Thursday, May 31, 2007

Introvert or Asshole?

What differentiates an introvert from an asshole?

I ask this not to be sarcastic, but because I don't think I know anymore. I've always considered myself a pretty hard introvert, using that to excuse how draining I find interaction with others, my sometimes short temper, my occasional impatience with kids, and other such anti-social tendencies. But then today it occurred to me that this kind of behavior is virtually indistinguishable from your ordinary, run-of-the-mill asshole. If we didn't have a fancy term like "introvert" (or "INFP" if you like your fanciness Meyers-Briggs style), I'd probably just be written off as a cantankerous, crusty old jerk. Mothers would hustle their children away from me, neighbors would be stiffly polite while searching for the nearest exit point, and I'd never interact with anyone.

Hey, wait -- that's how things are NOW. See? Introvert, asshole, there doesn't seem to be much distance between those concepts at this point. I'm worried that as time goes on I'm going to end up sitting in a cave up on a mountain, shunned by all decent humans, shaking my fist and yelling "You kids get the hell off my hill!" as the goats gambol by.


Monday, May 28, 2007

The Utah Deron Williamses Vs. The San Antonio Not Deron Williamses

Tonight Deron Williams, the greatest point guard to ever play professional basketball, simultaneously scored all of his team's points, defended every player from San Antonio, manned all five positions, delivered a baby on the sidelines during a timeout, filled beer orders in the concession stand, and coached the team, at least according to the broadcast I watched.

Unfortunately, Williams was unavailable for comment after the glorious, transcendent game because he was trying to get commentators Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, and Mike Breen shaken loose from his jock strap.

Seemingly lost amid the love, the San Antonio Not Deron Williamses won the game, but that's a very minor, some might say negligible, point. The fact that they scored more points should only underscore the brilliance that is young Mr. Williams who, if we haven't mentioned it before, is the Greatest Man Ever To Play Basketball.

The broadcast was also marred by one of the most awkward moments in recent sports broadcasting history I can recall. Play by play man Mike Breen was pointing out that the Utah Deron Williamses had faced elimination twice already in the playoffs, winning both contests against the Houston Not Deron Williamses. "But that," Breen said, "was against a much lesser opponent."

Sitting right next to Breen at the broadcast table all night, including when he made this comment? The coach of that very same "lesser opponent", Jeff Van Gundy.


If he's not careful, Breen's going to end up with Van Gundy velcroed to his leg before the series is over and Deron Williams will have to use his Nobel Prize for Point Guarding medal to break it up.


Biology and Morality: Neuroscience the Next Front in the Religion vs. Science Wars?

Digby linked to an article in the Washington Post today titled "If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural" that presages what I believe will be the next major cultural conflict between science and religion: neuroscience.

Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass. The results -- many of them published just in recent months -- are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.

No one can say whether giraffes and lions experience moral qualms in the same way people do because no one has been inside a giraffe's head, but it is known that animals can sacrifice their own interests: One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

What the new research is showing is that morality has biological roots -- such as the reward center in the brain that lit up in Grafman's experiment -- that have been around for a very long time.

The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy. Being able to recognize -- even experience vicariously -- what another creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social behavior. And it is only a short step from this awareness to many human notions of right and wrong ...

You would be hard pressed to find a subject most people would consider more firmly entrenched in the religious magisteria than morality. Why we should act the way we do is, I would argue, just about the most fundamental question religion can answer, at least in terms of its practical impact on everyday life. And now science is beginning to tell us that it has something to say on the subject after all.

Eventually, as research into the biological foundations of human behavior and thought continues, we'll probably end up right where we are today with evolution. There will be a few religious fundamentalist holdouts who reject everything science has to teach us about the world. There will be a few atheists who loudly trumpet this as evidence that God does not exist. And the vast majority will simply shrug their shoulders, understanding that no matter what we learn about the workings of the universe, we're not going to change our minds about what it all means anyway. Theistic moderates will simply claim that "This is how God chose to do it", and atheist moderates will say "Yet again we see that God is not necessary to explain anything, but feel free to believe that if it makes you feel better."

And somewhere, Ken Ham will open an "Anti-Neuroscience Museum", bilking his gullible followers out of millions. THAT you can bank on.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Annie: The Perfect Day

Annie asked me to post this for her, and I think you'll see why I love her so.

Have you ever had a truly perfect day? I've been lucky to have many, many fine days. I never really gave much thought to what constitutes a perfect day. Until today. I had a truly perfect day.

Radar Swimming

Jeff Soaking

Charity Foundering

Annie & Echo Lounging

In my mind, a perfect day would involve loads of chocolate, fine wine, a great day with horses and dogs and then my hubbie would saunter in and ask which chick flick I wanted to watch together that evening. I would say: that one that requires buckets of tears because it is so touching. He'd say "Alright! Just what I wanted to watch . . . Or we could just watch a few Tivo-ed episodes of Oprah together if you would prefer."

Today though, none of that happened. But it was still perfect. Here's why.

We're in the middle of a drought-ending rain. The joy of seeing our creek jump its banks and flow madly through the property, that is pure joy. The wildflowers are almost obscene in their abundance this year, after hardly anything but ugly, hardy weeds for the past two years. Grass is growing so tall, so thick that our menagerie of horses, donkeys and sheep can't make a dent in it. The county just to our north got almost 8 inches of rain yesterday. That raised our local lake to normal levels. The lake had been so low that boat docks were useless and sat sickeningly flat on dry land, where once they had ebbed and flowed with the currents.

