Monday, September 6, 2010

Left Behind: A Fond Farewell To The Obsolete

Left Behind: A fond farewell to once-common things that are either obsolete or well on the way
(By Anna Jane Grossman, Washington Post Magazine, 2008)

In his 1970 book, Future Shock, futurist Alvin Toffler warned that the last few decades of the 20th century would bring a widespread physical and psychological overload. "When we lived in an agrarian world as peasants, life was set by the seasons, and things were slow. Terribly slow," says Toffler. "You still had the same plot of land your whole life. Your son's life wasn't going to be that different than your father's." A drastically accelerating world, he predicted, was more than humans would be able to process. Nearly 40 years later, things have changed dramatically -- but aside from the annoyance of having to learn a new cellphone every six months, we all seem to be holding up surprisingly well. When The Washington Post Magazine asked experts, celebrities and average Joes to cast their minds back to objects, habits and paradigms that have been left behind just in the past couple of decades, we came up with those that follow.

Truly 'Blind' Dates
b. when Adam met Eve -- d. 2000s
Smoke and mirrors have long had a place in romance. For ages, we've made ourselves up and shaved ourselves down; we've surgically enhanced the things we can and covered up the things we can't. We've courted each other in the forgiving light of candles and become experts in various scripted untruths: Yes, it was good for me. Really, I've never felt this way before. No, you don't look fat. In the beginning, courtship on the Internet extended this trend. It was the place where, literally and figuratively, no one knew you were a dog. No longer. Now, if a friend sets you up with someone, and you don't automatically Google that person, check his or her "relationship" status on Facebook and do a quick vetting via (the modern answer to stocks and pillories), one might question if you are really fit to date at all. Meanwhile, Internet daters have sites such as, where those deceived by photos taken from juuust the right angle can report to the masses that Mr. Right on is, in the flesh, actually Mr. Fat, Married and Ten Years Older.

Mix Tapes
b. 1963 -- d. 1990s
These plastic gems once acted like aural diaries. Painstakingly recorded from the radio or other people's music libraries and then labeled with loopy script or scribbled drawings, mix tapes -- which made it possible to listen to a customized set of songs without having to put money in a jukebox or hop off the couch mid make-out session -- defined our breakups, our summers, our crushes. They gave every 15-year-old the ability to play deejay and album-cover artist without leaving the bedroom. Niggling matters such as illegal duplication and copyright infringement never entered the mind of your common mix-tape maestro. Those were simpler times -- and there were more subtle laws to abide. (As the music-snob protagonist mused in Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity: "You can't have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs.") But mix-tape making, like the audiocassette itself (which is now more than 40 years old), has become a relic. It's been replaced by the burning of CD compilations and the trading of MP3 playlists -- neither of which involves the creative cookery of manually assembling a tape track by track or, ahem, the artistic aplomb that went into the homemade packaging. These other formats also lack the ephemeral quality of a self-recorded 90-minute Maxell -- unless many copies were made (each slowly dubbed by hand), a broken or lost mix tape was not easy to replace. One thing, though, will likely never change: the nomenclature, which gets recalled every time a rap deejay bundles together his latest collection of singles. Says Universal Republic Records president Monte Lipman: "Cassettes may be gone, but we have mix tapes in other configurations now. And, no matter what the medium, I think 'mix tapes' is what they'll always be called."

Land Lines
b. late 1870s -- d. early 2000s
The click of the rotary dial, the blinking red hold button, the cord that could be stretched and then painstakingly detangled -- oh, the magic of a technology that had allowed us, for the first time, to whisper into the ear of someone on the other side of the world. Sure, the device had its flaws (long distance charges, busy signals, necks strained from cradling receivers), but it was an instrument that lent itself to a slew of rituals that today seem quaint, from the college student pulling the receiver into the hallway for privacy to the frantic lover searching for pay-phone change a la Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate." And what would sitcom writers have done if it weren't for answering machine tapes and all the inevitably embarrassing messages they recorded? But answering machines have become almost as archaic as answering services, and voice mail will be next to go, thanks to services such as SimulScribe, which can convert voice messages into e-mails. Talking on a land line at all is becoming increasingly rare, especially to a generation that crowned its first national texting champion last April. (A 13-year-old won after typing a 151-character phrase in 42 seconds.) Many teens report that they can't recall when they last used their home phone, let alone memorized a number -- an art that, much like dialing with fingers other than the thumb, is all but forgotten. Pay phones, on the way out for years, are heading toward extinction. Last December, AT&T announced that it will completely exit the business by the end of this year. All in all, there are less than half as many coin-chuggers nationwide as there were in 2000, according to the FCC. And even rarer are phone booths. In all of the Washington area, there is only one left. Let's just hope Superman knows where it is.

Short Basketball Shorts
b. 1936 -- d. 2003
The practice of playing games in retro uniforms is common in basketball now; it gives teams another jersey to sell at the concession stands. But last December, in a game against the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers took it one step further -- they wore throwback shorts. As in short shorts. For anyone who has mourned the days when a player's full legs were as conspicuous as his tats, it was a moment of glory. A brief one. The Lakers immediately fell behind. Despite a halftime change to the usual baggy, floor-scraping uniforms, the players were so shellshocked from the sight of their upper thighs that they lost. "I don't know what it feels like to wear a thong," said Kobe Bryant after the game. "But I imagine it feels something like what we had on in the first half. I felt violated. I felt naked." How times have changed. Since Michael Jordan first showed up in the NBA with an extra couple of inches on his shorts, basketball bottoms have been steadily creeping lower -- and the look quickly was adopted by players nationwide. The last holdout was Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton, who remained loyal to the short-short look. When he retired in 2003, so did the era of visible knees.

Doing Nothing at the Office
b. 1853 -- d. mid-1990s
The 20th century's best minds might have brought us many wonders fantastic (Decaf soy lattes! Shoulder-fired missiles! Plastic!), but what is truly stunning is the number of office hours Americans clocked during those same years doing . . . nothing much. Taking a cigarette break could sometimes nudge the minute hand a little. The water cooler was also created for this purpose. And paper clips. But in those many empty moments between tasks, much time was spent staring into space. The patron saint of office inaction could be Herman Melville's Bartleby the scrivner, who sloughed off the responsibilities of his job in the dead letter office with a succinct, "I would prefer not to." But in some professions, downtime was practically a requirement of the job, and higher-ups would charge underlings with figuring out how to use it. "When I started in the early '80s, there were word-processing centers," recalls attorney Howard Gutman, a partner at Williams & Connolly. "A 120-page brief could take two hours, and one mistake and you'd have to do it over again. Printing places would vie for business by having beds and food. If you were a young lawyer, sitting and waiting there really was your job." Idle time's death knell was the Internet, which created a way to fill every moment while giving the appearance of productivity. The joys of making wastebasket two-pointers and using Scotch tape to extract nasal blackheads pale when compared with the minute-hand-massaging possibilities of Craigslist and YouTube. According to Nielsen ratings, the average American visits more than 2,000 Web pages a month while on the clock; surveys by suggest that close to 90 percent of workers spend part of their day doing Internet browsing that's unrelated to work.

b. 1800s -- d. 2008
Adieu, smoking. It made news worldwide when New York City banned it in restaurants in 2002. When the District followed four years later, much of the world likely chalked it up to more puritanical Americanism -- another quirk of a country with fluoridated water and wars packaged with catchy slogans. How else could you possibly pick someone up at a bar? But on January 1 of this year, the City of Light itself started popping Nicorette. Paris, once a place where a diet of espresso and Gitanes was comme il faut, has banned smoking in all restaurants, bars and theaters. Mon Dieu! The cigarette's history is so intertwined with sex and reckless youth that it's hard to imagine a world that's completely "no smoking." And yet, so many tobacco-related cultural markers have become distant memories: the monogrammed cigarette case, the Holly Golightly-esque holder, the kindergarten class charged with making ashtrays out of clay. Not that this is a bad thing. We are tasting our food better than ever and can now awake after a night of bar hopping without smelling like the love child of Bette Davis and Popeye. It's also hard to argue with laws that will likely decrease the country's cases of emphysema and lung cancer (as well as leukemia, cataracts, pneumonia, premature births, abdominal aortic aneurysms -- we'd go on, but we've been allotted only a few thousand words for this article). Unfortunately, the global population of cigarette fiends isn't necessarily dwindling. Westerners may be slapping on nicotine patches, but the number of smokers in poorer places in the world continues to grow. The American Cancer Society estimates that there are 1.3 billion smokers worldwide and that number will hit 2 billion by 2030. It's almost enough to drive you to drink.

