Friday, November 27, 2009

Speaking of good hosts ...

My main thing is that I'm blessed, and God has put me in a situation where I don't need for anything, where I don't want for anything, but there are a lot of people that do, and there are a lot of people in my situation who don't think about other people, and it's just something we're trying to focus on, to think about other people and make other people smile -- Dunta Robinson

There's nothing new in an NFL team showing a clip of its players doing charitable work in the community, but this one is a little different. I was struck not only by how these young men expressed their interest in helping others, and in how this activity apparently was initiated by the three players themselves and not by the team's PR department, but also in how they articulate their own gratitude and thanksgiving for the place in life they occupy.

My favorite part of the interview is the fellow at the end, who isn't associated with the team but who apparently does some pretty important coaching of young men, too.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hilary Price, hostess extraordinaire

Every year, Hilary Price, who draws the hilarious, insightful strip "Rhymes with Orange," has an open house at her studio in Florence, Mass., which is really Northampton except for lines on a map. And every year, I promise myself to go down there.

This year, I finally did, and picked up this interview among the hubbub of the open studio. Better yet, I tossed the eldest granddaughter into the car. She got a great picture-and-autograph from Hilary, while I had the pleasure of seeing the interview through the eyes of an unspoiled observer.

Well worth the trip, even if the miserable weather kept us from strolling through the Smith campus. One inspiration at a time, I guess.

And don't miss the Burger King tie-in

I've got nothing to add. Ruben Bolling speaks for me today. Except that it will be nice for parents to be able to drop their kids off at the cineplex to see this instead of actually having to sit down and play it with them.

And then the grandparents will give them the DVD for Christmas.

As someone said in the comments page at UClick, "Please don't give them any more ideas."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In our village, we stopped for things that mattered
(This column originally appeared in the Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, NY,
November 17, 1996)

Bill Clinton won re-election just as Mel Gibson got into a machine-gun fight in the middle of the highway with Gary Busey.

The programs normally seen at this time were not cancelled so that we could bring you coverage of the national elections except on the three major networks, PBS and CNN. So while those few channels carried election coverage, WPIX had “Lethal Weapon,” Nickelodeon had “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters,” and the Discovery Channel had ''Animal Cannibals.”

Comedy Central, it should be noted, did go to special programming, making fun of the electoral process throughout the evening. At least they acknowledged that something was going on.

I took particular notice because, on the way home from work that night, I had heard a clip of a comedian on NPR reminiscing about the days when there were only the three network stations, and when the President was on one channel, he was on all three channels, so all the kids moaned, “Oh no! The President is on! Now we're gonna miss 'Flipper'!”

The kids don't miss ''Flipper'' anymore. In the multi-ring circus of cable television, there is no reason to be bored and absolutely no requirement to be well-informed; Just flick past the news programs until you find some brain candy.

I don't want to lie to the younger generation: We did NOT cuddle up on the couch with Mom and Dad and watch the election returns come in. We moaned that our favorite TV shows weren't going to be on, and then we went up to our rooms and read or listened to music, and, the next morning, somebody told us who was going to be President.

But, while we didn't watch the coverage, we knew it was important, because the whole nation had come to a halt for the evening. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we got the message that, when we were older and more mature, when we weren't little children anymore, it would matter to us.

It was not the only time we got the message that something was important.

For example, while not everyone went to church Sundays, it was still a day when nothing much happened. Families might go for a drive, or you might watch sports on TV, or play in the neighborhood, but most stores were closed, and things were pretty quiet. Sunday was when you spent time with family or with friends, and, apparently, that mattered to the community, because everything shut down to let it happen.

We talk a lot these days about whole villages raising children, but there hasn't been a village for decades. Do you want to see a village? Go to the microfilm and look for the Press-Republican from September 24, 1946.

You won't find it, because the whole community had been out at the Plattsburgh Barracks the day before, thanking our veterans for their sacrifices during World War II, and there was nobody back at the shop to print the next day's paper. So we just didn't have one.

Stores were closed, area schools were dismissed, and the only people working in local industries were skeleton crews at places that couldn't be completely shut down. Banks and government offices were required to be open, but they were apologetic about having to mar the local holiday.

It was important to the community, and so the community shut down to concentrate on what mattered. They didn't do it to send a message because it never occurred to them. This region made up our “village,” and we already knew what we all cared about.

Today it's hard to tell what anybody really cares about. Thanksgiving and Christmas are about the only days that the village shuts down. Most of the other holidays have been converted to three-day sale events.

