Thursday, December 08, 2011

Who you callin' a pansy?

These pansies are still blooming underneath the Christmas greens in the planter beside the back door to the shop. They've survived two major snowstorms and numerous sub-freezing nights since the end of summer. So tell me again why we use the term pansy to describe something weak?

Pansies! Yeah!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The problem of wealth

Protestors all over the country are demanding greater accountability from the small percentage of Americans who control the vast majority of its wealth. It is only the latest installment in the debate which has gone on since the beginning of human social life.

In a group of social animals, leaders emerge based of clear-cut abilities that give them dominance over the lesser members of their band. As humans evolved, their brains not only gave them more tools with which to manipulate their environment and each other but also superstition and flawed logic with which to create belief systems that would perpetuate the dominance of certain humans and their descendants regardless of the actual abilities of specific individuals.

Dreamers who believe in the unstoppable power of hard work and initiative, and the self-correcting nature of a completely free market are confident that the concentration of wealth is not a bad thing at all, and that it simply gives all the hard-working strivers a goal toward which to work. Taxation is not the way to break up this clot of wealth. They haven't said exactly how the free market will provide the leverage. They're simply confident that the government should not be used as part of the solution.

Compare that point of view for a moment to the pot-smoking teenager who does not want his parents to come into his room. Of course he doesn't want adults coming in telling him he can't indulge himself as he wishes. He may even be making money on a little commerce in his chosen field. If you object to the example of an illegal drug and illicit commerce, substitute chronic masturbation and a stack of Playboy magazines. As distasteful  as that habit may be to contemplate, it's still legal as far as I know. And it creates jobs, as our little wanker buys publications to stimulate his imagination and suitable lubricants to ease friction. It shares another characteristic with immense wealth, being that it is done exclusively for the gratification of the one at the expense of whatever else has to be neglected during the pursuit of it.

Like any metaphor, it can be beaten to death. Flogged too hard, as it were.

Most shorthand economic arguments being tossed around today are based on incorrect assumptions, like the notion that rich people are the only job creators. Anyone who buys goods or services is creating demand. Demand creates jobs. Existing jobs need demand to keep them viable. I create jobs.You create jobs. We all create jobs. Hurricanes and earthquakes create jobs.

The margin of error in the debate grows even larger because we're looking only at dollar amounts. A million dollars today is less money than it was ten, twenty and thirty years ago. Who knows what it will be worth in ten more years. Money is just a number. A $100 bill and a $1 bill produce exactly the same amount of heat and light when you burn them. The difference to us is entirely the result of what we make them represent.

Numbers don't lie but people certainly use them as part of many falsehoods and misdirections. Because actual currency and verifiable value are only a small part of our financial world, clever fabricators have developed --derived, if you will -- numerical rat-mazes based on theoretical principles that sweep a few digits at a time into one person's column instead of someone else's. It's done in a room as sequestered from reality as our fantasizing teenager's bedroom, yet its consequences are vastly greater.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Mid Autumn

 Canadian cycling blogger Rantwick holds a foliage photo contest every year. He passes a magnificent maple on his daily route that inspired him to put it up against all challengers. It's all for fun. Shown above is my own challenger. It has usually reached this state of disrepair by the time I manage to ride over there with the camera. This year, high winds and the strange, slow progression of color conspired once again to strip many leaves while some still remain green. The cloudy day didn't help.
This photo of the rapids at Effingham Falls goes under the heading, "Why I Live Here." For all the inconvenience, this area has managed to remain fairly pretty and undeveloped thanks to small environmental initiatives and a major lack of anything resembling a strong year-round economy.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


Power doesn't necessarily corrupt but it tends to select for corruption.

As an evolutionary characteristic, power enhanced breeding success. Social customs developed from animal behaviors before the emergence of conscious thought. After the development of language, the power of bullshit could be added to physical qualities such as size and combat skill. Along with thought and reason comes misdirected thought and faulty reasoning. Along with the naturally-occurring errors these can generate, they provide leverage for manipulating people through mistaken perceptions.

Fair-mindedness would cause an ethical leader to step down over certain issues in which a corrupt leader would look for some way to excuse remaining in power. Because various margins for error coincide nicely to provide these justifications, the traditions of leadership tend to accumulate greater tolerance for corruption up to a certain point. Beyond that the dirt becomes obvious. This might not cause a leader to topple if the leader can command enough forces to stay on top of the heap, but it commits that leader to the role of despot rather than merely "flawed" or "controversial."

Uncorrupted leaders still manage to operate even now. Because they tend to limit themselves through their ethics they are still in the minority, where they can be expected to remain. The system as we accept it still favors people who grab for power and cling to it tenaciously. We even praise the qualities of energy and ambition as signs of the ever-valued work ethic almost regardless of the outcome.

Where a would-be leader of old might need to command fighting forces to bolster that ambition, now the seeker of power needs to command money or solicit donations of it. While this can be less destructive in the obvious sense of riding roughshod over the countryside pillaging, it raises corruption to new importance as the supplicant makes deals in return for financial support.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Tenth Anniversary

Today America observes the tenth anniversary of the day that sudden death and the tangible possibility of spectacular murder-suicide entered our consciousness forever. With elaborate and beautiful ceremonies this country marks the event in all its pain and glory, all its loss and hope, all its death and rebirth. It's all about us. That was kind of the problem in the first place.

