Monday, November 25, 2013

"You There Boy! What Day is This?"

Karen and I spent half of a nice Sunday with our daughters at the Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco. Our girls went last year and were pretty sure we'd enjoy it. They were right. Think of it as a Renaissance Faire set in Dickensian London and indoors--in this case, two warehouses attached to the Cow Palace expo center.

The buildings had been set-decorated to serve as different areas of the great city: a bustling commercial street, a seedy dock, a bawdy dance hall, a peaceful park/food court. It was immersive enough that I hardly ever looked up to notice the colored spotlights hanging from the steel sky. Nicely done. And, as at a Renaissance Faire, the place was full of staff and actors in character (also as at a Renn Faire, sometimes a bit too in character), members of the public who happened to have appropriate 1850s costumes in their closets, and regular folks like us who didn't. Food, shopping, entertainment, demonstrations (for example, we met Samuel Colt, who gave us a quick demo of how his revolvers were the first to use standardized parts that could be swapped out in battle; I ordered 100,000 for my army). There was an antique bookseller who tempted me with an old edition of Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, and a print shop that actually printed shopping bags for other stalls on an era-appropriate press.

Pictures below are dim and blurry because I didn't use flash:

Spinning about the floor of Fezziwig's Dance Hall.

The main shopping drag through town. Mostly regular 21st Century folk. Or as we called them, "witches."

Sea shanties, folk songs, the usual.

This couple was reading poetry and I found it fascinating. This was just a quiet little room with a dozen people held spellbound by oratory. When's the last time you saw that happen?

This gentleman explained the workings of the weather-predicting contraption next to him. Each little bottle of water at the bottom had one string dangling into it attached to a bell up top. The bottles also held leeches, who are apparently storm-forecasting savants. When bad weather is on the way, the leeches crawl up the strings (as if squirming out of burrows) and their weight on the string rings the bell. Lots of leechy bell-ringing means a big storm's a'brewin. Don't know if I buy it but it was clever and weird.
A candle carver who, like the other craftspeople we met, was more than happy to take a minute and talk to us about her work.

A little Alice in Wonderland tableau with characters you could talk to or take photos with. The Alice girl was very good at her job.

We had a great time. Not cheap, but fun and, we all thought, well worth our time and money. We'll be repeat customers (if only I'd bought that frock coat I had my eye on....). If this is the type of thing you'd like, you'll like it. Recommended.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Graphic Medicine 2014

I'm late in mentioning--shouting from the highest rooftops!--that the Call for Papers has been issued and registration is open for the Fifth (!) International Comics and Medicine Conference, to be held June 26-28, 2014 at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The theme of the conference is "From Private Lives to Public Health," and keynote speakers are cartoonist Ellen Forney, writer/scholar Arthur W. Frank, and academic Carol Tilley.

These are the conferences I was involved with for a few years, attending the very first one in London as an invited keynoter then helping plan the next ones in Chicago and Toronto. I passed on the fourth conference last year in Brighton, UK--the planning committee didn't need me anymore and a trip to England probably wasn't gonna happen. But Baltimore . . . Baltimore I think I could do . . .

The idea of these conferences is to look at comics in the context of personal medical stories (e.g., Mom's Cancer), public health, education, etc. Medical schools are starting to use comics in their curricula, and a lot of people are recognizing comics as a uniquely powerful communication medium. What happens is you gather a hundred or so doctors, nurses, professors and cartoonists in one place, host a bunch of panels and presentations, and see what they can learn from each other. It's respectful and invigorating, and very cool. Some of the highlights of my personal and professional life have happened at these conferences.

I'm not 100% committed yet, but I think I'd like to go to this one. I have a couple ideas for presentations and/or workshops, and since I used to be on the committee that chose presentations and workshops, I think I have a fair idea of what they're looking for. If I can write up a couple of ideas I'm happy with, I'll send them in and see what happens.

Here's the general Graphic Medicine webpage.

Here's the best page I found with links to the Call for Papers, Registration, Accommodations and Travel info.

