Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Apartment


In my never-ending effort to fill my cultural gaps (we all have them), last night I watched for the first time Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. It's a 1960 Oscar-winner, often listed as one of the best films of all time. I can see why.

Lemmon plays a low-level insurance executive who works his way up in the company by loaning his apartment to his sleazy superiors for their extramarital affairs. This leaves him locked out of his own apartment a lot, and with neighbors who are both impressed and disgusted by all the action they they think he's getting. MacLaine plays an elevator operator with bad taste in men, including Lemmon's married boss.

These are surprisingly mature themes. Not that people in 1960 didn't have affairs, but to see them portrayed so openly and casually on screen is a mild jolt. Nearly every man but Lemmon is a cad, and even he's an accomplice. MacLaine makes it clear that she's a "good girl" who's been around the block a few times. 

The movie's also a white-hot critique of mid-Century corporate culture, a pretty common theme of the time. Lemmon works at a desk in a grid of hundreds of identical people sitting at identical desks on an office floor that vanishes into infinity. They enter and exit elevators summoned and dispatched by stern women with clickers, like orca trainers at Sea World. In a few years, all those people's tasks will be taken over by computers, and it's easy to conclude the computers did them a favor.

Lemmon is terrific. I'm more used to old Jack Lemmon, whose quirks and mannerisms I didn't always enjoy, but young Jack Lemmon was a rubbery coiled spring who could make putting a kettle on the stove interesting. And MacLaine . . . sigh. She's impossibly beautiful as well as a complete, complex character in her own right. Two terrific performances. Add the avuncular Fred MacMurray and Ray Walston playing against type as disgusting jerks, and you've got yourself a movie.

I kept an eye on old tech. I am not a scholar on the history of electric blankets, paper towels or instant coffee, but was surprised that Lemmon's tiny apartment had all three. He also had a nifty tabletop television remote that looked to be hardwired to the TV, an old fridge with the compressor on top, and a match-lit gas stove. I read that Wilder deliberately designed the apartment with a realistically cramped layout and well-worn furnishings, some borrowed from his own home. It feels lived in. The film is an unintentional time capsule of its era.

I also kept an eye on details that play differently today than they would have then. Sexism, obviously. Men are execs and women are secretaries. MacClaine's entire job is to stand in the elevator and push buttons for people, and she has to laugh off handsy men pinching her butt as a condition of employment. Also racism. The only black person I can recall seeing is a shoe-shine man; the only Asian is a restaurant piano player whose album is titled "Rickshaw Boy."

I don't think drinking and drunks, which the movie is loaded with, are as funny as they used to be. The office Christmas party is a drunken bacchanal of unbridled lechery. And I was really struck by The Apartment's attitude toward suicide, which isn't exactly played for laughs but more lightly than felt right to me. MacClaine tries to kill herself with sleeping pills, after which Lemmon confesses to her that he once tried to shoot himself. Like it's just something folks do when they break up. Near the end of the film we hear a loud bang and wonder if Lemmon has finally done himself in, and the "joke" is that he only popped a bottle of champagne. Kind of cringe-inducing, I thought.

I quibble (understanding that my quibbles could be someone else's deal-breakers). The Apartment is a sophisticated film that expects its audience to keep up. Great dialog. There are a lot of small grace notes. I caught one bit where, early in the movie, a drunk Lemmon says "three" to MacLaine and holds up four fingers, and much later MacLaine does the same to him. It tells you these characters are on the same wavelength without actually saying so. They don't make a big deal out of it, both moments pass quickly, but if you catch it it's terrific. 

Recommended for its sharp writing and brilliant performances. May want to avoid it if its 60-year-old attitudes toward infidelity, sexism, racism, alcoholism, or suicide would make it hard to enjoy.

Monday, January 18, 2021

And the Livin' is Easy

 It's 80F (27C) with clear blue skies in northern California this afternoon. A perfect day!

That's a problem. It's the middle of winter. It should be 20 degrees colder and raining. We're breaking high-temperature records that have stood for 150 years. Average rainfall to date is 18 inches; we've had 6. If it doesn't rain hard in February and March, we're in for another drought and a kindling-dry fire season next fall. Worldwide, 2020 was one of the hottest years ever (graph from NASA's GISS Surface Temperature Analysis).

The expanded edition of "A Fire Story," coming out in a couple of months, hits the point that it's a book about living in a climate-changing world. I didn't really say that in the original book but the time since has made it clear to me, and convinced me that I shouldn't be coy about saying so. 