9-11-01 was a wasted teachable moment. If the president had come out of his trance in that school room and said something wise and insightful to a shocked nation instead of cheerleading for revenge in echo of popular sentiment the nation might actually have been united by the experience.

To be fair, for a few minutes that morning I myself wanted to nuke the troublesome areas of the world until they were a sheet of volcanic glass. I got caught up in the flood of nasty possibilities that a truly effective terrorist network could have prepared to unleash. Why should we have expected a mere human leader to transcend the human response to a serious threat?

The 9-11 attacks joined us to a world where tragic, nasty things happen more frequently, on a less cinematic scale. It was a time when we could have felt not only an insular connection to our fellow citizens but a wider connection to all people similarly wronged everywhere. It could have been a time to examine our human relationship to life and killing, not just a specific fight between certain adversaries. The stated motives for the attacks, and the willingness to die to commit them, highlight the philosophical difference between people who want to enjoy this life and those who only care to leave it in such a way that they earn some sort of cosmic reward that no one can prove exists. The believers believe with every fiber of their being. In a case like that some will say that how one lives matters much less than why one dies, and for whom.

Death surrounds life. We come from a place we can't remember. At some point, each and every one of us leaves for a place of similar mystery. Is there blackness, oblivion? Is there heaven and hell? Paradoxically, some of those who believe that the real action takes place in the eternal afterlife make all kinds of trouble during their brief mortal span over injustices that are guaranteed to be temporary, just as life itself is temporary. None of it really makes sense. It merely justifies the unfortunate human propensity to lash out angrily and hurt or kill someone. That anger may be a brief, passionate flash or a long, slow-burning smolder. Not everyone feels it to the same degree. But those who do feel it are capable of inflicting vast amounts of unnecessary suffering into a world already well supplied.

Terrorism wins the battle to take lives because taking lives is pathetically easy. There are too many ways to kill and walk away. That number goes up exponentially when the killer no longer wants to walk away safely. The only way to screen out most of those possibilities is to give up a lot of freedom where large numbers of people assemble. Who wouldn't submit to a little pat-down if in return for that you have some sense that a killer might be stopped? So the terrorists record a victory either way. They may not have changed our society as much as they hope to, ultimately, but they have certainly changed the way we live and think.

Certainly this incremental erosion of freedom starts a slippery slope. We do it because it's part of our strategy of resistance to our insidious attackers.

On September 11, 2001 a war began that can never end. When neither side will ever surrender, the result is an endless exchange of atrocities.

Make no mistake: the terrorists are wrong. Terrorism exploits dark peculiarities of the human psyche that find their expression in murder-suicide all the time. It feeds on some people's willingness to set deadly traps basically for the fun of it. It gives these creeping killers an ideology to exalt something they would probably do anyway. The terrorists should quit. But don't expect them to surrender. The delusion that propels them is too irrational to see any sense in getting along. Why bother to coexist when you can actually get someone to strap on a bomb and explode their own guts to score a blow against someone with whom you disagree? That power must be intoxicating to someone twisted enough to want to cause mass casualties in the first place.

No one was in the mood to hear that kind of truth after a spectacular defeat with a large loss of life. That doesn't mean it should not have been said. People say the attacks changed the world, but do they have any idea how much? In a way, not much at all. The tendency to do nasty things to each other over petty disagreements is a long-standing human tradition. In another way, it marked the end, forever, of America as we knew it and the hope of a peaceful world in which we enjoy and gain strength from our differences. After a few days at best of stunned unity, the attacks heightened our own disagreements in this country.

We unite again today to commemorate a horrific day that no one who witnessed will forget. The day was marked by courage and devastation that demonstrated the very best and worst about humanity. We won't know for a very long time which quality will prevail. We may simply continue to attack and defend, to wound and heal, to kill and bury and have sex and produce new life and to argue bitterly about what it all means without questioning the irrationality of reasons we state for it.

Life goes on, for now.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Friday, July 29, 2011

Too Big to Fail?

Extremely principled members of Congress are going to push the government past the deadline to raise the debt limit. That seems inevitable. Whether you agree with them or not, the Tea Party faction of the Republican majority is going to take us all along on their experiment in economics.

Some economists predict dire consequences. Others are less concerned. I've heard a lot more shooting around my rural neighborhood as the deadline approaches, so maybe the survivalist demographic thinks we'll face real social breakdown. Or maybe they finally saved up enough money to buy some ammo after a very quiet early summer.

Because the government's financial obligations won't disappear just because the Tea Party wishes it were so, expenses will rise, further straining the middle class. Because the middle class has been deemed unnecessary, this will be no loss. However, the bottom layer of the top class will start to crumble away as it takes more and more money to maintain a lifestyle that will have to include privately purchased replacements for many services government currently provides.

I'm not sure how much longer we could have afforded ourselves anyway. China is rising, but what will they stand above when civilization as we've come to know it is no longer affordable? We could have staved off a massive change in the not-too-distant future with some small changes back when a nerdy peanut farmer from Georgia suggested them in the late 1970s, but why dwell in the past? We are a nation that has been well served by charging obstinately forward for about three centuries. It's not like the whole thing will come crashing down immediately. Disruption creates opportunity. It doesn't guarantee that everyone will see an opportunity. Change is not always good, and certainly not always good for everyone.

We don't even know how much will change, how quickly.

We do know that there will not be another bailout. We're going to ride this one down to the ground for better or for worse. Happy landings!