Phone Sex
b. late 1870s -- d. mid-1990s
Once, the number of words you could type per minute was impressive only to an employer. Today, the hunt-and-pecker is seriously handicapped in a much more personal arena: sex. Thanks to instant- and text-messaging, phone sex is going the way of the VHS. There are just too many advantages to being an SMS or AIM Casanova. You need not worry about phone bills or eavesdropping roommates; images can be swapped quickly or even live; and most IM and text sex can be pursued right at the dinner table or office desk, under the guise of getting homework assignments or checking the human rights situation in China. It's also low effort (even orgasm requires little but holding down a couple of vowel keys and hitting return, then gracefully exiting the situation with a quick BRB or TTYL) and can be saved for later enjoyment (control + c, control + v and voila). Some are taking it a few steps further. With virtual reality programs such as Second Life, people create avatars of themselves and go on to have illicit affairs and even long-term relationships, often conducted solely with staccato onscreen messages. Of course, a certain level of intimacy is lost. Giggles are gone; pauses all the more fraught. (Is he transported by passion . . . or IMing another girl concurrently?) While it's doubtful these media could ever threaten the popularity of the actual act, there's no shortage of people eager to experiment with them. According to a survey conducted in Canada for the site, more college students take part in instant-messenger sex than in any kind of telephonic sex. Because love means never having to say, "Can you hear me now?"

Getting Lost
b. dawn of man -- d. 1990s
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan decreed that the Global Positioning System, theretofore the provenance of the military, would be open to the public. Little did the Gipper know that this decision would affect the lives of untold numbers of couples, all habitually deadlocked on whether to ask for directions. In an era where "MapQuest" is a verb, having no sense of direction or ability to read a map have become excusable flaws. You can almost count on having a GPS nearby. The technology-focused market research company Forward Concepts reports that 171 million units were shipped last year and more than three times as many will ship in 2011. Though most of the devices are embedded in cars and phones, they're also helping people keep track of meandering pets, kids and impaired adults. But, if life truly is about the journey and not the destination, losing "lost" could be a real loss. Consider the ramifications on Western culture had the technology popped up sooner. Would there be The Odyssey? Columbus might've actually found the Orient ("Make the next legal U-turn"). Losing sight of our meandering ways and the connections made with people during unexpected sojourns may be the biggest loss of all. What happened to directions scribbled on cocktail napkins? Or, for that matter, spontaneity? Used to be half the joy of a family trip was spreading out the map on the dash, strapping the dog to the roof and admitting you had no way to answer the age-old question: "Are we there yet?"
On the flip side, depending on what GPS voice features your device offers, today you may be able to avoid familial conflict by letting Mr. T tell the kids exactly how far there is to go.

Cash (b. pre-600 B.C. -- d. early 2000s)
Take a good whiff of a greenback - if you actually have one in your wallet, that is. The aroma might just take you back to a time of savings passbooks (in lieu of online banking), rolling quarters (instead of hitting the Coinstar machine) and trips to Europe when you could actually afford a madeleine. What we know about the dollar is shifting almost faster than the exchange rate. Pennies now cost more than a cent to make. And even the color that launched a dozen nicknames - the green stuff, the long green, lettuce, cabbage - is dated. The new 20s are kind of pinkish and periwinkle, and the new fives are . . . um, does anyone still use bills besides 20s? A new edition of Monopoly has completely done away with colored money. As if the banker's job weren't sweet enough, she now goes all Arthur Andersen on her opponents, inserting players' "credit cards" in a hand-held machine, checking a balance, which only she can see, and then deducting monies paid to a property's owner or adding that $2 million earned for passing Go. (Dollar amounts have been seriously adjusted for inflation.) Not that credit cards are long for this world. Thanks to technology being tested in several states, a simple tap of a cellphone will likely be the way your average shopper will pay for things in coming years. After that, the next logical development would seem to be a technology that automatically deducts funds from our checking accounts when we simply think about what we want to buy. Wait - isn't that what the Internet is for?

Body Hair (b. early man (very hairy!) -- d. 2000s)
Getting ready for a date once involved little more than a blow dryer, a razor and a handful of products that could be found at the drugstore (or the grocery store, if you were one of those mayonnaise people). In the past decade, however, that primping might mean spending several hours and more than a few dollars on professional services: eyebrow threading, lip bleaching, armpit-hair waxing, bikini-line laser removal . . . even those little fluffy fellas near the hairline are likely to get pulled. Male hair isn't safe, either. The men's razor market is estimated to have grown more than 25 percent since 2001, and not all those blades are being used on faces: According to personal care product manufacturers Church & Dwight, three of 10 men ages 18 to 34 regularly remove hair from their bodies. Indeed, hair as a whole has grown out of favor. Tom Selleck's hair, both facial and pectoral, was once considered both hot and completely unironic; Madonna's eyebrows circa 1984 could've woven half a dozen wigs. But it's been a long time since a celebrity's hair was her defining characteristic, a la Farrah Fawcett, Crystal Gayle or Jennifer Aniston. Today, it's the lack thereof (see Britney Spears or Bruce Willis) that seems to garner stars the most notice. "It's just cheaper and simpler to remove body hair today than it was 10 or 20 years ago. And the products that were available 20 years ago are far superior today," says Roman Shuster, a research analyst with Euromonitor International, a company that tracks industry trends. "More young people are waiting longer to have children, so they have more time and money to spend on things like hair removal." It's all enough to make one wonder what great things we might accomplish if the energy funneled into modern depilatory techniques could be redirected.

Having the Blues (b. time immemorial -- d. 1990s)
When Bobby McFerrin sang "Don't Worry, Be Happy," in 1988, Americans took it as an order. So much so, points out Charles Barber, author of the new book Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry Is Medicating a Nation, that, in 2005, more money was spent on the anti-depressant drug Zoloft than on Tide. "Kids today are growing up with drugs being advertised on TV like toothpaste, and so are being instilled with the idea that you can rid yourself of untoward emotions," says Barber. Today, with anti-depressants even more refined, marketed and available, crying into your pillow while blaring Leonard Cohen and reading Anna Karenina has become a kind of crime. Is the world a better place? It's hard to say. What's clear is that we have a better understanding of the chemical causes of certain emotions -- a greater sense of why our brains work the way they do. While this is a good thing for those of us wondering why a happy childhood nevertheless resulted in years of mild malaise and head shrinkage, it's great news for anyone whose life has been completely paralyzed by depression and uncontrollable emotions. And, for what it's worth, sadness had an awfully good run before its current exile to Elba. "In the 1800s, Thomas Carlyle talked about how happiness was really only a few hundred years old. Before that, people were too busy trying to survive and fight off Cossacks to even think about emotions, let alone the idea of being 'happy,' " says Barber.

Quotes About What’s Becoming Obsolete:

"Real people going on game shows. When we were kids, we'd watch 'The Price is Right,' and the contestant would have curlers in her hair -- she'd look like your neighbor next door. Real people got a chance to shine. Now, everyone comes out of some stupid mold from a moronic casting director's idea of what is exciting to watch. All the reality is removed." -- Rosie O'Donnell

"Drawing tables have become obsolete. As have bridge tables, enamel-topped kitchen tables and turntables." -- Milton Glaser, graphic designer

"Maureen Dowd." -- Ann Coulter, conservative commentator

"I see people who are constantly text-messaging. I still like to pick up the phone and talk to someone, and that's how I continue to conduct business. I'm on the phone a lot, and I see a lot of people in my office every day." -- Donald Trump

"Focus groups. They never worked, really. Only the top pros understood them. Mostly, they were used to persuade the boss to do what you wanted to do anyway." -- Seth Godin, marketing expert

"I miss competence. There's a lot of incompetence in this industry. Knowing how to write, how to play, sing, perform. Just knowing how to do the gig. Instead, they have all kinds of tools to make people sound better and keep them in key. But I probably sound like an old grouch. Maybe I'm the thing that's obsolete." -- Billy Joel

"Handwritten 'dupes' -- the checks that the server writes customers' orders on, and then a carbon copy would be handed to the kitchen. All that is done by computers now. I have a bit of nostalgia for the sense of detail it allowed, because computers can't be so detailed as a handwritten request. The written reservation book is also gone for good. I still look over ours from the beginning and laugh at how difficult it must have been. But it was free." -- Ellen Kassoff Gray, co-owner of Equinox restaurant

