioned whether I was telling the truth. I never lied to him, and he never doubted me. And that said something, to me, at the time.

Anyway, there we were, riding through the Bronx toward Manhattan. I suddenly had this tremendous sense of Deja Vu, from my first ride into town with all my belongings for my freshman year of college. The city was odd, like riding into a foreign land, and trying to recognize your position by the road signs was difficult, feeling almost like they were in another language. There was a large lot of city busses lined up, looking to me for some reason, like cattle ready for some bizarre slaughter or rodeo show. I had an almost overwhelming sense of other-worldiness, which let me know how far I’d come from my first days in the city, and how far I’ve grown from this city which felt like the home of my soul. I glanced back at Big T, and he was interested in the surroundings, but I didn’t get a sense of awe from him that I felt and recalled. It wasn’t alien to him at all.To the contrary, he piped up with an excited point at his first spotting of a bit of graffiti on a nearby building, before the colume of it shredded the novelty. I guess the experience of television had made this all already real for him.

I guess it’s just becoming so, for me.

More to come.

Monday, February 19, 2007

What the hell I’m doing-President’s Day Edition

Just Completed—A website update. I haven’t updated since the start of January, so ugh-akk! –owww! This was painful. I added a section for holiday cards, so (next year) you can get your Valentine card, and St. Pattys Day card, et al, which I’m too lazy to mail, and get your love delivered for the price of an internet connection! Plus, new pages from the children’s book that I’m due to show an agent this week in NYC. Also, a new experimental feature-favicons that change every month! Favicons are those little icons at the far left of your url window, above. These can be standard with your browser (the little globe), or you can create unique ones. I created one with the Idea MechaniX logo, but now have added some neat seasonal ones as well that I will change out monthly, because it’s easy and neat and fun, and I clearly don’t have enough to do. This will all go live on Wednesday, when I have access to a high speed connection for updating.

Just Seen—and would recommend, Down With Love, with Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor . I have no idea when this came out, but I missed it completely, and it is fantastic on video/DVD! Not a lot of people are fans of romantic comedy, and I would count myself among their number, but this was a nice exception. I literally have picked this up and put it down for a year, avoiding and attracted to it at the same time. But it turns out it’s like a Doris Day/Rock Hudson style romantic comedy set in the 60’s but with some modern sensibilities and a fun sense of nostalgia. It made me want to dress like Frank Sinatra and roll a hat off my head into my palm, baby! Also saw several other movies via the local video stores deal. They have a 7 movies for $7 for 7 days deal that I try to take advantage of from time to time. Often I’ll pick out movies that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and occasionally find a gem. My list of wanted to see but didn’t fall in love with: Crank (though I typically love Jason Statham), The Great Raid (based on a true WWII rescue of POWs from a Japanese camp near the end of the war), Blast (a typical blow ‘em up and shoot em after, set on an offshore oil drilling platform) Zoom-school for Superheroes (which I expected to like more than I did), Fear X with John Turturro, a quirky thriller that relied a bit too much on dream sequences and allegory for my taste.

Just Heard
The Naked Brothers Band on Nick. This’s a pretty well done show. I like it. What I’m impressed with most is the caliber of songs written by one of the main characters, a ten-year-old boy. The performance is his, and each episode also credits him for writing the songs. Some are silly, a lot are prepubescent, but some are really insightful and feel real. Catch Up With the End was the one tonight, a song about people rushing through their lives to hurry and catch up with death. That a kid can write a song that feels as…genuine…as that is pretty impressive to me. It made me want to write songs again. If I ever learned to read music.

Just Discovered—A great site for tracking blogs. lets you create an account so that you get an e-mail whenever a blog you’re following is updated. That way you don’t have to keep wasting time checking (Sara) blogs to see if they’ve been updated (Steve) when some people don’t update their blogs as regularly (Sara). I’ve added the blogs at the lower right to my account. Check it out, and add me!

Just painted—three pages of my children’s book, which are not yet part of the aforementioned website update, which, again, will be live by mid-week. I’ll provide a link at that time.