Monday, July 04, 2011

Periodic Fiddle Report

Beginning musicians go through two phases. In the first phase, you can't recognize what they're trying to play. In the second phase you can recognize it, but you wish you couldn't. Your mind supplies the rest of the phrase as the player still gropes to pull it out. It's like listening to someone with a stammer. As a player, it's like having a stammer. The thought is there, it just gets jammed up in processing.

Most music students get to the second phase. A certain number never get past it. In a way it never ends. As one fiddle player I know says, "you never get to the finish line in music." A musician pushing further will attempt more difficult music. It will come out mangled a few times before it comes out right.

For the most part, teachers and better players have been very encouraging. Once in a while, though, someone makes a remark that makes me wonder how well I might ever play.

The phrase, "as long as you're enjoying yourself" serves not only as permission to dabble in the province of real musicians, but also a hint that it's not only okay to sound tentative and incompetent, it may be all you can hope for. But "as long as you enjoy it" it's okay.

More ominously, at String Band one night, someone said something about playing a tune well and Seth said, "it's an accomplishment just to play it recognizably." All I could think of was identifying a mangled accident victim from a tiny scrap of visible tattoo or dental records. Wow. Is that all there is?

The leader of the adult classical ensemble I play with said something similar that sounded kind of like, "learn to enjoy being mediocre." She wants us to try our hardest and not to run ourselves down for our musical disabilities, but then the veil seems to slip and we see the inscription on the wall behind it: "Don't kid yourselves."

In the past couple of years I have focused on practicing frequently and well. Last fall I started attending a weekly session run by a local musician and teacher who specializes in folk music.

The term folk music conjures up images of the commercial product in the 1960s, but it really encompasses the indigenous music of the people wherever "folk" gather. Instruments range from recognizable implements one could buy or rent from a music store to weird objects pieced together in places remote from formal music education. It can also include formalized traditions quite different from the music most familiar to people living in Europe and countries derived primarily from European culture.

Most of what we play on Thursday nights in String Band comes from old-time and Celtic genres.

Folk music was the popular music before commercial pop music became widespread in the second half of the 20th Century. Modern popular music owes a lot to various tributary streams from all over the world, mixed together and fed into a microphone during the rise of radio. Because of this, a little or a lot of any given folk tune might have a familiar ring to it. Also, since much of folk music is meant to be dance music, it has the same earworm potential as many modern popular tunes. Like it or not, the pattern digs into part of your brain and won't leave. It may subside, but it is seldom eradicated.

If I like a tune it takes root more quickly in my brain. Unfortunately, all these tunes get into my mind far sooner than they get into my fingers. I can't play a single one as fast as I can hear it in my mind.

On the classical training side, the music is more complex. I find it more difficult to pull off the page than the simple patterns of the fiddle tunes. I could probably turn into a reasonably competent hack fiddler. Becoming a violinist is a lot harder. The two tracks appear to support each other. Fiddle playing, as long as I maintain posture and technique, provides a lot of mechanical practice. The reward is a tune. On the other side, reading more complicated pieces off the page reinforces technique and pattern recognition.

Music is a vast universe. Many modern musicians combine formal training in the classical tradition with explorations in the genres that transmit knowledge with no written notation or with specialized notation developed within a musical subculture. This approach, that blurs boundaries, makes it all accessible. That would seem good. However, some adherents to specific traditions will say that the global musician who drops in, soaks up a few things and moves on, doesn't get the full cultural basis and significance the tradition represents.

I don't know enough to pick a side. Exploratory musicians generally seem like pretty cool people, and I'm all about sharing culture and fun, so I'll try whatever comes my way. It might even come out recognizably.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Two Seasons

New England has two seasons: winter and getting ready for winter. Whenever anyone makes a joke about New England and its seasons, winter is always one of them.

Today I spent hours stacking wood in the shed. I also tested the Ossipee River, testing a pair of waders at the same time. It's handy to get this gig testing hip boots just in time for presidential primary campaigning.

This year we got four cords of wood instead of the usual three. Three fills our shed. The fourth will have to go up in the back yard. This will make it more convenient to bring to the living room to feed the new wood stove that will heat that space since we had the gas bomb removed. The old gas unit had just gotten too scary. A wood fire in a good stove gives more consistent heat from a fuel that literally grows on trees. During the lean times I would burn busted up pallets, scrap lumber, old furniture (don't worry, not the antiques) and logging slash gleaned from old sites nearby.

When you're stacking wood you're not doing anything else. It's a long, steady grind. You can't look too often at the pile or you'll just quit and find something else to do. You have to get into a groove with a good train of thought or some sort of meditation. If I get a really good idea I might stop to jot it down or keep refining it until I finish the day's labor and turn to the evening's contemplation.

Right now I'm sitting in the dark so I can see the fireflies outside. Unfortunately, the door screen is pretty well shredded by the cats. Less enjoyable bugs than the fireflies are making their way in to investigate the light of my computer screen and drink my blood. Maybe I can drive them away with some bad fiddlin' in the dark. Or perhaps they'll take that annoying whine to be a mating call. We'll see.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Help in the studio

Ordinarily I will have one cat helping me at my drawing table. This is the primary reason I use dry coloring and toning materials rather than wet washes and paints. That and the fact that I can leave dry methods at any point for other interruptions and use them easily in the field. Lame, I know, since intrepid painters and dip-pen artists have been working in adverse conditions for centuries. But being a belt-and-suspenders kind of guy I believe in a margin of safety.

