Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
…And some have it encouraged in them by others.
I was a terrible student. Didn’t apply myself.
I got this one test back in Chemistry (on which I had earned a D+) and scribbled in the margin was “I see greatness for you.” Initially, I assumed the teacher was mocking me. I asked her about it.
She said no, her mother had helped her grade the papers, and it was her mother who had written that.
“I dunno. She just gets feelings about people,” my teacher said. “She’s weird like that.”
But those words lifted me up during the darkest days of a misfit’s High School career. Greatness! She saw GREATNESS… for me? I clung to hope that one day I’d be better than who I was. And so I did learn to apply myself eventually. I became… well, if not exactly GREAT, at least more like she saw me. So often kids will rise to the level of your expectations.
It has occurred to me over time that the teacher’s mother had not, in fact, seen greatness or anything else for me, but had probably just scribbled some encouragement in the margins of a D+ paper precisely to lift up a weird kid.
Well, it worked.
I’ve never forgotten that. I’ve also never forgotten that it costs nothing to encourage someone who may need it now and again.
Be kind to each other out there. It’s a tough room.
I’ve been watching it every year on FEB 2 for about 12 years now. Not unlike the gathering in Punxsutawney each winter to get a mid-season weather forecast from a rodent, I too have a ritual: dusting off that DVD and sitting down with a glass of wine to watch Phil Connors go through his time loop hell. It’s a rite of passage, and a reminder that Spring is coming. Better days are ahead.
On the surface, the movie is really just a silly bit of Hollywood rom-com fluff. It’s the tale of a man who inexplicably starts reliving the same day over and over, and whose response to this crisis carries him on his journey from selfish boor to enlightened, well-rounded humanitarian, whereupon his time loop stops and he gets to go on with his life, changed for the better. But this movie has more to it underneath. At one point, Phil goes to drown his sorrows at a bar and idly chats with a couple of the patrons.
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” he asks.
And one of the guys next to him nods, “That about sums it up for me.” And therein lies the metaphor.
Because below the surface, Groundhog Day is a meditation on life as we tend to live it. You can live with blinders on, go to work, come home, make dinner, go to sleep, get up, do it all again. It starts to feel a lot like you’re living the same day over and over again. “That about sums it up for me.”
As Phil Connors shows throughout the movie, there are several responses you can have to this dilemma. You can deny it. Fight it. You can become depressed, even suicidal. You can focus on your own selfish aims. Or, you can use the time you have the best way you can, to better yourself and the world around you.
For the past 11 months, the coronavirus pandemic has really done a number on us all. We are living the same day over and over, maybe more now than ever before. Front line workers live an increasingly harsh and heartbreaking reality as more sick and dying pour in each day. Essential workers – who we treat as anything but essential most of the time – keep gamely trudging to work, risking themselves and their loved ones because The Work Must Be Done. Students are in less-than-ideal situations, forcing themselves to focus in the face of the global catastrophe, and those of us lucky enough to work remotely are left to balance the often conflicting demands of work, homeschooling, and family, one job bleeding into the next without ceasing. It hasn’t been a picnic for anyone, and yes, it feels a lot like Groundhog Day.
You could be forgiven for being a little envious of Phil at the end of the movie when he finally breaks his cycle, because we are still stuck in ours. The question the movie asks is how we will respond.
But the movie also offers another takeaway, beyond the predictable Hollywood Protagonist’s Epiphany to Try to Be a Better Person. Late in the movie, there’s this sweet moment where Phil has lovingly sculpted his beloved Rita’s face in snow to show her how he sees her. She is touched, and says she doesn’t know what to say.
“I do,” he answers. “Whatever happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now…”
I think that’s it. Sure. Strive to be better. Appreciate what you have over what you want. But also, when you’re happy? You find a little scrap of happiness in all the challenges? Own it. Whatever may happen tomorrow, be happy now. At least let yourself have that.
And remember, it’s Groundhog Day. Spring is coming. Better days are ahead.
They tell young people “You can do anything you want. The World is your Oyster.”
I think they have it backward. I think maybe *we* are the oyster and the world is the grain of sand that makes us produce the pearl of whatever we create over the course of a lifetime. For some it’s science. For some, it’s taking care of others, or policy, or what have you. For me, it’s art. My response to the world and events around me is to write stories and draw pictures to try to make sense of it all. For me, it’s art. And I’m asked frequently to give advice to artists just starting out.
My advice to young artists is simple: make something. Take it all the way to completion – finish it! You learn much more from finishing something than you do from the entire rest of the project combined. So you have to finish.