Still alive here, and trying to get some sleep. Hope our holiday was great.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Evening at Elmer's

Elmer’s labels itself as a General Store—it says it proudly in big letters out front, Elmer’s General Store—but it’s a lot more than that in it’s mixture of ye olde tyme small town and Modern Big City influence in these hill towns of Western Mass. We spent last evening there at a musical venue supporting our friend Jo, a folk/blues singer who lives in our town and whose son (we’ll call him Lilo) is in Li’l T’s Kindergarten class. Jo and her partner Kay are one of many lesbian couples in town, brought here in part due to the fact that this is one of the few states where same sex marriage is recognized, but mainly because they really like the area, as we do. And one of the things we all love about this area, outside of the people, is places like Elmer’s.

Elmer’s serves breakfast, and in the evening hours has coffee house type musical performances with local musicians. But the way the place is set up, it’s almost like they can’t handle success. There was a large crowd there last evening, and we needed to pull in extra chairs from a side room as every small table was filled. The coffee bar was hopping, and Jo had to stop a couple of songs so she wasn’t competing with the cappuccino maker's FROSSHHHHH. At another point, she had to delay a song to allow kids by to get at the penny candy jars (now 10, 15 and 25¢ candy for the millenium) she’d set up in front of.

The environment is a hodgepodge of small town and big city. It feels like an old fashioned general store, with wooden floors and an open plan and a cash register behind a brightly painted wooden counter. But the items for sale tend toward the organic, or to be made by local artisans/craftspeople. No shovels or seed or Domino’s five-pound bags of sugar, but plenty of Blue Agave organic cactus sweetener. "4.5x sweeter than sugar, so you use less!" (Okay, seriously, the stuff is pretty good, but how do you measure 4.5 times sweeter?) And there’s a little sign in one corner reminding breakfast patrons that the menu is limited so that they can get a breakfast to everyone expeditiously—so no three egg white omelet requests, if you please. But count on the fact that the eggs will be from local hens, likely laid the day before. The walls are decorated with framed artwork from local artists, each with a tiny tag at the lower right with the price and artist, and in sum total representing an extremely eclectic mix from primitive to realistic. Yet all of them seem to "go" with the setting.

And last evening, the mix in the room was just as eclectic. There were lots of kids there from our town and the town that Elmers is in, from Lilo’s class and from Big T’s class, so everybody had someone to hang out with. Me, I came for the music. She writes some damn good songs.

Jo’s sexual orientation isn’t really relevant to our relationship, or this story, except that it flavors her songs. One of my favorites of those that she wrote, which I know also is a favorite of Kay, is “Annette”, a funny love ballad on her love affair with Annette Funicello of the Mouseketeers. I love that song. I’ve only heard it three times, so I can’t quote it here, but take my word for it, it’s touching and hilarious at the same time. She writes a lot of her own songs, which is, I think, one of the motivations for people to become accomplished musicians—to write songs about stuff they want to talk about. Which ties into Marcus’s Theory of Musical Relevance in Songwriting (tm): If you’re lucky, you hit a set of lyrics that stick in someones head, and thereby become a part of their mental landscape. Become part of enough landscapes, and you influence culture. And if you’re skillful, you do this without the person, or the culture, even being aware of this goal. Of course, this power can be used for good or evil, as evidenced by how many of us, even now, can quote five words of the Macarena. Shudder.

I developed this theory as I used to write songs in high school. Mostly love songs. I still remember them, as I used to practice them, though I never learned to read or write music. I’d write the tune in my head, and then on paper, and I had pretty good pitch in an empty bathroom or attic. But not knowing music is a crippling detriment to a songwriter, and I never shared the songs with anyone. Eventually I gave up singing as a career goal (your loss, American Idol blooper reel…), but not writing songs. I now just call them poems. I still love reading poetry, mostly classic stuff. Romantic stuff. Stuff written by people who were dead before I was born. Sometimes I still wish I played something beside the harmonica, and that I could read music. And that I could fly and time travel, but that’s another story. Maybe two.

Anyway, the evening went late for us. With the kids bedtime at 9, late only means it went until 9:30 before we turned into pumpkins and turned to hit the icy roads home. Jo’s last song was the one Carol Burnette used to sing at the end of her show. Leaving to the strums of “So Glad We Had This Time Together", I went out to warm the car while everybody else bundled up inside and prepared to face the dark cold. That left me outside, alone, looking up at a nearly starless sky lit by the few streetlights on Main Street in the town of which Elmer’s is a hub. It’s a nice old town. It’s a dark old night. It’s a quiet street, even at 9:30. It’s a good place to be.