And here are some old blog posts summarizing my experiences at the conferences in Toronto, Chicago and London (rereading now, I see the London post is more about touring London than attending a conference--understandably, I hope).

Deadlines are in February. Be there. Aloha.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Capt. Richard Gordon

Back in June, I Facebooked about meeting astronaut Dan Bursch and posted a photo of me giving him a copy of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, explaining my policy: if you've actually been in space, you can have a free book. A couple of friends who've spent more time hanging around astronauts than I have warned me that, given all the folks who've been up on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station, my policy could bankrupt me.

Point taken. My revised policy: if you've actually been to the Moon, you can have a free book.

Dick Gordon has been to the Moon. So last night he got a free book.

Gordon: "So what's it about?" Me: "Well, you're in it."

Captain (US Navy retired) Gordon was the Command Module Pilot of Apollo 12, the second lunar landing mission. To refresh your memory, the Command Module Pilot was the man who stayed in orbit around the Moon while his two crewmates--in Gordon's case, Pete Conrad and Alan Bean--descended to the surface in the Lunar Module. Before Apollo 12, Gordon and Conrad flew Gemini 11.

The opportunity to meet Capt. Gordon had nothing to do with me and everything to do with my daughter, Laura. You may recall my many posts about her job as a museum staffer aboard the USS Hornet aircraft carrier. She works there part time; the other part of the time she works at the Space Station Museum in Novato, Calif., a free one-room storefront museum opened by Ken Winans, a man with one of the world's largest private collections of space memorabilia and a passion to share it. Winans is on the Hornet's board of directors, Gordon's Apollo 12 mission was actually recovered by the Hornet, Gordon is an advisor to the Space Station Museum, and you can see how it all fits together.

I've done a few good deeds for the Space Station Museum myself and so was invited to tag along for Friday's meet-and-greet with museum staff and volunteers. The group was small, maybe 15 or so, so I had a couple of opportunities to talk to the captain at length. I also eavesdropped on everyone else's conversations. Gordon is 84 years old (!) but astonishingly sharp and fit. At one point I leaned over to Laura and whispered, "Forty years ago that man was one of the coolest people on the planet." Searching for an appropriate comparison, I added: "He's like old Bruce Wayne in 'Batman Beyond.'" That became our private joke the rest of the night. "He's Batman."

For the uninitiated, "Batman Beyond" was a cartoon set in
a future in which Bruce Wayne retired and trained a teenager
to become the new Batman.

I mean, just look at the photo at the top of this post. Have you ever seen a cooler stud in your life? Dick Gordon's still got it.

Ken Winans (second from left) introducing Dick Gordon to the troops. I chose
this photo because it gives a good overview of both the Space Station Museum
and the size of the group. Plenty of opportunity for one-on-one interaction!

I learned late that Capt. Gordon had agreed to sign one item for every person. With little time to prepare, I looked around my office. I could've printed out a photo like the one up top but that seemed tacky. Then my eyes fell on my toy shelf:

Best part is that I had him sign the Command Module, which was his domain on the mission. I just noticed that my Service Module is missing a thruster rocket (should be where that dark gray two-holed block is at lower right). Rats. Let's say it adds charm.

I also had the great pleasure of meeting Yvonne Cagle, an M.D., flight surgeon, and Air Force Colonel who is a new-generation astronaut, though she hasn't yet been in space. Col. Cagle was extremely personable, and gave me my favorite insight of the night when she entered the Space Station Museum and spent several minutes at the front counter nervously worrying about how she should approach and address Capt. Gordon ("Oh no, I can't call him 'Dick.'"). Even people you might expect to be calm and confident in every situation can have heroes who awe and intimidate them.

A member of Astronaut Group 16 (Class of 1996) meets
a member of Astronaut Group 3 (Class of 1963).

Then we all went out for pizza.

Me, Laura, Col. Cagle and Capt. Gordon

I don't know what it is with me and pizza, but my two pizza dinners this week were extraordinary.