Nature has been stingy in the last few years. It was too hot and too dry. No rain in sight. People around here ran out of hay for their livestock. Wells ran dry. Old-timers said the drought was worse now than the horrific drought throughout the 1950s. No one could recall a time so dry.

But this spring the clouds opened up and the rains came. If you hadn't lived though the drought and hadn't of watched animals -- both wild and domesticated -- suffer for it, you might be cursing the flooding rains we have now. This lesson of nature -- of gratitude -- was my first thump on the head today. It's muddy, the fence lines have been trummeled once again and require fixing from the swollen creek, but the drought is over. Gratitude.

Also today, my favorite jenny donkey came up lame. She's ornery and opinionated and gets what she wants. I like that in a person just as much as I like it in a donkey. She was limping so badly we thought her knee was broken. Generally speaking, when a four legged equine breaks a leg, it means almost certain death. I waited with the jenny, named Charity, while Jeff hiked all the way back home and called the small town horse vet. The good doctor was able to come out this evening. While I waited, Charity was so patient. She just was waiting alongside me. She didn't know the vet was coming, and coming for her. She didn't know that he had life ending drugs with him, in case her injury was that severe. She was just waiting, eating grass, swatting flies, hanging with me patiently. I realized that I could sit there and weep and be miserable for what may have to happen in the next few minutes . . .or I could help her swat the flies and let her graze and live with her -- to the fullest -- in that moment. She was in deep pain, but accepted the situation and didn't struggle and didn't complain. She trusted me to help her. And we did.

We got lucky. Charity got lucky. She had foundered again, an odd hoof condition that causes horrible pain when the bone in the hoof rotates unnaturally. She would get through this, as she had before. The good doctor gave her some pain medicine, but the life ending drugs stayed packed up in his bag. Another day was granted to this sweet donkey. Gratitude.

As the day winds down, and the sheep have stopped baa-ing and are happy in their barn; as the horses are put up in their barn and out of the rain; as the 5 dogs lie happily asleep by our feet; as the once dry creek bed roars to life; as I sit here tonight in awe of nature and her strength, I realize that this is the conclusion of a perfect day.

I have heard of a dear friend who lost a beloved dog today. I have walked that long walk many times and I know it can happen to one of my own dogs any day. I have carried with me -- today and every day -- the sorrow of my birth family's unrest and stonewalled silence. I have learned of people suffering horrible fates to cancers or murders or war on the evening news. I know the world can be a sorry place. A sad place of pain and loss and of death. A place so dry the land cracks for lack of rain.

But today, an ordinary day, I feel the depth of gratitude for just being here. For sharing my life in the country with the man of my dreams. I know almost all of my animals will pass before me, in front of me. I know Charity got lucky and got help because we could afford to help her; and we noticed her pain. I know people I love dearly will be felled by sickness and dis-ease. I know I will go too, one day. But Charity and the rain and the Border Collie's jumping with glee over the creek and my husband leading the vet through the tall grasses and the over the creek to help this little donkey in need . . .all of these things made today a perfect day.

The sorrow for animals or people who are sick or who have passed hit me in the gut today. But the quality of life that we all get to enjoy -- if we choose to live in the moment -- is astounding. I feel blessed to have witnesses it all today -- the pain and sorrow and the joy and the kindness and the love that it all here all the time.

I hope you too have a perfect day. Every day.


The Manliness Scale

Last week as I was hurtling my way back to Texas from New York aboard a giant metal tube at several hundred miles per hour, my wife was face to face with a six foot rattlesnake.

I don't know why these things happen when I am away from the house, but they certainly seem to do so with startling regularity. We've had dogs shot, snakes attack, and water pipes burst on those rare occasions when I vacate the premises. Perhaps I have some secret, unsuspected power over nature, the ability to bend probability to my own advantage so that I'm rarely exposed to such things.

In any event, I was not here to help with the six foot rattlesnake, slithering through our back yard much to the displeasure of our dogs, who were leaping straight up into the air and barking ferociously. That's what alerted Annie to the problem, and it didn't take long after her rush to the yard to hear the dreaded rattling sound. Somehow she managed to call the dogs off without any of them getting bitten, which is pretty amazing. And luckily our farrier (horse hoof guy) Gil was on-site. She asked him if he'd shoot the snake, but in his British accent he brushed aside such vulgarity.

No, Gil's what you call a "Real Man" -- he picked the rattler up with his bare hands, shoved it in a sack, and drove it off for release far away. I wouldn't be surprised to find out he milked it for anti-venom along the way. With his teeth.

Gil had definitely set the gold standard for The Manliness Scale. Gripping a deadly reptile longer than he was is a hard act to follow, but I vowed I'd somehow live up to it. Little did I know I'd get my chance a scant three days later, as I got up close and personal with a black widow spider.

I had gone into the small area where we keep the water softener, and near the back saw a spider web. Drawing closer, I saw the baneful red hourglass leap off the black abdomen of the arachnid lurking there. My mind flashed back to Gil's example, how manly his actions were, and what would be expected of a proper Texas rancher.

So I picked up a shovel and skooshed it.

