Month: December 2014

How Are You Doing?

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In 1982, I left college.

I hadn’t graduated yet, but I was running around in circles. I was caught in a web of seemingly conflicting interests and I was wary of committing myself to any one of them lest I  make the wrong choice. That’s a fancy way of saying I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

But I kind of knew what I wanted to do. I was officially pre-law. And I knew that I wanted to make a living helping people get help. But I wasn’t clear what the intersection of law and helping was.

So I left college with the goal of figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.

I left college and returned to my hometown of Baltimore. I lived in my parents’ basement for a bit, resolving every hour of every day to get the hell out of their house.

My parents were good parents, but they were my parents and constant proximity wasn’t conducive to healthy respect.

I remember wondering what I might do to help people get help. I thought about psychology and social work and any profession where you help figure out and resolve other peoples’ crises.  My mother helped me brainstorm where I might spend time getting experience in such things and we came up with Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, usually just referred to as Sheppard Pratt.

Sheppard Pratt was a short drive from my parents house. It’s where Zelda Fitzgerald was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1930. And where she wrote the semi-autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, published in 1932. At that time, Sheppard Pratt was called a sanatorium. Originally, it had been named an asylum.

I remember hoping to run across the ghost of Zelda there. The grounds were magnificent, beautiful and inspiring in a serious, poetic way.

Initially, I volunteered at Sheppard Pratt. I offered myself to one of the hospital’s long term psychiatric units five days a week and eight hours a day in exchange for the promise that I would be given as much responsibility as was legally allowed. I had volunteered in hospitals when I was younger and knew how easy it was to spend an entire shift filling and refilling water pitchers.

For the record, filling and refilling water pitchers is, quite possibly, the most boring thing I have ever done in my life.

I was put to work immediately, shuffling patients to therapy, cafeteria and time spent outdoors. I was encouraged to talk to them and get to know them and be part of their day. I was trusted with information about them and informed by the staff about their conditions and treatment.

It was fascinating.

And at night, I hung up coats in a dance club.

Stop laughing.

I made more money in one night of hanging up coats than you can imagine, which is good since there was only dancing Thursday through Sunday. Sure, all the money I made was in quarters, but back then everybody still wore winter coats in winter so a night full of quarters added up quickly.

After a few weeks of volunteering, the nice folks at Sheppard Pratt offered me a full-time job, a full-time paycheck, and health insurance, all of which I accepted before they were finished offering.

I had probably moved out of my parents’ basement before the end of that day, if not sooner. Luckily, my parents have never interpreted my need to get the hell out as anything having to do with them personally.

It turned out that I loved working at Sheppard Pratt.

I really did.

I was trained to work on an inpatient unit focused on addiction treatment. Most of the patients had a dual diagnosis, meaning they had alcoholism or drug addiction along with another disorder. The patients attended individual therapy, group therapy and a never ending schedule of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings alternating with Narcotics Anonymous.

Not shockingly, I spent the next several years dating recovering alcoholics. I would have dated recovering drug addicts, but I couldn’t handle the habits of drug addicted men.

I ended up spending years working in the treatment environment, eventually going back to college and then entering law school. By the time I finished my college credits, I knew that I loved helping people but that I wanted to be in a profession where I would have access to a broader range of resources. I felt that as a lawyer I could do that.

I transitioned directly into disability advocacy after law school, dealing with the problems I knew well but playing a different role in the lives of the clients.

I didn’t date lawyers, but I dated a never ending stream of law school applicants.

That’s probably because I was supporting my beginner’s law practice by teaching LSAT at night and on the weekends.

To this day, my years at Sheppard Pratt are among my favorite years of all time.

At Sheppard Pratt, everyone was a mental health care consumer, even if they had the cleanest mental health bill in the world.  Everyone there, from the doctors and nurses and therapists to the lady in the gift shop, was focused on overcoming life’s challenges or helping others overcome life’s challenges. Everyone there had been through something, whether it was their personal experience or that of a family member.

Everyone there was working on making today better than yesterday.

And I loved that environment.

I remember I looked forward to work everyday, where I could count on everyone I saw to give me a real hug and ask me what I was working on.

WHAT?

Yes, it was the common greeting.

Hi! How are you doing? What are you working on?”

I was among the youngest of the staff but every member of the staff was working on something. It was the norm in that environment.

Nobody was finished. Nobody had arrived. Nobody was in a place where they expected to stay for long.