And although you may have sentimental attraction to your early work, you will come to despise it, because as you get better, you lament the flaws. But it’s OK. Make your mistakes. Put them out there for the world to see and learn from. Learn from them yourself. In this way, everyone gets better.
Don’t just talk about what you want to do. I don’t know what it means to be an artist that doesn’t create. You learn how to dance by dancing, how to write by writing, how to draw by drawing. And by the way, being an artist has nothing to do with what you do for a living. Yes, some people work in the arts. Some people don’t. But artists create all the time. Artists are always thinking, ideas are always percolating. There’s no such thing as a part-time artist.
Art happens internally first, in the soul, in the mind. It manifests externally afterward, as marks on canvas, or movements in the dancer’s body, or as words that make up a story. That artifact is a record of the artist’s decisions, a record of the artist’s point in personal artistic technical growth. But the true artistic act happens inside first.
When you embark on a creative project, people will congratulate you. They’ll make a big deal and tell you that Starting is the Hardest Part! That’s because to people who have never created anything, just beginning is a Herculean task! And they want to encourage you. You’ve started!
Sadly, starting is relatively easy. The middle of a project, that’s where it gets hard, so hard that it can make you quit. And finishing? That’s hardest of all. The end of a project, where you have to commit to your decisions and things aren’t so malleable and forgiving anymore, and all your compromises are about to be written in concrete. That’s the part that can break you.
Anyone who has released a creative project – no matter how amateurish or ill-conceived – should be commended, because just finishing is so very hard. They say no work of art is ever completed, only abandoned. Imagine how hard it is, then, to abandon them, call them done and invite the scrutiny of others. It takes bravery. It takes nerves of steel.
That’s why I don’t rag on the creations of others. I know how hard it is. I am, however, brutally harsh on myself. I would not wish that on anyone else, so my next advice is this:
Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Create. And have fun.
A million years ago, my family and I went to the Easton Waterfowl Festival. My parents had just moved away from Virginia to NYC, but they made a special trip back down for this and my sister Janet and I came up from Richmond to join them.
My parents loved the whole Waterfowl thing. They enjoyed the brisk walks in the mid-Atlantic autumn quiet. They loved the buildings full of hand-carved and hand-painted duck decoys, and hundreds of beautiful paintings on display, each competing to be this year’s Official Duck Stamp. (You are probably unaware that the US Fish and Wildlife Service issues an official Duck Stamp each year, using an original painting of a waterfowl chosen out of hundreds. But they do!)
My sister was a painter, and I was in college learning how to be a commercial artist. Caught up in the moment and surrounded by all that amazing art, we had big dreams that maybe one day we’d work together on one of those paintings and maybe we’d get our art on the official Duck Stamp. Maybe we’d carve the winning Decoy. That would have been fun. Maybe next year. Or the year after that. One day.
I’m sad to say we both got caught up in our lives and other concerns and never did anything about it.
It was a particularly brisk November when we were there, and a certain kind of day brings those memories back. Clear, impossibly blue skies with horsetail wisp clouds. A rising sun lighting up just enough ice crystals in the atmosphere to bring a warm glow to the whole Eastern sky.
We spent the night in a nice hotel a short walk away from the Festival there in Easton. I remember getting up and looking out at that glowing sunrise while my sister turned on some morning news TV show and made herself some coffee that was really more like hot chocolate than anything else when she was done. Plenty of cream. Plenty of sugar.
I took a sip and thought it was delicious. There was no reason for I-only-drink-it-black coffee machismo. Janet loved it. And I could see why.
I made myself a cup the same way and took that habit back to college with me whereupon I was mocked at the University breakfast table. Where was my Black Coffee Machismo!? One friend said, “I feel like you’re just dumping packets into water.” And I was. And so what.
Why am I telling you all this? *shrug* Memory preservation, I suppose. I went outside this morning to bring in the recyclable bin and the Washington Post, and it was one of those mornings. Cold, crisp. Frost on the grass, blue skies, wispy clouds and a glowing sunrise. A line of geese overhead. It reminded me of that trip to the Waterfowl Festival back then, and I just wanted to share the experience.
Really, I wanted to pick up the phone and reminisce with someone who had been there with me. But of the four of us who took that trip – my mother died in 2006, my sister died in 2019, and my father died over Christmas from COVID-19 – I’m the only one left. So I can’t do that.
In writing a story, a few things need to be clear to the author right up front. What’s it all about? Who’s narrating? And whose story is this, anyway?