And not even a bottle of organic Blue Cactus syrup could make it any sweeter.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Birthing pains

I started having migraines in Junior High School. The harbingers were these little swirlies in the middle of my vision, followed by holes in my vision where, for example, I wouldn’t be able to see a person’s right eye when I was looking at them. I could see their whole face if I looked away, but then the hole would be somewhere else. My mind would kind of stitch the face together, so it looked like the person I was looking at just was missing an eye—no hole or anything, just a face with one eye and a nose and then an ear. I’d need to make my way around by turning my head from side to side to get a full range of vision. It was pretty disconcerting, but that was the nice part. All I could do when these harbingers appeared was wait for what came next.

About ten minutes after that the pain would begin. It always started in the top left of my head, just above my eye. It was the kind of pain that would completely knock me out. Now, I have a high threshold of pain. I won’t go into how I know that, but I do, with confidence. But having a pain that shot through my brain, my mind, the seat of my being, was nearly impossible to take. I couldn’t think of something else to take my mind off the pain, because the pain was in the organ that I used to think. Thanks goodness it went away in high school, and didn’t come back for many years.

The migraines came back, of all times, on our honeymoon. A combination of planning and executing and paying for a wedding on our own finally caught up with me at its first opportunity. Also, I was launching a new line of comics under Clive Barker’s banner, and I was kind of leaving right before the launch, in order to be back in time for the launch, so that added a bit. We were in Aruba, which is a beautiful island and hot as anything in April, and oh, gosh, just the perfect place to get knocked out by a migraine. The first came two days in, and then about a half a week after that, and the next two days after that and the next the next day, and the next. Daily. Of course, by then I was back in New York at my job, and recognizing this was going to be a problem. Getting the migraines every day meant I could only get about a half a days work in. For many comic book editors, (Ralph Macchio, I hope you’re listening) that’s pretty average. But it wasn’t good for me—I had stuff to get done.

Anyway, that problem is long solved. I mean, I still have them about every six months, but I have a medication now that zonks me out and makes me a bit stupid, but saves me from the pain. The reason I’m writing about it now is as a segue to birthing pains. See, I’d describe the migraine as one of the the worst pains I’d ever felt, an excruciating twist and throb that would literally knock me out from its intensity. Years later, after the birth of Big T, that description made my wife think of labor. She’s never had a migraine and I’ve never given birth, so I don’t know how comparable they are, but my point is the way she put it. She could go through the intense pain of natural childbirth, and have a sort of reward of a healthy kid afterward. And she felt bad for me that I’d go through the migraine and have only the relief of not having it anymore, and the dull throbbing ache that would be left for about 12 hours in aftermath. I think I’m not explaining it right, because it was a sweet thing to say. It was sympathy, of a sort.

Obviously, this one is taking the long way ‘round, here.

My real point here is that I feel like I’ve been having some sort of birthing pains, lately. Not migraines, nor contractions, but clearly a feeling of disquiet that has been coming to a head, expressing itself in exhaustion, and met with a steadfast refusal to rest, because it’s not rest I’m in need of. I feel like my head is exploding with so many ideas that I can’t give any one of them effective focus. I feel like something fundamental is changing in my head, and I can’t exactly pinpoint what that change is, or what its effecting, besides everything. Something’s being born, and I think the anxious exhaustion is in anticipation of the pain. The exhaustion is the swirlie equivalent, harbinger of what’s coming. And all I can do now, is wait.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Gestures and Overtures

I’m big on romantic gestures. I like to think I’m the kind of guy who can make someone special, feel special. I think that’s part of why my wife, who shall remain nameless in these pages, married me. In high school, they used to sell Valentines roses to support school sports, and you could buy a rose and have it delivered. In my senior year, I think I bought twenty-five roses. Part of that was because I was a flirt, and part of it was to disguise the fact that one of those twenty five really was special to me, and I couldn’t say it, and I couldn’t show it, but I also couldn’t not show it. So I bought twenty-four others. But that’s another story.

With Valentine’s Day coming up, my wife and I have been talking about romantic gestures from past VDays. And since she never reads these pages (she’d not big into modern media, preferring watercolors to PhotoShop and snail mail to e-mail) I feel free to talk about some of them here.

