Tom Hart’s ROSALIE LIGHTNING

RosalieLightningI just read Tom Hart‘s new book ROSALIE LIGHTNING (St. Martin’s Press), and I was blown away. What is it about? It’s about My Neighbor Totoro, and Ponyo, and EC Comics, and Metaphrog, and James Bond, and Kurosawa movies, and Thich Nhat Hanh, and “O Superman,” and Jeff Mason. And it’s about real estate, and bike rides, and corn mazes, and getting your car stuck in the snow, and being adrift on a raft, and big moons in the sky, and dreams, and trees, and acorns, and about the “capacious hole in your heart” when your child dies.

I’ve known Tom and his fellow cartoonist wife, Leela Corman, (who’s basically the co-star of this book) for a really long time, as fellow travelers on the road of alternative comics—Sari & I were guests at their wedding—but I hadn’t seen much of them in the last 10 years, particularly after they left Brooklyn and moved to Gainesville, Florida. I only met their daughter Rosalie once, probably around 2010, shortly before they left town. I was in Chicago when I heard the horrible, terrible, tragic news of Rosalie’s death—I even wrote a short post about it back then. And the next time I saw Tom & Leela was the fall of 2014 (when I visited them at their school The Sequential Artists Workshop), when they had the gift of Rosalie’s little sister Molly Rose. This book fills in all that missing time.

Tom is a master storyteller and cartoonist, and if he never did anything else the world would always have his creation Hutch Owen. (Where would Bernie Sanders be without Hutch Owen?!) But for Rosalie Lightning he has created a new art style—malleable, scratchy and impressionistic (when needed), and deliriously vibrant, even though it’s “limited” to half-tones. It’s an incredible, gripping book, which I stayed up late into the night reading all the way through. It’s destined to become a classic.

When was the last time a book made you cry? For me, it had been a long time. As a father myself, unable to even imagine the pain Tom & Leela have been through, it was often tortuous to read, and I dried my eyes a number of times. But I’m so grateful for the experience. (I even forgive the book’s “hate letter” to New York, because I feel like that sometimes too.) Thank you, Tom, for this brave, and ultimately triumphant work. Your daughter couldn’t have a better memorial.

The Three Rogers

For some reason, there have been three writers named Roger who have been inspirations in my life: the science fiction/fantasy writer Roger Zelazny, the baseball writer Roger Angell, and the film critic Roger Ebert—who died yesterday at age 70.

I try to make a point of letting people who’ve inspired me know it. When I was in college I wrote Zelazny (who passed away in 1995) a gushing fan letter (Nine Princes in Amber and Lord of Light are still two of my favorite books)—which he was kind enough to respond to. Some years back I also wrote Angell (who is now 92 years old) to tell him how much I relished his whimsical and lyrical baseball season recaps in The New Yorker. And in 2003 I wrote Ebert the following letter:

… I’m writing you … to thank you for all the wonderful advice you’ve given me over the years. I really value your opinions on movies and often find my tastes to coincide with your own. Most of all, though, I’m amazed at how generous a critic you are, how you always give each film the benefit of the doubt. You seem the opposite of most film reviewers, who seem to take a “guilty until proven innocent” approach! You are also obviously a person with a wide range of references, someone who has a life outside of the movie theater. And this breadth of knowledge, an appreciation of real life, shows in your criticism. Honestly, given the amount of movies you must see each week, I don’t know how you maintain such a fresh approach.

(Despite my praising his generosity, Ebert could also be quite cutting in his criticism. This is a list of some of his most memorable pans.)

In 2010, I wrote a blog post about Ebert’s illness. In it, I wrote that I looked forward to many more of his reviews in the future. Well, I got three more years. My Fridays will be forever diminished by not having a new one to read. Rest in peace, Roger.

Rosalie Lightning, 2009–2011

How horrible to write that “headline”…

Our friends Tom Hart and Leela Corman lost their two-year-old daughter, Rosalie, on Friday night. Sari and I can’t even begin to imagine the grief they must be going through. Ironically, tonight we just came back from a weekend trip to Chicago, where we left Phoebe behind with her grandparents. On Friday, right before the flight, Sari and I talked a bit about what we hoped would happen to Phoebe — and how she would be cared for — should we both die in a plane crash. Little did we know what was transpiring that very same time, but in reverse, with Tom and Leela.

Their dear friends and fellow cartoonists, Lauren Weinstein and Jon Lewis, have more to say about the situation. I found this line of Jon’s particularly touching: “My friends are in a horror world I don’t even know if I can understand, past some mountains and behind a veil; I want to touch them and protect them but there’s no way to do that.”

Now would be a good time to read Tom’s ongoing strip, “Daddy Lightning,” inspired by his journey as a father. He says he plans on continuing the strip.

Please consider donating to the Rosalie Lightning Memorial fund (administered through PayPal), to help the family with funeral and related expenses.

Now I must go hug my daughter… for a very long time.

Victor, R.I.P.