Because I've been working in the studio more than usual lately, the cats have decided to increase their efforts as well. They've put on a double shift on my table now in case I thought I was actually going to get a lot of work done.

Proving my wisdom, they are lying right in the middle of what would be a cooling puddle of colored water if I'd risked doing brush work.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

On this solemn day of barbecues and trips to the beach, we honor those who serve our country, especially those in harm's way right now. That's what I keep hearing, anyway.

Actually today we remember the ones who didn't make it. Because that is commonly forgotten in the rush to try to make service members and veterans feel properly appreciated, every American holiday is simply turning into a combination Armed Forces Day and Veterans' Day. Is there any hope our species will just outgrow the bloodletting or are we hopelessly locked into the model of combat without end, amen?

We salute those who have been sacrificed to human combativeness. Honoring the fallen is the best we can do, even though it comes a distant second to actually learning to get along.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

You can't go home before the pig roundup is finished

About a mile from home on Elm Street we saw the lights of cars stopped in the road in front of us. The one facing toward us approached slowly. I rolled down the window.

"There's a pig!" the driver called.

I looked ahead in the patches of headlight glare. A young woman was just trying to snare the beast with what looked like a brassiere. The pig jerked its head away, snapping the flimsy garment. I pulled in behind the car in front of me. The cellist put the emergency flashers on as I got out.

The woman who had been trying to snare the beast asked, "Do you have any rope? My bikini top just isn't handling this."

Do I have any rope? We could probably have woven a sturdy and sizable net out of the amount of rope I typically have stashed in my car. In this instance I pulled out a piece about 15 feet long that's thick enough to tow a car. I know this because I've used it for that during a snowbank mishap or two.

"Is it yours?" I asked.

"No," she said. "It belongs to my neighbors up the road." She gestured in the direction we had all been headed on our way home after a long day.

"They went to get help," she said.

The young woman seemed very confident and capable. That was good, because I did not feel like going to the mat with 100-plus pounds of porker. I tied her a lasso and handed it to her.

The pig had its own ideas. We shadowed it and nearly got a line on it once or twice, but it evaded us and went into the woods. One more herder joined us from a truck that stopped. Then when the pig went into someone's yard, the couple in that house came out to join us. At that point the pig changed course and started heading back toward where the young woman told us it lives.

I kept hoping the cavalry would show up so I could retrieve my rope and go on home. Instead we gained more recruits as our straggling chase took us several hundred yards along the road.

One pair of guys had a snare with them that they intended to use on the pigs foot or snout. The couple who had joined us from their house had brought out a bucket of grain. We tried to bait the pig with it, but a few fumbled snare attempts ruined that gambit. The pig went into another yard and made another stand in front of the house.

I knew this house. An enormous Saint Bernard had lumbered out from it once and bitten me as I rode by on my bike. I'd chatted with the owners. I wouldn't call us friends, but we parted cordially. Still I wondered how they would react to an impromptu pig rodeo in their yard at 10:30 at night.

They actually didn't wake up for five or ten minutes while the herders urged each other with suggestions and instructions and dove in unsuccessful tackles that the pig greeted with outraged squeals and thrashing escapes. We ended up all the way behind the house before the homeowner stepped out onto the deck to see what the hell was going on.

As luck would have it, the pig turned out to be his. We had inadvertently returned it to its home after all. We declared victory and dispersed.

The cellist had left me so she could go on and take care of our friend's cats. I set out in the warm summer darkness to walk the rest of the way home. As the other herders passed me in their cars and trucks they called out friendly good nights. I have no idea who they were. We just did what needed to be done.

The cellist was able to take care of the cat chores and still make it back to retrieve me by the Pine River Bridge. Now for a shower and some sleep before I get up at dawn to test rivers.

I'm thinking about bacon for breakfast.

Monday, May 23, 2011

What do you call two exhibition halls full of cartoonists?

In this case it was called the Maine Comics Arts Festival.

My friend Jamie had half a table at the event, which was held this past weekend at the Ocean Gateway in Portland, Maine. I went over on Sunday, meeting my associate George over there with his wife Delores.

Portland is a great little city. My favorite part is that I can sneak in a side entrance until I don't feel like driving any farther and park for free on Sundays. I won't tell you how its done because I don't want the route to get crowded. Suffice to say it's not the obvious one, but it's quite direct. Metered spaces are free on Sunday, so I can ditch the car and walk, which is my favorite way to get around the tight confines of a downtown area. I could have parked near the venue for free. I just wanted the walk.

Not knowing what to expect, I brought a drawing kit, a camera and my netbook in case I had the opportunity to sling some ink with anyone. It turned out that horizontal space was scarce and the place was crowded, so I lugged that dead weight just for the exercise. I did get to show a few sketches to some people.

Jamie is very well informed about our cartooning world. I wish I was as outgoing. The next best thing is knowing him, though, because he made sure I didn't miss anything good that he'd found.

George is another asset. A lifelong traveler, he quietly observes his surroundings and is not afraid to strike up a conversation. He spotted Jeffrey Lewis, who is a musician first and a cartoonist as a sideline. Big G saw the CDs and asked Jeff about himself. As a result we both bought some music. Turns out that one of Jeff's musical collaborators is a friend of my musical friends and teachers Seth and Beverly. Jeff probably didn't know that, but when I started putting ones and zeroes together on the Internet after I got home the connection soon surfaced.