And even if we were to agree on something that mattered to the North Country, we would never again be able to declare a local holiday because we don't own our stores, we don't own our factories, we don't own our media, and the decision to shut down would have to be made far away in the Land of the Beancounters, where villages are considered small and inefficient.

You sometimes hear people talk of having lost control of our children, but we've lost far more than that.

We've lost control of our communities, we've lost any chance of ever becoming a village again.
We traded away our village for Sunday shopping, three-day weekends and a whole mess of cable channels.

(The photo is of an Armistice Day parade in Lancaster, Pa., in 1942.
It was held on November 11 and people had the day off.)

Monday, November 09, 2009


In King Vidor's 1928 classic, "The Crowd," a baby's father speculates to the neighbors on the grand things ahead for him, and the boy grows up with a sense that he will be special. He leaves for New York City to pursue his singular destiny and then, in a famous shot, the camera zooms in on his office at work and we see him as one in a roomful of faceless clerks, lost in the crowd.

There is a lot of Oblomov in this young man, as he dreams without planning or acting on those dreams. Still, the overarching message of the film is of futility and of the simple fact that most of us are destined to be lost in the crowd.

Having been through my midlife crisis some years ago, I'm content with my place in the cosmos. However, it has lately occurred to me to question another way of fading, faceless, voiceless and unknown into the ether, one that is, as in the case of "The Crowd's" John Sims, a great disappointment after all the promises of greatness.

The on-line world, on the one hand, has allowed people who are separated by long distances but who share certain interests or traits to find each other, which is what happens here and on the blogs listed in the rail at the right. Some have more traffic than others, but there is a community of friends who wouldn't have come together in the three-dimensional world. I think that is quite valuable.

On the other hand, there is a greater promise that is clearly not coming true, and that is the concept of a grand salon in which everyone gets to take part in the conversation.

It is, in part, a simple matter of scale. Huffington Post, as I write this, features a lead story from the Washington Post about the economy and unemployment. It was posted less than six hours ago but has already attracted 2,906 comments. On the Washington Post site itself, where the story appeared yesterday (Sunday), it has amassed 28 pages of comments.

Are the comments intelligent and constructive, or irrelevant, uninformed and toxic? What on earth difference does it make? Who is going to read it all? Who's going to read half of it?

And, even when the mass of postings is manageable, there is an issue whether people even know how to have a conversation. Venom aside -- and having to wade through vulgar, irrelevant taunts is a good reason not to bother participating -- I've got serious doubts about the amount of actual conversation that takes place on-line. Too often, it feels like Monty Python's Argument Clinic, where the fellow wants a spirited debate but finds nothing but abuse and contradiction. In too many on-line forums, participants arrive with their positions in place, ready to be defended, rather than with opinions which could be changed in an actual conversation.

Politics and religion are obvious places where you expect this. But the utter lack of meaningful exchange is everywhere. Recently, I gave up on a comic strips forum where I'd been active for more than a decade. When I first checked in, it was full of both aspiring and established cartoonists, as well as intelligent commentators on the medium. It had its ups and downs, and, over the course of a decade, nearly all the cartoonists, pro and amateur, drifted away. But the group muddled on, and there were some pleasant people there, some of whom turn up here regularly.

However, there was a frog-in-the-pot factor at work in the group's decline. Now, I know that the frog in the pot who doesn't notice the water getting hotter is a myth, and, if I were to use the metaphor in an on-line conversation, here's what would happen: The actual topic of discussion would immediately disappear under a pile of comments about the heat-sensing abilities of frogs, and would never emerge again.

But, if I may use that biologically inaccurate metaphor, the decline of conversation only struck me a few weeks ago when someone raised a question about a comic strip in which a cow was standing on a cliff. The fellow asked how, since farms are in flatland, could you have a cow on a cliff?

Several of us responded that farms are not exclusively on flat land. Two participants even posted photographs of cows on hillsides. His response was that, while he appreciated all the opinions, he realized that it was only a cartoon and that real farms are not actually found on hillsides.

Then, just a few days later, I found myself being dragged into a conversation about the newspaper industry and realized that, if multiple pictures of cows on a hillside is not enough to persuade someone that cows can be on hillsides, there was nothing to be gained in trying to offer evidence about much of anything. There was certainly no profit in pointlessly arguing over something that mattered to me more than cows.

At the same time, I stopped bothering to add comments on the massive news sites where nothing you say stays any longer than a snowflake on a griddle. It is like whispering into a hurricane, and I was wasting my time and efforts.