Everyone was equally en route, working on something that would make them or their life better or help them to better help others.

And I loved it. I really loved it.

Then I transitioned to the world of lawyers and politics in Washington DC where people ask “what’s new” and ‘where are you now,” meaning “what have you accomplished since the last time we talked?”

And it’s awful.

Lawyering isn’t awful.  I like lawyering.

And Washington, DC isn’t awful. It’s pretty and filled with lots of interesting history.

But the environment of constantly being asked what’s new and what you’re doing suggests that new things should be happening in your life. And that, perhaps, BIG NEW THINGS should be happening in your life.

Maybe that’s not what everyone hears when they’re asked ‘what’s new‘ but that’s what at least seven people I know hear.

It’s a lot to ask that someone continue to have new things happening in their life. Even if that’s not what you mean when you ask them what’s new. Not everyone has something new happening.

There isn’t much new in my life but, then again, it’s all kind of new since I juggle a lot of activities and work hard to make every today better than yesterday.

Sure, some days are ‘hang in there‘ days…and some days are ‘just get it over with‘ days.

But mostly, my life is filled with days I hope will be as good as or better than yesterday.

So, you might ask, what’s the takeaway?

Well, I think I’ll try to do something tiny and new each week so that I have a good answer when asked what’s new.

The alternative is to yell at the person who asked me what’s new and berate them for expecting too much from me.

Also, answering “nothing” in response to “what’s new” sounds like nothing’s going on, when really lots of life is going on in and around me.

What’s new so far today is that I finally learned how to thinly slice an onion without thinly slicing my finger.

Yes, it’s been an issue in the past.

And this week, I hope to learn the basics of basting a stitch.

I’m not sure what that means, but learning to baste a stitch has been recommended to me as the next critical item on my “learn to sew” list. Hopefully, basting is something I’ll be expert in by the new year.

Just an FYI –

If thinly slicing an onion and learning to baste a stitch are the last interesting things I do for a while, those will be my answer every day until something new comes along.

xoxo, d

“The Accidental Cartoonist”

Reprinted from THE GOCOMICS BLOG! December 20, 2014

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I always knew I would spend my life being a writer, but I never ever considered being a cartoonist. I was the kid who was writing or reading every minute I was awake. I was the kid who finished my assignments and exams early in school so that I could get back to whatever I was reading or writing. I was the kid who found almost everything besides reading and writing to be boring and ridiculous and a waste of time.

I was that kid.

Unfortunately, I was that kid before the Internet arrived in our lives, so my access to really creative people was severely limited. I was not surrounded by creative people. I was surrounded by people with stressful day jobs and extra-income evening jobs who urged me to do whatever I wanted to do as long as it included getting an education and a job that paid a living salary.

So I got an education and a job. Usually I had many jobs at once, making money however I could make money. I became a lawyer because I figured being a lawyer would enable me to combine the two things I loved the most: writing and good deeds. Except that I called good deeds ‘advocacy.’ Good deeds are what you do when you’re a good person. Advocacy is what you do when you need to put your good deeds on your resume so you can get a better job.

For years and years, I worked as a lawyer, helping people to make their lives easier, better or more fair. I worked in the areas of disability and employment, making a difference I could actually see and a difference I cared about a little too much. At night I taught classes and tutored wannabe lawyers. In Washington DC, tutoring can easily support a fledgling law practice.

And I kept writing. I wrote essays and really bad books and blogs and anything I could get anyone to read. The Internet had come along by this point and now I had a platform. I built a crude website named after my cat Boo and I drove unsuspecting friends and family there to get feedback for my writing. Little by little, people I didn’t know began reading my writing, opening me up to the idea that you can find an audience outside of your known world. I started the process of learning what people enjoy reading. And I began writing for an audience that might someday buy a book filled with my words.

In 2006, I was working and writing and working and writing and working and writing. I was reaching a point of exhaustion – exhaustion borne of the idea that perhaps it would always just be me, working and writing around the clock without ever having an actual book for people to buy. In a fit of frustration, I decided to take an official break from writing and do some sort of creative cross-training. I signed up for an improv class at the local comedy club and quickly transitioned into stand-up.

So it turns out that stand-up is really just a variation on writing. You spend every waking moment of your life writing material. And laughing. To yourself. You write a ton of material and laugh to yourself and wonder if anyone else would laugh at what you just wrote. I loved stand-up. Unfortunately, almost all stand-up occurs late at night in places where people are drunk. I wasn’t very good at being part of that scene. I knew that stand-up couldn’t last long but I also knew that I loved writing humor for the sake of the punch line.