I went to meet Capt. Gordon, a genuine American hero, and he didn't disappoint ("He's Batman"). But I'd have to say I came away a real fan of Col. Cagle, who was absolutely terrific. This was a special night for me. Thanks, Laura!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Nine Hours in WimpyWorld

[Updated with corrections from Editor Charlie, who thinks I still need editing. He's right.]

I have seen the hardest-working man in literature and am in awe.

My pal Jeff Kinney, author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, brought his new book tour through my county yesterday. First stop was 3 o'clock at a good independent bookstore called Copperfield's in the town of Petaluma, California, about half an hour from my home. Second stop was 7 o'clock at the Charles M. Schulz Museum & Research Center in Santa Rosa, about five minutes from my home. I tagged along.

I know Jeff because we have the same editor and publisher. I was at the 2006 New York Comic-Con the day Jeff handed his proposal to Editor Charlie, and Jeff's been gracious enough to say that he did so because my publisher Abrams had put out Mom's Cancer (I actually heard Jeff's side of that story for the first time yesterday; modesty forbids me from repeating it, but it made me feel good). Before Jeff's first book came out, Editor Charlie got Jeff and me together so I could give him the honest straight dope about being an author. I impressed upon him that getting a book published would not change his life and the money truck would not be dumping piles of cash at his front door. Although solid advice for 99.7% of authors, it was spectacularly wrong for Jeff. He hasn't held it against me.

In 2009, I blogged about accompanying Jeff to a signing in support of his fourth Wimpy Kid book, and compared it to being backstage with the Beatles. Now, in support of his eighth Wimpy Kid book (eighth?!), it's more like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Woodstock. Jeff has upped his game.

Four years ago, Jeff's entourage consisted of him and Publicist Jason. Bookstores were encouraged to come up with activities like scavenger hunts to keep the waiting kids occupied, but that was up to them. This time around, Jeff brought the entertainment with him, and the entourage consisted of Jeff, Publicist Jason (still!), two terrific employees of Jeff's named Anna and Shaelyn, plus a DJ, a fortune teller, a photo booth operator, another guy who did I don't know what, and enough equipment to open a small carnival, all in keeping with the "Hard Luck" theme of the new book (8 balls, wheel of fortune, games of chance, etc.). All that gear travels in a separate van that accompanies Jeff's rock-and-roll tour bus from town to town. He was also accompanied on this leg of the tour by Editor Charlie himself, who explained to me that the activities were Jeff's idea, all with the goal of keeping his young readers entertained.

At Copperfield's in Petaluma, the DJ and other activities set up before Jeff arrived to keep the kids happy and busy while they waited. Later, as Jeff's signing line wound down, they disassembled and raced ahead to set up at the next location.

The Fortune Teller was a really great guy. He's a former school teacher and counselor, and so has a knack for sizing kids up and delivering a fortune that was sometimes eerily appropriate for them.

The Big Bus arrives, pulling in behind the van that'd already delivered the entertainment. That's my daughter Robin watching an impressive parallel parking job.

Talking with Jeff on the Big Bus as I signed a WHTTWOT for him. Anna at right wore a leopard cowl and cat make-up for one of the activities.

Editor Charlie, me and Jeff. Photo by my daughter Robin, who drove me to Petaluma so I wouldn't have to abandon a car there and could ride the Big Bus home. Thanks, Rob!

A video of the line of people waiting to have their books signed by Jeff, which stretched out of the store, around the corner, down a little pedestrian alleyway, and through to the next block. For some reason I started at the back and worked my way to the front. Watch for a cameo by Editor Charlie doing the reverse at 1:10.

My admiration for Jeff's work ethic and stamina is sincere. Both Copperfield's and the Schulz Museum made 1000 free tickets available for book signing. Bear in mind that 2000 tickets doesn't mean 2000 books. Many of Jeff's fans have the entire series and brought them all. And here's the nub:

I watched Jeff work for four or five hours and he asked every kid his or her name, made sure they each got a moment of his full attention, answered all their questions, posed for all their parents' photos (probably two out of three kids had someone there to take their picture with Jeff), smiled the whole time. I've seen authors with fewer fans shove readers through on an assembly line, no time for chat or photos, one book only, won't sign any books brought from home. Not Jeff. I don't know how he does it and I'm pretty sure I couldn't. It really was extraordinary.