"Fifteen years ago, if you didn't have a baked Alaska or cherry jubilee on the menu, you couldn't consider yourself a French restaurant. Today, you can't find hardly any of these things. I miss flambe. And lobster thermidor! And anything that involves innards is hard to come by now." -- Tim Zagat, co-founder of Zagat Survey

"Network nightly news broadcasts as a source of common information and national unity. Opinions differed, but Americans began thinking with the same images and facts in mind, brought to them by experienced journalists. If you cared about national or world affairs, you scheduled dinner before or after the nightly serving of Cronkite, Rather, Brokaw or Jennings." -- Madeleine K. Albright, former secretary of state

"Computerized design has become a really great, really user-friendly resource, but the drawings often have more of the personality of the program than of the programmer. I still love hand-drawn floor plans." -- Thom Filicia, interior designer

"Smoking allowed in restaurants, and the small portions and odd plating of nouvelle cuisine -- just a little bit of food on a big white plate. Portion sizes have definitely gotten larger and plating more natural." -- Laurent Tourondel, executive chef of BLT Steak Bistro

170 Things On Their Way To Obsolescence

Carbon paper
"While you were out" pads
Word processors
Electric typewriters
Press type
Wax paste-up
Address books
Yellow Pages
Floppy disks
Lickable stamps
Bike messengers
White type on black screens
PalmPilot Graffiti alphabet
Phone trees
CRT monitors
Typing pools
Dot-matrix printers
Fax paper on rolls
Printer paper with holes on the sides
Tape decks
Portable CD players
Record stores
Flicking lighters at a concert's end
Standing in line for tickets
Beauty & Fashion
Tie tacks
Teased hair
Catalogue shopping
Illuminated mirrors that simulate different environments
Stonewashed jeans
Men with one earring
Crow's-feet or laugh lines
Press-on nails
Bolo ties
Hair crimpers
Fashion models weighing more than 110 pounds
Full slips
Flattop haircuts (except in military)
Dingy teeth
Pompomed socks
Computers & The Internet
E-mails written with the formality of letters
Sound of the modem starting up
Non-wireless Internet
AOL CDs in the mail
Kozmo delivery
Video games without avatars
Doctor-administered pregnancy tests
Diaper pins
Diaper delivery services
Hard plastic shoes
Cesareans only for emergencies
Rocking chairs
Smoking while pregnant
Unflattering maternity clothes
Glass baby bottles
Kids & School
Paper routes
Wall-mounted pencil sharpeners
Calculator watches
Having to learn to touch-type
Trapper Keepers
1600 high scores on the SATs
College acceptance letters via mail
Choose Your Own Adventure books
Slide rules
Film projectors in classrooms
Good penmanship
Mimeograph machines
Pocket protectors
Learning BASIC
Silver dollars given for special occasions
UNICEF boxes for Halloween
Home economics class
Manual windows
Getting out to open the garage door
Full-service gas stations
DVD-less road trips
Cigarette lighters
Cabs with jump seats in the back
Non-jumbo cup holders
Kicking the tires of a new car
Old-school Volkswagen Bugs
Optional seat belts
Optional child car seats
Optional car insurance
Nonstandard air bags
Gas less than $3 a gallon
Food & Dining
Stovetop popcorn poppers
TV dinners
Cyclamate sweetener
Electric frying pans
Everyone at the table ordering dessert
Thinking of sushi as exotic
New Coke
Tab in soda machines
Flash cubes
Getting dressed up for the airplane
Travel agents
Plane tickets sent in the mail
Hotel room keys
Smoking on planes
Stewardesses in wigs
Affordable train travel
In-flight meals
Traveler's checks
Money belts
Elevator operators
Saying goodbye at the airport gate
Being out of touch
Health & Sanitation
Doctors making house calls
Oat bran as a cholesterol reducer
Toxic shock syndrome
Orthodontic headgear
Plaster casts
Appendicitis scars
Routine overnight hospital stays
Sanitary napkin belts
Having to ask a store clerk for condoms
Water beds
Non-digital TV
Photo albums
Handwritten letters
Fuzzy TV reception
Toilets with pulls
Stereo systems
Analog clocks
Sports & Recreation
Wooden tennis rackets
Ignoring the World Cup
Thinking Europeans can't play basketball
The set shot
Star athletes who swear they've never used drugs, and mean it
High diving boards
Biking without helmets
Going Out
Walk/Don't Walk text signs
Cigarette machines
Renting movies on Friday nights
Affordable theater tickets
"Cocktail table" Ms. Pac-Man
Finding dates in bars

Bee Gee's “Stayin’ Alive” Saves Lives

Bee Gee's “Stayin’ Alive”
Provides Life Saving Beat
(by Victoria Tsigonis, Associated Press, Oct 2008)

The Bee Gee’s 1977 classic ‘Stayin Alive’ has been proven to not only be a disco anthem, but potentially could be able to save your life. According to the American Heart Association, chest compressions should be given at 100 per minutes in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). Having a BPM (beats per minute) of 103, the song almost perfectly matches that needed to provide proper CPR, a technique used to save lives where a person’s breathing and/or heartbeat has stopped.

In a study conducted at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, listening to the song helped 15 doctors and medical students perform CPR on dummies at the proper speed. "The theme 'Stayin' Alive' is very appropriate for the situation,” stated Dr. David Matlock, the head doctor on the study. "Everybody's heard it at some point in their life. People know the song and can keep it in their head." According to Reuters, five weeks later the students and doctors were asked to keep the song in their heads and were once again able to keep a good pace on their dummies while performing CPR.

51 Things I Miss About D.C.

51 Things I Miss About D.C.
(Whitney Matheson, USA Today website, 2007)

I've been living in New York for almost two weeks, and so far it's going pretty well. However, I still think about D.C. quite a bit, especially since I'd grown so comfortable in that city for the last five years. While I don't really miss having a car or doing my own laundry -- I was terrible at those things anyway -- there was plenty to love about my D.C. life. I suppose this post could sort of double as "Pop Candy's Guide to Washington," because it gives away some of my favorite local attractions and weekend activities. In no particular order, here are 51 things I miss about D.C. (I was going to limit the list to 50, but I added one more, since the District dreams of becoming the nation's 51st state!)

1. The free museums.

2. Concerts at the 9:30 Club.

3. Late night/early morning half-smokes at Ben's Chili Bowl after 9:30 Club shows.

4. The Gandhi statue, especially when it has flowers around its neck or at its feet.

5. The Albert Einstein Memorial, especially when a child is sitting in its lap.

6. The Bourbon Bacon Cheeseburger (with a side of tater tots) at Bourbon.

7. The folk-art wing of the American Art Museum. (My favorite part: An awe-inspiring display called The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly by James Hampton, left. It's made entirely out of aluminum foil and found objects!)

8. The great selection of Claire Fontaine notebooks at National Airport's Pen & Prose.

9. The cocktails, biscuits, grits and every delicious entree I've ever had at Acadiana.

10. The tree-lined streets of Glover Park, my old neighborhood.

11. Sunday mornings at the Dupont Circle farmer's market.

12. The French fries at Granville Moore's -- they're the best in the city.

13. The Sculpture Garden ice-skating rink, particularly when my iPod is playing a Guided by Voices song.

14. Pinny, the wacky mascot at Strike bowling alley in Bethesda.

15. The view of all the embassies on Massachusetts Avenue.

16. The relatively quiet and clean Metro system.

17. Penn Cove oysters and a sweet waitstaff that recognized me at Hank's Oyster Bar.

18. The Crafty Bastards Arts and Crafts Fair in Adams Morgan.

19. The giant Adirondack chair outside the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. I always believed this was the world's largest, but that actually sits in St. Paul, Minn.!

