Friday, March 28, 2014


We returned home late last night from a vacation that, per my policy of not inviting criminals to rob my home, I didn't mention publicly until it was over. Too late now, criminals.

Karen and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary this week. I'm reluctant to say that. When I was a kid I knew people who'd been married for 30 years and they were all old. You tell people you've been married 30 years and their eyes light up and twinkle like they've just seen a yawning baby panda. Sometimes they applaud. I hate that. Don't patronize us. We're not cute.

Though sometimes we are totally adorable.

I might as well own it.

For our honeymoon in '84 we drove down the California coast into Baja, a trip that included a stop at Disneyland. Last week we went back there again.

Long-time readers already know I love Disneyland. I'm old enough (married 30 years!) to not care how you feel about that. Grown-up Brian can nod along with criticism of Disney as a corporate cultural hegemon spooning pap to generations of  bourgeois rubes, but when I walk through that gate I'm 9-year-old Brian who spent every Sunday watching Uncle Walt's World of Color on a black-and-white TV in South Dakota. That's worth something to me.

Also, unlike most of the rest of the world I'm familiar with, Disney often lives up to its own Guest Experience standards. Many times this week, staff went far above and beyond to make our visit a better one. I like to encourage that wherever I find it.

As a fun side project, I brought along a print-out of photos we took on our honeymoon with the goal of recreating them. Our daughters, who went with us this week, suggested we do the same with photos of their first visit, which was in 1992 when they were 4. We didn't spend a lot of time on this; things move fast in the Magic Kingdom, there's usually someone waiting to pass through the space you're occupying. It is cool and eerie to think, "This is exactly where you and I stood three decades ago." It's also fun to see how much/little both the park and we have changed.

In both 1984 and 2014, I tried to pull the sword from the stone to assume my rightful role as king. The fact that I'm sitting here typing blog posts instead of issuing edicts answers as to whether I succeeded. (I also just noticed that I crossed my hands wrong. Oh well. No do-overs.)
A magnificent edifice both then and now. The castle's not bad, either.
We wondered if that tree on the left is the exact same one.
Small world. We didn't have many honeymoon photos with both Karen and me in them,
the selfie having not been invented until 2005.
The low wall Karen leaned on in 1984 is still there, but it was part of the queue for a "Meet the Frozen Princesses" thing and we didn't want to stand in line for two hours just to get this shot. So we stood two feet to the side.
I'm proud of this shot. The location wasn't easy to find (a quiet little nook near It's a Small World)
and we took a minute to try to line it up right. 
This was also a good shot to get. We explained our mission to Mickey and his human aide, and both went out of their way to make it fun for us. Also, Mickey has evidently grown at least a foot over the past three decades. Bet you hadn't noticed!
Accelerating the DeLorean to 88 mph and zooming ahead to 1992, here are my daughters Laura and Robin with the passage of 22 years.
The girls were good sports. They had better things to do than humor their old man, but did their best.
In return, I promised not to embarrass them. I lied.
Growing up as my daughters had absolutely nothing to do with their choice of sweatshirts in 2014. Nothing.
Finally, going back to 1984 for a photo of me because it's a segue to a quiz.
Q: Aside from my gray hair and thicker midsection, what differences do you notice in these photos?

A: Strollers.

A plague, an infestation, a blight. Strollers.

Of course parents have always had strollers, but a modern stroller isn't the flimsy collapsible aluminum-and-cloth contraption of the past. Now they're SUV strollers, with mag wheels and environmental controls and cup holders. Their greater bulk seems to foster a greater sense of entitlement, as moms and dads bulldoze through mobs and beach their rolling behemoths wherever they want.

I'm gonna say this with all sympathy and compassion, as a man who's pushed a double-wide stroller through many a park and mall myself: leave them home. If your child needs a stroller to navigate Disneyland, they're too young for Disneyland. They won't remember any of it and are too small for most of the rides. All they'll see are knees and butts, and they'll be overloaded and howling by noon. Bunk the baby with grandma; you'll both have a much better time.

