Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Down by the Riverside

Got home from last weekend's "Medical Examinations" conference at UC Riverside and spent Monday catching up on missed work. Good conference! Especially for the first of its kind. In contrast to the Graphic Medicine conferences I've been involved with, this one dealt with storytelling in a broader sense, with a sort of anthropological academic perspective. Art, theater, history, literature, Native American prayer, comics: it's all good.

As with all conferences, the most interesting and valuable stuff happened between the presentations and panels. I got to spend more time with my friend Dr. Ian Williams, who cartoons under the pen name Thom Ferrier, and I was especially happy to get to know Arthur Frank, a sociologist at the University of Calgary who wrote The Wounded Storyteller, one of the seminal examinations of medical narratives. I confess I didn't know his work beforehand but quickly got up to speed after two or three different people e-mailed me to say, "You're going to be at a conference with Arthur Frank?! Wow!" His talk on the theme "When Bodies Need Stories" was my favorite of the conference, and he's a friendly, witty, brilliant gentleman--a highlight of the weekend for sure.

Registration table for the conference at UC Riverside's Culver Center for the Arts. All the talks were given in the large room behind the table (you can just see a slide projected on the far wall behind the bald gent), while artwork was exhibited on easels in the left and right galleries defined by the columns. It was a nice space.

Many of the attendees were grad students and undergrads hopelessly devoted to Juliet McMullin, the UC Riverside professor who organized the conference. Some had contributed to the artwork exhibited along the sides the room, and a lot of them had read Mom's Cancer, which was gratifying.

Best of all, my sisters Brenda and Elisabeth drove over to see me do my thing, which I think was a first for both of them, and share a late birthday dinner with Karen and me. So I had the pleasure of introducing Nurse Sis and Kid Sis to some people who didn't quite seem to believe they were real. That was fun.

With Juliet McMullin. She's the best.
Kid Sis, Nurse Sis and me flanking a page from Mom's Cancer featuring Kid Sis, Nurse Sis and Me. It's like a recursive Escher etching or something. Spooky.

I think my own talk went well. I had three basic goals: make the case that comics are a medium with unique abilities to tell stories in ways no other medium can; talk about the idea of "community" (communities of family, friends, caregivers, humanity) within Mom's Cancer; and introduce the idea of Graphic Medicine as a body of comics work with its own history and value. That's a lot.

As I prepared the talk, I rehearsed bits of it but never really put it all together and practiced it as a whole. I was aiming for about 45 minutes and figured if anything I'd go long. So I was surprised as I neared the end of my talk to check a clock and see I'd only spoken for 30 minutes. Gosh, I must've been motor-mouthing like a madman! I finished a few minutes later, took some questions, left the stage, and went to apologize to Juliet for coming up 10 minutes short. Karen stopped me:

"But you talked for an hour."

"No, I checked the clock. It was like 35 minutes."

"It was more than an hour."

"No way!"

I appealed to Juliet.

"Everybody seemed to be enjoying it so I didn't want to stop you."

I don't know what happened to the time. I don't know how I misread the clock. When Juliet left a comment in my previous post about loving my 240-minute talk, she was only exaggerating a little. All I know is I that started, WHOOSH, and then I stopped. Luckily I was the last speaker of the day so I didn't intrude into someone else's time. I hate those guys.

The very beginning of my talk, approximately the moment I entered a fugue state.
Anyway, that happened, and then we all signed books. Arthur was dismayed because Ian and I were drawing little sketches in ours. Made him look like a chump.

Signing books with Ian Williams and Arthur Frank. Mom's Cancer sold out and I think Ian did well, too. My vision's perfect out to about arm's length so I often take off my glasses for close-up work. That's a fat new Pentel brush-pen I'm trying out; I liked it!

Day Two was relaxing because I'd fulfilled my responsibilities and could sit back and heckle. Ian gave a great talk that dovetailed well with mine, and I think between us we created a few converts to Graphic Medicine.