Jeff's CD turns out to be a grin a minute and great to cartoon to. Maybe that's because I know all the connections. Still, anything that helps me stay happily at the drawing table for more than a few seconds is welcome. For some reason I find it very hard to settle down and draw compared to the hours I'll spend on a piece of writing, or sawing cacophonously at the violin in hopes of improvement.

Jamie said George and I should be sure to check out Mike Lynch, a genuine professional gag cartoonist who sells to real magazines like Reader's Digest, Playboy, the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business review and others. That was an excellent tip, because Mike turns out to be an extremely nice guy. Maybe I only think that because he busted out laughing at one of my drawings. Every little bit helps.

I had brought two books of Nordic skiing cartoons George and I had drawn during our time at the Jackson shop. When I told Mike it was a collaboration he said he'd noticed the two styles. Nordic Confidential I and II were just hacked together in a mix of rough sketches and more finished renderings, just to get the material out.

George also spotted the title "Bikeman" at one exhibitor's table. The writer and artist there is Jon Chad, who also turns out to be connected with the Center for Cartoon Studies, where I met Jamie at their one and only gag cartooning workshop in 2006.

When I asked Jon if he was a cyclist, he declined to identify himself as such. As we talked, though, he said, "I love my bike. I love taking care of it and going places on it." I bought the two issues he had left of his Bikeman comic. It's not so much a graphic novel as graphic serialized fiction. While I would spell more meticulously and perhaps make different decisions in the drawings, I totally agree with his affection for his bike and the simple joy of going places on it. To me that is the essence of biking as opposed to a specific specialty in cycling as a sport or "lifestyle."

The Center had a lot of table frontage at the festival as well. I did not try to stop Robyn Chapman in mid flight, but it was nice to see her nonetheless. She seemed like a magical creature when I went to cartoon camp in 2006, popping up all over the neighborhood in White River Junction at moments when I needed help or guidance. At the festival she was doing portfolio reviews for aspiring cartoonists.

Time and again we tell each other: just keep cartooning. It's good to hear it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cartooning: The Original Social Media

My friend the talented and prolific cartoonist Jamie Smith wrote in his blog recently about how he likes to work in public spaces like cafes because the background noise of people helps him concentrate.

As often happens with Jamie's observations, it made me realize something: cartooning is inherently social. As also so often happens, I feel like an idiot for not realizing it sooner and incorporating the principle years ago.

It makes perfect sense. Who is the cartoonist? The doodler draws in the back of class and hands the sketches around for the reward of laughter. Even the most awkward social outcast who draws will try to find someone with whom to share it. Fine art might or might not be snooty, but cartooning is always looking for a friend.

Writers have been known to haunt cafes and bars, too, but their art takes more time to absorb. A cartoonist has the unique ability to dash off a sketch that can be appreciated in seconds, but viewed over and over.

A stand-up comedian can snap off a hilarious observation, but repetition might make it tiresome to the performer or the audience. For the cartoonist, the panel or page can be as fresh as when it was new. If the material doesn't depend on a topic that goes stale, every new viewer can enjoy it at full potency. The cartoonist can draw in a room alone or with a handful of people, but the product can be reproduced and distributed almost infinitely.

When I moved to the woods in 1987 I did not fully appreciate how the isolation of rural life would affect my ability to work. I have the same need for social contact that any cartoonist has. When I lived in a small city I liked to go out into it to watch people. I didn't need to meet them, just to have them around. Then I got pulled off into outdoor writing, which is a strange name for the genre, if you think about it. I did do a lot of the writing outdoors, but the term refers to writing about activities conducted outdoors. The craft required that I do these outdoor things. I wanted to know if they were really a good option for the working class compared to the more expensive and destructive pursuits marketed to them. The answer turns out to be yes and no. By the time I came back around to my original goals I was already here with a snug home and an income that looks better and better as other sectors of the economy topple.

A recent public radio segment I heard featured some people interviewing for jobs at a call center. The salary was $20,000 a year. The company they were applying to work for has very strict policies. One applicant came in with very businesslike attire and years of experience to try for this job that pays what would barely be a living wage in many parts of this country. Seriously, try to have a halfway decent place to live, a somewhat reliable used car and regular dental checkups for $20,000 a year in the Baltimore-Washington area. Forget trying to live in a truly nice place and have a solid vehicle and maybe a family for that kind of money. So my steady trickle, which has actually managed to exceed call center money after all these years, doesn't seem like such a stupid choice.

Jamie mentioned that some other cartoonists have said they run the radio or have the TV news on in the background. I get drawn into the broadcast, which can be good for generating ideas, but hard when I'm trying to follow through on one of them.

Ideas flow when I'm supposed to be doing something else. The social context of work or school provides the base level of activity that stimulates the brain and offers the promise of someone to laugh as soon as you finish and show them your work. In Jackson I could often do good finished renderings. In Wolfe City I can't. I drag home bedraggled scraps of scratch paper with scribbled doodles and notes and hope I will have the energy to overcome my media paralysis and actually finish some of them on my so-called "days off."