OK, so when it comes to the handling of poisonous creatures, Gil used his hands on a six footer and I had to use a shovel on something less than half an inch in size. I'm not proud of my reaction. But I didn't scream like a little girl, or at least no one heard me. And I'm pretty sure I didn't soil myself at any point.

All of which, taken into account, at this point means the "Manliness Scale" goes like this:

The dogs
The donkeys
The cat
The sheep

I'm movin' up, baby!


Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Sometimes when you do a set of illustrations for a client, not all of the drawings make it into the final product. As an example, HERO Games (the guys who make Champions) commissioned a bunch of artists, including me, to create illustrations for their "Aliens" book. One of my assignments was to draw the sale of a robot. Other than that, the details were up to me, so I decided to portray a grizzled space vet purchasing a 'bot designed for mining operations. As I got started, it occurred to me that fantasy dwarves are well known as experts in mining, and so the robot turned into a mechanized version of Gimli. Here he his spotlighted:

I loved the way he turned out. Even today, years later, this drawing makes me chuckle. Something about his little metallic beard and those angry eyebrows -- man, I just kill myself sometimes.

As I said, though, sometimes the complete composition never makes it to publication, and that's what happened in this case. I believe they had accidentally assigned the scene to two different guys, and the other one came in first so it's the one that made it in. As a result, you get to see it here in Nerd Country for the very first time!

I'm still trying to figure out how to work one of the donkeys into an illustration, I'll be sure to let you know if I manage it.


Monday, May 21, 2007

Baby Got Back

I knew I had returned to Nerd Country from New York City when I had my head almost shoved into a sheep's butt while shearing it.

Not 24 hours earlier I'd been breakfasting in a chic NYC deli on Broadway (scrambled eggs with tomato and salmon on foccacia bread, thank you very much), and yet at 10:00 on Saturday morning I found myself wrestling with Chubby the sheep. (The juvenile among you can now insert your own "Jeff got a Chubby while messing with his sheep" joke here. There now, feel better? Good.) His coat had not been sheared the year before, and it had gotten to truly Bob Marley-esque proportions, looking like some dreadlock-ridden Bubba Gone Wild. He was miserable in the heat, and the brutal 100-degree stretch hadn't even started yet.

So Annie got on Craig's List and put out a call for anyone willing to come teach us how to fleece a sheep. Taylor, a local high school student, answered and agreed to come out. Miraculously, Annie had a horse clinic to attend on the appointed day, leaving yours truly on sheep-wrangling duty. Luckily Chubby is pretty friendly, so between Taylor, her mom, and me we got him haltered and tied to a post in the barn.

Now, for the record, sheep don't much like being sheared. I can't blame them, the electric blades are kind of loud, and being tied up without a "safe word" isn't much fun. Plus, you know, sheep are pretty much born looking for a place to die, so they're scared of most anything. I don't believe electric shears resemble a cougar, but you never know what the world looks like to an herbivore.

Taylor brought three sets of shears, which is good because they get overheated very quickly, especially with a coat as thick as Chubby's. After three hours we had him mostly done, leaving just the neck and his belly for comfort while lying down. I got the privilege of doing his rear end, as I mentioned earlier, and believe me, there are few things more fun than holding down a sheep while trying to apply a buzzing, clacking, black set of shears to his holiest of holies. I'm pretty sure I need to go to confession now.

Anyway, since Chubby was done we had a choice -- call it a day or go for the Twin who had a pretty thick coat of its own. I say "its own" because, frankly, I don't know how to sex a sheep. (Yes yes, "Get it on the fence first," very funny. Go away.) Whatever its gender, the Twin had about half its fleece still stubbornly clinging on, and being a guy I said, "Well, we're here anyway, might as well give it a shot."

Ten minutes later, as I flung myself bodily through the air and landed with a thud on the Twin while it desperately tried to escape, my glasses crushed somewhere in the poop-laden pasture, I started rethinking my sticktoitiveness. Taylor gamely slipped the halter on, but as soon as I got to my feet, off ran the Twin.

Ten minutes after THAT, I finally gave up. One more flying tackle let us get the halter off, and for all I care the Twin can sweat to death. At least this time I didn't pull a muscle chasing livestock around the place. They say sheep aren't very bright, but last I checked, I was the one with broken glasses, skinned arms, and a face full of butt-wool while the sheep were contentedly grazing.

Just another day in Nerd Country, miles -- and worlds -- away from New York City. It's good to be back.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

My Father-In-Law on Katie Couric

George Phenix is my father-in-law and he writes a damn good piece of journalism. He's also great with quips, observations, drinkin' stories, and insight, and the New York Observer just ran a quote from him in their piece about Katie Couric:

George Phenix, the founder of the Texas Weekly—who in 1963, while on assignment for a CBS affiliate in Dallas, filmed Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald—said that if anyone should lose patience, it’s Ms. Couric.

“I think it’s na├»ve to blame all of CBS’s woes on her,” said Mr. Phenix. “It began with Dan Rather—nothing much they can do. I think she’s the wrong person for the wrong time. That doesn’t mean that in the future, it might not work. But I want my anchors to be ugly like Roger Mudd, and have brass balls like Mike Wallace. And I think good looks just get in the way. It makes the mind wander. If I were Katie, I’d take the money and run.”