What I saw of the city of Riverside was swell, and the Mission Inn where we were lodged is pretty fantastic, in all senses of the word. One look at its website convinced Karen she wanted to come along. It's sort of a Spanish-Moorish citadel that covers a city block and reminded both Karen and me of the Winchester Mystery House, if you're familiar with it, in both its rambling randomness and clear signs of having been assembled by a crazy multi-millionaire. Highly recommended.

How Karen spent some of her day.

Good weekend, good event, great people. Thanks to Juliet, Chikako Takeshita, Laura Lozon, Sharon Rushing, Kara Miller, and lots of others for inviting me, organizing everything, and making us feel welcome. Just in terms of logistics, this was one of the best-run conference I've ever been to. I'm especially grateful to all the attendees and students who stopped to talk so we could get to know each other a bit. That's the best part.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Medical Examinations: Art, Story & Theory

I'm dedicating quite a bit of time getting ready for a talk I'm giving this Friday at the Medical Examinations: Art, Story & Theory conference hosted by the University of California, Riverside. This looks neat!

As I understand it, the broad theme is how people tell stories of illness and care through a variety of media. I'll be talking about comics, as will my UK friend Dr. Ian Williams, but others will touch on storytelling, literature, fine art, theater. It hits my sweet spot of integrating science and art while being very different from the Graphic Medicine (i.e., comics) conferences I've attended and helped organize in the past. Also unlike the GM conferences, there won't be separate academic panels or tracks for people to attend, just us speakers.

I think I'm up for the challenge.

I take my responsibility to "put on a good show" very seriously, particularly when someone else is picking up the tab (and UC Riverside and organizer Juliet McMullin are treating me with atypical hospitality). Whether you're satisfied or not--and you can't be a tougher critic than I am on myself--I try to give my best. At least ever since one engagement I bumbled and hmmmed my way through because I'd gotten cocky and thought I didn't need to prepare because I'd already given the same speech a few times and had it down. Turned out I was wrong. I honestly don't know if my hosts or audience noticed--they seemed happy--but I felt like a goat. Won't happen again.

In any event, this will be an entirely new, never-before-seen talk that right now looks like it'll run somewhere between 8.5 and 240 minutes. I expect to hone in on about 40 to 45 in the next couple of days.

Astonishingly, the conference is Free! However, the organizers are asking people to register so they can get a head count, and I understand spaces are available. Here's the registration site and here's the agenda. I'm speaking Friday at 4:30 p.m. I may have something extra-special planned; I may not. You'll have to come and see.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

And You Run and You Run to Catch Up with the Sun

I was going to let my birthday today pass unmentioned, but my family has already outed me on Facebook. I never told Facebook my birth date mostly to avoid friends and "friends" wishing me a happy one because their computers prodded them to, but it turns out there's no avoiding family.


I'm not a birthday grump. I used to be, when I was a younger man with frustrated ambitions. That's when I adopted Pink Floyd's "Time" as my unofficial birthday anthem and established the ritual of morosely listening to it on my day. So I was startled a while ago to realize I'd grown up to be pretty happy and content, having accomplished much of what I'd hoped. (I think I also realized that some of my ambitions were stupid.) It took longer than I might've liked but I got there. The idea of contentment took some getting used to and still doesn't quite sit right with me. That's fine. Some ambition and angst are good for the soul.

I still keep my "Time" ritual; in fact, I just played it. The difference: now it makes me smile.

In case you're unfamiliar with my birthday song. I just noticed that "Floyd" is one of those words that, if you stare at it a few minutes, starts to look very weird.

Still, I think there's something silly about making a big deal of someone's birthday after the age of 20 or so. Everybody's got one. I don't need gifts, I'm a grown-up; if there's something I really want, I can go buy it myself.

Maybe I am still a bit of a birthday grump. It's hard to separate from my natural ground state of general grumpiness.