Web publishing offers the possibility of a worldwide audience. The tricky part is hooking up cash flow to this exposure. You also have to avoid getting sucked into the vast array of truly fantastic passive entertainment and educational material on that same worldwide buffet. Your odds of being seen are really no better than if you scrawled on the wall of an alley in a second rate city on the skids. The difference is that the city can now be anywhere in the world, with the correspondingly greater number of lost pedestrians who might stumble into your seedy neighborhood and appreciate your doodle. Unless they leave a comment, the social aspect is conspicuously lacking. And processing and responding to those comments requires another chunk of your time.

Home alone today with cats climbing on me or my table, I have to try to get some work done.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I Ponder Economics

In this world of illusion you have to choose your level of illusion carefully. If you have none at all you can easily become suicidally depressed, whether you act on it or not. Depression is by nature a slow-motion suicide because you sit and wait for death when you do nothing else with your time. So it pays to avoid the realization that all human existence is pointless unless it propels you into a hardworking pursuit of distracting hedonism. In that case you become a driver of the economy. You have to pay for those physical gratifications somehow, and that means trading goods and services.

If you want to try for happiness you have to come up with a solid set of stories you tell yourself about the things you do to fill your day and calm your mind for sleep at night. I was going to say lies, but if you know they're lies they will cease to work and you're back to suicidal depression or a knowing pursuit of distraction in a vast cosmos of pointlessness. The veil will inevitably slip from time to time, leaving you staring into the fathomless blackness.

If you decide your life has a point or points, pursuit of them will provide the structure to support the comforting facade you place over the big black hole. You can equally validly decide that you simply like certain things in life and will enjoy them as much as possible until the end, making no bets about their higher purpose or what experience might lie beyond the point where our perception appears to cease.

While you're here you have to figure out how to generate income.

I know a lot of people in the realm collectively known as The Arts. They are actors, writers, directors, painters, cartoonists, musicians and even tradespeople who have an artistic approach to their work. The tradespeople have an advantage over the purely artistic types because they offer a practical service like auto repair, carpentry or plumbing in their own eccentric way.

The unifying trait in the artistic personality is independent thought. Their creativity might be completely derivative, but every artist feels independent and does not perform well under someone else's authority. My auto mechanic started his own shop because he did not like how he was being told to fix people's cars to low standards in shops where he was merely an employee. For the luxury of setting his own standards he undertook the endless work of being his own boss. He's staying afloat, but he can't tolerate helpers with low standards any more than he could work for an employer with them. He works as hard as he can to meet his own standards for as many customers as he can serve at that level. It means a lot of six-day -- if not seven-day -- weeks.

Many of my friends in the pure arts: music, drama, visual media both serious and humorous, teach others their craft. The money they get for lessons and classes helps fund their more speculative creative ventures. However, they create more creators as they go. If even a fraction of the students go on to put up their creations for the public to view, judge and perhaps purchase, they fill the display with more and more for the consuming public to pay for, or not. That money has to come from somewhere. Even the money for lessons has to come from somewhere.

Right now, the Internet has evolved to a point at which creative people, good or not so good, can put up their work and possibly gain some income from it. I gather from my musician friends that the model is not serving them well because their intellectual property can escape through too many leaks without producing a return flow of cash. While a performer can gain worldwide exposure, apparently it's very easy to lose all benefit of the fame because the cash flow fails. In fact, according to one musician's article, musicians now find themselves paying more and more services to publicize them while receiving no money in return. If no one has to pay for recordings anymore, the only sources of income are live gigs and authorized merchandise. That seems like a throwback to the age when musicians played not only without being recorded, but without amplification except by their own numbers and the acoustics of the performance space.

Returning to the concept of what is worthwhile in human existence, how much should we care about people who have chosen to devote extraordinary amounts of time to perfecting skills that do not produce food, build shelter or move people and goods from place to place? The answer begins with the fact that we are not ants. We as a species seem to believe there is more to our existence than mere existence. We evolved these arts as a way to enrich our lives. The fact that some of us prove more adept than others at them complicates matters because then the arts of a few become desirable by a larger audience that finds itself incapable of doing as well, or who simply like the product even if they are fellow creators.

Many adult advisors did their best to convince me to get a good job and do art as a hobby. As far as they were concerned I was throwing away my life by chasing a dream of creative success. Was it because they'd seen my art and knew it wasn't good enough to succeed or did they give the same advice to any student? I'll never know.

How often do you find yourself looking at something and asking "but what good is it?" It seems like a reasonable question when looking at a piece of art that seems badly done or in poor taste, or listening to music that's disturbing or sloppily performed. In the realm of pure art, so much is subjective that a lot of it can seem like crap and a certain amount undeniably is. But apply the same question to everything you see, not just art, and be ruthlessly critical. Keep at it long enough --perhaps not long at all -- and you question the value of nearly everything. And that's a good thing. You want to keep checking your assumptions not just once but as many times as it takes to get around all sides of them and make them prove their worth. Even if you continue apparently unchanged, at least you ran the checklist.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

This just in: Osama bin Laden is still dead

At the cost of billions of dollars and thousands of lives the man most associated in the public's mind with the 9/11 plot has finally been gunned down by an amazing team of fighters from the United States.

In terms of cost effectiveness, chaos is always a better deal than order. That would not be true if all was chaos. Nothing would be a good deal. But if your hobby is anarchy or subversion you definitely get more bang for your buck as the evil genius planting bombs in unexpected places or sending suicidal minions out to blow themselves spectacularly to smithereens as a political or philosophical statement. While the chumps try to keep a functional society going, you can hide out in your lair, plotting. Release the occasional propaganda video to stir the pot.

