Burma Joshicles

Travel

On Thursday, January 28 I got a phone call from the U.S. State Department inviting me to travel to the country of Burma in March to talk about comics. Once I determined that I wasn’t being punk’d, I got really excited about the crazy idea.

The program I had been invited to be part of is run out of the State Department’s Office of International Programs. Called the Speaker/Specialist program, its mandate is to “tell America’s story.” My recruiter, Mike Bandler, mentioned the names of previous participants, notables such as Richard Ford, Tom Wolfe, Geraldine Brooks, and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage.

All I knew about Burma — now known as Myanmar — was a few key facts and what I had learned from cartoonist Guy Delisle’s excellent memoir Burma Chronicles (which I had randomly read a few months earlier on my A.D. book tour). Mostly, I knew that Burma was an authoritarian country ruled by a military junta that had imprisoned the elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

As Bandler explained the program to me, my job would be to “work with elements of civil society, academics, students, media professionals, and artists interested in graphic novels, with the theme of using comics to promote basic elements of a democratic society through freedom of expression, tolerance and respect for fellow citizens.” Clearly my experience with A.D. was a perfect illustration of that theme, especially because in the book I directly address the feeble and ineffective government response to Katrina and its victims. The very fact of my book’s existence, and that I could express such anger and frustration about my own government in such a fashion, would be completely unheard of in Burma. (It was only later that I remembered that Burma had recently suffered a major windstorm as well: Cyclone Nargis, which killed almost 150,000 [!] Burmese citizens in May 2008. The Myanmar government did very little to prepare its people for the storm, was very slow in responding to the tragedy, and initially resistant to accepting any outside aid. Sound familiar?)

It turned out that Scott McCloud had been invited first, but being unable to go had given them my name. (Thanks, Scott!) I felt like it was kismet: besides the thematic connection of A.D., I had traveled extensively in that part of the world as a young backpacker, and had written and drawn a memoir of my travels in the book A Few Perfect Hours. It was like all the strands of my comics life had come together in this specific form. Add to that for this junket I would receive an honorarium, a per diem, and of course a paid round-trip to Myanmar, and saying "yes" was a no-brainer.

The details of the trip were as follows: The Embassy post in Burma requested I come for a week-long program from March 15 to 22. The program was in partnership with the Alliance Francaise in Yangon (Burma’s main city and former capital, formerly known as “Rangoon”), and would feature two other comics artists, France’s Emile Bravo and Switzerland’s Christophe Badoux. Besides the five days in Yangon, the post also wanted to send me to Mandalay (the former royal capital, and center of Burmese culture), for an informal lecture at the Embassy’s Jefferson Center.

The program was to include a workshop each morning for three hours with the other two European artists and local Burmese graphic artists at the American Center; general hands-on classes with the Burmese public at the Alliance Francaise for three hours each afternoon; and then introducing a film each night at the American center. Saturday, the final day, was to be an all-day affair, including a “live drawing demonstration.” On Sunday, we would travel to Mandalay for two days before returning to Yangon for the flight back home.

This all sounded very intense and overwhelming to me, especially given that I’m in no way a teacher, and I had never thought of myself as a “typical” representative of my country and its government. In fact, until November of 2008 I had spent the better part of the previous decade feeling very much a foreigner in my own country. But now I was being asked to represent America in a repressive third-world country literally halfway around the world.

Gulp!

Digitial TV Convert

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I must be one of the few people left in the U.S. without cable or satellite TV. And despite the barrage of low-cost cable package offers that have been flooding my mailbox, I’m anxious to stay that way despite the looming February 17, 2009, changeover from analog to digital HD. For one thing, I can’t afford the extra $50 a month for cable, and for another, the last thing I need is the temptation to watch more television — baseball and basketball games are my weaknesses.

I happen to own a large-screen HD TV (the charity gift of our next-door neighbor, if you’re curious), but I was told that even my fancy Trinitron needed a converter due to it being more than three years old. So I recently picked up one of those converter boxes. (Looking up the digital conversion on the government FAQ, I had learned that most stations are already broadcasting in HD.) Hooking up the machine was nothing more than taking the line going from my TV antenna and connecting it to the converter box, and then connecting the box to my VCR (which is already hooked up to my TV). So in my case, that meant setting the channel on my VCR to 3 and using the remote that came with the converter box to change channels.

And it worked! The coolest thing about it is that every station now comes in crystal-clear, even stations like channel 9 and 11 that I haven’t received in years. As a bonus, a number of the big broadcast stations have multiple digital feeds. For instance, here in New York, NBC Channel 4 has three feeds, called 4.1, 4.2, and 4.4. Channel 4.1 is the basic local NBC affiliate program, but 4.2 shows local area weather, and 4.4 is some kind of "educational/informative" channel. The other major stations offer the same multi-feed packages. It’s basically like having cable — except for free!

If there’s one "drawback" to the conversion, it’s that the TV picture does seem a bit "computery" to me, almost as if you can see the images were made from pixels. There is a subtle distinction between the look of the image compared to the old analog reception. But after watching a little while, the perception faded, and I’m more than happy to exchange that slight disparity for the huge boost in clarity and selection.I really feel like I got away with something!

Now, I made the mistake of buying my machine before I got the $40 coupon the government is offering to help ease the transition, Don’t make the same error! But you only have until Wednesday to apply — that’s two short days. Go to the TV Converter Box Coupon Program website and apply now. It’s super-fast and easy: https://www.dtv2009.gov

Election Day Time Capsule

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My MoveOn.org Obama pin finally arriving — on election day… Testing the "electioneering" rules and wearing my pin to the polling place — only to have the poll worker make me remove it… Pulling the lever with pride (and hope)… Spending the day in strangled anticipation and worrying about the Bradley Effect… My sister-in-law's 9 p.m. self-assessment: "Cautiously very optimistic"… The strangled yelp of triumph from an anonymous ABC staffer when that network called the election for Obama… Eleven-o-clock tears of joy… Jesse Jackson's tears… Celebratory calls from my West Coast pal Jake and my East Coast mother-in-law Nancy… All those stunned happy crowds… Reading all those joyful Facebook status tweets… The Onion's headline, "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job"… Brian Williams on NBC showing a poster of America's first 43 presidents — all white men — and the profound reminder of the historic significance of the moment… McCain's gracious and eloquent concession… Praying that there were no crazies in that Grant Park crowd. When Obama and his family emerged on stage in Grant Park, my one overriding thought was  "Please nobody shoot him" … and "Michelle Obama's dress — WTF?!" … A victory speech that struck all the right notes, without being triumphalist…  The cars honking in celebration on Eastern Parkway… The guy parading down the street at 1 a.m. blowing a trumpet… The crowds of thousands in Washington, D.C., storming the White House gates chanting "Yes we can!"…

Yes, we did!

Original artwork donated to the Library of Congress

Work

I recently donated my three-page story, “Song for September 11th,” to the Prints and Photographs Division of The Library of Congress. Martha Kennedy, Curator of the Swann Collection of Caricature and Cartoon, asked me to contribute my original pages to the collection. Ms. Kennedy wrote me about the piece: “The quality of the drawing and text was very high. The juxtaposition of song lyrics, narrative and image was effective.” How could I resist? I’m very honored to have my work be a permanent part of this national collection.