Today is beautiful. Karen and I had a picnic. I never would have expected Armageddon to be so . . . pleasant.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Bum Bum Bum Bum

Just as trees must fall in a forest, traditions must carry on, even if there's nobody there to hear or see them. As I have every Christmas Eve for at least 15 years, I'm happy and proud to wish you all the best and a better 2021 with a rousing carol from my favorite cartoonist, Walt Kelly, and his characters from the great comic strip "Pogo." 

This year you get a bonus celebration: a beautiful piece by "Polly and Her Pals" cartoonist Cliff Sterrett, who tops my list of "Best Unfairly Forgotten Cartoonists in History." He really was terrific, and this page captures some of his anarchic whimsy.

Take care, everybody. See you on the other side.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

To Do

Cleaning up my studio today, I found a pad at the bottom of a pile of paper that was my "To Do" list on October 9, 2017, the day my house and a few thousand others burned down. I've advised survivors of subsequent fires that the best way to get your head straight is make a list, check items off of it, and make another list tomorrow. Repeat. That's how you get through the days with purpose.

This was mine. It's eclectic. The fundamentals: Find a place to stay (not yet checked off). Clothes and shoes. Dog food. Stop the mail so it doesn't get delivered to a melted mailbox. 

"Death binder" is what we called the file with our will and estate planning, which we needed to reconstruct. The "Tom" name blurred at the bottom is the financial guy who handles our retirement accounts. I figured he needed to know. (He didn't really.)

Pink tabs on the side mark pages with info on FEMA and the Small Business Administration, which offered low-interest loans to fire victims.

The one that really jumps out at me is "Girl Scout meeting." Why the heck were we worried about that?! I asked Karen, who has stayed involved with Scouting looong after our daughters aged out, and she pointed out that the fire was on a Monday: meeting night. She wanted me to make sure everyone knew she wouldn't be there. 

You want to know what goes through someone's mind when their house disappears? This is it. 

Monday, November 16, 2020

Equilibrio Dificil

Very nice to wake up to on a Monday: the new Brazilian edition of "Mom's Cancer" is getting some press, which publisher DarkSide Books was kind enough to send me. I was going to write "good press" in that preceding sentence, but since I don't read Portuguese I don't actually know that. I may be mindlessly crowing about the worst reviews of my life. If so, please don't tell me.





Thursday, November 5, 2020

What We'll Get

IF Biden and Harris hang on to win, the United States isn’t just getting a new President and VP in January. We will also get:

A State Department that doesn’t insult our allies and suck up to tyrants.

A Secretary of Education who believes in public education.

An Environmental Protection Agency head who believes in protecting the environment.

A Department of Health and Human Services head who believes in providing health and human services.

A Secretary of the Interior who believes in conserving America’s public lands.

A Secretary of Energy who believes renewables should be a bigger part of the country’s energy mix, and who will restore the climate change information, research, and data that the current Administration purged.

A Secretary of Agriculture who won’t make U.S. farmers bear the brunt of the President’s trade wars and tariffs.

A Secretary of Labor who will help workers at least as much as CEOs.

A Secretary of Transportation who might actually advance next-generation technologies, as well as an infrastructure (“roads and bridges”) plan that’s been promised for four years and never materialized.

An Attorney General who works for the American people rather than as the President’s personal attorney.

A Postmaster General who regards mail as an essential public service and will try to deliver it instead of impede it. 

A NASA head who isn’t compelled to spend billions to stroke his boss’s ego (the only reason NASA’s Artemis program keeps pushing its deadline to return Americans to the Moon by 2024 is to give Trump a shiny crown with which to cap his second term).

Press secretaries whose literal first words to the press (“I will never lie to you”) won’t be lies.

Directors of the CDC, FDA, National Weather Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (remember the Sharpie hurricane path?) who aren’t afraid to tell their boss or the public the truth about science.

Directors of the CIA and FBI who aren’t afraid to tell their boss or the public the truth about intelligence.

Military officers who know they won’t be ordered to violate their services’ chains of command or discipline, or be pressured to violate their oaths to defend the Constitution, based on the whims of their Commander in Chief.

Aides who aren’t afraid to tell the President something he doesn’t want to hear.

Aides who aren’t immediately related to the President.

Aides who don’t need the President to pardon them or commute their sentences when they’re convicted of crimes that directly benefit the President.

A Secret Service Agency that won’t be billed to stay at properties the President owns, or ordered to drive him around in a closed limo when he has a deadly communicable disease.

Most likely, zero payouts to porn stars.

Fewer Tweets, with better spelling and grammar.

Peace and quiet.

All the people in this photo out of work.

And perhaps most importantly, a task force to reunite hundreds of children, who were kidnapped at the border by the United States, with their families.