I think a Valentine’s Day gesture is important. This year I’m giving my wife a small potted live flowering plant, and a pile of books wrapped in a red ribbon. Not much, beyond a gesture, but the gesture is about what it means, not about size. In past years, depending on how busy our lives were, we’ve exchanged chocolate, a stuffed elephant rocking horse (before we had kids), the usual satiny undergarments, music, and handcrafted redeemable cards, in addition to the stuff I'll go into below.

The biggest gestures don’t require big bucks. Anything costs money, but it’s all relative. Show me someone who needs to buy the dozen long stemmed reds on Vday, and I’ll show you someone with either a big disposable income, or very new in a relationship. Not being either, I’m kind of over the long stemmed reds.

Okay, a digression here for a second—I never buy roses on Valentine’s Day. Late in college, coincidentally around the time I couldn’t affort them, I identified this as a scam, and refused participation. Roses get their prices jacked up for this one day, and become priceless in their scarcity. For a while, just to have roses though, I would purchase them, but the week after Valentines Day. They last just as long—often far longer because you’re not scratching the bottom of the barrel for them. And my wife prefers pink roses to red ones, so that just makes it all the easier. If you can get your mate to identify the same and you can do your romantic part after the fact, you’ve got something golden.

The biggest gesture I ever made on Vday didn’t involve reds. When we lived in Park Slope, there was a Korean grocery down the block from us that always had a large assortment of tulips, seemingly year-round. Alongside these they had the usual accoutrements, baby’s breath, fern, and the ubiquitous roses around Vday. But, as I said, I don’t buy roses on Vday.

But I think it is important to celebrate. I saw a scene in a movie with Christian Slater (I can’t recall the exact flick, but the scene stays with me) where he has a room full of red roses delivered as a gesture. Now, early in our relationship we were DINKS (double income, no kids-do they use that term anymore?) but I was still cheap, though big on gestures. So what I did early on in our relationship, was buy out their stock of tulips, of every color from red to yellow to white. It took several trips, but again, it was down the street. When my wife-to-be walked into to a living room brightly lit with every lamp in the apartment, and a rainbow of tulips filling every vessel in the place capable of holding water.

The most expensive Valentine’s gift I ever got was my wedding ring, which we picked out at a local craft shop in Brooklyn. It’s crafted from the pattern of an antique New England scroll, and is thick enough (I thought at the time I got it) so that I’ll know it’s something. It’s less a ring than a bracelet on my finger. It’s created a permanent ridge on my left hand. But it’s the only piece of jewelry that I wear regularly, or that I’ve worn at all this long. I got my wife her ring at the same place, crafted by David Virtue, which is a name that she knows and people say like I ought to. I just like it because, with its vine scrollwork and flowers, it matches mine, and isn’t the standard gold band.

My favorite Valentine’s gift was something else. My wife is a painter, and when we were dating, she had a set of oil sticks that I really liked. Oil sticks are partially solidified oil paints, held together b a cardboard tube that you slowly peel away. The oil comes out semi-liquidy, but not like paint from a tube-closer to oil pastels, but big and chunky and juicy and fun as hell. But oil sticks, like crayons, wear away noticeably with use, so they’re not the kind of thing you can share. It’s sort of like sharing a lollipop—sure you can do it, but it gets gross and messy after a while and just ruins the enjoyment for both. And at the time I was an illustrator, and not really a painter, in the sense that color scared me to death. But I liked those paint sticks, because they combined painting and drawing. I could build up layer after layer in oil, and their nature was such that they’d dry quickly, They’d be workable for a day or two days, then set, and I could work over the top of them completely. Man, I wanted some of those, but not being a “painter”, and being cheap, I couldn’t justify the expense. I had a full set of student grade oil paints that I’d bought in art school that were just going to waste. So, for Vday, she bought me a full set (okay, there’s no such thing as a full set, because these are paints, and you can always get more colors, but a large set nonetheless) of oil sticks. That was the start of my serious painting period. I still have several pieces that I finished over the next two years, until the paint sticks were less than a half inch long. That was a turning point for me and color, and today I don’t have the same stigmas. We’re the best of friends, and occasional lovers. Of course, I’ve developed entirely new ones. I realized the other day when I pulled several of these old oil paintings out of my Mom’s attic, that I miss those oil sticks. I may get myself a set when I go into NYC next week. I may just go into another painting frenzy.

But I digress.