At Copperfield's, a photo with a fan. Shaelyn is getting the title pages open for the next in line.

Another fan, another photo. Multiply by 2000.

Copperfield's table has been autographed by every writer who's come through town so Jeff obliged when his signing was done. Maybe the coolest thing I saw him do all day: the son of the lady standing beside the table really wanted to be there but couldn't because he'd broken his foot. Jeff offered to call the boy, and they talked for a couple of minutes.

After Petaluma, I boarded the Big Bus for the ride north to the Schulz Museum. Because who wouldn't? The carnival crew preceded us and had everything set up when we arrived. My wife Karen met us there, and Jeff ran around to try all the activities before settling in to sign. Again.

Jeff and Editor Charlie inside the "Money Grab." The goal is to find the largest denomination bill you can, which predicts your future annual salary.

Editor Charlie, Jeff and I checking out one of the activities, a Wheel of Fortune spinning thingy.
Part of the signing line in the Great Hall of the Schulz Museum (note the Lucy and Charlie Brown mosaic along the back wall, where Jeff sat). Games were dispersed throughout both floors of the museum as well as the back patio. It looks sedate and organized in this photo, but in reality was a pretty raucous zoo.

I was briefly pressed into line duty, making sure people had all their books properly opened and stacked as they approached the signing table. Least I could do.

The DJ booth and dance floor at the Schulz Museum. This was early; things picked up.

Karen found this slip of paper on the ground and perceptively thought to take a photo of it. I don't know the context--if it was a homemade bookmark or something done as part of the event activities--but "Never give up; Education is good for you; Do your best" is solid-gold wisdom.

Karen was unavailable so I did the photo booth with Editor Charlie instead.
Because we are both totally secure in our masculinity.

Eating pizza with some Schulz Museum staffers after the signing. I asked Karen to
bring the beer from home. You're welcome.

After pizza, aboard the Big Bus: Jeff choosing karaoke that he forced his employees to sing to keep their jobs. I'm joking about the jobs but not the karaoke. Keep in mind that it's after 11 p.m. Pacific Time and all these people are on East Coast time (having flown in the day before). This is a level of energy to which I am unaccustomed.
Bidding farewell to the Big Bus and Editor Charlie in the museum parking lot. We shall meet again.
It's not snowing, those're just water spots on the camera lens.

If anyone reading this is a Wimpy Kid fan and wants to go to a Jeff Kinney book signing, I think I can promise you a good time. If not, it won't be for lack of effort. Jeff's assembled a well-oiled machine that knows exactly how long it takes to set up a traveling side show, sign 1000 books and then move on, leaving everyone happy (except maybe the event hosts who don't know what hit them). I've never seen an author work harder for his or her fans.

I have good friends.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

My Influential Books: Richards Topical Encyclopedia

This third in a haphazard series of essays on books that made a big difference in my life follows posts on You Will Go To the Moon by Mae and Ira Freeman, and Yellow Yellow by Frank Asch and Mark Alan Stamaty. Today's: Richard's Topical Encyclopedia, copyright 1959.

I wasn't yet born when Richards Topical Encyclopedia was published, but I might have been on the way. I'm not sure what Mom was thinking when she bought it. She had no higher education herself--I infer she only scraped through high school--but books were important to her and encyclopedias were the most important, highest-status books of all. She was a poor single working mother with two kids but nevertheless managed to outfit our house with (as I recall) three sets of encyclopedias by the time my sister and I could read. I think at least one of them was the sort you could buy volume by volume every time you went to the grocery store. It's possible she was repeatedly suckered by slick door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen, but I'd rather believe she was doing her best to till fertile ground for her children's minds to grow.

The set's 15 volumes weren't organized alphabetically, but by subject: science, social studies, industry, art, biography, leisure activities. Each volume comprised many short articles on particular subtopics, all well illustrated. Although the reading level seems aimed at pre-teen kids, their content was solid and thorough. I don't see any condescension or "dumbing-down."