We won’t get everything we might have hoped for, but we’ll get a hell of a lot.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Mamae esta com Cancer


I just replied to an extremely long and detailed e-mail interview for Folha de São Paulo, which I'm told is one of the leading newspapers in Brazil, about the forthcoming Portuguese edition of Mom's Cancer.

Also: there is a forthcoming Portuguese edition of Mom's Cancer! Talk about burying the lede . . .

This was one of the most exhaustive interview of any sort I've done: 24 questions that took me nearly seven pages to answer. I hope they use some of it.

That's the Portuguese cover above. I did not design it, and Editor Charlie was very dubious when he first saw it. But I kinda like it, and the pink color ties in with Brazil's nationwide anti-cancer campaigns. Bottom line: I trust the Brazilian publishers know their market better than I do, and if they think hot pink will sell the book, it's OK with me!

This will be the eighth language for Mom's Cancer. In addition to English we've got German, French, Italian and Japanese already out, with Spanish and Slovenian (!) in the works. 

Seriously, when I began all this, I had no idea.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Story After the Storm Story

This feels weird.

Sunday night The Weather Channel broadcast an episode of "Storm Stories" that included me and others who made it through the northern California firestorms of October 2017. I liked the episode, although I chuckled at some of the melodrama, but that goes with the genre. As I said in my previous post, the producers and crew were very kind and considerate, and that goes a long way toward making me feel great about the whole experience.

I have a few notes . . .

First, the interview was not shot in my house. The camera crew of five set up shop in a large, semi-rural B&B about 20 miles south of Santa Rosa. Best I could tell, they also slept and ate there, and outfitted the big living room to be a TV studio.

The interview happened in late June, so high Covid season. The crew was careful and diligent. Everyone wore masks the entire time I was there. The camera crew was a good 10 or so feet away from me. When they dabbed a bit of make-up on my face, they had me put on a face shield and then reached under it with gloves on. I slipped off my mask when on camera, then put it right back on when we cut. It felt safe.

I sat on what looks like a log but was actually a sort of ceramic stool, because all the chairs had high backs and they didn't want them peeking over my shoulders. It got uncomfortable. Somewhere is an outtake of me standing up and shaking my butt to get blood back into it.

I took two shirts, blue and red. They had me change so that different footage would look like it had been shot on different days. Show-biz magic! I doubt anybody noticed. 

I was there a bit more than an hour. The field producer, Mario, was a good interviewer, and in fact got me so relaxed and conversational I said a few things that, upon reflection, I dreaded seeing on TV. So I emailed the producers, explained my worry, and they said "No problem, we don't want you to have any regrets about talking to us so we won't use it," which is extraordinary. They didn't have to do that; I'd already signed the release. That impressed me.

The view from my stool. Mario's on the left. Sorry I forgot the cameraman's name.

I was also impressed when the producers called me weeks later to fact-check their narration script. That almost never happens. 

After the interview was over and I was driving home, I got a frantic phone call. They'd forgotten a very important shot! Could they drive to my house to do it? It was quicker for me to turn around, so I went back. What was this critical footage they so desperately needed?!

It's the one-second intro where I'm looking away from the camera, then my gaze slowly turns to stare directly into the soul of the viewer at home. Which I thought was hilarious. "What'd you do today Brian?" "I turned my head. Dramatically." We did four or five takes on the front porch, and then I went home for real.

I think the episode was very well produced. It was dramatic, but so was the actual firestorm. 

I was happy to see my friends Mike Harkins--whose tale of trying to save his neighborhood with a garden hose you may remember from A Fire Story--and Melissa Geissinger, as well as the perspectives of the sheriff's deputy and firefighter. Mike's and Melissa's stories were really the heart of the episode.

I didn't know they would have actors portray Karen and me in dramatic re-enactments. I was disappointed that my actor was old, fat, and slept on the wrong side of the bed. I suppose Brad Pitt was unavailable.

The program broadened my own perspective on a disaster I was in the middle of. I was unexpectedly moved. I hadn't seen most of that fire footage in three years, and some I don't think I've ever seen. Both Karen and I felt a very strong sense of, "My God, we really were in the middle of an inconceivably large and violent disaster and survived it!" Three years of getting by day to day has dulled some of those raw nerves. "Storm Stories" reminded us. If you want to know what it was like, that's kind of it.

I'm happy I did the program, and very much appreciate The Weather Channel and "Storm Stories" coming to tell our story. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Sunday Storm Stories



Last June, I teased that I had done something cool and couldn't talk about it. Now I can.

This Sunday, October 11, I'll be appearing in an episode of The Weather Channel series "Storm Stories." The program usually tackles natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes or blizzards, but this one is about firestorms and they're focusing on mine.

The episode's not all about me. They interviewed at least two other people that I know of--my friends Mike and Melissa--and probably others that I don't know about. 