I tend to like Vday, and always have, though I suspect I'm just barely in the majority. But, given my race, my viewpoints, and the last two elections, it's a position I'm getting used to. But, nonetheless, I think I’m a romantic guy at heart, as Jewel sang, "I'm sensitive, and I'd like to stay that way." That kind of stuff has always been important to me. But wearing your heart on your sleeve tends to get it dirty, so I don’t often show it. Not often. Maybe just once a year.

Have a great Valentine’s Day.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Faith journey

I’ve been asked to write a short something (maybe you’d call it a testimonial) about my faith journey for church. It’s kind of an annual thing they ask three of four people to do around Lent, where they tell personal stories around the subject of their "faith journey." For some people it’s about an event that tested, or proved faith. Some people have spoken about turning points or epiphanies. For one man last year, it was a literal journey, describing his experiences in Buddhism, and Tao, as well Catholicism and various other branches of Christianity.

My problem is that, just at this point in time, I’m having a difficult time identifying my faith. That’s a whole other long story, not really appropriate for here. Suffice it to say it’s a struggle that I deal with regularly, between humanist understanding and belief, and ultimately what I have to leave up to faith. But that’s not exactly the kind of thing I feel comfortable standing up in church proclaiming. So I’m thinking what I might write about, and subsequently talk about, are certainties of what I believe, and maybe get to something of my journey that way. Below isn’t what I plan to talk about as much as a framework from which I can work out what I want to say. At least I hope I can work it out. I only have a week.

I believe in right and wrong. I believe that when you’re doing something you know is right, you feel it, the same way as when you’re doing something wrong, you know it. But I also acknowledge that sometimes the feelings get mixed. Sometimes we feel shame at doing the absolute right thing, and sadness at pursuing the course we know we ought to. Sometimes we feel joy in doing the absolute wrong thing. So we can’t always draw faith from these emotions, with assurance. But I believe that emotional turmoil is most often a sign of working hard against the flow of where one ought to be going.

I also believe in shades of grey; that there can be a right series of steps, capped by a wrong step, or a wrong series of steps corrected by a right one. I believe that, though everything can be simplified, that doesn’t mean there are any black-and-white easy answers. Accepting this can mean constant questioning examination of your mental state and motives and conclusions. And that can lead to…what’s the corporate expression?…paralysis of analysis. I personally hate that. I’m much more of a from-the-gut kind of guy, and that requires an inherent faith in ones motives, and confidence in ones emotional state to help guide action. I believe in Trust. And I believe that one has to know oneself well enough to be able to trust oneself, and that voice within, whether you want to call it a conscience, or the universe, or the voice of God. I believe one has to trust oneself. With the old Reagan caveat, Trust but verify. But ultimately, I believe there is an intelligence and a design and a reason to the world. I believe this is a caring universe. I believe people are meant to be happy. I believe that, while there is life, there is always a way. Always.

I believe in Love. Love is the greatest motivator in the world, and absolutely something you either “get”, or don’t “get.” (“Get” as in “understand,” not “get” as in “deserve.”) That’s made obvious by the universal understanding of nearly instantaneous love for a child. We look aghast at those who could abandon their children, or worse, harm them. It’s alien to this instinctual concept of connection to our young. I believe that people who don’t “get” love are missing something that is as inexplicable as trying to describe blue to a blind man. You can talk around it, but you can’t ever effectively communicate the true concept. And I believe that many don;t "get it, that most people only half "get it," and that even those who fully "get it" only "get" it half the time. So the majority of the time, we're all lost in a fog, without realizing how close we are to touching one another.

I believe in Joy. I believe we experience the potential of joy every day in a hundred ways, coming at us like those fluffy dandelion seeds in mid-summer, falling on our hair and clothes as we walk, but we’re too busily aimed at imaginary goals to be aware of it, instead brushing it off before we can experience its richness. I believe these moments have to be sought, and held fast. And I believe this is the second hardest thing I’ve ever had to learn.

I believe in passion, real, raw, intense, magenta-colored passion. I believe in this quote from Bull Durham (edited for PG rating, and for my own purposes, but otherwise unchanged from the movie): I believe in the soul, …, …, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. … I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. I believe in most of that. I mean, I’ve never read Susan Sontag (sue me). But I believe in love, and sex as one expression of that, albeit the highly prized and most dangerous one. I believe that self-sacrifice is another expression.

