Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sunday Reading

Whatever Happened ToBloom County comic strip creator Berkeley Breathed looks back on his career as an “accidental cartoonist.”

Berkeley Breathed, the creator of the comic strips “Bloom County,” “Outland” and “Opus,” lives on a high hilltop in Santa Barbara — yes, the money from all those Bill the Cat T-shirts has added up nicely — but on a recent afternoon when he looked down at the churn of the blue-gray ocean, he seemed to feel the undertow of nagging regret.

“When you’re young, you miss things, you just don’t see them,” said the 52-year-old Breathed, who walked away from comic strips last year because the Digital Age had eroded his newsprint audience and, worse, his artistic vigor and sense of whimsy. There are other pursuits now: Breathed has written and illustrated an entire shelf of bestselling children’s books, including last month’s “Flawed Dogs: The Novel,” and he has some promising Hollywood ventures in play. But a lavish new collection of his past work, “Bloom County: The Complete Library,” stirred up some bittersweet reflection as he gave a tour of his home studio.

“Not to sound like someone swinging their cane, but in the 1980s there weren’t a thousand other voices screaming to be heard at the same time,” Breathed said of the decade when his “Bloom County” was featured in more than 1,200 newspapers and he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. “There was a quiet in the room that made being a commentator very exciting. There was no Web, there was barely any cable TV. If you were looking for humorous topical commentary, you would go to the Johnny Carson monologue, ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Doonesbury.’ That was it. After you have the silence of that room, you get really weary with the screaming it takes today. There’s also this bitterness in the public square now that is difficult to avoid. I never did an angry strip, but in recent years I saw that sneaking in.”

In the 1980s, Breathed was a sensation fresh from the college campus and, both brash and insecure, he didn’t always handle the spotlight well. He was viewed as a lone wolf in the quirky and stodgy community of comic-strip artists, and he didn’t build any bridges by announcing to the world that he had no knowledge of the field’s history, craft or conventions. That led to some indelicate decisions, such as his choice not to follow up on a kind gesture that arrived in the mail one morning not long after Breathed was injured in a 1986 ultra-light plane crash.

“The major regret in my cartooning life is I didn’t get to know him,” Breathed said, pointing up to the framed art from a “Peanuts” strip signed by the late Charles Schulz. “He sent me that as a get-well gift when I broke my back. This was a time when I was a pariah to the comics old guard. It was an opening, and I let the opportunity pass. Just a few months ago, I went up and visited with his wife, Jeannie, and I was tearful leaving. I would have loved to have been able to call him my friend.”

Continued below the fold.

Fathers and Sons — Michael Winerip sends his son off to college. This could have been written by my own dad in 1973.

BEN, my oldest of four children, recently left for his senior year of college. Usually he flies and there’s a hurried, confused, curbside goodbye at the airport. This time was different. He was driving the 17 hours to Chicago and our goodbye, in front of the house, felt longer, sadder, more final.

We’d given him our ’98 Volvo station wagon with 168,000 miles. It’s a tradition. Some families set up trusts for their children when they graduate; my parents gave me the ’68 Chevy Nova with 100,000 miles on it.

The Volvo was crammed, and Ben, an avid surfer, had lashed his longboard on the roof. It’s one of the things I love about him: he’s sure he’ll find waves in Chicago.

Before giving him the car, I took it to our mechanic, Phil Kleyn. An engineer in Ukraine before emigrating, he can keep any car on the road. Phil put on two new axles, a tie rod, two used rear tires and pronounced the Volvo ready.

“Mikey, call me when he gets to Chicago,” Phil said.

“The car’s going to be all right?” I asked.

“Sure, Mikey, fine, fine” Phil said. “Just call me — you know.”

Ben had been around all summer, but he was never around. Six days a week, he’d work nine-hour shifts as a lifeguard at our Long Island beach. Afterward, he’d stop by the house to eat enormous quantities of food (yet remain criminally skinny), then stay out way past my bedtime. If he had a day off, he’d go into New York City. If he had two days, he’d head to Boston, and five was enough to see Charleston, S.C.; Wilmington, N.C.; Washington and Philadelphia. (“We only spent an hour in Philly, Dad, but my friend showed us around and we got a pretty good feel for it.”)

Occasionally he’d sleep 16 hours and wonder why he was tired.

My wife and I tried getting him to go to a movie with us, but he was way too busy. Or he was certain “Julie & Julia” wasn’t going to be his kind of film. Or he’d heard that “500 Days of Summer” was terrific, but the lifeguards were having their third-to-last barbecue of the summer and he really couldn’t miss it.

Starting in mid-August, I asked if, before he left, he would trim the high hedges around our house, a big job. I bought new electric clippers so he could do it right. His college is on the trimester system and he doesn’t start until late September. “Right after Labor Day, when I stop lifeguarding,” he said.

After Labor Day, he was going to do it the second week of September, right after his last friends went back to college.