I think we could all use with a healthy dose of Mike Wallace's brass balls right about now, thanks George.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Off to the Big City

I catch a plane in a few hours to New York City for business, and I don't have a laptop, so odds are there won't be much to see here until Friday night at the earliest. In the meantime, please allow me to recommend a couple of my favorite daily blogs to amuse you:

Chris's Invincible Super-Blog
The Comics Curmudgeon

Have fun! I hope I can find where to park the horse while in NYC ...


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Spider Man 3 Review - Or, "Son of the Mask"

Am I a bad person if I want to punch Aunt May in the stomach?

We went to see "Spider-Man 3" yesterday, and my basic take on it was put both succinctly and perfectly in 1983 by Berkley Breathed in his "Bloom County" strip (click for a larger and more legible version):

My much more long-winded and rant-filled diatribe of a review is after the jump, however it contains many spoilers. If you haven't seen Spider-Man 3 yet, therefore, do not click on the "Read More" link, it will spoil the movie for you! The rest of this posts assumes you have already seen the film, so you're forewarned!

It wasn't until after the first third of the movie that my flesh started to crawl. Prior to that I was having a pretty good time -- Spidey slugs it out with "The New Goblin" (Worst Villain Name Ever, it sounds like a new mini-car from Hyndai), there's some good character interaction, bada boom bada bing, we got us a super-hero movie here!

And then things started to get stupid.

First, this alien meteorite lands right next to where MJ and Peter are necking in the woods. Do either of them notice a loud explosion? Or see the bright light from the reentry or the landing, even though they're both ostensibly star-gazing? Of course not.

Meanwhile the black alien snot, completely unfazed by forcible, flaming penetration of the atmosphere and sudden impact with terra firma, crawls from its fortuitous landing spot and finds two suitable human hosts. Surely after its long journey and calamitous arrival it's peckish, one would think, being a symbiont and all, but no! Apparently it has super-restraint and super-patience, because it gamely leaps not onto the waiting flesh of MJ or Peter, but instead to the license plate of their motorbike. Foregoing the the doorman and the other five million New Yorkers passed on the way to the apartment, the snot leaps from the plate to Peter's person, but somehow still resists the urge to merge for a number of days, lurking about until juuuuuuust the right moment.

Which is the first time I really started to wonder -- where in the Hell is Spider-Man's spider-sense? It's one of the signature powers of the character, the reason he's able to avoid so much danger and harm; he senses trouble before it hits. So why isn't it tingling immediately when the meteor hits? Why doesn't it go off when it starts creeping up on him? Why doesn't it warn him to avoid getting smacked upside the head over and over and over and over again throughout the movie? At first I thought maybe the producers decided to write the concept completely out of the movie, but later the Goblin makes reference to it. What gives?

In any event, the film abruptly gets taken over by "The Mask" movie, with Peter Parker suddenly channeling Jim Carey, literally dancing up and down the street, fingers popping and hair rakishly combed down over his eyes. The entire sequence (hell, the whole conceit of the "Costume Element Leading to Out of Control Psychoses") is lifted complete from that series, the only thing missing were eyes bugging out comically and a character who could turn into anything. Oh wait, there's The Sandman, my bad -- it is indeed a complete and utter rip-off.

Around this time Aunt May pops in with one of her nauseating, direct-from-the-pulpit sermons, this time about revenge taking over or something, I can't remember because I was consumed with an all-powerful urge to leap through the screen and punch her in the stomach repeatedly until she SHUT THE HELL UP ALREADY!! Criminey, I got enough of that crap in the first two movies, why doesn't she just open her own church already and leave us all alone? I'm starting to suspect Uncle Ben got begged to get shot just so he wouldn't have to listen to her hectoring any more.

Speaking of Uncle Ben we learn, through convenient flashbacks and the hiring of a much bigger-named actor that his murderer was really The Sandman, who despite having the ability to change his shape at will seems unwilling to fix his jug ears or get a decent shirt. This is the same criminal who's so stupid he can't figure out how, even given the ability to essentially dematerialize, to rob something that's not already surrounded by guards. Honestly, why not just slide under the vault door of the bank at night, nab the most valuable small jewelry items from the safe deposit boxes, hide as a pile of sand in the corner, slip out when the day shift opens, and walk out in human shape? Or stack thousand dollar bills in his shoes and reform as a slightly taller guy? Or any one of a thousand other things that would occur to even a simpleton after the first ten minutes of thinking about it? But nooooooo, Mr. Sandman (apparently still angry at being named after a 50's pop song) thinks to himself "Hey, there's an armored car surrounded by armed guards in the middle of daytime Manhattan, what a perfect opportunity!"

And if he's so damned sorry and haunted by what happened to Ben Parker those many moons ago, if all he wants is understanding, then why the hell does he throw in with Venom to kill Spider-Man? Shouldn't be be planning a robbery in another part of the state, where maybe there aren't so many super-heroes? Wouldn't that be a more cost-effective way of getting the money to save his little girl than spending a day trying to kill Spider-Man? Couldn't he have just left a note for Spider-Man saying "Hey pal, sorry about offing your uncle, it was totally an accident. Ta! I'm off to rob a bank in a smaller town now."

Look, I'm a simple man, I don't ask much from my super-hero movies. I just ask that they not insult my intelligence. And that the hero not reveal his secret identity to every. Single. Person. He meets. Especially his enemies! Is there anyone in the entire city of New York at this point who doesn't know Spider-Man's secret identity? Or is it only the ones who want to kill him or marry him that are in on it? Honestly, Parker himself at one point is standing on a rooftop above a square filled with people there to meet him, who in turn are surrounded by TV and still cameras, and he's watching with his mask off! Honestly! It's right there on the front page of the "How to be a Super-Hero" manual, don't take your effing mask off in front of an effing crowd if you don't want every Tom Dick and Harry coming after your relatives and loved ones with guns a-blazing!

