Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Genius and the rest of us

Cartoonist Garry Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury, has followed a path from a relatively ordinary young life to a position of immense influence. As he himself describes it, it sounds like a series of accidents. He was the son of an illustrious physician, true, but was himself not attracted to a career in medicine. He could have had a career as a well-to-do unknown. But he didn't.

At an evening presentation last night in White River Junction, VT, Trudeau said that he never envisioned a career in cartooning "until about junior year." He drew cartoons and submitted them to the student paper at Yale. They developed a popular following, despite his idiosyncratic drawing style, and that led to an offer from Universal Press Syndicate.

That's right, my aspiring scribblers. They came to him. To put it bluntly, that shit doesn't happen to everyone.

Trudeau admitted that he was in the right place at the right time. While he may not be the voice of his generation, he is certainly a voice of it. In the medium of cartooning he depicted the lives and times of a certain set of Baby Boomer intellectuals. He admitted to his flaws as he described how he covered things like the Vietnam War. As a craftsman, he strives for accuracy in satire. You must first understand what is going on to portray it even in an ironic light.

In a way, I see his adoption of the troops now fighting abroad as a form of atonement for failing to portray them with precision in the Vietnam era. As he says, he was never against the troops themselves, only against the decisions made by political and military leaders to send them to Southeast Asia and to keep them there. So it is today with our military personnel being taxed and expended in Iraq.

"You have to be able to separate between opposing the war and honoring the warrior," he said.

Because Trudeau requested that no recording devices be present last night, I am doing my best to piece this together from memory and a few notes scribbled while the house lights were up. It's a shame, in one regard, because certain points of his talk flowed seamlessly, each quip or joke setting up the next. At other times he seemed to get a little jumbled, as when doing a bit with Supreme Court justices, but was he really stumbling or was I just too ignorant to get the joke? If it was the latter, I was not alone, because no one else laughed until what I, too, perceived as a punchline. Beyond the jokes, he also delivered a call for more people to take up the responsibilities of citizenship, to pay attention to the running of their country. It wasn't said that bluntly, but almost in those terms through the character of Jack Tanner in the HBO series Trudeau did with Robert Altman.

Mention of this collaboration with Altman and Trudeau's work with Elizabeth Swados ("Doonesbury" the musical, Rap Master Ronnie) underscored for me how he had moved into the world of genius from the one in which the rest of us toil in obscurity. You may have your own opinion of the work of Altman and Swados, but at least they're Somebody You've Heard Of. Each is a verifiable heavy hitter. Trudeau is married to Jane Pauley. They can afford not only to live in New York, but to live well there. He hangs out with all sorts of People You've Heard Of. They've all heard of each other. It's a different world.

As his prominence grew, his ability to build his genius in the company of genius grew as well.

I wanted to speak with him, because he inspired my early aspirations. More detail would certainly have helped at the time, but somehow I'd developed the handicap early in life of believing that asking for details constituted prying. A born journalist will pry and be damned, but I came out much more reticent. It dogs me to this day. So last night I had a thick portfolio in my plain room at the Hotel Coolidge, less than 50 yards away, but no polite excuse to lay it before him. He was tired. I knew it had been a long day, because he'd given a lecture that morning at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and now it was close to 10 p.m. I did hang around until the line for book signing dwindled to nothing. Then I identified myself as a finalist in the Union of Concerned Scientists cartoon contest from this summer. He brightened at that, shook my hand and asked which one was mine. I told him and he laughed, indicating recognition. There were only a dozen finalists, so he might well have remembered it. I chose to believe it, anyway, because I'd had a long day at the end of a long life and I could use the reassurance. We actually walked together, slowly, toward the door, and even down the stairs to the street. I didn't try to bend his ear. I just flowed with the group escorting him out, tossing in a remark or two. He said how much he enjoyed his visit to Vermont. I said it might have been quite different across the Connecticut River.

"I live in the state next door," I said. There was a general laugh and some knowing murmurs. "But they need subversives there," I said.

Before I let him go forever, out on the sidewalk, I did hand him one of the business cards my incredibly wonderful wife made for me as a good-luck gift before I went on this journey. Who knows? He might not send those pants to the cleaners with the card forgotten in the pocket, and he might, in a moment of mad boredom, visit one of the two web addresses provided.

I wanted to ask him about the issues he doesn't get to cover, because he has taken on the war and warriors as his focus. Thus has the Bush Administration tied up one more of our national resources in pursuit of his ill-advised military campaign. All the while Trudeau delivers a necessary message about the war, he isn't talking about the economy, health care and the environment. And who is left with the genius connections and the high media profile to put that into cartoon form for the public to get a meaningful chuckle?

We who are not famous work from the ground up. It's hard, underpaid, frustrating and sometimes mightily boring. We're not doing anything that gets us on TV or hanging out with the people who do. We depend on our elevated observers to help us guide our efforts.


I had an interesting time personally that evening. The whole trip had the sense of a mission. I planned it from compiling a portfolio, to deciding what creative and communicative tools to bring, to resolving that I would plant myself on the sidewalk at least an hour early to be sure I got a good seat.

Food would be a problem. At first I had planned to make enough lunch to supply an early supper as well, but time got away from me as I focused on the portfolio and a few household things that needed to be taken care of, so I headed out with one chicken sandwich, three speckly bananas and the last of a box of Cheez-Its. I hoped I might miraculously find a source of somewhat nourishing food in downtown White River Junction, though I doubted it.