One day, in early 2007, it snowed on a Saturday. I was in the suburbs of Maryland, just outside of Washington DC. One Saturday a month, I did a workshop for people transitioning from crisis back to functioning. I helped them with legal issues and some of the other challenges that accompany hard times.

In Washington DC and the surrounding areas, even the mention of snow shuts everything down. And it was actually snowing pretty hard. So nobody showed up. It was just me, the social worker on duty, and a few others who tended to hang out at the center where we provided workshops.

The social worker pulled out art supplies and snacks while we hunkered down to wait out the snow. We drew flowers and houses and little stick-figure families. We weren’t artists, but we had snacks and crayons, so we were happy adult children.

I drew a stick-figure girl who I thought looked like me. She had a lot of hair and a really big purse. Then, in a moment of accidental creativity, I gave her a punch line. And I laughed because I always laugh at my own jokes.

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The next day, I scanned the girl with the punch line and emailed the image to my small but loyal following of readers. They liked her and asked for more. So I kept drawing her. And I gave her more funny things to say. I drew her every day. And I created  friends and family for her, mostly similar to my real life family and friends.

I created many, many cartoons for several years. I didn’t know how to draw, but little by little, I was learning. And I loved it. I loved my characters and my words and I loved the process. I posted cartoons wherever I could, paying attention to what people laughed at easily and what made them uncomfortable or angry.

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And then, one day, an acquaintance who worked at the Washington Post asked me if I’d like to talk to the cartoon editor. I said YES, of course. The cartoon editor turned out to be Amy Lago.

By the time I met with Amy Lago, I had read every word she had ever written about editing and listened to every podcast for which she had ever been interviewed. I knew as much about Amy Lago as I possibly could know, which really wasn’t much. Mostly, I just knew that she seemed really smart, really cool, really open to finding new laughs, and really down to earth.

I brought a collection of cartoons to Amy Lago at the Washington Post. She never looked at them while we talked. I have no idea what we talked about, but I remember thinking she was the most amazing person I had ever met and that she had the coolest job in the world, working at the Washington Post alongside such talented writers and creative, smart minds.

Amy and I met in April of 2008. She told me that May was her busiest month and that I may not hear from her for a while. I was excited because she had suggested I might hear from her in the future. I was also dejected because I thought she was lying about May being her busiest month.

I walked straight from her office at the Washington Post to a coffee shop on the corner and turned on my computer. I researched the month of May to see why in the world May would be a cartoon editor’s busiest month. I pretty quickly found references to cartooning award ceremonies and events and realized that May is the Oscars Month for cartoonists. I called my mother to report that Amy Lago had not lied to me and that we might have another date in our future.

I heard from Amy Lago after the cartooning Oscars (otherwise known as the Reubens). She liked my humor. She believed I would learn how to draw eventually. She thought that words were important and that my poor drawing didn’t stand in the way of my words, necessarily. She loved my characters. She asked if I could put together a package of cartoons that was more cohesive, with characters whose relationships were more easily identifiable and, for lack of a better word, “followable”… .

I spent the next month obsessing about getting a package of 40 cartoons to be as perfect as possible. I delivered them to her and she invited me to keep sending her cartoons by email. I sent her a cartoon every day for months. She told me what was good and what to change. I edited and revised every single cartoon. She helped to develop my ideas into a comic strip that made sense.

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On August 12, 2010, I was at work when I heard that Cathy Guisewite had announced her retirement. I immediately called Amy Lago who had heard the news only a few moments before I had. By that point, I had hundreds of cartoons ready to go. I was ready to go and a female cartoonist was preparing to leave a void in the world of female cartooning. I wanted to help fill that void.

I was signed on to the Washington Post Syndicate in October of 2010 and my cartoon began running in February of 2011, on Amy Lago’s birthday.

I will never be able to describe how much work it took to develop a comic strip. I worked day and night. In addition to my day job, I worked on the cartoon compulsively. I said no to everything, including family and friends. I lived for the cartoon, thinking about material every minute of the night and day. I thought of so much material that a second cartoon was born, a “lite” version of the strip. That version became syndicated in February of 2012.