My daughters surprised me with an early-birthday visit home last weekend. In addition to the gift of their presence (all I needed of course), they gave me a home-sewn reversible cooking apron with a black-and-white starship Enterprise print on one side and a colorful Marvel comics print on the other. Wonderful!

They also got me one of these:

I could name at least four of my readers who need no further explanation. For the rest, here's a hint:

The 21st Century version of the Enterprise Comm Panel doesn't do quite as many neat things as its 23rd Century counterpart but it's still pretty cool. When you push the white button it emits the "hail" whistle. It also has a motion sensor that can be set to sound off either a "red alert" klaxon or Star Trek's sliding door "swoosh!" when someone walks past. I've mounted it near my office door and it always makes me smile, although sometimes when I forget it's there it scares the chitlins out of me, too.

My kids get me. Who wouldn't be content with that?

Tonight Karen and I will have a nice dinner and slice into half a birthday cake (we ate the other half with the girls on Sunday), and I'll open a few gifts from her and my extended family. I do appreciate the gestures. Today I turn fifty-three. It beats the only alternative.

Friday, April 12, 2013

I Drew This, Plus Scouting

I Drew This #2: An old man putting on pants.

This is about as exciting as "Mystery Project X" gets. I smell a bestseller.

* * *

I had a very nice time at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center last Sunday playing author for a special Girl Scout event. The theme of the day was "Storytelling" and Scouts of all ages came to do activities and earn badges built around it. About 140 girls spent several hours on the grounds, split into two groups so that half were ice skating at the nearby arena while the other half toured the museum.

I sat upstairs with Lauri Day and later Vicki Scott, both of whom I enjoyed getting to know a little (I'd met Vicki before but we'd never really talked). To help keep the younger Scouts on task, they were sent on a two-page scavenger hunt for information they had to find somewhere in the museum, including from Actual Storytellers. They had four questions for us. At first I responded with detailed replies as if I were actually being interviewed. I immediately realized that wouldn't work because a.) they weren't really interested, and b.) some of them could barely print. Our interactions quickly distilled down to the fewest, simplest words possible:

Q. What is your name? A. Brian Fies. You can copy it off my little sign here.

Q. Where do you get your ideas? A. I think about things that are important to me.

Q. How long does it take to write a story? A. A long time. About two years for my first book and three years for my second.

Q. What do you do when you don't have any ideas? A. I have too many ideas, not enough time. Alternative answer: I think harder.

Most of the Scouts were a blur of vests and braids, but some stood out. A few seemed genuinely interested in looking at my originals and learning about the cartooning process. One 8-year-old planted herself in front of my table and started reading Mom's Cancer. When her Mom said it was time to move on, she didn't budge. Finally the girl said, "I want to buy this book" (which I hadn't really brought any copies of to sell). Mom looked at the title, looked at me: "Is it age-appropriate?" Tough question; I answered honestly, "Maybe not." They moved on. But for a couple of minutes, I had her riveted.

Of course the museum was open to regular visitors while the Scouts toured. Among them was a group of nuns, which made an interesting contrast with the Scouts. Old and young women in different uniforms. Two boys, maybe 11 or 12, thought all of us cartoonist-types were just amazing. They kept circling around with such open, sincere enthusiasm I initially wondered if they were putting us on. And they caught me in a snare I'll be more careful to avoid next time.

As the afternoon went on and the Scouts thinned out, the boys asked Lauri and me if we'd race to see which of us could draw them faster. "OK, now you do him and you do me." That was a couple minutes of fun . . . which ominously did not go unnoticed. Another visitor saw what we were up to and wanted her kid's caricature. And in the time it took to do that one, someone else came up. So I spent the last half hour drawing caricatures over my strong and heartfelt protests that I'm not very good at it ("Oh, please, just one more of the little baby, we'll put it on her bedroom wall"). It was horrifying. Everyone seemed happy with their sketches but I'm not falling for that one again. At least no one asked me to draw Snoopy; Vicki does it for a living, but that beagle is harder to get right than he looks.