Osama may be dead, but who really won? We have no idea how much he might have been enjoying life. What did we really take from him? It could have been everything. It could have been not much. Rumors had circulated about his poor health. He could already have been on the way out. And he can't have been surprised that the forces of retribution continued to hunt him. The magnitude of the hunt will give the dead man an aura of greatness among those inclined to admire killers who accept their own death as the price of their lifestyle choice. Is that supposed to make it all right?

Now that first impressions are wearing off we can get down to the serious long-term business of arguing over it. It has to be used as political football for as long as it will rise nicely to a sharp kick. It will go flat eventually, but hardly soon enough.

Meanwhile, the actual snuff operation has the makings of a great movie. Who's got the hot hand writing that shit these days? This one practically writes itself. When was the last time a mission like this worked so well and could actually be publicized?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

When the world changes right nearby.

The world is always changing. it's just that most times it's far and muffled. But sometimes you're yanked out of bed, swung around by one leg and flung into a new universe.

The phone went off with a harsh jangle at about five past midnight last night. Usually the initial surge of alarm subsides when the caller turns out to be someone in a different time zone who forgot the difference or a caller excited by something great that happened to them.

Once in a while it's as bad as the first surge of fear and then some.

The cellist answered the phone. It's on her side of the bed.

"What? No! How? When? Are you all right?" She sounded instantly breathless and shocked. I could hear a tearful woman's voice on the other end of the line. I began repeating the questions the cellist was asking, to know what had happened, to whom, and how badly.

Her brother had been found dead in his house while his wife and two toddlers were away visiting her parents. He was 47.

Over the years I have had friends of friends die young. Just a couple of weeks ago I finally got a solid Google hit on one of my old fencing teammates I'd been trying to track down for years. It was his obituary.

While I'm no great fan of death, it doesn't freak me out when it happens to someone young. By the time I finished high school I'd lost one schoolmate to cancer when she was in fifth grade. Another graduated from high school with one leg. By the end of the following year she had lost the other leg and her life. I know death has no respect for your age, your plans, how beloved you are or your social position. Some people live a long time. Others don't. Sometimes the death makes a certain amount of sense: the deceased may have a medical condition, dangerous habits or hazardous activities. Our cars kill 40,000 of us a year in the United States alone. But when someone just drops, and he's the only parent in his group of siblings it changes everyone's outlook. The man is dead, that's shocking enough. His survivors still need to live. We all have to figure out how to help them with the plain practical matter of going on.

When we went to bed we thought the bad news was that we had less time than we had thought to find a kidney transplant facility for her and see if we need to set up one of those transplant chains to get live donors lined up with matched recipients. If I match her it's just $150,000 worth of plug-and-play. The odds are against it.

Organ transplantation isn't like any other purchase. You only get one shot. The organ has to be right. The surgical team has to be right. It's a lot to absorb. We have about six years. Will a medical miracle change our situation? One can hope, of course, but again, the odds are against it.

The future looks complicated and expensive. In the meantime we still have to get to work every day and pay our bills. The future is unknowable. Lay the groundwork for what you hope to reach. Remember that most of your plans and absolutely none of your hopes guarantee anything.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Attention Motorists

The only time it is appropriate to leave your vehicle idling is when you are using it to kill yourself inside your garage.

We also request that you rethink that decision and choose a more environmentally sensitive suicide method like drowning in the ocean or smearing yourself with raw steak and going for a naked hike in grizzly country.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

It's gonna get deep in New Hampshire

Yeah, we have a big snowstorm headed our way. The total between today's light shot and tomorrow's big dump could be as much as 22 inches. It's gonna get deep around here.

It makes a nice metaphor for the beginning of primary campaigning for the Presidential election in 2012.

My risk of a stroke went up with my blood pressure this morning when I turned on the television looking for an updated weather forecast and instead caught a few minutes of Mitt Romney in an interview on Good Morning America. That's not good for an aging man with no health insurance.

Mitt's health care plan in the 2008 campaign was to make everyone in the country buy health insurance, as he had made everyone in Massachusetts buy it when he was governor. Now he says that President Obama's health care bill, requiring all Americans to buy health insurance, is unconstitutional. He says it's a power reserved to the states. If your state is a slum, tough luck.

According to what I've read, Thomas Jefferson would never have envisioned a state like California or Texas, as big and rich as a small country. His original concept called for small states of more uniform size and a largely agrarian character. As I recall, we weren't supposed to keep a standing military force, either. Instead we would call together the state militias in the event our federation was threatened. The coastal states can furnish naval forces. The ships can be built of the native wood.

Following Mitt's logic on health care, instead of trying to get a plan through one federal bureaucracy, we the taxpayers and working stiffs have to try to get something through 50 state bureaucracies with widely varying tax revenues. If the federal government offers some sort of aid, that bureaucracy will have to grind its gears to dispense these funds to help the poorer states make up their shortages.

Mitt says he's pro-business. He's certainly favorable to the insurance business. While politicians wrangle in Congress and state legislatures all over this mythically great land, the insurance business will go on as usual, making book on people's health and writing rules to suit themselves.