Another big difference between then and now: iPhones. Even in our last visit to Disneyland a few years ago, I hadn't noticed so many people entertaining themselves and their families electronically while waiting in long lines. Karen's phone had an app that listed the wait times for every ride and restaurant in the park. It's revolutionary.

In particular, we saw dozens of people playing this game in which one person holds the phone to their forehead with a name or phrase on its display (e.g., "Mickey Mouse") while the players give them clues to who or what they are. I get the game; I just don't get the forehead. Wouldn't it work the same if you just held it in front of you? (BTW, I'm only posting this photo of strangers on vacation because none of their faces really show. I'm a good citizen.)

Disney is heavily promoting toys and accessories from two particular movies right now. My daughter Laura doubted that Captain America would appreciate the irony of being displayed on the same shelf as "Frozen."

Huge crowds. If I knew 30 years ago what I know now, I don't know if I'd have gotten married during the popular spring break season. The weather wasn't great: gray and cool our entire visit, and it rained us out of the park our last night. We only saw clear sunny skies on our way out of town. But neither my wedding date nor the weather are Disneyland's fault, and we had a very good time regardless.

Thirty years. It sounds like a long time but doesn't feel like it.

It's all right.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Noiseless Cartooning In Technicolor!

Friend O' The Blog Jim O'Kane has done a magnificent thing, made even better by his letting me share it.

Way back in the 20th Century, Jim majored in Radio, Film & TV Production. More recently he's been fiddling with Adobe After Effects, which puts the power of Industrial Light & Magic on your desktop. A few days ago he applied his light and magic to my webcomic, The Last Mechanical Monster, and produced this:

For comparison, watch the first 50 seconds of this:

(The reference to "Noiseless Cartooning" corresponds to a credit for "Noiseless Recording" in the original, although I do draw as stealthily and lethally as a ninja, so it fits.)

That's funny and thoughtful. Also pretty darned good effects rendering, I think!

I'll append Jim's clip to the next installment of The Last Mechanical Monster, to be posted on Tuesday, but wanted to debut it here today. Thanks again, Jim!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Ides of March is My Favorite Holiday

There was a scene on the TV show "Modern Family" in which the pregnant Gloria complained about being tired.

"You just woke up, how are you tired?" asked her husband, Jay.

"Maybe because I'm turning food into a human!" snapped Gloria.

I thought that was hilarious; I'd never heard it put like that before and it's exactly right. Turning food into a human. No chemistry lab or industrial plant on Earth can do it, yet it happens every day.

That's amazing! Alchemy! Transmutation! Everybody should be going up to pregnant women all day long and shouting, "You are doing the most incredible thing in the universe!"

Twice as impressive? Turning food into two humans. I've seen it myself. Twenty-six years ago, in fact.

Best day of my life and second-best isn't even close.

Happy Birthday, Girls. See you home for dinner!

This plus even MORE food equals....
....this. Amazing.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

More Twain

Still reading the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2. It goes down best in bite-sized chunks.

In earlier posts about both Volume 1 and Volume 2, I complained that Twain's novel method of writing his autobiography--dictating whatever stories happened to pop into his head depending on that day's news, a letter from a friend, or a long-buried memory--gave a great sense of immediacy but didn't lend itself to introspection. Reading the book feels wonderfully like sitting on the porch listening to Clemens spin yarns and gripe, but doesn't dig into what he really thought about the Great Questions. Back in March 2011, deep into Volume 1, I wrote that "Readers wanting Twain to declare his true opinions on race, religion, and so on may be disappointed. He never really tackles a big topic and says, 'Here is what I think about that and why.' Did Twain believe in God? I don't know and he doesn't say."

Well, in Volume 2 (dictations of June 1906) Twain lets God have it with both barrels.

He's got no use for the capricious fire-and-brimstone Old Testament God but, maybe surprisingly, even less regard for the gentler New Testament God, whom he considers a hypocrite who was maliciously stingy with his miracles. How good and merciful could God really be if the millions of people who'd never heard Jesus's Good Word or were born before his time could never, according to the theology of Twain's day, get into Heaven? What kind of raw deal is that? At least you knew where you stood with the old angry God.