And then there's the crying. Oh sweet Jeebus the crying. Aunt May tells Peter about when she got engaged, and there's crying. Peter gets snubbed by MJ at the restaurant, crying. MJ gets fired, crying. Harry looks at his father's portrait, Peter beats Venom, Peter loses to Venom, Peter meets Sandman, Sandman meets daughter, a puppy crosses the street, there's been more than five minutes since the last time someone cried, CUE THE WATERWORKS! I can only hope that given Sandman's vulnerability to water that Peter was secretly ramping up the Tear Production for their next encounter, because I swear, if he started bawling one more time I was gonna kill him myself. There was more bawling in this movie than in "Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood" and "Terms of Endearment" combined. I kept waiting for a puppy to get strangled on-screen, the director was so intent on forcing some kind of emotional response out of the audience.

Speaking of the directing, it was so heavy-handed I wanted to scream. Spidey leaps and lands in front of a blowing American flag while a spirited voice-over extols his virtues! New Yorkers clap and cheer their hero! The soundtrack swells with sappy music!

Gag me.

I had just gotten over the blatant takeover of the movie by the spirit of "The Mask" when suddenly "Robo-Cop" intruded in the form of the smarmy television reporter/anchor combo voice-over reporting on the capture of MJ at the end. Who the hell is this Australian chick? Why am I listening to someone report on a story when I was already, through the magic of the movies, watching the very story she is reporting on?! And correct me if I'm wrong, but since both Sandman and Venom know who Peter Parker is at this point, why do they have to resort to television reporters to tell him they've got MJ? Couldn't they have sent him a note? That seems like a better plan -- what if Peter's cable was out? What if he was in the lab all day working on a project and didn't see the news? A gigantic, public spectacle like that is appropriate for when you don't know how to get in touch with your nemesis, but they have his frickin' address. Just drop by and leave a message with the stereotypically freakish foreign landlord.

In short, this movie made me want to hurl objects at the screen. My theory of super-hero movies, sadly, stands confirmed with this release. Namely:

"In any super-hero or sci-fi movie series, no matter how long it is, you only get two good films. The rest will suck."

With the original Superman series, you got I and II for your good movies, the rest were crap. Batman I and II were both good, the rest were crap. Star Trek II and IV were good, the rest were crap. X-Men 1 & 2 good, 3 was crap.

And sadly, the same is true for Spider-Man 3. Too many villains, too many stories, too much schmaltz, and way way way WAY too many tears. I'd like to wind this film up in a web and stick it under a table where it belongs.


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Hobbesian Friday: Saturday Edition

©copyright Bill Watterson and Universal Press Syndicate, 1988.

I achieved a lower state of consciousness today by drinking margaritas last night and eating a whole plate of nachos virtually by myself (Annie's meager handful of chips doesn't count). Which explains why Hobbesian Friday didn't take place yesterday and why I have a lower state of consciousness today, better known as a "hangover". Ugh. I should've stuck with cartoons and cereal like Calvin.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Big Worm

As part of my recent transition to working from home (or NOT working as the case may be) I switched computers. In the course of doing that I uncovered some old images I'd thought lost forever, which is kind of like finding twenty bucks in your coat pocket you forgot about last winter. One of my favorites is this black and white ink sketch of a giant rock worm creature rampaging through the scenic downtown of your average Midwest American hamlet.

See, in the same day I get beautiful rainbows and giant rampaging rock worms. Life in Nerd Country keeps you on your toes, that's for sure.


Spring Showers and Rainbows

One of those glorious, short May showers just blew through this afternoon, leaving in its wake startling blue skies and a spectacular double rainbow. I took some photos that I think came out great, and wanted to share them with you. This is the kind of view you just can't get anywhere else but the country.

This was taken from our back porch. If you look closely you can see the faint double-rainbow over the main one. Just an amazing sight, especially with our back yard full of Texas wildflowers.

Radar the border collie looks back at the amazing colors in the sky. I bet he thinks the clouds look like sheep.

Jillkey the donkey gets into Spring a little too much -- note the hay garland she's made for herself around her neck.

My own special honey-pot at the end of the rainbow!


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Hog Wild on Iron Man

Apparently I have something of an "Iron Man" obsession, because this is the second random drawing of him I've done lately (here's the other one).

I actually had a drawing of a guy on a motorcycle shooting a gun, and as I was coloring it slowly morphed into Iron Man on a motorcycle shooting a gun. Why is Iron Man riding a motorcycle instead of using his flight boots? Why is he shooting a gun instead of using his repulsor beams? Because it's cool, that's why. If that's enough of a justification for a multi-million dollar load of codswallop like "Civil War" then it's good enough for this lowly blog, chum.

As you can see it's only half colored. I'm not sure whether I am going to finish it or not; it's taking quite a bit of time and I'm not sure it's sufficiently fun to complete. Maybe if someone can give me a good reason why Iron Man should be on a BMW motorcycle I'll get motivated.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Nostalgia of Bigotry

When we were coming home from church one Sunday, many years ago while I was still a young boy, we passed by a street corner filled with white-clad men in hoods. They were handing out literature, little locally-produced pamphlets announcing a fish fry or whatnot to support the KKK.