As planned, I got to town in plenty of time to stuff my car behind the Coolidge, where it was immune to the two-hour parking restriction, and then wander the streets to see who I might meet. The Center has a number of really cool people on its staff or associated with it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of cartoonists and related professionals out there. Even if you've seen someone's work and know their name, you may never have seen a picture of them. I looked for the one or two I might recognize.

Robyn Chapman was working the desk at the Coolidge. An award-winning cartoonist and teacher, faculty member at the Center for Cartoon Studies, she still needs a day job, like so many of us. I'm always glad to see Robyn, for no specific reason.

Yards down the block, I had just slipped into the Briggs Opera House to check out the evening's venue, when I had a chance to help Michelle Ollie carry some stuff up the stairs from street level. She's the managing director and co-founder of the Center. She remembered me from phone and email conversations.

Right after that I spotted James Sturm across the street. He's the director of the Center. After a minuscule bit of prompting he remembered me from the previous summer, or at least politely acceded to the possibility.

I wondered if any of the alumni from that workshop who live nearby might show up, but no one came up to me and I didn't see anyone who looked familiar.

With one thing and another, I did not hook up with any food. I did not want to drive anywhere. See? I really will starve first. I did score some Java at the Coolidge Cards convenience store, and used it to wash down my two remaining speckly bananas and the dregs of the Cheez-Its. I spent a couple of hours on the hotel's wireless network, researching wetland ordinances on the Internet. Civic involvement goes on. I have a meeting tonight, in fact.

I was third in line at the door. By 7:30, the line stretched back toward the Coolidge. Up the stairs we went. I had to claim my ticket. I gave my name. The volunteer at the table found the envelope and handed it to me. I proceeded to the next station, having lost a number of places to people who already had tickets in hand. I wasn't too worried, it's a very small theater. But then a very strange thing happened.

"He has a yellow ticket," said the attendant at the door. "He wasn't at the dinner, but he has a yellow ticket for some reason."

"Wait, there was dinner?" I said. My bananas and Cheez-Its rumbled slightly at the thought of genuinely tasty and nutritious food. But I was swept along by the usher to a roped-off area where a seat with my name on it awaited me.

It has happened to me before. Fame I did not know I had preceded me and I received some level of deference above what I had expected. Usually it is a matter of coincidence or mistaken identity. But I supposed someone might have identified me as the region's finalist in the prestigious Union of Concerned Scientists contest. Maybe Trudeau himself had specified it.

I had a good laugh over that line of speculation, but I accepted the seat. I was right next to one marked NHPR. Great! I could do some networking and self promotion with someone from my favorite radio station.

I was pretty sure this was a case of mistaken identity. Shortly, a guy addressed as "Tim" by the usher, was searching a few rows forward for his seat. I wasn't going to put up my hand until someone made me, but I 'll bet his last name is "White." I meant to ask, but he got away from me at the end of the show. And maybe it wasn't. He had his wife with him, and neither seat beside me had her name on it. It worked out for us all, because they got to sit two rows closer. The show was supposedly sold out, but the theater was not full.

NHPR blew it off. I was bummed about that.

When the lights came up at the end, I discovered that Alison Bechdel had been sitting in the first occupied seat to my right. But there's that thing about name recognition without facial recognition. Turns out she looks like one of her characters, but I only caught on to who she was when I heard someone address her and then saw the name tag still taped to the back of her chair. As I leaned in to start to try to make contact, she gave me a look like, "who is this weirdo?" Lacking a good answer, I aborted the approach. I was having trouble with my voice from a couple of hours of silence, purposeful dehydration (don't want to waste time on useless pee stops) and my autumn allergens. I let her slip away.

I'm not a fan of anyone to speak of. I respect what's respectable about a number of people, but I had no powerful urge to buy a book and get it signed. Real personal contact transcends souvenirs, and I'd tapped my charitable budget by buying the ticket to the show. Proceeds benefit the Center for Cartoon Studies. I gave. So while the crush gathered to have books signed, I went out to the lobby. My refreshment sense was tingling. There were cookies! And they were free!

My metabolism had shut down somewhere near the beginning of the show. I'd run out of fuel and my body temperature was approaching the territory of a dormant salamander. If I was going to shake Trudeau's hand, and by god I intended to, I needed something in the furnace so he wouldn't think I was one of the undead.

The oatmeal cookies actually seemed to have some nutritional value. They were probably glued together with a half-pound of butter apiece, but there were bits of oatmeal and other twigs in there to provide some virtue. For some reason, Alison Bechdel bestowed a more benevolent look upon me when she saw me chomping on the cookies like I had just been rescued from the wilderness. I felt better all the way around. Still totally lacked the balls to go up and make like a colleague, but felt better, anyway.

I passed some time conversing with a couple I had met in the line before the show. We all seemed content to talk without exchanging names. I have that dratted tendency to hug anonymity. Agree or disagree with my ideas. My identity does not matter. But, dammit, if I'm going to make something of branding, I have to build that identity. But again, once I do that, it is rude and affectedly coy to try to remain anonymous. You can't win.

After my brief time in the presence of Garry, I went back to the hotel to try to sleep. Part of me was very tired and just wanted to crash out until the bagel joint opened in the morning, with real food and coffee. But my mind churned with the decades of issues connected to this comic quest. I willed it to be silent, but it would not. And in a way I didn't want it to. I wanted to ride it all out, bring myself back to functioning equilibrium. I have to operate the life I have created, even if I change it. I have to stand on its solid ground to be able to step off.

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