I can easily miss the point of all this when I start out. For instance on The Eidolon Stone, the narrator was this disaffected guy who had really had a bad life, and he was telling this story from his point of view.
I wrestled with my first few pages until I realized that this isn’t his story. This is Kate Winston’s story, and although Nick Peroni plays a major role, I was having to jump through hoops to allow him to narrate events he couldn’t have known.
So, I’m dumping what I had to this point and starting over, clear about who is talking (a third person narrator who is free to know more) and I know whose story this is.
In my spare time, I am working on a novel called The Eidolon Stone.
Don’t worry – Doc and the Deathbot aren’t going away (at least not any time soon – I will continue publishing new strips for them each MON and THU on my various social media accounts) but I will comment on my progress on this novel here from time to time. I’m one for throwing my hat over the fence so then I have to go get it. And so I am.
The Eidolon Stone is the story of a woman who struggles to trap an unspeakable evil in a mystic stone after accidentally setting the evil free. Think Pandora trying to put the monsters back into the box.
I have discovered the joy of putting some of myself into the story. When I was a charming little kid, I had a habit of getting my words mixed up. Maybe I had a mild form of dyslexia or the like, but I would say “Sotormichael” instead of “Motorcycle”, “Gubbies” instead of “Bugs”. This was not intentional at first, but once I realized the laughs I’d get from my family from these malapropisms, I kept it up well after I recognized my mistake.
As I am the master of my own storytelling universe, and no one can tell me what to do, I have given that trait to my protagonist, who we meet as a young girl in the start of the story. I also gave her the traits of loving the water, and big rocks, and looking for little critters in streams. My mother and I used to take picnic lunches down to the stream behind our house, and we’d eat on big rocks overlooking the water. All those things, all those great memories? Into the book with ya.
“There’s some of me in you!” J. F. Sebastian said in Blade Runner to a replicant whose genetics he’d helped design.
We all put a little of ourselves into our work, don’t we?
If you’ve spent any time at all reading my comics or talking to me much, you’d know I have a few things I love utterly and completely. One of these is Calvin and Hobbes. That strip debuted midway through my college career. I thought it was magical, and it inspired me to make the comics I make today.
Slight wakeup call today, an article in the Washington Post – yes, I still get the old-fashioned dead-tree newspaper delivered to my house – that it has been 25 years since Bill Watterson stopped making Calvin and Hobbes. What a luxury, to have time off today, to have a nice, fancy cup of coffee and a biscotti and settle into the newspaper for a nice read.
It brings back memories of why I started all this in the first place. Watterson expounds a bit on the bygone lofty perch newspaper comics once occupied. I have a bittersweet twinge in my heart as I realize those days are gone. Certainly I don’t eagerly devour the comics page as I once did. Most of what’s there are zombie comics far outliving their creators, reruns, and just plain not-funny Boomer Humor comics that don’t appeal to me.
As a guy who makes comics that bear at least some passing resemblance to newspaper comics (although I hope they at least have a measure of humor and pathos to make them worth the reader’s time) it is a shame that even I don’t enjoy the funnies anymore.
It makes me wonder, as I often do, whether this is worth it any more. The comics biz I once so admired is no longer there. I don’t know if I have the stuff to get to the top of that profession, but even if I do, it would appear the machinery to turn a good comic into a cultural phenomenon is no longer there.
Anyway. I have now done 31 Doc and the Deathbot comics, as I promised myself back when I was only at #24. I said at 30 strips, I would evaluate whether I felt it was worth continuing. I think so. Let’s go for 50 comics and see what kind of an audience the boys have attracted by then.
Until then… thanks for reading, and see you in the funny papers. 🙂
Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been 364 days since my last confession, er, Blog Post. Do people even do blogs any more? I dunno. Obviously, for the most part… I don’t.
But the end of the year brings out the Commencement Speech Blowhard in me. Years ago, inspired by Neil Gaiman, I did a few blog posts of the In-This-Coming-Year-My-Wish-For-You variety. Thankfully, they were deleted when I started this new blog a year ago.
As of this writing, there are only two posts on this blog. The post you’re reading is one. The other one was written on 2 JAN, 2020, detailing – musing may be a better word, or mulling – my plans for 2020.
How naïve I was.
As with most of us, I did not survive 2020 intact. My plans for the year were the first casualty, but not the worst. 2019 brought the loss of my sister Janet far too young, but 2020 finally took my father with just two weeks to go in this terrible year, when he caught COVID-19. It is particularly heartbreaking that this happened JUST as the vaccines were beginning to roll out. He was like a member of the last platoon to die just as peace was being negotiated.