Twain also draws a line of critique from the contemporary work of Charles Darwin, but not the obvious one. Rather, Twain embraces Darwin's insight that natural selection is built on death: terrible, cruel, bloody death. "The spider was so contrived that she would not eat grass, but must catch flies, and such things, and inflict a slow and horrible death upon them, unaware that her turn would come next. The wasp was so contrived that he would also decline grass and stab the spider, not conferring upon her a swift and merciful death, but merely half paralysing her, then ramming her down into the wasp den, there to live and suffer for days, while the wasp babies should chew her legs off at their leisure. In turn there was a murderer provided for the wasp, and another murderer for the wasp's murderer, and so on throughout the whole scheme of living creatures in the earth . . . . The ten-thousandfold law of punishment is rigorously enforced against every creature, man included." Where, wonders Twain, is the merciful good in such sadism?

Nor is he much convinced of virgin birth or Heaven, considering the testimony hearsay of the flimsiest kind. "If we should find, somewhere, an ancient book in which a dozen unknown men professed to tell all about a blooming and beautiful tropical paradise secreted in an inaccessible valley in the centre of the eternal icebergs which constitute the Antarctic continent--not claiming that they had seen it themselves, bu had acquired an intimate knowledge of it through a revelation from God--no Geographical Society in the earth would take any stock in that book."

Yet for all his criticism, Twain never declared himself an atheist. That seemed to be a bridge too far for him, and he spoke well of faith in other contexts. I infer that Twain probably believed in an Almighty Creator, he just didn't think that any of the world's religions had a very good handle on Him (I'm reading between the lines; other readers may reach different conclusions). Nor did Twain have a high opinion of His work.

"In His destitution of one and all of the qualities which could grace a God and invite respect for Him, and reverence, and worship, the real God, the genuine God, the Maker of the mighty universe, is just like all the other gods in the list. He proves, every day, that He takes no interest in man, nor in the other animals, further than to torture then, slay them, and get out of this pastime such entertainment as it may afford--and do what he can to not get weary of the eternal and changeless monotony of it."

Fin de Siecle
One unexpected reward I'm getting from reading Twain's autobiography is much greater insight and respect for his literary successors. The autobiographical excerpts above are from 1906. They are complex, ornate sentences that sound stiffly old-fashioned to our 21st Century ears. They take effort to follow. Keep in mind that Twain's autobiography was dictated and faithfully transcribed by his secretary. That's how he spoke.

Not 20 years later, along came writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Woolf, who read as very modern. Sentences are direct, descriptions are spare, dialog sounds like how people actually speak. It's like the difference between Dutch Old Masters and Picasso.

I'm no literary historian, but the shift from 19th to 20th Century style must have been seismic for both readers and writers. I get why Hemingway et al were a big deal in a way I didn't before. To put it in more modern pop culture terms: nobody too young to have seen "Star Wars" in 1977 can really appreciate how it was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. It influenced everything that followed, which they grew up immersed in. I've heard people criticize "Citizen Kane" or Hitchcock films for being "too cliche," not understanding that Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock pioneered those narrative and cinematic techniques that only became cliche after everyone copied them.

It's very difficult to put yourself in a pre-Lucas, pre-Welles, or pre-Hitchcock state of mind and see them fresh. But I begin to feel that reading Twain has put me in a pre-20th-Century-literature state of mind that deepens my understanding of the great changes to come. The 1920s must've come as a hell of a shock to a lot of book lovers.

Insult of the Day #12
I can't leave a post on Twain without providing the next in a series of Mark Twain Insults of the Day. Today's target: humanity.

There are many pretty and winning things about the human race. It is perhaps the poorest of all the inventions of the gods, but it has never suspected it once. There is nothing prettier than its naive and complacent appreciation of itself. It comes out frankly and proclaims, without bashfulness, or any sign of a blush, that it is the noblest work of God. It has had a billion opportunities to know better, but all signs fail with this ass. I could say harsh things about it, but I cannot bring myself to do it--it is like hitting a child.