With that important lesson learned, it was a nice afternoon. The girls, visitors, and museum staff were great. Girl Scouts was a big part of our family's life for a long time (says the 2001 Father of the Year for Girl Scouts Service Unit #18), and in fact Karen's still involved seven years after our daughters earned their Gold Awards and moved on, so it was fun to reconnect. I can't think of any way to not make this sound super creepy, but I just love little girls. They always remind me of young fatherhood, a good time in my life, and the two former-little-girls I love most in the world.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Sir Edmond and Sally

I was peeking in on an astronomy blog discussion recently when a comment brought me to a skidding stop. If my brain could make that sound of a needle scritching across a record, it would have.

Someone lamented that Comet Pan-STARRS had turned out to be kind of a dud. Someone else replied that there was still hope Comet ISON could be pretty spectacular later this year, but early observation suggested it might be less showy than expected, too. And then someone said:

"At least I'll be around for the next appearance of Halley's Comet."

And that's what brought me up short. Because barring extraordinary luck or some breakthrough in human longevity ...

I won't.

Damn punk kids.

Halley's last passed through the inner solar system in 1986. Its period is about 75 years, putting its next pass in 2061. I'll be 101. Although the comet wasn't very impressive in '86, owing to the geometry of our respective orbits at the time, I understand it's expected to put on a good show next time.

Comets had been inexplicable one-off apparitions until Sir Edmond Halley calculated his namesake's orbit and realized "Hey, this sucker's been here before!" Halley's fame was made, and his iceball became THE quintessential comet, when he correctly predicted it would return in 1758, 16 years after his death. Of course, once you realize you're dealing with a regular guest, you can dig through history and find records of its visits in worldwide media as diverse as the Bayeux Tapestry (appearance of AD 1066) and a Babylonian clay tablet (164 BC).

"Oh, it's you again."

Comet Halley also strikes a cultural chord because its period is just about the length of a human life. Mark Twain was famously born when Halley's appeared in 1835 and died when it returned in 1910. For most, it's literally a once-in-a-lifetime event.

In 1986 I'd graduated from college but still lived nearby and had the keys to the campus observatory, which I'd helped run while a student (just between us I still have the keys, though I figure by now they must have changed the locks). My university's observatory was poorly located atop a five-story building in the center of campus--next to which they then constructed a six-story building, blocking the view of a good chunk of sky--but it was a neat little facility at which real research could be done.

The comet was due to be especially well positioned on one particular night. So on that night I took my keys, circumventing the university's process for reserving the observatory, and set off for the roof. I assumed I'd be alone but arrived to find a small group already there. Quiet. Almost reverent. There in the little round cinderblock building were my old professor mentor and half a dozen people, all of whom I knew from my college days. Hadn't seen some of them in three or four years. As far as I know, nothing had been planned. Everyone just showed up, gravitationally drawn to meet in that place on that night. No one seemed the least surprised to see me unlock the door with my unauthorized keys and join the party.

That was special.

Many of my blog posts get written because two or more notions collide in my brain to spark something interesting. As documented in past posts, I've spent the last couple of weeks refurbishing my office/studio, and as part of that process cleaned up my bulletin board. At the top of my old board I kept pinned for nearly 30 years what could be my favorite "Peanuts" comic ever, from October 18, 1985. It nearly disintegrated in my hands, but remained intact enough for me to scan it:

Man, that's a dark comic. Bleak! That punk kid on the astronomy blog is Sally Brown and I am Sally Brown's teacher. Anyone born in the early Eighties has a decent chance of catching Halley's Comet twice. I had one shot at it, and am glad I made the most of it.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

I Drew This

From time to time, mostly as a way of encouraging myself, I think I'll post a bit of something I've drawn recently. Maybe a panel, or even a little piece of a panel--something I'm happy with. Unless otherwise described, they're from Mystery Project X, and I'll be careful to avoid giving anything away. These're pre-Photoshop, pre-lettering, pre-coloring: raw stuff.

I drew this.