20. Cheap pitchers of Michelob, hot corn and (of course) piles of crabs at Bethesda Crab House.

21. Sword swallowers and burlesque dancers at Palace of Wonders.

22. Channel 4 meteorologist Bob Ryan.

23. Weekend indie-movie matinees at the E Street Cinema.

24. Well-organized shelves at Big Planet Comics.

25. The DC Rollergirls, particularly my good friend Camilla the Hun.

26. The National Cherry Blossom Festival.

27. Woodsy walking paths in Rock Creek Park.

28. Baby back ribs at Rocklands Barbecue.

29. People-watching by the Dupont Circle fountain.

30. Superhero movies on the big screen at the Uptown Theater.

31. Great vintage clothing and the Andrew Bird-loving saleswoman at Junction.

32. The annual Smithsonian Kite Festival.

33. WAMU's The Diane Rehm Show (even though it's syndicated).

34. The National Christmas Tree and the 50 state trees.

35. Pre-show drinks, olives and anchovies at Bar Pilar.

36. All of the talented ladies -- not to mention their amazing music selection -- at Trim Salon.

37. Strolls around the U Street Corridor.

38. The Silverdocs documentary film festival.

39. Pizza and ping pong at Comet.

40. Nationals games.

41. Historic St. John's Church, aka "Church of the Presidents."

42. The discounted DVD section of Melody Records.

43. Lauriol Plaza's chicken chimichanga and dangerous "swirl" margaritas.

44. Cupcakes in every flavor from Cake Love.

45. Fall.

46. Occasional Ian MacKaye sightings.

47. Nighttime views of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, which are even more breathtaking than the sunlit views.

48. The cafeteria at the National Museum of the American Indian.

49. Staff recommendations at Olsson's Books and Records (R.I.P.).

50. Peeping in windows of ritzy Georgetown homes.

and one more ...

51. My family and friends.

Of course, right now I'm working on my list of "50 Things to Love About New York." Something tells me it won't take so long to fill.

Barack Obama For President

Barack Obama for President
(Washington Post editorial, October 17, 2008)

The nominating process this year produced two unusually talented and qualified presidential candidates. There are few public figures we have respected more over the years than Sen. John McCain. Yet it is without ambivalence that we endorse Sen. Barack Obama for president. The choice is made easy in part by Mr. McCain's disappointing campaign, above all his irresponsible selection of a running mate who is not ready to be president. It is made easy in larger part, though, because of our admiration for Mr. Obama and the impressive qualities he has shown during this long race. Yes, we have reservations and concerns, almost inevitably, given Mr. Obama's relatively brief experience in national politics. But we also have enormous hopes. Mr. Obama is a man of supple intelligence, with a nuanced grasp of complex issues and evident skill at conciliation and consensus-building. At home, we believe, he would respond to the economic crisis with a healthy respect for markets tempered by justified dismay over rising inequality and an understanding of the need for focused regulation. Abroad, the best evidence suggests that he would seek to maintain U.S. leadership and engagement, continue the fight against terrorists, and wage vigorous diplomacy on behalf of U.S. values and interests. Mr. Obama has the potential to become a great president. Given the enormous problems he would confront from his first day in office, and the damage wrought over the past eight years, we would settle for very good.

The first question, in fact, might be why either man wants the job. Start with two ongoing wars, both far from being won; an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan; a resurgent Russia menacing its neighbors; a terrorist-supporting Iran racing toward nuclear status; a roiling Middle East; a rising China seeking its place in the world. Stir in the threat of nuclear or biological terrorism, the burdens of global poverty and disease, and accelerating climate change. Domestically, wages have stagnated while public education is failing a generation of urban, mostly minority children. Now add the possibility of the deepest economic trough since the Great Depression. Not even his fiercest critics would blame President Bush for all of these problems, and we are far from being his fiercest critic. But for the past eight years, his administration, while pursuing some worthy policies (accountability in education, homeland security, the promotion of freedom abroad), has also championed some stunningly wrongheaded ones (fiscal recklessness, torture, utter disregard for the planet's ecological health) and has acted too often with incompetence, arrogance or both. A McCain presidency would not equal four more years, but outside of his inner circle, Mr. McCain would draw on many of the same policymakers who have brought us to our current state. We believe they have richly earned, and might even benefit from, some years in the political wilderness.

Of course, Mr. Obama offers a great deal more than being not a Republican. There are two sets of issues that matter most in judging these candidacies. The first has to do with restoring and promoting prosperity and sharing its fruits more evenly in a globalizing era that has suppressed wages and heightened inequality. Here the choice is not a close call. Mr. McCain has little interest in economics and no apparent feel for the topic. His principal proposal, doubling down on the Bush tax cuts, would exacerbate the fiscal wreckage and the inequality simultaneously. Mr. Obama's economic plan contains its share of unaffordable promises, but it pushes more in the direction of fairness and fiscal health. Both men have pledged to tackle climate change. Mr. Obama also understands that the most important single counter to inequality, and the best way to maintain American competitiveness, is improved education, another subject of only modest interest to Mr. McCain. Mr. Obama would focus attention on early education and on helping families so that another generation of poor children doesn't lose out. His budgets would be less likely to squeeze out important programs such as Head Start and Pell grants. Though he has been less definitive than we would like, he supports accountability measures for public schools and providing parents choices by means of charter schools. A better health-care system also is crucial to bolstering U.S. competitiveness and relieving worker insecurity. Mr. McCain is right to advocate an end to the tax favoritism showed to employer plans. This system works against lower-income people, and Mr. Obama has disparaged the McCain proposal in deceptive ways. But Mr. McCain's health plan doesn't do enough to protect those who cannot afford health insurance. Mr. Obama hopes to steer the country toward universal coverage by charting a course between government mandates and individual choice, though we question whether his plan is affordable or does enough to contain costs.

The next president is apt to have the chance to nominate one or more Supreme Court justices. Given the court's current precarious balance, we think Obama appointees could have a positive impact on issues from detention policy and executive power to privacy protections and civil rights. Overshadowing all of these policy choices may be the financial crisis and the recession it is likely to spawn. It is almost impossible to predict what policies will be called for by January, but certainly the country will want in its president a combination of nimbleness and steadfastness -- precisely the qualities Mr. Obama has displayed during the past few weeks. When he might have been scoring political points against the incumbent, he instead responsibly urged fellow Democrats in Congress to back Mr. Bush's financial rescue plan. He has surrounded himself with top-notch, experienced, centrist economic advisers -- perhaps the best warranty that, unlike some past presidents of modest experience, Mr. Obama will not ride into town determined to reinvent every policy wheel. Some have disparaged Mr. Obama as too cool, but his unflappability over the past few weeks -- indeed, over two years of campaigning -- strikes us as exactly what Americans might want in their president at a time of great uncertainty.

On the second set of issues, having to do with keeping America safe in a dangerous world, it is a closer call. Mr. McCain has deep knowledge and a longstanding commitment to promoting U.S. leadership and values. But Mr. Obama, as anyone who reads his books can tell, also has a sophisticated understanding of the world and America's place in it. He, too, is committed to maintaining U.S. leadership and sticking up for democratic values, as his recent defense of tiny Georgia makes clear. We hope he would navigate between the amoral realism of some in his party and the counterproductive cocksureness of the current administration, especially in its first term. On most policies, such as the need to go after al-Qaeda, check Iran's nuclear ambitions and fight HIV/AIDS abroad, he differs little from Mr. Bush or Mr. McCain. But he promises defter diplomacy and greater commitment to allies. His team overstates the likelihood that either of those can produce dramatically better results, but both are certainly worth trying.

Mr. Obama's greatest deviation from current policy is also our biggest worry: his insistence on withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq on a fixed timeline. Thanks to the surge that Mr. Obama opposed, it may be feasible to withdraw many troops during his first two years in office. But if it isn't -- and U.S. generals have warned that the hard-won gains of the past 18 months could be lost by a precipitous withdrawal -- we can only hope and assume that Mr. Obama would recognize the strategic importance of success in Iraq and adjust his plans. We also can only hope that the alarming anti-trade rhetoric we have heard from Mr. Obama during the campaign would give way to the understanding of the benefits of trade reflected in his writings. A silver lining of the financial crisis may be the flexibility it gives Mr. Obama to override some of the interest groups and members of Congress in his own party who oppose open trade, as well as to pursue the entitlement reform that he surely understands is needed.

It gives us no pleasure to oppose Mr. McCain. Over the years, he has been a force for principle and bipartisanship. He fought to recognize Vietnam, though some of his fellow ex-POWs vilified him for it. He stood up for humane immigration reform, though he knew Republican primary voters would punish him for it. He opposed torture and promoted campaign finance reform, a cause that Mr. Obama injured when he broke his promise to accept public financing in the general election campaign. Mr. McCain staked his career on finding a strategy for success in Iraq when just about everyone else in Washington was ready to give up. We think that he, too, might make a pretty good president. But the stress of a campaign can reveal some essential truths, and the picture of Mr. McCain that emerged this year is far from reassuring. To pass his party's tax-cut litmus test, he jettisoned his commitment to balanced budgets. He hasn't come up with a coherent agenda, and at times he has seemed rash and impulsive. And we find no way to square his professed passion for America's national security with his choice of a running mate who, no matter what her other strengths, is not prepared to be commander in chief.