A month later, the sun continues to rise each morning, and, best of all, if I say that the sun rises in the morning, nobody chimes in to point out that, in fact, the sun doesn't actually move around the earth, and nobody else then argues that, in a manner of speaking, it does.

It's not a retreat into total virtual silence on my part. I still participate in some smaller, focused forums, and I speak up on Facebook, which is so ephemeral that I don't think anyone mistakes it for a real conversation.

And I speak up when it seems clear that a failure to speak up is the same as allowing toxic bigotry or harmful ignorance to triumph. Probably to no avail, but there is an issue of personal morality to be considered.

I also maintain my own small salon here, and visit those salons where the conversation is genteel, amusing and even, on occasion, elevating.

I'm sorry that the promise of the grand on-line salon has proved to be impossible to fulfill. But so has the dream of world peace. We'll all get along somehow anyway.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Speaking of a credit crisis ...

November 9 marks (more or less) the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The actual destruction of the wall was the culmination of a series of events, but the ninth is the day generally considered the anniversary, as it was the day that unrestricted travel between East and West Berlin began, a few days ahead of when it was officially supposed to.

One reason for the non-specific date is that people mistook the announcement for the fact and began to show up and it was clearly better to just let them cross than to try to tell them they had to wait for the actual date set.

In any case, I'm sure we will hear a great deal about "Tear down this wall" and Ronald Reagan, and I find that interesting, because the fall of the Wall happened not on his watch but 10 months into the presidency of George HW Bush.

How things have changed in two decades! Back then, apparently, the groundwork a president put in was credited to him, even if it didn't bear results until after he had left office. So Reagan gets credit for the fall of the Wall, largely based on a speech he made over two years prior to the event.

Now, 20 years later, we find that whatever policies a president pursued for years prior to leaving office are irrelevant 10 months later, and that his successor is entirely responsible for things like the economy or a pair of ongoing wars that, in another era, we might have said he had inherited.

Mind you, it could be a mere blip. After all, Reagan also got credit for freeing the Iran hostages, and they were released a mere six minutes into his administration.

Al Jazeera has an interesting teaser for a David Frost interview with GHW Bush and Gorbachev on the topic, in which one point of agreement is that the dismantling of the Berlin Wall was made easier because Bush didn't showboat over it.

Well, then, I guess somebody had to.

Or maybe the Bush family is just naturally invisible. As noted, GW Bush appears to have left no footprints at all in American history -- everything he did expired at the moment he left the White House and, 10 months later, is credited entirely to Barack Obama.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Someday, all this won't be yours

They rolled Yossarian away on a stretcher into the room with the other soldier who saw everything twice and quarantined everyone else in the ward for another fourteen days.
'I see everything twice!' the soldier who saw everything twice shouted when they rolled Yossarian in.
'I see everything twice!' Yossarian shouted back at him just as loudly, with a secret wink.
'The walls! The walls!' the other soldier cried. 'Move back the walls!'
'The walls! The walls!' Yossarian cried. 'Move back the walls!'
One of the doctors pretended to shove the walls back. 'Is that far enough?'
The soldier who saw everything twice nodded weakly and sank back on his bed. Yossarian nodded weakly too, eyeing his talented roomate with great humility and admiration. He knew he was in the presence of a master. His talented roomate was obviously a person to be studied and emulated. During the night, his talented roomate died, and Yossarian decided that he had followed him far enough.
'I see everything once!' he cried quickly.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Self-expression in a hard world

Daryl Cagle recently returned from a trip to the Middle East where he met with editorial cartoonists from Palestine. His take on the meeting is compelling at a moment when Israel is bulldozing Palestinian homes for having added unapproved extensions while allowing the expansion of entire settlements on the West Bank.

The central question of Cagle's blog posting is critical: How do you express rage without alienating those you need to bring to your side?

It is a question Americans should be able to relate to. At what point did the passive resistance of Martin Luther King need to be augmented by the rage of SNCC and the Panthers? At what point do feminists stop slapping stickers on offensive images and begin to sue for damages?

Daryl suggests that a more moderate voice will win support. I'm not sure. I'm in favor of rage, but I long ago learned through the Irish experience that there is a rage understood in your own community that strikes nothing but false notes in the greater world.

In any case, here are some examples of how I traced the issues of the Middle East in the years when I was publishing a weekly student feature on political cartoons. And I kind of miss those days, though I'm not sure if anyone was listening.

(Click on the images for a full-sized version.)

(December 28, 2005)

(February 1, 2006)

(November 1, 2006)