I read them all, enthralled. Some volumes several times.

That had some unfortunate consequences. Getting a reputation as "the weird kid who reads encyclopedias for fun," even if it's not a regulation encyclopedia, had its social drawbacks--though knowing many of my blog's regular readers, I'm sure that's familiar turf for some.

Volumes 1 and 2 had all the astronomy and physics material. I practically wore them out.

Richards Topical Encyclopedia did me the great favor of introducing me to the work of space artist Chesley Bonestell, at right. By the way, kiddies, that photo of Mars on the left was about as good a view as anyone had of the Red Planet until the mid-'70s. Because I'm old. (Click on any of these pics to see them larger.)

Volume 14 was the real jackpot: "Leisure-time Activities," which were summarized on the volume's spine as "manual arts, games and sports, fairy tales, fables, stories, myths." What an understatement! Unmentioned on the spine: riddles, jokes, codebreaking, magic tricks, puppetry, card games, brain teasers, candy making, and fort building. Many rainy and snowy days were passed lost in the pages of Volume 14.

A spread from the mythology section, a great companion to Edith Hamilton's classic book. Also probably where I saw my first nekked women. Bless the ancient Greeks and the Romantic artists (and generations of young boys) they inspired.
My sister and I would occasionally put on magic shows featuring feats from this volume. Some of them worked some of the time.

I cannot express how much I wanted to build this private clubhouse with its secret subterranean entrance. Never got around to it, although it's still on my bucket list.

Our original set of Richards Topical Encyclopedia was lost more than 30 years ago. At the time, Mom and Dad had a coastal vacation home they rented to visitors; it had to be stocked with household stuff including old books, and when the home was later sold the stuff went with it. Somehow, Volume 1 got culled from the herd and eventually ended up in my bookcase. That gave me all the information I needed to years later find the entire set on eBay. Got it for a good price. Some people don't recognize solid gold.

I'll never know why Mom bought Richards Topical Encyclopedia. But if some salesman convinced her that it would change her children's lives, he was 100% right. She got her money's worth.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Pastis by Night

"...sailor's delight. Pastis by morning, sailors take warning." Isn't that how the old saying goes?

I had a nice evening last night watching my pal and former neighbor Stephan Pastis be interviewed on the stage of our local high school. The event was one of a series of "Author's Night" appearances hosted by the alumni foundation, meant to feature writers with a connection to the school. Although Stephan had the misfortune to grow up in southern California, his wife Staci is a third-generation alum and his son Tom attends now, so close enough.

Colors are off because I cropped this from a photo of a slide projected on the back wall of a high school auditorium that I then manipulated in Photoshop to remove the distortion caused by shooting it from a lower-left angle. I'm amazed it's visible at all.

A few hundred people crowded the old auditorium, most clutching a book to be signed (also for sale in the lobby). Having heard many of Stephan's stories first-hand over pizza and beer, I hadn't intended to go until he made me promise I would. Sigh. But I'm glad I did. He's a good raconteur, alternately funny, snarky, and disarmingly honest. It's also fun to see him in his element, interacting with fans. Most interesting to me: while much of the crowd was there to see the creator of the comic strip "Pearls Before Swine," there were a non-trivial number of kids clutching "Timmy Failure" books who seemed to have no idea Stephan had another career ("you mean Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?!"). His diabolical master plan to conquer all media may actually work!

Answering a question posed by local journalist Chris Smith.

Signing books afterward. The line was long.
One highlight of the evening for me: when the gentleman from the alumni foundation who introduced Stephan mispronounced his name as "Steven Pasta." Look, the guy was nervous. A sincerer highlight: having a few moments to say hello to Staci and chat with Rosie McDaniel and Jeannie Schulz.

Setting aside the envy gnawing at my soul, I'm happy for Stephan; this seemed to be sort of a homecoming that meant something to him. I was also happy to see so many folks turn out to spend an hour with a cartoonist and, now, kids' author. People love comics. People love books. Some people love them a lot (Stephan has a few passionate fans).

Good for books. Good for comics. Good for everyone.