Any presidential vote is a gamble, and Mr. Obama's résumé is undoubtedly thin. We had hoped, throughout this long campaign, to see more evidence that Mr. Obama might stand up to Democratic orthodoxy and end, as he said in his announcement speech, "our chronic avoidance of tough decisions." But Mr. Obama's temperament is unlike anything we've seen on the national stage in many years. He is deliberate but not indecisive; eloquent but a master of substance and detail; preternaturally confident but eager to hear opposing points of view. He has inspired millions of voters of diverse ages and races, no small thing in our often divided and cynical country. We think he is the right man for a perilous moment.

Plausible Deniability?

Plausible deniability?
(Fox News website, by John R. Lott, Jr., 2008)

The mortgage crisis has produced a massive case of political amnesia. That happens when one is trying to redirect blame for something that could cost up to $700 billion. Some who now claim that the mortgage crisis is the result of too little regulation saw things more clearly when so much wasn’t at stake. The New York Times editorialized on Saturday that “This crisis is the result of a willful and systematic failure by the government to regulate and monitor the activities of bankers, lenders, hedge funds, insurers and other market players.” If you believe the Times or the Obama campaign, everything but government regulation is to blame for the crisis. Yet, it is not just economists who were predicting these problems. For example, a September 30, 1999, article in the New York Times predicted exactly what has happened:

Fannie Mae, the nation's biggest underwriter of home mortgages, has been under increasing pressure from the Clinton Administration to expand mortgage loans among low and moderate income people . ''Fannie Mae has expanded home ownership for millions of families in the 1990's by reducing down payment requirements,'' said Franklin D. Raines, Fannie Mae's chairman and chief executive officer. ''Yet there remain too many borrowers whose credit is just a notch below what our underwriting has required who have been relegated to paying significantly higher mortgage rates in the so-called subprime market.'' . . . Fannie Mae is taking on significantly more risk, which may not pose any difficulties during flush economic times. But the government-subsidized corporation may run into trouble in an economic downturn, prompting a government rescue similar to that of the savings and loan industry in the 1980's. ''From the perspective of many people, including me, this is another thrift industry growing up around us,'' said Peter Wallison a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. ''If they fail, the government will have to step up and bail them out the way it stepped up and bailed out the thrift industry.'' . . .

Indeed, during the late 1990s, the Clinton administration and Fannie Mae bragged (Los Angeles Times, May 31 1999) about how they had lowered the standards required to borrow money for homes to increase borrowing by groups that otherwise wouldn’t qualify. Their goal of increasing minority ownership was surely a laudable one, but making others pay for the voters’ altruism has real costs. As even the New York Times understood in 1999, as long as housing prices kept on going up there was no problem with this system. If someone couldn’t pay their mortgages, they could sell their property. There was no threat of default. However, a lack of down payments meant that people defaulted on their mortgages. Unfortunately, these insights don’t fit the current political template. With just 43 days to the election, the New York Times and others want to be in sync with the Obama campaign’s attack on the Bush administration not having enough regulation. It particularly doesn’t fit the fact that McCain was criticizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for years along the lines of the New York Times 1999 article. Ironically, in other articles, the New York Times described the Democrats as “important political allies” of these two government-sponsored enterprises. The New York Times is right that “Taxpayers have every right to be alarmed and angry.” But they should read their old news articles to see whom they should get angry at.

Is the proposed bailout bill the answer? $700 billion for the bailout is a lot of money. The costs so far of the Iraq war are probably even a couple hundred billion dollars less than that. But if the $700 billion wasn’t bad enough, it is on top of the giant bailout just announced a couple of weeks ago for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The costs are likely to grow further when Democrats add on their demands to subsidize homeowners. The argument is that something has to be done now. We're in a panic, and mortgages supposedly can’t be sold for what they are really worth. The fear is that with the value of assets so low, financial institutions will try to sell off their mortgage-backed securities, driving down the price of those assets and making financial institutions insolvent that would otherwise be financially viable. What the government proposes to do is buy these assets when they are low, when people are panicking, and resell them later once confidence has been restored. Supposedly, the government could actually make money. There are some real problems with this argument. First, even if most people are behaving irrationally and don’t understand the true long-run value of these mortgages, just like the government is proposing to do, others can make money by buying these assets at fire sale prices and reselling themselves once the crisis is past. In fact, if this panic explanation is true, there is a strong reason to believe that this desire to make money, to see the chance to buy low and sell high, would actually keep the price from falling very much. McCain’s proposal on Friday to provide bridge loans would let the companies themselves decide whether this panic explanation is true.

If the government’s argument is right, one first has to assume that all those smart people in government are a lot smarter than people in the finance industries. Ironically, the government will be hiring private evaluators to determine how much the government should pay for these assets. Given that government regulation -- forcing mortgage companies to make loans that they didn’t want to make -- created this problem, it is not obvious why government officials should be so wise right now. Increased stock prices after the bailout’s announcement isn’t necessarily evidence that the bailout is needed. Stock prices might also be rising simply because the government is promising to pay a lot for some worthless assets. If so, that is nice for stockholders of affected companies, but not so nice for the rest of us. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that only the government’s offer to purchase these mortgages can prevent panicked sellers from sending prices down. It still isn’t clear that you want to subsidize these companies. As the 1999 Times article noted and McCain has continued to point out, such subsidies create incentives for companies to take unjustified risks in the future. Imagine how your gambling behavior would change if the government promised to cover your losses and let you keep your winnings.

The government may also end up managing or owning these companies. Political considerations, not efficiency, will end up being the goal. A simple demand might be what company managers can be paid. But private shareholders have a lot better incentive deciding the costs and benefits of motivating managers than political constituencies who have little at stake in whether the company makes the right decisions. Some parts of the proposed legislation released over the weekend are also worrisome. For example, at least in the first draft, the proposed power given to the Secretary of the Treasury would be unlimited and unchecked. It emphasizes the possible problems that can arise from drafting legislation too quickly: “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.” Why do people put so much faith in government correctly solving this problem when the debate can’t even honestly discuss what caused it? With all the pressure to get things done quickly, it seems unlikely that things will be properly sorted out. With $700 billion at stake, let’s make sure that we really have a very good reason for spending the money.

Calvin and Hobbes

The Tiger Strikes Again
(By Neely Tucker, Washington Post, 2005)

"Calvin and Hobbes" was such an exuberant, strange and metaphysical realm you wonder how it ever got shoveled into a comic strip.  You remember this when you look at "The Complete Calvin and Hobbes," a 1,456-page art-book epic of every panel ever published: It was original by sheer force of personality. Calvin sounded like a 6-year-old psychotic on Ritalin one day and a Yale lit grad the next.  He was id off the leash. He wondered what was worthwhile in life if death was inevitable. ("Seafood," answered Hobbes, his imaginary tiger friend. Wait - was Hobbes real or not?  Debatable.)  Calvin battled blobs of oatmeal and the bathtub suds monster. He and Hobbes hurtled downhill in their wagon and set out for the Yukon. He turned himself into a Tyrannosaurus Rex , Calvin the Human Insect, Calvin the Bug, Captain Napalm, Stupendous Man and Spaceman Spiff.  In the middle of class, Calvin's teacher suddenly turns into a pig-snouted monster! The drooling blob demands attention and homework!  "Chew electric death, snarling cur," Spiff howls, blasting her face off with his Atomic Napalm Neutralizer!  He was known to wear little rocket ship underpants. He feared nothing but the babysitter. Also the dark.

The strip ran from 1985 to 1995. Thirty million people have bought earlier collections of the strip, but as of today you can buy it all in one pop. It will set you back $150, but the three-volume, glossy-papered tome finally gives proper appreciation and display to creator Bill Watterson's efforts, the kind of size and color quality that he waged such epic battles for with newspapers and syndicates before retiring into silence at age 37, tired of the fray, wary of drifting into the bankrolls of mediocrity.  Flip open a page here:  "I want a grenade launcher, Mom. When's Christmas?" Calvin barks in one panel.  "What do you think is the meaning of true happiness?" he asks Hobbes in another. "Is it money, cars and women? Or is it just money and cars?"