I believe that love can kick your @ss. “The Trouble with Love is,” Kelly Clarkson sings, “it can tear you up inside, / Make your heart believe a lie, / It’s stronger than your pride.”

I believe that one can change anything in the universe, really anything, except another person. I believe that figuring that out was the hardest thing I ever had to learn, and that I haven’t finished learning it.

I believe in what Margaret Mead said once; “Never doubt that a small, committed group of people can change the world,…indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I believe in friends, and connection through common experiences and common goals.

I believe the key to finding faith is abandoning Fear in favor of Love, because Love and Hate aren’t as diametrically opposed as Love and Fear. Love connects you to trust, and belief, and hope as surely and certainly as Fear separates you from them. Hate can connect you to a different kind of trust, Anger to a different kind of belief system. There are hate groups across the country, across the world, and throughout history that bear this out. And at the core of each is the simple reactionary instinct of Fear. They’ll take our jobs. They’ll take our kids. They have what’s ours. They’ll change our way of life. I believe the world is rocked by fear, and healed by love. I believe that every faith there is in the world holds love at its core, and I believe that’s what binds us as human beings. But I believe that fear is always ready and waiting, presenting itself as a viable alternative, in neon lights and with free parking validation.

I believe in having faith, not as a backup for when all else fails, but as a stalwart proclamation that all else won’t fail.

And I don’t believe this really got me anywhere, yet. Yet. Guess my journey's not over.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Zombies, and other minorities

Big T likes to play on the computer. Like his Dad. Like his friends at school. Now, I’ve gone strictly over the rules for connecting to the ‘net. First of all, he goes through the computer we keep off the kitchen, so we can check what he’s doing. Second, we go on through AOL, which has safety measures that require us to okay any new site he surfs to. Third, once we’ve approved a site, he can't enter any personal info about himself or where he lives. He can talk to his friends through IDs that we've verified over the phone, so he knows whom he is talking to. So we feel like he’s covered in that regard. But we also want him to be able to play in new media, albeit safely.

The last fad was a Runescape craze. Runescape is an online sword-and-sorcery Role Playing (RP) game a la Warcraft, where you play a character and go through an imaginary realm on quests, collecting items and depositing them in your “bank.” I checked it out for a week, first. The only violence you get into is occasionally other players will jump in and kill you and take your stuff. Not fun, but there’s a good object lesson somewhere in there. And he’d have fun after school playing with specific friends, exploring and interacting, and, all importantly, have something to contribute to the conversation at lunch the next day.

Some of Big T’s friends had “paid” accounts, which was the object of the whole deal to begin with, at $5/month. That was right out, at the start, but where’s the teaching opp in just saying, “Awww, he## no!”? Here we did the math together: $5/month = $60/year. $60/year = 2-3 GBA or DS games, or 60 ipod songs, or a day at Six Flags. And with those things, at the end of the year, you have something of significance, while at the end of a year of Runescape you were left with the pleasure of having paid them. Oh, what fun.

Even after he came to the logical conclusion (or at least the one I hoped to teach him was logical), he’d often come home with envious stories of two friends who had such subscriptions, and how they could get thousands in imaginary riches, and weapons, and all kinds of treasures. But when pressed, he admitted that he didn’t think the imaginary freebies were worth the actual outlay of cold, hard cash.

A month ago, this paid off when he noted that one of his friends had cancelled his subscription, (or rather his parents had), and he was out all his accumulated loot before he had had a chance to give it to anyone else, such as free players like himself. And he was out a years worth of real cash. Also, by that point, a once-a-weekend fun exchange with kids he knew online turned into once a month, and then not at all. Problem solved. Until the next problem.

The latest drama came in the form of a question. On the way to my dropping him off to school on one of those deliciously synchronicitous days where he was late and I was delayed, and we could therefore share the ride in, he asked, “Dad, if there was a game where you killed zombies, would that be bad?”

It’s a simple issue. I mean, zombies aren’t people, right?

On one level, I really do believe the concept of cartoon violence not being real to kids. I don’t buy that old Tom and Jerry cartoons encouraged kids of my generation to drop rocks on the heads of cats. I really don’t buy that, in the absence of stronger societal elements normalizing violence in other ways, and in that event the cartoon violence is neither the inciting impetus or a supporting element. Itchy and Scratchy don’t make kids behave badly. Itchy and Scratchy give bad kids-or at least, unsupervised, and misguided kids—ideas on how to perfect their craft. I knew those kids. I grew up with those kids.