I still lawyer by day, although I have very recently transitioned to a less-stressful lawyering role that I perform mainly at home. Basically, I review legal files and write legal documents all day long.

At night and on weekends, I write and draw my strip. And I practice drawing every single day. I’m happy to report that I’m getting better at drawing. Maybe one day I’ll take a drawing class, but I’m not in a rush to get formal art education.

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Here are a couple of fun facts that really aren’t all that fun:

(1) I don’t read comic strips or cartoons because I don’t want to muddy my brain with other influences. A long time ago, I read Doonesbury and The Far Side to the point that I had memorized pretty much everything available from those creators.

(2) I write every single day, whether or not I want to. I write every single day because I have to or I feel all weird and crazy.

(3) I draw every single day, because I really enjoy drawing.

(4) I would continue writing and drawing cartoons even if I wasn’t syndicated. I love the vehicle of humor for communicating with other people.

(5) I’m still the biggest introvert in the world and I couldn’t get cabin fever if I tried.

(6) I’ve heard from haters who think I suck and should die. I learned how to ignore them since they don’t contribute in any way to my inspiration or motivation. And they’re rarely fun or funny.

(7) I love my followers and wish I could thank each one in person.

(8) I love Amy Lago in a way she should be seriously scared of.

(9) My top priority still is – and always will be – health insurance.

(10) I still have no studio. I live in Washington DC, where space is very expensive. I have a collection of folding tables I set up and take down every day, as needed. A tour of my studio would not be inspiring or impressive.

I hope anyone who reads my accidental cartoonist story takes away three things.

First, you cannot only do whatever you want to do, but you should be open to doing things you never planned or expected to do. It’s really cool to see where life takes you when you let it take you.

Second, anything worth pursuing is a total effing ton of work. There are no shortcuts and no such thing as overnight success.

Third, having a day job really helps to keep the lights on.

My first book should be out in February 2015.  I’m really happy to have a book I can give to my mother. I’m still not sure she gets what I do with my time.

– d

For Those Who Need a Nap Before Bed.

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A few years ago, a journalist asked me if I wanted to be interviewed for a website about women. The topic was second careers and all that kind of stuff.

I said sure.

So we began talking.

I explained how I had always wanted to be a writer and how I had, in fact, been writing every day of my life. I explained how, in 2006, I hit a wall of writer frustration and decided to take a formal and official creative break from writing. I regaled the journalist with anecdotes about my attempts at improv and stand up and how a love for writing punch lines ultimately led to my accidentally creating a comic strip.

The journalist was excited by the details of the years from 2006 until 2010 when I got a syndication deal. She listened to the numbers – six four-panel strips a week plus an eight-panel strip for Sunday. Fifty two weeks a year. No break. Those were the first year numbers.

By the second year of syndication, I had enough material for a second property, a single-panel cartoon. And I usually created two of those a day since I was trying pretty hard to build a loyal and interested following of readers.

The second year numbers were six four-panel strips a week, one eight-panel Sunday, and fourteen single panels.

She said “wow” and I remember feeling quite proud of my numbers.

I told her about my loyal followers and how they sent me really engaging emails and notes on the internet. I told her I was really pleased to have found a following of many women and some men who appreciated my observations about life. I told her I was working on a book. And licensing opportunities.

The journalist was impressed.

Then she asked about my day job. I explained that I was a lawyer and that I was pretty passionate about my work and that I had thus far managed to continue working full-time as a lawyer. I explained that I needed my lawyer job for a variety of reasons, including the salary, the health insurance, the routine, the social aspect, the perspective, the balance, the challenge, and, of course, the material.

I could hear the whistle of the happy air leaving the journalist’s happy balloon.

Oh, she said, I was really looking to interview women who gave up something to do something new.

I said, well, that’s great, but it’s hard for normal people to give up their life to do something new. I think I’m a really good role model for someone who wants to maintain their financial independence and still pursue their dreams. Financial independence is a really big deal, especially for women.

I may have been a bit aggressive when I added the part about financial independence being especially important for women.

She wasn’t buying it.

She didn’t like it.

It wasn’t sexy or inspiring, in her view.

I was shocked, to be honest. I was particularly shocked since the founder of the website the journalist was writing for had been one of my earliest and most important role models. I wondered if my role model felt the same – that pursuing your passion is only sexy and inspiring if you give up everything to live in a car or travel to India to live with monkettes.

The journalist told me to call her when I quit my lawyering job.