All 10 years gone now.  People still remember because it was never worse than good, and was often simply brilliant.  It parodied the issues of the day, the materialism, the greed-is-good cynicism, the pointlessness of television, the rampaging egos, the growing crassness of public intercourse, the bad behavior, our infinitesimal place in the universe.  There was also time for snacks and a bedtime story.  " 'Calvin and Hobbes' is probably one of the last great American comic strips," says Dirk Deppey, editor of the Comics Journal.  A generation earlier, "Peanuts" reshaped the comics world by imagining children with interior psychological lives in a neighborhood devoid of adults. Charlie Brown was a kid on the verge of midlife crisis. There was a beagle who fancied himself a fighter pilot.  "Calvin and Hobbes," the best kid strip since, worked on the conceit that Hobbes was a stuffed animal to everyone in the world but Calvin, an only child. Only when he and Calvin are alone in the panel does Hobbes spring to life - a tiger who walks on two feet, makes cheesecake grins at girls and appears to be more mature than Calvin by oh, about an hour and a half.  They wrestle, pull the covers back and forth at bedtime and make goofy faces at one another while sitting in the back seat of the family car - best friends of the type boys no longer have after age 12.     

The only other kids in the strip were Susie, who lived around the block, and Moe, the school bully. Calvin's parents did not have names.  They lived in a house that had a sort of American foursquare sensibility to it, in a nameless town that seemed lost on the Midwestern prairie.  It all bespoke a certain Sunday-afternoon loneliness. (Hobbes was Calvin's imagination, right? His alter ego? Which means the whole thing is just Calvin talking to himself? Nobody knows; Watterson never made it clear.)  The childish exuberance, the adult cynicism, the gorgeous colors in the Sunday panels. Hyper-literate third graders read it, overweight taxi drivers in El Paso read it, terminally hip people wearing black in Manhattan read it.  It was a brilliant blue flame of creativity that startled Watterson's friends.  "He wasn't exactly a ball of laughs," says Richard West, a comics historian and author who has known Watterson since college. "Where did this stuff come from? I don't know. I didn't see the genius in his day-to-day personality."  Watterson, in the book's introduction: "Hobbes got all my better qualities (with a few quirks from our cats), and Calvin my ranting, escapist side. Together, they're pretty much a transcript of my mental diary . . . it's pretty startling to reread these strips ands see my personality exposed so plainly right there on paper. I meant to disguise that better."  Well. It's not that the man was ever overexposed -- and that was before he did the Garbo thing.

It is 1988. The strip has been going for three years. The phone rings at Universal Press Syndicate. It is Steven Spielberg's assistant.  Mr. Spielberg would very much like to speak to Mr. Watterson.  Lee Salem, the syndicate's president, is ecstatic. Two creative minds like that getting together! The Wizard of Oz! Winnie the Pooh! Peter Pan! Excited, he calls Watterson at home in Chagrin Falls, a leafy suburb of Cleveland. Would he talk to Spielberg?  No, Watterson says.  "Bill simply was not interested," Salem remembers now, the sound of lost millions in licensing revenue like so much static down the phone line.  It turned out Watterson wasn't interested in doing anything other than the strip. After the first couple of years, no interviews. No "Calvin and Hobbes" dolls -- even if Hobbes was, at least as adults see it, a doll himself. (There's no telling how much a Hobbes doll could have made. The syndicate originally had licensing rights, but Watterson's opposition was so vehement that Salem ultimately "caved in completely'' and gave all the rights back to Watterson. "Otherwise, I'd be on the beach somewhere right now,'' Salem says.) No animated specials. No calendars, notebooks, pencils, backpacks or lunch boxes. (Those car decals of a Calvinesque brat whizzing rip-offs.) 

In 1990, Watterson gave the commencement speech at his alma mater, Kenyon College in Ohio. It was about fleeing the "real world."  He apparently hasn't appeared in a public forum since.  Very few photographs, too. These are old now, but show a slender, bespectacled man with a Marine buzz cut and a thick, somber mustache. Dark eyes, maybe friendly, maybe just tired of you.  He's 47 now. Lives in Cleveland proper with his wife, Melissa, in a house tax records show the couple bought last year for less than you can get a condo for in Washington. In the introduction to the book, he says he paints and studies music.  "He's a pretty regular guy who lives on a regular street," says West. "His neighbors know who he is. He visits his family, but trotting around the world never interested him. He doesn't live significantly different than he did 20 years ago."  Watterson was born in the District and grew up in the droning normalcy of Chagrin Falls. His mom, Kathryn, was on the city council and his dad a patent attorney. He would use the family house as the model for Calvin's, Kathryn Watterson says in a telephone interview, and his dad as the model for Calvin's. ("I'd be happy to talk to you all day long, but Bill's been so private," she says. "He's a thoughtful, introspective person, so it sort of goes along that he wouldn't seek out publicity.")  At Kenyon, Watterson wanted to be a political cartoonist. He got a job as one for a paper in Cincinnati after graduation, but wound up in the unemployment line six months later. He designed ads for a weekly shopper in the windowless basement of a convenience store.

After hours and on weekends, he developed comic strips no one wanted. He eventually drew one populated by a dozen characters including a kid named Marvin and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes. On the suggestion of one syndicate, Watterson kept the stuffed tiger, gave Marvin's Beatlesque mop a haircut, changed his name and dumped the rest of the cast.  And lo.  Universal Press Syndicate picked up the strip in 1985. There were clues all along that this was about more than slapstick.  Calvin was named for the 16th-century Protestant theologian who believed in predestination, Hobbes for the philosopher a century later who once observed that life is "nasty, brutish and short."  Miss Wormwood, Calvin's teacher, was named after the apprentice devil in "The Screwtape Letters."  Success was quick - the cartoon was quickly picked up by dozens of papers, and eventually ran in more than 2,400.  But the young cartoonist was developing his characters on the fly, uncertain about working in the huge shadow cast by "Peanuts." He often agreed with syndicate editors who thought a lot of the early submissions didn't work.  "Calvin was little more than a mischievous loudmouth and Hobbes was simply his somewhat more sensible friend," Watterson writes of those early days in his introduction.  But the strip was deepened by the friendship between the main pair, which was always sent into the stratosphere by Calvin's imagination.  This led to Watterson's other breakthrough idea, that of drawing Calvin's daydreams as the boy himself saw them - a cartoon within a cartoon.  It became a running gag, a four-panel rimshot: First panel, a crocodile floating to the top of the murky Amazon.  Second and third panels, the croc drifting toward a hippo.  Panel 4: Calvin's dad (the hippo) standing in the shallow end of the swimming pool, asking his floating-face-down son what on earth he's doing.

 The joke was in the contrast; fantasy compared with banal reality.  That one goes B-B-B-A.  Others, which started in reality, would go A-B-B-A. On Sundays, when Calvin turned into a roaring T. rex, the pattern was elongated for more space.  This got harder to do as time wore on.  "That was originally a fun idea, but the burden on the strip has been to make each switch more clever," Watterson said in an interview with West, published in the Comics Journal in 1989.  "Each time it's got to be done with some unpredictability, some cleverness to it so that it doesn't become moribund. . . . I'm doing fewer because it's getting more and more difficult."  Six years later, he would do no more at all.  He drew one final cartoon and let a boy and his tiger take off downhill on their snow sled and slide into comics history.  Ten years gone now.  Maybe that was the smart thing, you know.  Maybe it was for the best.  But still, the last book comes along and you realize there'll be no more Spaceman Spiff, no more Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons.  As a cartoon blockhead might have observed in an earlier era:  Sigh.  You wonder what that Susie Derkins is doing these days.

'Calvin and Hobbes' Creator Has No Regrets
(By Michelle Ruiz, AOL News Feb. 2, 2010)

In today's cult of celebrity, it's a rare phenomenon: an artist who produces much-loved work, wins the hearts of fans and critics, and then abruptly retires and attempts to lead a normal, sometimes reclusive, life. We're talking about the likes of Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger and "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip creator Bill Watterson, who recently gave what's believed to be his first interview since 1989, to his hometown newspaper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer.Watterson, now 51, crushed millions of funnies readers around the world in 1995 when he suddenly retired Calvin, a 6-year-old, philosophical version of Bart Simpson, and Hobbes, the stuffed tiger who comes to life in his imagination.

Watterson has never really talked about it publicly, until now. It turns out Watterson ended "Calvin and Hobbes" at the height of its popularity because he understands something the creators of long-running TV shows like "ER" and "The Simpsons" may not have."It's always better to leave the party early," Watterson writes in an e-mail Q&A with the Plain Dealer's John Campanelli. "If I had rolled along with the strip's popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people now 'grieving' for "Calvin and Hobbes" would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I'd be agreeing with them." He added, "I've never regretted stopping when I did."