My father made some remark that was supportive of them and their aims. Specifics are lost to the fog of memory, but I remember my mom making a "tsking" sound and admonishing him, telling him to quit kidding.

But those men under the hoods weren't kidding. They were all smiles and handshakes, but what drove them to put on the robes was hatred, honestly held and unashamedly advocated. I doubt they even thought of themselves as bigots; in their own minds they were sober, right-thinking, upstanding men out to save a nation from the Black Scourge. They had their literature filled with "scientific" studies showing how inferior the Black Man was to the White, how they were planning on mingling with the superior races to corrupt America, and how the KKK and the fine individuals filling it were the only lookouts on the hill sounding the alarm.

For a long time I think my father felt some kinship with them, the white-robed bigots who thought they were doing the rest of the world a favor, who thought so highly of their own moral sense and the clear evidence of their eyes that they were willing to stand up in public and pass out their pamphlets.

One thing that is absolutely clear, however, is that he was ultimately able to overcome whatever feelings of racism he might have had. The great equalizer for him was his experience dealing with alcoholism. He conquered it with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous and remained sober for an astonishing number of years, but he struggled with its call every day. It was the humbling weight of that burden, I suspect, that made him understand that people are just people underneath it all; a White man is no more able to fight alcoholism alone than a Black man. At the end of the day they're both just drunks trying desperately not to have one more drink, and that absolutely transcends skin color. He dedicated his life to helping anyone -- Black, White, or Purple -- defeat that demon.

His funeral was attended by a large number of people of all races, people he'd helped with their addictions as a counselor, lives he'd touched in the most profound way. That's what makes me think he was also able to overcome the bigotry he was weaned on growing up in Louisiana, which still lived on in the form of those white-clad men on the corner I saw while coming home from church decades later, when I was just a boy.

What do we do when confronted with bigotry up close and personal? What is our obligation to our fellow man, both those who are in the hated class and those who but stand by idly on the sidelines? Is it better to speak out and rage, or to work quietly and show them the error of their ways through the example of our lives?

Although I understand and applaud those who are outspoken, militant activists, my nature is to do the latter, because in my experience there is no argument so persuasive as a life well-lived in honor and goodness. I know that personally, I first learned that the racism I'd been taught growing up was wrong when I enrolled in (and graduated from) an inner-city, 85% Black high school and got to know them as human beings instead of stereotypes. Contrary to what I'd been led to believe, they were people just like me beneath their skin, as capable of both greatness and meanness as I was, as full of love and hate as I was, as intelligent and stupid as the best or worst of my white friends.

The same thing happened in college with regards to homosexuals, whom I'd been taught growing up were among the most twisted, evil, horrible people ever to exist. I wasn't even allowed to watch "Three's Company" because Jack Tripper pretended to be gay. "But Dad," I'd say, "he's not actually gay!" That didn't matter, though; apparently even the appearance of anything homosexual was enough to cause irreparable harm in the viewer. Archie Bunker's hate-filled bigotry was Must See TV, but Jack Tripper's pretend gayness was verboten.

And yet, just like in high school, when I got to actually know some gay people, they too were just regular people. Good, bad, smart, stupid, kind, hateful, they ran the same gamut of humanity as any straight people I'd ever met. They just happened to be attracted to their own gender, but that didn't make them evil.

And so another inherited bigotry fell to the wayside. Again and again, every time I came to actually know someone from a group I'd been taught was evil, I learned that they were not.

Every time.

And so I came to understand that people are simply people, no matter the color of their skin, the orientation of their sexuality, the tenor of their faith, or the country of their origin. I distrust those who try to tell me that anyone different from me is evil, or inherently twisted, or irredeemably wicked just by virtue of that difference, because that kind of bigotry has been proven wrong time and time again right in front of my eyes. There is no more powerful a refutation of hatred and bigotry than personal experience. Showing someone through the living example of your own life how wrong they are to hate is far more convincing than any book, any movie, any argument could ever be.

I sometimes despair that it will do any good, because once it takes root, bigotry and hatred are extremely hard to dislodge. But my father did it, and that gives me hope. He got to know Black people as simply people, and in the end he came to love them. I hope that eventually more and more people will come to do the same with their own demons of bigotry and hatred as well, whether it's in regards to homosexuals, Muslims, atheists, or minorities.

At least, that's what I tell myself when I read yet another hate-filled screed disguised as compassion, yet one more "scientific study" proving why They are different and evil, one more well-reasoned and morally bankrupt justification for why it's all right, really, to hate each other. I get depressed for a bit, and then I get thoughtful, and then I get pissed, and then I get peaceful. At the end of the day, all I have to really throw in the way of the bigotry is my life, simply led and honestly open.

I hope, one day, it's enough.


At What Cost "Victory"?

Andrew Sullivan, conservative Catholic blogger and initially a vociferous war supporter, has in the last year or two come to realize what a costly mistake Iraq has been for the United States. His column today is, in my opinion, a must-read, as he finally comes to consider what the cost to America has been at home. I'll post a lengthy except after the jump:

At home, the public has come to accept torture as a legitimate instrument of government, something that the Founding Fathers would have been aghast at. We have come to accept that the president is not bound by habeas corpus, if he decides he isn't. He can sign laws and say they don't apply to him. We know that an American citizen can be detained for years without charges and tortured and abused - and then critical evidence of his torture will be "lost". We have come to accept our phones being tapped without a warrant and without our even knowing about it. These huge surrenders of liberty have occurred without much public outcry. When the next major terrorist attack comes, the question will simply be how much liberty Americans have left. That is a victory al Qaeda could not have achieved by force of arms. It is something they have achieved with our witting and conscious help.