My answer to him was to ask what he thought my answer to that would be. As a friend pointed out to me, sometimes kids ask questions because they expect and want the answer to be “no,” and they’re looking for the reassurance of consistency. And he came back with the expected answer that he thought I wouldn’t like it, but that it ought to be okay, because zombies weren’t people.

I was straight with him, or at least I felt like I was. We’ve talked about how some things I thought he might be okay with when he was older I didn’t think were appropriate for right now, just like some things that are appropriate for him now aren’t okay for his little brother. What I worry about is the idea of his being trained to attack realistic humanoid figures, safely labeled as “not really people.” We talked about how slavery in this country was justified because the Africans were "not really people." We talked about the Native Americans who also make up part of our ancestry were also massacred under the banner of their being “not really people.” We talked about how some wars, even into today, have been made palatable by making the enemy “not really people.” Even in the Iraqi war casualties, someone pointed out, victims are given in American lives, not Iraqi lives, as if the lives have a specific distinction and difference in value in death. It just bothered me that the graphics go to such lengths to make it seem real, in scenarios that are designed to kill the zombies, piled up against the arguement of this not being really people.

Am I over thinking this? It wouldn’t be the first time, and Big T is usually the first to let me know. But, as in all things, the point is the discussion rather than the final outcome. If I can get him thinking about the symbolism, and making connections in new ways, I honestly don’t have a problem with the zombie thing. It’s the action without the thought that makes for trouble, IMHO. For now, I take the rolled eyes that tell me maybe only 1/10th of this is actually getting through, and leave the discussion tabled for another day. This is the kind of thing that needs to percolate, for both of us.

So what’s the final verdict? Stay tuned...

Friday, February 2, 2007


After I published the blog below this evening, the snowstorm that threatened the photo shoot earlier this week, but was then pushed back until this evening, hit. As a result, a long day got longer, with slow going home through streets either over salted or not yet plowed. Thank goodness for All Wheel Drive.

Anyway, I made the usually 20 minute ride home in just under an hour, and the snow, of course, hadn’t yet been plowed on our street. So I had the privilege of making the first (discernable) set of tire tracks through it.

It’s nice to be the first set of tire tracks through fresh snow. You get the sense of trekking through something special, untouched and unspoiled. Putting aside the fact that once I’ve driven through it it’s touched and spoiled, it’s a pretty nice feeling. Big snowflakes swim at your windshield like starfields in some bizarre science fiction movie, like stardust in the wake of a fairy I'm chasing through the darkness. It's a magically continuous three-dimensional experience of rushing forward. Zoom.

I’ve been home a few hours now, and the snow hasn’t let up. I’ve finally gotten the snow I’ve been asking for (again). It’s snowed. And it’s done so right before a weekend, which is extra special because it means I get to play with my kids in it tomorrow.

All things come, just not necessarily on my timetable.

Just thought I’d share. The first shot is through my front door onto the deck, and the latter image is through the back door onto the deck. The single set of footprints are from me coming home about four hours ago.

It snowed.

Another one bites the dust

We had another photo shoot today. We number photo shoots, for our own records, so this is shoot number 25. The first year we did these I believe we did 3, then the following year 5, then the following year 7, then last year 9. That makes this our 5th year doing these, and we have 11 scheduled for this year. Eleven. More than any year before. Ugh. And if I pull this off, how much do you want to bet next year is 12?

The photo shoots, obviously, take a lot out of the team of five assigned. We rotate the roles for each shoot out, and as the shoot planner and coordinator, hiring person for the models, and Art Director, I’m the only one who is assigned to each shoot consistently. The shoot prep starts weeks before with the confirmation and re-confirmation of models and photographer, and props, and storyboarding of scenarios. The actual shoot, for me, begins the night before with shopping for final props, and food for the next day. The day starts at 6, when I get into work early to help gather the supplies for the shoot. I collect lunch for the day, and then stop on the way to the shoot to pick up the coffee and donuts. Thank heaven for Box O’ Joe. We get to the shoot at 8:30 and the rest of the team is typically there as I arrive, or arrive shortly thereafter. We unload and set up in about 15 minutes, and are usually ready by the time the first models arrive at about 8:45. And we start shooting images promptly at 9. Our first session, with about 4-6 models, goes from 9 to 12, and the second session from about 12:30 to 4:00, with the half hour in between provided as lunch for both sets of models, the team and the photographer and his assistant. By 4:00 each shoot day, I sense everyone is pretty exhausted. I know I am.