Still, like many rock stars of the 1990s, Watterson waxes nostalgic about his celebrity. "Ah, the life of a newspaper cartoonist -- how I miss the groupies, drugs and trashed hotel rooms!" he joked. But seriously -- in the 15 years since retiring from "Calvin and Hobbes," Watterson has been laying low in the Greater Cleveland area, no paparazzi in sight. "The public attention has faded a lot. In pop culture time, the 1990s were eons ago," he said. "An artwork can stay frozen in time, but I stumble through the years like everyone else. I think the deeper fans understand that and are willing to give me some room to go on with my life."

Watterson may be kidding himself in that regard, as "Calvin and Hobbes" books continue to sell half a million copies a year, and recycled versions of the comic strip still run in 50 countries around the world, not including the U.S. Watterson long ago refused to license his characters, which means no animated TV specials or cuddly Hobbes toys, but fans will get a break this year when the U.S. Postal Service issues a "Calvin and Hobbes" stamp. How soon will the reclusive Watterson actually use one to mail a letter? "Immediately," he said. "I'm going to get in my horse and buggy and snail-mail a check for my newspaper subscription."

Mental Floss: Our Interview With Bill Watterson!
(By Jake Rossen, Mental Floss, October 2013)

For the December issue of mental_floss magazine, Jake Rossen managed to do something we thought was impossible—he snagged an interview with the legendary Bill Watterson! Since we’re guessing there are a few Calvin and Hobbes enthusiasts in the audience, we thought we’d provide a glimpse of the e-mail exchange. For our full story on the comic strip, be sure to pick up the print magazine.
There is a tendency to rehash and regurgitate properties with sequels and remakes. You had an idea, executed it, then moved on. And you ignored the clamor for more. Why is it so hard for readers to let go?
Well, coming at a new work requires a certain amount of patience and energy, and there’s always the risk of disappointment. You can’t really blame people for preferring more of what they already know and like. The trade-off, of course, is that predictability is boring. Repetition is the death of magic.

Years ago, you hadn’t quite dismissed the notion of animating the strip. Are you a fan of Pixar? Does their competency ever make the idea of animating your creations more palatable?
The visual sophistication of Pixar blows me away, but I have zero interest in animating Calvin and Hobbes. If you’ve ever compared a film to a novel it’s based on, you know the novel gets bludgeoned. It’s inevitable, because different media have different strengths and needs, and when you make a movie, the movie’s needs get served. As a comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes works exactly the way I intended it to. There’s no upside for me in adapting it.

Your fight over protecting Calvin and Hobbes from licensing deals, and your battle to increase the real estate for your Sunday page comic, were notable—partially because they indicated your incredible autonomy over your work. Had you "lost" those battles, it appears you would have ended the strip. It reminds me of Howard Roark and his desire to blow up his building rather than see it molested by other hands. Was there a critical moment in your career that instilled such unwavering creative integrity?
Just to be clear, I did not have incredible autonomy until afterward. I had signed most of my rights away in order to get syndicated, so I had no control over what happened to my own work, and I had no legal position to argue anything. I could not take the strip with me if I quit, or even prevent the syndicate from replacing me, so I was truly scared I was going to lose everything I cared about either way. I made a lot of impassioned arguments for why a work of art should reflect the ideas and beliefs of its creator, but the simple fact was that my contract made that issue irrelevant. It was a grim, sad time. Desperation makes a person do crazy things.
Where do you think the comic strip fits in today’s culture?
Personally, I like paper and ink better than glowing pixels, but to each his own. Obviously the role of comics is changing very fast. On the one hand, I don’t think comics have ever been more widely accepted or taken as seriously as they are now. On the other hand, the mass media is disintegrating, and audiences are atomizing. I suspect comics will have less widespread cultural impact and make a lot less money. I’m old enough to find all this unsettling, but the world moves on. All the new media will inevitably change the look, function, and maybe even the purpose of comics, but comics are vibrant and versatile, so I think they’ll continue to find relevance one way or another. But they definitely won’t be the same as what I grew up with.

I’m assuming you’ve gotten wind of people animating your strip for YouTube? Did you ever mimic cartoonists you admired before finding your own style?
Every artist learns through imitation, but I rather doubt the aim of these things is artistic development. I assume they’re either homages or satiric riffs, and are not intended to be taken too seriously as works in their own right. Otherwise I should be talking to a copyright lawyer.
Is it possible some new form of sequential art is waiting to be discovered? Could the four-panel template die out as newspapers dwindle?
Form follows function, as the architects say. With words and pictures, you can do just about anything.

According to your collection introductions, you took up painting after the strip ended. Why don’t you exhibit the work?
My first problem is that I don’t paint ambitiously. It’s all catch and release—just tiny fish that aren’t really worth the trouble to clean and cook. But yes, my second problem is that Calvin and Hobbes created a level of attention and expectation that I don't know how to process.
Purely for trivia and posterity’s sake, if you could indulge some (even more) inane queries: One story that’s made the rounds is that a plush toy manufacturer once delivered a box of Hobbes dolls to you unsolicited, which you promptly set ablaze. For people who share your low opinion of merchandising, this is a fairly delightful story. Did it actually happen?
Not exactly. It was only my head that burst into flames.

I once read a mention of you producing some original art intended for a Rolling Stone cover story that “went south.” Considering your preference for privacy, an invasive profile sounds like anathema. Was this very early on in the strip’s run?
Boy, I barely remember this. I think that was the interview that ended up in The Comics Journal. It was early, when my desire to air my grievances with the business temporarily outweighed my desire for privacy.

Owing to spite or just a foul mood, have you ever peeled one of those stupid Calvin stickers off of a pickup truck?
I figure that, long after the strip is forgotten, those decals are my ticket to immortality.

‘Cul De Sac’ Creator Richard Thompson Faces Life’s Cruel Twists With Artful Wit

(By Michael Cavna, Washington Post, May 20, 2011)

Bill Watterson receives Reporters About As Often As Charlie Brown Receives A Valentine. Once Viewed As The J.D. Salinger Of Comics, The Creator Of the retired and still-beloved strip “Calvin and Hobbes” guards his privacy by rebuffing most every entreaty for an interview.  Now, however, comes a question about a certain “kid strip” cartoonist.  One name, one talent entices Watterson to give what his syndicate says is only his second interview in two decades: Richard Thompson — creator of “Cul de Sac” and father to little “Alice Otterloop” and her child’s-eye view of life in Washington’s suburbs.  “Where to start?... ” Watterson says. “The strip has a unique and honest voice, a seemingly intuitive feel for what comics do best ... a very funny intelligence ... the artwork, which I just slobber over. It’s a wonderful surprise to see that this level of talent is still out there, and that a strip like this is still possible.”
Within comics, many colleagues share that sentiment. On May 28 in Boston, Thompson will learn whether he has won the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award for cartoonist of the year; it is his second straight nomination for a strip that was first syndicated almost four years ago. “Cul de Sac” is carried by nearly 150 newspapers, including The Washington Post, where it began. It has spawned four books, a handful of animated shorts — and legions of fans.  “Cul de Sac” is a sly, whimsical skip through suburban life with Alice, her friends Beni and Dill, elder brother Petey and her classmates at Blisshaven Academy preschool. It’s all about sidewalk discoveries, childhood invention, parents and other authority figures who are one step behind the children’s antics. At summoning our early years, Watterson says: “The strip depicts all sorts of moments that ring true.”  And residing within this skewed suburbia is also the macro-satire: Mom and Dad Otterloop drive a minivan whose color is so neutral, “it doesn’t appear in nature.”
A 2007 offering is the prototypical “Cul de Sac.” Alice- “who’s not afraid of anything”- is momentarily cowed by winged cicadas. Petey, typically squeamish out of doors, advises: “Do what I do. Construct a distancing fantasy as a coping mechanism.” Next thing we know, Alice is costuming the cicadas in napkin dresses and naming them. By the last panel, with precise elliptical wit, the Otterloop parents are reading headlines about intelligent “superbugs” wearing paper clothes. “Don’t tell the kids,” Mom says. “It’ll just scare them.”  Thompson “has this huge range of cartooning skills ... ,” Watterson says. “Richard draws all sorts of complex stuff — architecture, traffic jams, playground sets — that I would never touch. And how does he accomplish this? Well, I like to imagine him ignoring his family, living on caffeine and sugar, with his feet in a bucket of ice, working 20 hours a day.  Otherwise, it’s not really fair.”
Watterson wrote the foreword for Thompson’s first “Cul de Sac” book in 2008. The foreword to an earlier Thompson collection was written by another industry legend, Pat Oliphant, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist.  “You would never suspect it by looking at him, but behind the quiet, mild-mannered Richard Thompson exterior lurks the real Richard Thompson,” Oliphant says now. “I know he would hate to be termed a genius, but that is exactly what he is.”  So after a measured, decades-long career ascent, Richard Thompson sits at the comics mountaintop. Still, he is keenly aware of a constant fact: The pinnacle is crumbling.
Thompson- who at 53 is a year older than the long-retired Watterson — arrived at print syndication in an era of strapped newspapers and comics sections that are so shrunken they could double as eye charts.  And then there’s the second cruel twist: Less than a year after “Cul de Sac” became syndicated, Thompson learned he has Parkinson’s, the incurable neurodegenerative disease that robs patients of motor skills. His deft line and lithe mind are under attack by his own cells.  Yet here is Thompson, grinning behind his wire rims on a sunny March afternoon as he walks the half-dozen blocks from a taqueria to his modest brick home in Arlington. His gait is tentative. Each day with the disease, he says, brings “a new normality.” But each day also brings the chance to sit at the drafting board, ink-dipped crow quill in hand, and explore new worlds.  As Alice says: “Every day, I test the boundaries of my domain.”


