Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Always liked sharing a last name with him. He was an okay piano player, too, and, for all his solo talent, he didn't mind being part of a group ... if the group had a little swing.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Merry Christmas to those not having one

(This column originally ran in the Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, NY, December 24, 1994)

I had a problem with my Christmas cards this year.

When you do cards, you have to wrap up the year's news in a few deft sentences before you ask about the other person's family and then add your wishes for a good holiday season and so forth.

The problem was, things have gone very well for me this year. I like my job. The kids are wonderfully content with what they are doing. We're healthy and happy, and, you know, about the fifth time I wrote that in a card, all the good news began to make me want to puke.

Tolstoy is right: All happy families are alike, which is why he didn't bother writing a novel about a happy family. Nobody wants to read about a bunch of perky, cheerful high-achieving jackasses.

I recognize, however, that having too much good news may not be your particular problem this Christmas.

I certainly wasn't facing a crisis of over-cheer a decade ago. My Christmas cards went out early in 1984, so our faraway friends would know in time that they should either choose which of us to send the card to, or else send two cards: One to me and one to my wife of 13 years but no more, at her new address.

It could have been worse. I had my kids part-time and the Colorado economy hadn't crashed yet, so I was still able to pay most of my bills and to buy basic groceries, though I couldn't afford health insurance or car repairs.

Still, it was bad enough. I took what little money I could afford to spend on presents for my kids and bought a toboggan, one good present the three of us could enjoy together. Then, the only times it snowed, they happened to be over at their mother's. It all seemed to go like that for me in 1984.

I could write an uplifting holiday message here, suggesting that my current swell Christmas is some cosmic payback for having been put through that really lousy one. But I don't believe that, not even at Christmastime.

No, I wasn't visited by three yuletide spirits, or by an angel-in-training named Clarence, that blue Christmas.

The transformation, rather, came over the course of the next year, through the agency of mortal folks who had been down that road themselves and were willing to extend a hand to assist a fellow-traveler.

For instance, I dropped off a manuscript at a client's office one day, and mentioned to his accountant that I was working on my income taxes. Turned out she was also a single parent, and she proceeded to give me a quick lesson in filing as head-of-household despite having joint custody and thus qualifying for the Earned Income Tax Credit. It saved me a generous fistful of much-needed dollars.

My dentist had been through a particularly unpleasant divorce: He repaired a cracked filling for me at no charge.

And my main client, God bless her soul, was big sister and counselor and a boss of saintly patience and forbearance throughout the year. She'd been through it, too, and we had many extra cups of coffee and a few unnecessary "business lunches" while she assured me that everything was going to work out for me in the long run. And she went across the hall to a sister publication and got the editor there to throw a little work my way.

If this is not a cheerful Christmas for you, I can't fill your teeth or give you a job, though I do suggest you look into that earned-income tax credit.

But what I can do is to promise you that blue is not a permanent color.

Others have been through this, and, while there is no fast-forward button you can push, it will eventually end.

Yesterday, Dec. 23, was the longest night, the darkest day, of the year. Beginning today, the sun will start shining a little earlier every morning, and it will stick around a little later every evening.

Make the effort to stand where that sun can shine on you. Keep your head up so you can see it. Avoid the shadows, and especially, refuse the company of those who wish to share misery and bitterness instead of hope.

The days will eventually become longer than the nights, it will be warm once again, the flowers will bloom.

And then maybe one day, a few years down the road, you'll be faced with the problem of phrasing your good news in a way that won't make people want to puke.

When that happens, remember how you got there, and help someone else find the way to a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Gasp!! I am offended!!

When this November 24 Non Sequitur was published, it created a brief furor on the newsgroup rec.arts.comic.strips, started by an offended poster with a history of being offended by criticism of racism and a generally mixed-up and conflicted view of the topic -- during The Boondocks' days on the funny pages, he used to periodically show up to rant over that strip, too.