The year wasn’t all bad. I drew a lot. I was allowed to keep my job, unlike so many others; to work safely from home, unlike so many more. We got to spend tons of time together during the final 6 months of our middle son’s childhood before he moved out in August. During that time, he was furloughed, as was my wife, and our youngest was doing his final year of high school distant-learning here at the house, all of which meant we were all here together every day. (Our oldest had long since moved out, but we got to talk to him frequently by text and phone).
But the four remaining members of our household on lockdown and unable to go much of anywhere, we were blessed to spend hours together, streaming entertainment, going on nature hikes, eating at the food trucks that visited our neighborhood weekly, a small thing that loomed gigantic in our lives. We were as excited about the weekly food truck visit as children eagerly awaiting the Ice Cream Man!
On one hand, yeah, we were all stuck together, and the restrictions felt oppressive on occasion. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to erase so many hours – so much precious time – together, growing closer as a family. I actually treasure the memories of those times, even moreso now that my father’s passing reminds me that nothing lasts forever.
I wrap up this year much as I did the previous, unsure what to do about Magnificatz, unsure what would become of Zook and Taraniki and so many of my little side projects. In the end, it’s academic. In the end, 2020 did not allow me to answer those questions, but in the end… those questions don’t matter in the big scheme of things. As of now, I’ve lived to fight another day, and that has to be enough for now.
This year has me thinking about Good and Bad. 2020 was the Worst Year Ever, so goes the conventional wisdom. I suspect some particularly bad years in history would beg to differ, but I’ll concede the point only to make another:
2020 was bad, I’ll grant you that. It took so much from us. It took jobs and livelihoods and normality away. It stole a measure of Civilization as lies became the hard currency of politicians who knew better. It took – as of this writing – almost 350,000 American lives at the hands of a pandemic allowed to run rampant in this country. And it took my father.
But were there not also good things in this year? If there was good among the bad, I hope you get to recognize that. Don’t throw out the fragile baby magic with the toxic, COVID-infested bathwater.
That would be an insult to all the injury, because if the only thing we take away from bad experiences are the memories of the bad, all we are left with are bad memories.
I choose to focus on the one hope in me that survived, not all the ones I lost; I choose to remember the time we were all together, as I knew – and I did know – they wouldn’t last. But I feel I got a momentary reprieve before we all moved on to our own lives and my father was gone.
My wish for you in 2021 is that you are kind to yourself. That you survive. That your loved ones survive, and that you are fortunate enough to have love, and time, and hope around you.
Nothing lasts forever, and better days are coming. I also choose to believe that.
TARANIKI So… this little guy, yeah? I call him Taraniki, and I can’t seem to stop drawing him. Not anything intentional, mind you, unless you count the dozens of images I did for an October inking challenge in the fall of 2019. No, it’s more… he comes out in doodles while I’m on the phone or otherwise absentmindedly moving my pen.
I have no idea what his story is, but he has certainly done a great job of arguing for his own existence since 2000. That’s twenty years(!) and it’s unusual for an idea to linger in my mind like that for so long without me doing anything about it.
Which brings me to… You no doubt know I have a syndicated strip called Magnificatz which I’ve been creating since 2013? As I write this on JAN 2, 2020, I am writing my 300th Magnificatz strip, and I’m starting to feel like that’s enough, you know? I’m not sure what I’ll do next – cut back to a strip or so a week? Drop it entirely? Place it in re-runs? I dunno. But I am feeling the urge to do something else besides my beloved little cute cat cartoon.
Taraniki is a likely candidate for my next project. As I say, I like drawing him and his adventures, even though I’m not exactly sure what they are. But I might just as easily tackle one of my other projects that I’ve put on hold during Magnificatz’ run.
I may do a graphic novel. I may create a new comic strip (even though that’s looking increasingly unlikely… the thought of building a strip up from the ground right now exhausts me) or… I may go off half-cocked and start writing these novels I’ve had rattling around in my head for so long. Hugh Howey’s advice is pounding pretty strongly in my head:
“There’s no guarantee you’ll get rich from self-publishing. There’s less guarantee you’ll get rich from querying agents.“
I’ve been self-publishing for a decade now after decades of publisher rejection convinced me I’d better strike out on my own. Looks like I’m going to continue to do so.
What’s next? I dunno. Taraniki? Comics, Graphic Novels, Prose? Something else? You never know. But I hope it will be as fun for you to read as it will be for me to create.
Thanks for joining me so far, and happy 2020 to us all!