In reassessing the war, in other words, the moral cost to America must come into the equation. The Iraq war has removed for a generation the concept of the U.S. military being an unimpeachable source of national honor. It has infringed civil liberties. It has legalized and institutionalized torture as a government tool - and helped abuse and brutality metastasize throughout the field of conflict. To be sure, abuse of captives always happens in wartime. What's different now is that the commander-in-chief has authorized and legitimized it, and so the contagion has spread like wildfire. The tragedy is that none of this will help us actually win this war. By alienating so many Iraqis, the occupation has badly damaged American soft-power in the world. It has alienated many allies. It has exhausted the military itself. It has failed to quell an insurgency. History also teaches us that success against such an insurgency in such a country would require over a decade of a brutal war of attrition.

The question we have to ask is: if this is the way we achieve victory, what kind of country would America be at the end of it? To paraphrase Robert Bolt, it profit a man nothing if he gain the whole world and lose his soul. But for Iraq?

It's selfish, but to me this has been the saddest chapter in the Iraq War saga, that we as a nation have taken such large and drastic steps along the road to becoming that which we long considered evil. When I was growing up, the Soviet Union was the Bad Guy, building walls between nations, crushing native opposition beneath the treads of their tanks, torturing captured enemies in secret gulags far from the rule of law.

Now, we are the ones doing those very same things. And very few Americans seem to care. Are we that afraid of terrorists? Are we that gutless and weak, that we are willing to throw away the very freedoms we're supposedly fighting to protect? What has happened to our sense of moral outrage that such deep and fundamental changes pass without comment?


Monday, May 07, 2007

On Being Pluto

I'm not sure why, but I was thinking about Pluto today. Last year it was demoted from a full-fledged planet to a "dwarf planet", which I imagine was a crushing blow to its mother.

What occurred to me was, Pluto doesn't particularly care what we call it. It's still Pluto, a hunk of frozen whatnot orbiting the Sun. Whether we call it a planet or a dwarf or a Flooboozle is irrelevant to its actual nature; it is what it is. Calling it names doesn't really change anything.

I think in our zeal to classify everything and our obsession with putting the universe into neat, understood little categories, we forget that:

The world is what it is.

Maybe it was seeing the Monarch butterfly chrysalis that prompted this thought. No matter what brief slice of time we happen to catch the Monarch in, whether it's a caterpillar or a pupae or a full-fledged butterfly, it is what it is right at that moment. Is the little creature inside that shell a crawler or a flier? Or is it somewhere in between? We're not good as a species at things that defy neat classification. Gray is seldom "in".

Or maybe it was thinking about some recent comments here about atheists. Whether you call a man immoral or moral, good or bad, kind or cruel, he is what he is. Nothing anyone says is going to alter the reality of his objective truth as a being. If he's good, he's good, and calling him bad won't change that.

Applying labels to everything makes us feel better, but I think we're just kidding ourselves. Sometimes words get in the way, making us see the idea of a thing rather than the thing itself.

And all the while I was writing this, Pluto kept spinning its way around the Sun. From unknown mathematical anomaly to faint smudge of light, from asteroid to moon, from planet to dwarf, while we rewrite our textbooks it keeps traveling on its journey, oblivious to the exhortations of the poets and philosophers.

May we all do the same, leaving behind in our wake the curses and labels of those who try to pin us down, content to simply be what we are.


Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Chrysalis of a King (And I Don't Mean Elvis)

Well, if not a King necessarily, certainly a Monarch.

It's butterfly season in Texas, when millions of Monarch butterflies lay their eggs and transform themselves from crawlers to fliers. While walking out on the front porch this evening I saw a green pod with a gold thread running across its top hanging underneath the ledge of one of the columns. A quick holler for my Aunt Sharon ("Smartest And Bestest Woman In Texas") confirmed that it was the chrysalis of a Monarch butterfly, the protective shell they extrude over themselves while they undergo their big change. It kind of made the gold filigree make sense, once I knew that, a sort of crown for the King-To-Be.

If you look close you can see the eyes of the little critter taking shape in there. It's amazing stuff, little miracles happening every day all around us. I'm awfully glad I had the chance to see this one, and hanging right off our front porch column, to boot.

There's something about the change of this insect from lowly ground-pounding caterpillar to majestic free-flying Monarch butterfly that brings me hope and comfort. Next time you're outside, take a few minutes to look around, and I bet you'll find something inspiring, too. That's one of the nice things about living in Nerd Country; there's always something new waiting around the corner to remind you that change is part of life, and that sometimes, if you're lucky, you just might be able to take wing afterwards.


Friday, May 04, 2007

The Evolution of Republicans

In the Republican debate last night, moderator Chris Matthews asked the candidates to raise their hand if they did not believe in evolution. Kansas senator Sam Brownback, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and Tom Tancredo all raised their hands.