This shoot was particularly intense in that it featured parents and young kids. All the kids were aged 5 to 7 years old, with one parent each. This is arranged so that we can get realistic affection between parent and child, something that, with kids, it can be difficult and to some degree feels a bit wrong to expect from strangers. Adults can make the choice for false, forced, performed affection, but with little kids, who haven’t yet learned to “fake it” (though plenty know how to ham it up) it’s easier, and I think better, to get real emotion with real connection.

So the thing about this shoot that sort of left me a bit more exhausted than usual is the high energy level that kids require. The way this shoot worked was that I asked the kids each to mirror me. Sometimes I was directly behind the photographer’s head, so when they looked at me they were looking at the camera, sometimes off to the side when looking in that direction was more appropriate. They mimicked whatever position, expression, emotion I portrayed for them. See, what that requires is an adult who's willing to jump around, look ridiculous and silly in front of his colleagues, and just generally have fun with kids in order to get the solid gold shots that captured exactly what we needed to capture. Of course, I’m the first to volunteer. I thought of adding the line "willing to act silly" to my resume, but thought better of it.

I don’t know why I’m so staid most of my day, so introspective about 90% of my time, and then can seem to make such a complete personality change. It feels like this me at the shoots is a throwback to a me I used to be, a me that is so uninhibited and so willing-no, so anxious, to get out there and act silly without thought to consequence. But I enjoy the hell out of it.

My heart goes out to teachers. When I teach (I’ve taught various Saturday school programs through the years, the most recent last year) it’s usually just for three or four hours at a time. The way I teach is highly animated and involves a lot of jumping around, like I did at the shoot today. By the end, I feel like I’ve run a marathon, but I know I’ve had, and the kids have had, a lot of fun. I’ve also done something similar for each of my kids birthday parties, in one doing a drawing class, and in another providing large scale caricatures of each kid as a super hero of their own design, with their own unique powers. Again, draining, but fun.

Anyway, an interesting thing happened at todays shoot. Two of the kids shared a mother whom I had to convince to model for us. She has one older daughter who turned pro model after her first shoot with us, and now gets 2 to 3 jobs a month. She was a central model for TJ Max’s in-store Christmas imagery. (Maybe you saw it if you shop there-she was a girl in the middle of a winter wonderland, blown up to larger than-life, and looking up at snow falling down on her.) So she’s had a lot of experience around models, but had never been one herself. I talked her into modeling because her two kids were so perfect, and again I wanted them with a real connection to a parent. She was nervous at first, so, though typically I would have a parent start modeling to show the kids how to do it, in her case I tried the opposite. Her two kids each went first, and she relaxed as she saw what we needed. But again, the way I work with kids is I act silly, crack jokes, and ask them to mirror me. I’ve never done that with adults.

And when it was her turn, she wanted me to. “Just do what you were doing for my kids,” she said, as she looked to mirror my moves the same way they had. So suddenly, I’m dealing with an attractive adult woman my age, really in great shape for a mom of three kids, and I’m asking her to mirror me. Why was it so weird?, I keep asking myself. Maybe it’s that the idea of asking a kid to act like me puts me in the role of a kid, and I can be comfortable with that, but being asked to be an adult woman was a bit much? What's my role in that? Maybe I felt self conscious because she was good looking, and I had to overcome my own machismo to allow myself to be willing to look feminine, and maybe funny, to get her to feel comfortable? And maybe my own machismo isn't really fond of being overcome. (Picture a 6'1" black man with a beard with a hand on his hip, leaning back to look coy with his lips pursed. You picture it, because I can't. Yikes. Thank goodness there were no real mirrors there. And no video cameras for America's Funniest...) Maybe I was tired. I don’t know. But it was odd for a bit there, until I myself loosened up and was thereby able to let her do the same.

So, another one down. And with that I start planning my next shoot on March 16th, with one a month after that until the end of the year. And I find the ones I’m really looking forward to are the ones with little kids.

And maybe cute moms.