I politely said thank you.

Then I hung up and said a lot of things that don’t sound even remotely like thank you.

I then called my mother, a woman who has bravely suffered through the pain of having a daughter who constantly wants more in life.

“Mom,” I said, “the journalist for XYZ website said I haven’t given up enough for my writing and the comic strip.”

My mother wanted to call the journalist or email the journalist or otherwise set the record straight.  I didn’t give her the journalist’s information. We’re still recovering from the time my mother called the local paper to complain that she’d have to move to another city if she wanted to read her daughter’s comic strip in print. It’s a sore subject for her.

My mother proceeded to list everything I had given up for my passion. It was depressing hearing my life summed up by my mother.

If you’re a writer, an artist or a person who has relentlessly pursued a passion, your list probably looks similar to mine.

Let’s just say it’s a long effing list.

As much as I’d love to eat, love and pray my way to happiness, I’m a real person with a real life. I have real bills and real medical issues. I have real family and real friends and real neighbors. I can’t just give up everything. And I can’t just pick up and leave my responsibilities. And I need my health insurance.

But I still pursued – and continue to pursue – my passion.

I hope somebody taught that journalist what sexy and inspiring looks like. I think she got it wrong.

xoxo, d

Be Happy, Damn It.

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I am happy to report that I am a normal human being when it comes to sex and sexuality.

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I know, you were worried, right?

No, really. I’m normal.

When I hear people talking about sex or when I hear jokes about sex, I get it.

When I see sex in the movies, I get it.

I don’t get every kind of sex, but I mostly get sex.

I would say that when it comes to down to it, sex – and the topic of sex – just isn’t an issue in my life.

Again, I know you’re relieved to know this.

Being normal about sex is the reason I know I’m not normal about happiness.

It’s not that I can’t be happy, I can.

I can be happy. And I have been happy. And I’m often happy.

I know what happiness feels like.

But the thing is that happiness isn’t a normal and natural part of me. It’s not my default status.

I never really would have thought about happiness, to tell you the truth. I’ve been pretty busy in my life being other things and thinking about other things.

But happiness is in my face pretty regularly.

There’s always a study about happiness or an article about happiness or a catchy song about being happy, happy, happy.

I never really would have thought about happiness, but it feels to me like happiness is something people really like to think about.

I end up thinking about happiness a lot because I wonder if other people just take happiness for granted. Mostly I think about happiness when I’m feeling really happy.

When I’m feeling really happy, I notice how happy I am. And I wonder if this is what other people feel like on such a regular basis that they don’t even really notice it. Kind of the way I don’t notice I feel sexual.

And the truth is, I don’t know the answer.

It’s not that I’m an unhappy person. It’s just that I’m a person with faulty wiring. I was born with chemistry that doesn’t make sense a lot of time. And my chemistry doesn’t appear to be related to life’s circumstance.

I could win the lottery on a day when my chemistry is off. And I would know that I was technically happy about winning the lottery but that I might have to wait a few days to actually feel the happiness.

Bad wiring.

This week I read something that made me feel significantly better about happiness.

Vanity Fair interviewed David Byrne, asking him about happiness.

Luckily for me, David Byrne – who is one of my creative gods – didn’t say that happiness is all you need. I really would have been screwed if that were true.

David Byrne said the following, which I “love, love, love” to quote Teresa Guidice.

Happiness, as I’ve experienced it and observed it in others, seems to be random—some of us are happy fairly regularly (I am, mostly), and some of us not as much—but there seems to be no clear explanation as to why. It comes and goes at unexpected moments, too. The graph of happiness doesn’t even seem to match what is going on in our lives. Or maybe it does and we don’t know it. Money—is there a connection between money and happiness? It takes away a world of worries and anxieties, but are rich folks all happy? Are you kidding? Donald Trump is ALWAYS scowling. That said, it’s hard to be happy if you don’t know where you’ll sleep or where your next meal is coming from. The pursuit of happiness? Where are we supposed to look? Are there clues hidden somewhere? The very act of searching and striving for it can lead to frustration and unhappiness. I suspect that happiness finds you—I’m not sure you can find a road that leads to it.

So today I need to send a thank you note – or perhaps some thank you art – to David Byrne.

Because my understanding of happiness can’t come from my own messed up head.

So I need really smart, creative, talented, amazing people like him to tell me what a normal approach to happiness is. And what he told me makes me very happy.

xoxo, d