Living in New Hampshire gives us a front-row seat to the political circus early in the process. It can be fun to watch all the candidates until you start to listen to them and care what they say. Then you wish they were doing it somewhere else. It's only funny when they step on a cow flop. And with the state of agriculture in this country, that doesn't happen nearly often enough.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Magic Words

Live = Free. Live - Free = Die.

Listening to a dope-growing pig farmer at a public hearing about wetland buffers last night, I realized that the phrase "Live free or die" effectively nullifies all environmental protection.

If you subscribe to The Code, any restriction on your freedom, by anyone, for any reason, calls for your armed resistance. If you fail to remove the restriction, by logic you must die. Even self restraint counts as unacceptable tyranny. It might set a precedent for a standard of behavior less than free. At the first urge to show self restraint, the true believer should commit suicide. Anything less will dilute the purity of everyone else's freedom.

Obviously, any concern for your neighbors, descendants, other species, aesthetics, or any factor other than the fulfillment of your immediate and ongoing desires makes you less than free. The true believer that we must Live Free or Die has an obligation to destroy the environment that supports all life, since death is the alternative to living free. We must live free to the hilt, to the bitter end, or it won't have been worth living at all.

The supporters of living free or dying have made it an unofficial governing document. It's four blunt one-syllable words. It's easy to remember and it sounds so tough!

In the rest of his discourse, the pig farmer basically said that he was too stupid to understand the proposed ordinance, so it was wrong. It is clear that the speech centers of the brain are nearly the last thing to be destroyed by decades of drug use.

This same pig farmer walked into my yard when I moved here in 1989 and told me he was the local dope grower, so if I wanted any smoke I should look him up.

"The cops know all about me and they don't do nothin'," he said. "So it's perfectly fine."

About four years later, some friends moved in about a quarter-mile away, just across the river. The pig farmer appeared as if by magic, walking right into their house. He repeated the same welcome-wagon message.

I hadn't seen him in years. I thought he might be dead. Only from the neck up, it would appear.

He left, daring anyone to come change his lifestyle in his swampy lair down a mud road.

In the same meeting we spent an hour and a half on one definition because a dyslexic was wrangling over homonyms. Of all the crap I had brought regarding the science of wetland buffers, the one thing I needed was my big, fat dictionary.

You want to know why nothing gets done by the government? By the time everyone is finished arguing the problem has either gotten too big to be fixed, in which case it becomes "an engine of the economy," or gone away on its own. Gone away doesn't necessarily mean it got better. Maybe whoever you were trying to save had already died. Maybe the problem mutated into a different problem.

Sullen people sulked over their bad real estate investments as if the rest of us owed them something for their stupidity. We let them speak. Their supporters growled their tough slogan. They sneered at government, the big and bad. No individual here is any more responsible than average for the collective bad choices made in America from the mid 1970s onward, but we're all paying the price. We have to be absurdly careful going forward because we were so greedily careless when we should have been starting to adjust our behavior while the problems were smaller.

People made bad decisions in other parts of the world, but America, self-styled leader of the "free" world, owed that world a better example. Instead we chose vanity and an escalating standard of self indulgence.

I subscribe to no religion. I am afraid of most of them. I don't moralize as someone who believes we should dress in somber clothes and deprive ourselves of fun. I just believe in doing a personal environmental and social impact statement on that fun. Hedonism is absolutely fine as long as it's sustainable.

Environmental standards are meant to put helpful limits around development. People who just want to plunge ahead without restraint won't view those standards as helpful, but those are exactly the people from whom the standards will protect the rest of us.

Monday, January 10, 2011

I get lonely when the sun goes down

I thought my old laptop was spazzing out as I worked on the minutes from the last Conservation Commission meeting. Text kept highlighting itself, the cursor was jumping around. Then I realized that the cat on my lap had a paw on the touch pad.

I get lonely when the sun goes down. I was making up a song about that, kind of a nice one to start with, but it deteriorated, the way my compositions so often do. Perhaps the cat was responding to the soulful blues-y tone of my lament when she clambered onto my lap beside the computer and started her accidental editing.

She has left me to my work. I should get it done.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Political Vitriol

The recent shooting spree in Tucson has brought attention to the ugly rhetoric in American politics as if it was a recent thing.

A Republican I know, a man in his 80s, has told me more than once that a woman he worked with in 1963 made no secret how pleased she was when John Kennedy was shot.

In a nation founded on a war of independence from its colonial parent and then advanced with systematic genocide against the indigenous people of North America, violence is part of our fundamental makeup. A large chunk of this nation insisted it was their right to enslave persons of African descent they had imported and bred for servitude, until the issue came to a head in the 1860s and the nation fought a long, bloody war over it. Once the official war was over, the subjugation of those African Americans continued, even as the country returned to its westward expansion at the expense of the aboriginals.

When cattlemen and sheep herders had a conflict, guns were drawn. When labor got uppity and demanded concessions from the privileged management class, goons beat them into submission. Examples abound of force crushing reason throughout our nation's history. Those are only the recent chapters in the history of our species.

Evolution moves very slowly. In every generation, more and more people do see that humans need to move on to more intellectual, less brutal forms of conflict resolution. A more cooperative society emerges, excruciatingly gradually. Attempts to force a revolutionary change of mind and heart always meet intractable opposition. Will we destroy ourselves before understanding becomes widespread? I probably will not live to find out. Visionaries envision, but grunts continue to obstruct. People who think that killing somebody actually proves something keep doing their thing, making the actual task of governing more difficult than it already is.