Victor, the long-time superintendent of my apartment building, passed away on Friday, 11/11/11. He was 71 years old.

It may seem strange to write a tribute to your super, but Victor was an amazing man. He took care of the building for more than 30 years, before ill health forced him into retirement in 2010. He knew all the residents, all 78 units in the building inside and out, and the boiler was like his own child. We moved here 11 years ago, and from the beginning, Victor looked out for us and our apartment. He had a scratchy voice, barely speaking above a whisper, the result of a throat operation, but his condition never deterred him. He was constantly animated, with a wicked sense of humor and a love of gossip — I learned more about the building’s history and the other residents from him than I ever have from personal experience.

From my prior bouts in New York City apartments, superintendent were usually gruff, unmotivated, and difficult to get ahold of. Victor was the opposite in every way. He was literally always around, available at a moment’s notice from his basement apartment. In all the years we lived here, I don’t remember Victor ever taking a vacation. He took it as a point of pride that he was a constant presence. We always used to say that the building was his life. We used to joke that he would die in the building.

And in the end it proved to be true. In his last years, diabetes had made him practically immobile, and he was sub-contracting his superintendent work to underlings. He basically couldn’t do his job anymore, and the co-op board was put in the unfortunate position of forcing him to retire and hiring a new super. They allowed Victor to stay in his basement apartment ’til the end of the year, and even arranged for a large, low-rent apartment for him and his family to move into in another neighborhood. But it became increasingly clear that Victor would never leave; the building and its residents were too important to him.

* * *

Sari and I went to his viewing on Monday night, at a local funeral home. It was the first time I’d seen an open casket (if you don’t count the Balinese cremation ceremony I witnessed back in 1992), and the first time I saw someone I had known after they were dead. It was quite weird, though not quite as unsettling as I anticipated. And in fact, I would have barely recognized Victor if I hadn’t known it was him. In his heyday, Victor’s hair was tousled, he was wearing grease-stained overalls, and there would have been oil or grease on his face and hands. Now his hair was combed and he was wearing a suit. A slight smile was on his face. His skin was powdered — he looked a little out of focus, or like a wax effigy of himself. His family had put a set of rosary beads in his hands, and his casket was decorated with a giant New York Yankees logo. The logo was actually larger than his name.

Many other building residents came to the viewing as well, to greet the family and extend their condolences. Also there was Van, the building porter and Victor’s long-time right-hand man. He sat uncharacteristically somber, contemplating Victor’s body. But then he nudged Juan, Victor’s replacement, and said, “You better watch out — this building kills supers.”

Victor's plaque

The plaque our building made for Victor, now hanging in the lobby

“Thriller” Redux

I was at a huge outdoor arena — possibly the Rose Bowl — for Michael Jackson’s public funeral. The stands were packed, and Phoebe and I were way down at the bottom of the stage. They wheeled in the body on a hospital gurney, covered by a thin sheet, and it ended up parked right next to our location. Looking at the corpse laying there under the sheet I had a premonition… and in the next second it came true. Michael moved, his hands came up and lifted off the sheet, and he sat up! I realized the whole thing — his "death," the tributes, the wall-to-wall news coverage — was a huge publicity stunt, a device to build interest for his new 50-show London concert series.

The crowd freaked, a mixture of cries of joy and rage. Underneath the sheet, Michael was dressed to perfection, in a white suit and white fedora. But he looked different: his skin was dark again, how he looked in the early 1980s. He reached up to remove this latest mask, but it wouldn’t come off. It was his "new" face. A mask of death and renewed life.

Michael looked around at the crowd and smiled. "Now I know how you really feel about me, what you think of me." He paused as the shouts, hoots, and whistles rained down on him. "Sounds like some of you wish I was still dead!" He jumped off the gurney and pirouetted onto the stage, as the music came on. It was electric.

Phoebe scrambled up on to the empty hospital gurney and started toddling uncertainly along it, performing an awkward dance to the music. I ran over to her to stop, to save her from hurting herself.

“Michael, We Hardly Knew Ye”

That was the text message I got informing me Michael Jackson passed away. How bizarre that on the very day I wrote a tribute to Prince’s Purple Rain that the extremely troubled former King of Pop should die. The similarities between the two stars are many, the most obvious being their ability to transcend musical (e.g. racial) boundaries and draw people of all stripes to their music.

If the summer of ’84 was to me Prince’s summer, then the summer of ’82 was obviously Michael’s. Thriller dominated the world in a way probably no album has since. That summer I was also a camp counselor (at Beth Elohim, in Park Slope, if you must know), and I can’t say I was plugged into Jackson’s music before Thriller. I mean, I dug it and all — especially "Billie Jean," which is still one of my favorite Jackson songs — but he didn’t do all that much for me until… that moonwalk on the Grammy’s in 1983! Holy crap! I never got the glove thing, or all that sparkly stuff, but that man could perform! The combination of his Tourettes-like yelps and rubber-band-man dancing made him the most kinetic entertainer I’d ever seen. (Even Prince, with all his stagecraft, had to take a back seat to Michael.)