But others picked up on his disfavor for this particular cartoon, just as they had gotten their knickers in a knot a few years ago for this Non Sequitur gem, at the height of the Weakest Link craze.
(This may be a good time to add the disclaimer that I consider the artist, Wiley Miller, a personal friend. A good time because, besides being conversant with "The Weakest Link," he was the one who turned me on to the first season of "The Osbournes." I have to respect a man with such a prodigious appetite for pop culture drek.)

Getting back to the chicken joke, it apparently ruffled a few feathers (heh heh) in Beloit, Wisconsin, because the Beloit Daily News there has now "suspended" the strip.

I'm less interested in how thick the good citizens of Beloit must be not to see that the chicken cartoon was just a silly joke that, if it made any point beyond "egg whites," was ridiculing the Klan, or what it says about them if they realized it was contemptuous of the Klan and objected to it anyway, than I am in the brain-dead reasoning of the editor who made the decision to pull the strip.

You don't often see the crisis of newspaper comics laid out in such stark terms, or the inability of editors to understand (A) the purpose of comics, (B) the importance of intelligent content to keep papers alive and (C) their own responsibility to know what the various elements of their product are and to monitor them.

Often in journalism, the best way to hang a villain is to quote him accurately:

Frankly, we don't pay much attention to the content of cartoon strips on our Comics page. We just expect them to be funny and give readers a chuckle. We do not devote a seasoned editor's time to closely check each cartoon for provocative or controversial story lines. The cartoons are pulled from the national syndicate's Web site in our graphics department, and loaded onto pages for publication. Apparently, we need to look closer, and we'll try. But we also admit it's possible some other strip - in which the artist routinely is innocently humorous - could slip through a crack if one day that artist is suddenly overcome by an irresistible urge to say something provocative.

Dear readers, the truth is we have plenty of controversial material to be concerned about, day-in and day-out, in our news and opinion columns. I have neither the interest nor the time to defend some goofy artist's stab at political points on the Comics page. Be funny, or be gone.

In subsequent comments, about a third of those who wrote in agreed with getting rid of the cartoon, two because it frequently attacks hypocrisy in religion (okay, they didn't phrase it quite THAT way), one for unspecified reasons of outrage and one who also wants Dilbert dropped because "Human beings are so belittled every day in this comic."

The remaining two-thirds said they like cartoons that make a point and that commentary with wit has a legitimate place in the pages of a newspaper.

Faced with this 2-to-1 deadlock, the editor sums up his courage to admit that he just doesn't know what to do about the whole doggone thing.

And they wonder why their readership is dropping.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Reviews are mixed

Ziwa seems to think this stuff is fun and amusing. Des, on the other hand, has seen 9 winters and isn't that enthusiastic about the 10th. We got about a foot of it, but the trail where we walk is a popular snowmobile trail, so it wasn't hard to get along. Except for the one of us who lagged behind wishing he were somewhere else.

However, on a more important level, I got a phone call this afternoon from a woman whose husband had just called her on his cell phone to say that he had found a missing hunter and she should call 911 and get an ambulance standing by. Which she did, but then, bless her heart, she also called me.

He was about 15 miles back in the bush. The hunter had been missing for two days and had been out in this storm the whole time and had that part of Maine pretty much upside down -- but not the part of Maine where the guy brought him out, which was on the other side of some serious backcountry.

I bolted for their place but the ambulance passed me when I had covered about 24 of the 30 miles up there. I wasn't going to get the picture of the hunter being loaded into the ambulance, but I kept going and had a very nice conversation with the guy who had found him.

Of course, his attitude is that he was pleased to be in the right place at the right time and hopes that, if it ever happened to him, that somebody would turn up, too.

I love this place. And, despite what Destry tells you, the snow's pretty nice, too.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Telephones are a good thing!

This ad ran in 1936, as the Depression receded and the phone company started to ponder how much business they had lost along the way. It's worth clicking on the ad to see the larger image and read the print.

It's really a wonderfully well-done ad. The woman is very Barbara Stanwyck/Fay Wray, and the art and layout are terrific.

Oh, and take a good look at the phone ... notice anything missing? Apparently, we were still at the "Hello, Central?" stage of technology.