I find it depressing how far one of the only two viable political parties in our nation has fallen. Thirty percent of those who are potential Republican candidates for the office of the most powerful person in the world do not accept a scientific explanation as fundamental to our understanding of the universe as gravity or the germ theory of disease. They might as well have raised their hands to say they don't believe the Earth is round. How can you expect someone to make sound decisions about the direction of our nation when they can't even understand something so fundamental, so clearly true?

I remember when Republicans stood for sober reality, for dealing with the universe and the world as they are and not as we might wish them to be, for wrestling honestly and openly with the problems that beset us. Agree or disagree with their take on how to address the issues, they had the reputation for being realistic about the true nature of the world.

And yet here we are, with thirty percent of their candidates preferring to believe an overly literal translation of an ancient book over what science has clearly proven beyond any reasonable doubt to be true. You can be a Christian and still accept the physical reality of the world -- hundreds of millions of Catholics, including the Pope, understand this along with tens of thousands of theistic scientists -- but that is not what these deeply misguided men have done. They are instead turning their backs on the Enlightenment, refusing to accept the evidence of reason, of rationality, of the intellect, retreating behind a foolish consistency that is as blasphemous as it is wrong.

And they are, potentially, in line to be elected President of the United States of America.

What has happened to this once great party? Where is the spirit of Ronald Reagan, who had the vision to imagine a better world but let it be guided by hard-headed rationality? We've only got two parties to choose from in America, for better or for worse, and one of them is badly, badly broken. If you're a Republican and you're reading this, I beg you, for the health of our country's political future, get involved with your local party organization to change your course, to get back to the good parts of conservatism. Those ideals are being betrayed by these deeply unserious, foolish, misguided men, and in the end it is all of America who will pay as our already limited choices are whittled down to only one.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Why Is There A Dead Guy On The Court?

Maybe this is commonplace now -- it's been a long time since I was addicted to the NBA and watched it every day -- but during the playoffs on TNT the other day a dead body kept sliding onto the court (and no, the corpse wasn't Isiah Thomas' reputation, that hasn't been near the playoffs in years).

I swear there was a
dead guy here a minute ago ...
In-game promos for other shows on the network are becoming increasingly common, but they're irritating nonetheless. They obscure part of the field of play, which isn't such a big deal in football or soccer where you've got yards and yards of empty field. But in professional basketball the court's fairly small, and there are usually guys filling every corner of it. Losing a section of the bottom of the screen is distracting and covers up what's going on in that corner of the court.

I've learned to live with it -- you gotta pay the bills, after all -- but TNT's ad for "The Closer" is extremely strange. A sheet-draped corpse slides onto the screen and lays there a moment before Kyra Sedgwick walks on and takes a look. She then stares out at the audience and the entire edifice slides off to the left.


I mean, here I am watching a bunch of very tall millionaires bouncing a ball around a court, and suddenly a duck-faced white chick is ogling a dead guy in the middle of the action. It's cognitive dissonance on so many levels my mind boggles. I watch the NBA for fun and amusement, not to be reminded of both my inevitable demise and the unlikelihood of bagging Kyra Sedgwick.

I don't know if it's possible, but I'd sure like for the NBA to call a technical foul on TNT's advertising department. If we're really lucky, maybe they'll throw the ad right out of the game altogether.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Normal Guy Character Illustrations

Can you be a super-hero without wearing tights with your underwear on over them? After the jump I take a crack (no pun intended) at two such examples.

Technically these two guys are supporting characters in an adventure, and not super-heroes themselves. I bet sometimes they sneak on some tights when no one is looking, though, just so they can feel like one of the heavy hitters. First up was was Harry Kruger, who came with the following description:

Harry is a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and usually a little bit of a tan. When he is working at NASA, he will generally be found wearing cotton dockers and a cotton long-sleeve shirt. On cool days, he dons a flight jacket with the insignia of the space plane mission that he remembers fondly.
From that came this illustration:

I like his jacket particularly, the leather pattern overlaying it really makes it pop. And he looks distinctive, too; I've been trying to make my character illustrations different from one another, so they seem like actual people instead of iconic stereotypes.

The next character was Benjamin Mokento:

Benjamin is a handsome, stocky man with very dark skin short-cropped hair slowly turning white. Although the muscles of his legs have withered over the years, his arms are quite muscular. Benjamin dresses conservatively, favoring crisply ironed clothes and distinctive ties. His wheelchair has a brown leather back and seat and chrome plating.
With some help from excellent photo reference found online, I came up with this image for Mokento:This is one of those illustrations that I liked much better in black and white than the final color version. Coloring is a very particular skill, and one that I am still struggling to master. In this case the problem was exacerbated by the character being African, with very dark skin according to the description. I ultimately had to cheat a bit to make his skin a bit lighter, because I really struggled with the darker tones. Getting ebon skin to show up without completely obscuring the ink lines is something I don't know how to do yet, and in the end I am not happy that I had to work around it rather than doing it right.

Once again I am reminded that when a non-artist looks at a piece of art, they see mostly the good things. When an artist looks at a piece of art (particularly his own), he sees only the bad.

Anyway, these were two quick and fun illustrations to do, each with its own challenges. I turned them both around in a day, which is pretty good. The balance between quantity and quality is an age-old one. I've usually been much better at cranking work out quickly, while sometimes sacrificing what could be better quality. But the gap is narrowing, and I am finally getting to the point where I can still work produce illustrations quickly while getting results I'm mostly happy with.