Bill Watterson Returns To The Comics Page To Offer A Few ‘Pearls’ Gems
(By Michael Cavna, Washington Post, 07 June 2014)

WRITER’S NOTE: On Monday night, after he and I did a public Q&A for nearly 500 people at The Washington Post building, Stephan Pastis — acclaimed author of “Pearls Before Swine” and bestselling author of the “Timmy Failure” books — made a few self-deprecating jokes about his own drawing ability. Because Pastis and “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson have confirmed this exclusive report (below), I can now say: Pastis has just executed a gift at “drawing” that few cartoonists can top: 1. Amazingly, he drew the long-retired, once-reclusive Watterson … out of retirement — and got him to create fresh art for this week’s “Pearls”; and 2. Pastis managed to draw out his Watterson-week storyline brilliantly, layering humor upon meta-humor in a hilarious house-of-mirrors reflection on the comic-strip industry past and present. Has anyone in recent memory drawn such feats as that? It is special to have Watterson back into the comic-page spotlight, even if only for a few wonderful days.  –M.C
AT THE END OF 1995, the beloved “Calvin and Hobbes” sledded off the comics page for the final time, and its long-reclusive legendary creator, Bill Watterson, retired from the business, never to draw another syndicated newspaper strip.  Until now.  This week, the millions of readers across generations who have pined for the cartoonist’s return got a sudden glimmer. Turns out, Watterson’s brilliant artistic hand has recently been hiding in plain sight. Readers don’t need to go back a couple of decades to see his latest work; they need only go back, say, a couple of days. That’s because Watterson has returned home to the comics page — even if only for a limited engagement.
Yes, you read that right. For three days, Watterson — once known as the J.D. Salinger of the strips — has resurfaced, his inspired visual wit intact. For this, we have Stephan Pastis’s real estate and surreal humor to thank.  Since Wednesday, Watterson’s new artwork has been featured in Pastis’s syndicated strip, “Pearls Before Swine.” It’s a creative collaboration that stunned Pastis, who says that he sooner expected to team up with “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz. “And yes,” Pastis says slyly, “I am aware that Schulz is dead.”
Last Wednesday’s “Pearls Before Swine” by Stephan Pastis (2014 Pastis/ Distr. by Universal Uclick)

Watterson has long eschewed most interviews and publicity photos — he once made Time magazine’s list of most-reclusive celebrities, sandwiched between Syd Barrett and Thomas Pynchon. Working with him, Pastis tells me, “is like getting a call from Bigfoot.”  So what, exactly, lured Watterson back to the page for the first time since ending his immensely popular boy-and-tiger comic in December of 1995?  “Several years ago, when Stephan did one of his strips that mocked his own drawing ability and mentioned my strip in comparison, I thought it might be funny for me to ghost ‘Pearls’ sometime, just to flip it all on its head,” the goateed Watterson tells me, offering a clear indication that he still follows the funnies. “It was just a silly idea, and I didn’t know Stephan, so I never pursued it, and years went by.”
Earlier this year, Watterson says, Pastis got in touch with him when the “Pearls” author was in the Cleveland area on his book tour (though the two didn’t meet then). At the same time, Watterson says, he knew that editor/designer Chris Sparks was looking for new ways to raise money for Team Cul de Sac, a charity co-founded by Sparks and cartoonist-illustrator Richard Thompson that raises funds to fight Parkinson’s disease, in coordination with the Michael J. Fox Foundation.  “Somehow the juxtaposition clicked on a light bulb,” Watterson says.  Thompson, a longtime Washington Post artist who lives in Arlington, Va., ended his Reuben Award-winning syndicated strip “Cul de Sac” in 2012 as he underwent therapy and surgery to treat his Parkinson’s; Watterson is an enormous fan of Thompson’s, and the two now have a dual exhibit at Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus.  “I thought maybe Stephan and I could do this goofy collaboration and then use the result to raise some money for Parkinson’s research in honor of Richard Thompson,” Watterson tells me. “It just seemed like a perfect convergence.  So I explained the idea to Stephan,” Watterson says, “and he was more than happy to give it a shot.”
Last Thursday’s “Pearls Before Swine,” by Stephan Pastis (2014 Pastis/ Distr. by Universal Uclick)
Both in person and on the page, Pastis — a recent Reuben Award finalist and best-selling “Timmy Failure” author — is self-deprecating about his artistic prowess. So the conceit in this week’s strips is that a second-grader named Libby (a name that nods to “Bill”) boasts that she can draw “Pearls” better than the feature’s creator. Pastis’s cartoon avatar turns over his “stick figure” comic to the girl — who proceeds to render rich worlds of imagination beyond the signature style of the strip. From invading Martians to big-mouthed (and Pastis-devouring) crocodiles, the art brims with the life of Watterson’s expressive line.  The collaboration is a brilliant pairing of strengths, with Watterson illustrating Pastis’s sometimes-meta script. “I think we both got some surprises,” Watterson says. “I didn’t know what he was going to write, and he didn’t know how I was going to draw it.” 

Friday’s “Pearls Before Swine,” by Stephan Pastis (2014 Pastis/ Distr. by Universal Uclick)
From Wednesday through Friday, Pastis ceded his middle panels to Watterson, whose virtuosic art is vivid testament that his talent remains undiminished. Still, Pastis summoned the gumption to offer a few editing changes.  “It was like editing the pope,” Pastis says. “Like telling Michelangelo: ‘David’s hands are too big.’ ” Yet the California-based Pastis suggested minor tweaks to fit the tone and idiosyncrasies of his strip — including the number of “grawlix,” or punctuation characters that represent cartoon profanity, he uses to match the number of letters in his curse words.  Pastis drew Saturday’s “Pearls” himself as a respectful tip of the cap to Watterson, referencing one of the best farewell strips in the history of comics: “Calvin and Hobbes’ ” bittersweet, sledding-into-white-space (and untold adventures) goodbye.
Saturday’s “Pearls Before Swine.” (2014 Stephan Pastis / distr. by Universal Uclick)
Some true “Calvin” geeks began blogging theories Wednesday, noting visual touches in “Pearls” that piqued their curiosity — were those “Watterson shoes,” or his headlighted spaceships, or his telltale furniture legs? Like pilgrims studying crop circles or Stonehenge, some cartoonists stoked the guessing game.  Fans had reason to be optimistic. Watterson has twice produced public art in recent years: A poster for the recent homage-to-comics documentary “Stripped,” and a painting of a Richard Thompson character that was auctioned off for Team Cul de Sac.  The original “Pearls” strips featuring Watterson’s work — which will be on display at the Heroes Convention (or HeroesCon) later this month in Charlotte — will also be auctioned at some point for the Cul de Sac charity.  “It was generous of Stephan to let me hijack his creation, and more generous still to donate the originals,” says Watterson, adding that he hopes the auctioning “meets with some success.”
As for the experience of collaborating with Pastis, whom he had never met prior to this week, the “Calvin and Hobbes” creator welcomed the challenge of a limited return to the page.  “I had expected to just mess around with his characters while they did their usual things,” Watterson tells me, “but Stephan kept setting up these situations that required more challenging drawings . . . so I had to work a lot harder than I had planned to! It was a lot of fun.”