I haven't seen the episode. Based on other "Storm Stories" I've watched, I expect it to be well crafted and maybe a bit dramatic. There will be spooky music and somber narration. I was very impressed with the crew I worked with here, as well as producers back at Storm Stories headquarters. They were kind and considerate.

It's probably coincidental that it airs so close to the third anniversary of the fire, which was the night of October 8-9: today. However, when the producers told me it'd likely air in October or November, I pointed that date out to them so maybe they took my hint. 

Three years. Wow.

On Monday I'll share a couple of anecdotes about the shoot. My "Storm Stories" segment is scheduled to air Sunday at 8:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. ET (5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Pacific Time). But check your local TV listings to be sure.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

PBS NewsHour (again?!)


Add to the list of things I didn't know I'd be doing when I woke up this morning: appearing on the PBS NewsHour tonight. I just got off a Skype call with producer Jason Kane (left) and correspondent Stephanie Sy, who wanted some perspective about the new fires from a survivor of an old one. You may recall that the NewsHour and correspondent John Yang came to town last year and did a terrific piece on A Fire Story the very day Karen and I moved into our rebuilt home. 

I don't know when in the NewsHour I'll appear or how much they'll edit me down (and of course I may not appear at all depending on how the day's news goes), but we talked for a good while. I was impressed again by the professionalism and compassion of the NewsHour folks. Funny: while Stephanie was interviewing me, I got a text from Kira Wakeam, who co-produced last year's story but doesn't even work there anymore. She just wanted to see how we're doing. 

PBS NewsHour hires good storytellers and better people.

EDITED TO ADD: Just watched it online. I think they used three quotes of mine. It's a good piece that unexpectedly used some video from last year's story, which included Karen. Nice!

The story starts at about the 39:14 mark. I show up around 42:24. You can watch it at the link, or catch it on your local PBS station tonight!

I appreciate being included.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Flashback Friday!


Flashback Friday! Karen was cleaning out her office when she found this notepad in the bottom of a box. It's from my days as a newspaper reporter for a small California daily. The first two pages look like notes from a City Council meeting about allocating $292,398 to build a transit garage. The next several pages look like notes Karen took while she was in training to be an entry-level social worker. I imagine I handed it to her when she was heading to work and didn't have anything to write on.

It's circa 1985. Today, Karen is preparing to retire from her 35-year career in social services, capped by leading a department with 900 people and a budget of $300 million. I've written a lot more stuff and had a few books published. This notepad is a physical artifact of when we'd barely started on those paths together. It kind of symbolizes . . . everything.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Pop Culture Classroom Summer Book Club

 A couple of days ago, I did a live web thingy with the Pop Culture Classroom, the nice people who are affiliated with the Denver Pop Culture Con and gave A Fire Story the prestigious Excellence in Graphic Literature Award for Best Adult Nonfiction. What I most appreciate about Pop Culture Classroom is its focus on using graphic novels in libraries and classrooms. They're almost unique in that respect.

If you watch, it's almost exactly an hour; skip over the opening 5 minute countdown. I opened with a presentation about how I made "A Fire Story," from the photos and notes I took the day my house burned down to webcomic to print. And then we had a nice conversation about trauma, grief, empathy, comics as a storytelling medium, and such. Thanks to Matt, Mathew, Faith, and Pop Culture Classroom for naming my book the best adult nonfiction graphic novel of 2019, I appreciate it a lot!

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Comic-Con Post-Mortem


This article in Variety may be the stupidest piece of journalism I've read in a long time. It concludes that Comic-Con@Home, the San Diego con organizers' valiant attempt to salvage something good from the plague flames, failed because the YouTube panels didn't draw millions of hits.

What the article misses is that Comic-Con International is a lot more than what happens in Hall H, the large auditorium that hosts the major movie panels and such. I've been to Comic-Con many times and never once set foot in Hall H. What *I* see is that the panel I did, "Comics During Clampdown," has been viewed 1288 times. I guarantee you that the same panel live in San Diego wouldn't have drawn one-tenth that. I've seen and done panels that had more people on stage than in the audience. I also hear that the Cartoon Art Museum's "Sketch-a-Thon" fundraiser I participated in did as well or better than it would have live.

My takeaway is that Comic-Con@Home was an admirable success. In a couple of months they put together not just 350-plus Zoom panels but long-distance versions of art exhibitions, cosplay displays, vendor outlets, the Eisner Awards, and everything they could short of the $5 rubbery pretzels. It was free and open to all, and the videos are online to view at your leisure.

No, Comic-Con@Home wasn't the same as being there. That's obvious. But I think it did a lot to keep the spirit and community of Comic-Con alive.