Two nights before he was to leave, I’m not sure if I was lucky or I made my own luck, but he actually had availability and the two of us went to the Japanese restaurant in town.

Dinner was fun. He did all the ordering. We each had a couple of beers and I loosened up. We talked about the family, compared notes on the friends he’d brought to visit that summer, joked about the odds of the hedges ever being cut or the Volvo making it out of Pennsylvania.

It was wonderful and surprising how quickly that feeling of closeness — present daily until they become teenagers — came flooding back.

I found myself wishing the spicy tuna platter would last forever. I wanted to say something he might remember, but I have had so little success the few times I’ve tried meaningful talks with my kids. When I tried having the sex talk with Ben when he was in the eighth grade, he was so flustered, I realized it was too early. And when I tried again with Ben in the 10th grade, it was too late. “Don’t worry about it, Dad, I’m fine,” he told me.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. — There’s news, and then there’s Fox News.

Perhaps you are familiar with an old saying: Even a broken clock is right twice a day. I’ve found that maxim valuable as I wade through the recent hand-wringing and recrimination among journalists and their critics over the fact that most mainstream media were slow to pick up on the story of corruption at ACORN.

New York Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt (a former colleague) and Andrew Alexander, his counterpart at the Washington Post, are among those who have asked whether that laggard performance reflects an unfortunate deafness to conservative media.

As one of my readers put it, ”There is a lot wrong with ACORN, and Fox was the only channel talking about it.”

I might join this pity party if I thought Fox a credible news source. I do not.


Let me make this next point crystalline; every news organization from CNN to CBS to the Miami Herald to the L.A. Times gets it wrong on occasion, and every single report risks reflecting the biases — political, racial, religious, class, educational, geographical, generational — of the reporter. This will be true until the day the news business is no longer run by human beings.

But Fox is in a class by itself. In its epidemic inaccuracy, its ongoing disregard for basic journalistic standards of fairness, its demagogic appeals and its blatantly ideological promotions it is, indeed, unique — a news source in name only.

That’s not just an opinion: A 2003 study found Fox viewers more likely to be misinformed than those who get their news elsewhere.

Yet because this network that cries wolf, this network of birthers, terrorist fist bumps and tea party promotions, got it right for a change, mainstream media should wear sackcloth and ashes for their failure to take it seriously? No.

What missing the ACORN story suggests is a need for mainstream reporters to develop more sources among conservative activists and bloggers.

But Fox forfeited any expectation of being taken seriously by serious people when it made itself an echo chamber less concerned with reporting news than with affirming the ideological biases of its viewers.

When faced with a broken clock, after all, the person who wants to know the time has two options: Try to guess when the reading is right . . .

Or get another clock.

It’s Not Cheap — Same-sex couples find that life together can be expensive.

Much of the debate over legalizing gay marriage has focused on God and Scripture, the Constitution and equal protection.

But we see the world through the prism of money. And for years, we’ve heard from gay couples about all the extra health, legal and other costs they bear. So we set out to determine what they were and to come up with a round number — a couple’s lifetime cost of being gay.

It was much more complicated than we initially imagined, and that’s probably why we’ve never seen similar efforts. We looked at benefits that routinely go to married heterosexual couples but not to gay couples, like certain Social Security payments. We plotted out the cost of health insurance for couples whose employers don’t offer it to domestic partners. Even tax preparation can cost more, since gay couples have to file two sets of returns. Still, many couples may come out ahead in one area: they owe less in income taxes because they’re not hit with the so-called marriage penalty.

Our goal was to create a hypothetical gay couple whose situation would be similar to a heterosexual couple’s. So we gave the couple two children and assumed that one partner would stay home for five years to take care of them. We also considered the taxes in the three states that have the highest estimated gay populations — New York, California and Florida. We gave our couple an income of $140,000, which is about the average income in those three states for unmarried same-sex partners who are college-educated, 30 to 40 years old and raising children under the age of 18.

Here is what we came up with. In our worst case, the couple’s lifetime cost of being gay was $467,562. But the number fell to $41,196 in the best case for a couple with significantly better health insurance, plus lower taxes and other costs.

These numbers will vary, depending on a couple’s income and circumstance. Gay couples earning, say, $80,000, could have health insurance costs similar to our hypothetical higher-earning couple, but they might well owe more in income taxes than their heterosexual counterparts. For wealthy couples with a lot of assets, on the other hand, the cost of being gay could easily spiral into the millions.

Nearly all the extra costs that gay couples face would be erased if the federal government legalized same-sex marriage. One exception is the cost of having biological children, but we felt it was appropriate to include this given our goal of outlining every cost gay couples incur that heterosexual couples may not.

Speaking from personal experience — fifteen years’ worth — things that married couples take for granted — insurance, taxes, medical coverage, even memberships in Costco — are not available to same-sex couples. Love may conquer all, but it comes with a price.

Doonesbury — Color-coordinated.