Without absorbing Jackson’s music first, I don’t know if I would have been able to truly appreciate Prince’s. They were both extremely… odd… human beings (and the 80s was known for some pretty outrageous fashion choices) but Jackson’s G-rated persona paved the way for the more "sophisticated" role played by Prince. (Though of course as Wacko Jacko came more and more to the fore starting in the 1990s, who could’ve guessed how R-rated — or maybe I should say NC-17 — he would become?)

Another great memory was during some random free period in high school, back at the old Harlem building of Music & Art. I was sitting in the auditorium reading an X-Men when the "Thriller" music came on somebody’s boombox. I looked up on stage and there were about twenty of my fellow students doing an impromptu yet perfect step-by-step run-through of the "Thriller" video choreography. It was freakin’ awesome!

In the end, you have to agree that no matter your personal musical tastes, there was no way of escaping Jackson’s music or it impacting your life. The closest personal connection I have to this moment is when my mom woke me up on a cold December morning in 1980 to tell me John Lennon had been shot. As with Lennon, this is my generation’s Elvis moment. I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life.

My Michael Jackson Top 5 — probably not too many surprises here:
5) "The Way You Make Me Feel"
4) "State of Shock" (with Mick Jagger)
3) "Ease on Down the Road" (with Diana Ross)
2) "Beat It"
1) "Billie Jean"

Sean Taylor, RIP

The murder of Washington Redskins’ safety Sean Taylor reminded me of an illo about him I did a couple of years back for the Washington City Paper. Seems Taylor was a bit of a troublemaker on the field, and had made headlines for spitting in another player’s face. The City Paper piece about him was called “Dishonorable Discharge” — clever, don’tcha think? It’s not the most flattering tribute to the tragic death of a professional athlete, but here’s that old illo:

Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto, dead at 89

Ex-Yankees player and broadcaster Phil Rizzuto passed away today. I listened to The Scooter during my prime baseball-fan days, as an adolescent, and he shaped my feeling for the game. I loved the way he combined a passion for baseball with a clear awareness that it was just a game, not to be taken too seriously.

He was known for his distinctive “Holy Cow!” exclamation, and I also loved how he called people “huckleberry.” During his prime as a Yankees broadcaster, he teamed up with classic straight man Bill White. They made a great duo, the wise-cracking, diminutive old Italian-American bantering with the tall, distinguished African-American.

During broadcasts, Phil would get so involved in anecdotes, stories, or noting fans’ birthdays and anniversaries, that he would forget all about the game. The resulting non-sequitors made for classic TV and radio. And if a summer thunderstorm passed by the Stadium, he would literally run out of the broadcast booth to find shelter!

Years ago, the Village Voice took a few classic Phil monologues and transcribed them into poetic form. It was pure brilliance. Eventually, Tom Peyer & Hart Seely put together a whole book of his “selected verse.” Here are some of my favorite Rizzuto “poems”:
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Gali, 1991–2005

GaliI’d known Gali (given name: “Galadriel”) almost as long as I’d known the Wilsons. (Sari and I started dating in late 1990; Gali arrived the following year.) She was a great dog and we’re all really going to miss her. Gali was a family dog in the truest sense of the word. Although she was bonded most closely to Nancy, Sari’s mom, she had a unique relationship with each other family member, from Sari’s three brothers to Sari to her dad to significant others like myself.

Like a lot of people, Gali was fiercely loyal to the family and not well disposed toward strangers or others of her own kind. As a pack animal, Gali was never happier than when everyone was together. It was part of her ritual to periodically make sure the whole family was accounted for in the house by running up to each person and tapping them one by one with her wet nose. This year, Sari’s brother Dean and his wife Paisley produced a little baby boy, and Gali immediately included Kai in her accounting process.

Gali had special talents too. One was her ability to open Christmas presents layer by layer; first the wrapping paper, then the box, and then the item inside. Very carefully, just using her paws and front teeth. She could also eat corn off the cob — again, very daintily — if you held the cob for her and spun it carefully around. She could do typical dog stuff too: she loved to play in the snow; gnaw a bone; chase a ball, stick, or frisbee; take a walk by the river; and lie in front of a roaring fire. As anyone who’s ever had a dog knows, there’s nothing more peaceful than spending ten minutes petting a contented dog. Gali was particularly good at that. Even though she was a mutt, Gali cut a handsome figure, with her silky fur and elegant snout. Most of all, she was a loving, intelligent pooch, and was a key bond in cementing the closeness of Sari’s family.

After many years of perfect health, Gali started showing her age a bit in recent years. (14 is pretty old for a mid-size dog like her.) She developed arthritis and had a bout of dizziness and stumbles. Then a couple of weeks ago, she developed pneumonia. When she didn’t get better and started to lose her appetite, the Wilsons brought her back to the vet. Last week they diagnosed her with lung cancer.
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