A Body of Work ...

Here's another thing that makes Mary awesome: she lets me draw tattoos on her!  Pretty much every night while she's reading in bed, I pull out a pen and give her a sweet tat on her arm, shoulder, or foot.[1. I have tried, more than once, to tattoo her face, but for some reason, she refuses.]  I work with a variety of themes in my art -- most of them are slightly more violent re-imaginings of Lisa Frank pictures.[2. To see more of my Fine Art, I direct readers to check out "Easter Bunny vs. Holo-Shark" and "Editorus Rex"] Take this most recent example, which I have titled "Zebra with Machine Gun":

Please note how the Artist has chosen to make the bullets from the machine gun go all the way around the arm and then explode in back of the Zebra's head! Genius!  Now if only she'd let me frame the original...[3. Roald Dahl actually wrote a terrifying, brilliant short story entitled "Skin" in which an old man has a tattoo on his back done by a famous artist. The story does not end well for the old man.]

Born on the Fourth of July!

Today is the birthday of America!  Also my wife!  Last year I found an old bicycle and re-painted it for her.  As everyone knows, bicycles need names.  Mine is "Danny the Champion of the World".  I named Mary's after one of her favorite Dickens' characters:  "Little Dorrit".

I leave you all with a patriotic quote from children's author and all-round smartypants, EB White:[1. Thanks to Cheryl Klein for the quotes]

"Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time."

And while we're at it, something from Mark Twain:

"God created war so that Americans would learn geography."

I might add that this is also why God created Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Do it, Rockapella!

Wood Ports and Good Plots ...

This last week, the Auxier family descended on Southern California for a wedding.  One of the things we like to do is play board games.[1. This is an understatement: Mary was not allowed to marry into the family until she could hold her own in whist.]  One of our favorite games as of late is Settlers of Catan.

For the uninitiated, Settlers of Catan is a "German style" board game that involves building towns and cities on an island -- sort of a pre-industrial Monopoly that works on bartering rather than bank accounts.  Settlers has helped usher in a golden age of board gaming, supplanting classics like Risk and Diplomacy as the favorite Friday night activity of nerdy boys in AP History.[2. Or IB History, as was the case for this particular nerdy boy.]

In fact, Risk is something I've used more than once to explain Settlers to newcomers.  Both games involve a map, cards, and anxious rounds of placing armies/towns on unclaimed real estate.  There is, however, one key difference between Settlers of Catan and Risk:  I hate Risk.

Risk is Candy Land in wingtips and a smoking jacket -- a game of luck pretending to be a game of skill.  “But how can you say that Jonathan?” you protest.  “Risk involves military strategy! and sacrifice! and cannons!”  Perhaps, but the fact is that when all is said and done, the dice are king.  You could be Napoleon Bonaparte facing off against Gomer Pyle, but if you’re rolling bad dice, you’re going to lose.

Of course, luck is not in and of itself a bad thing.  Pretty much every good board game includes a little bit of chaos to confound best-laid plans.[3. Except for chess, of course, which might explain its standing as a legitimate sport.]  Settlers makes heavy use of dice and random card drawing -- so why doesn’t it inspire the same frustrations as Risk?

This weekend I spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between luck and strategy in these two games in the hope of figuring out how they differ … and I think I figured out an answer!

First let’s look at how luck and strategy work in Risk:  a player’s turn begins with fortifying his/her countries with armies (skill); then they maneuver those armies to attack their enemies (skill); then they roll the dice to see if their attacks were successful (luck).

And now Settlers of Catan:  a player starts his/her turn by rolling a dice, which determines how many resources they acquire (luck), then they barter with other players for the things they need (skill), and then they spend the resources to expand their empire (skill).

So, in Risk, people make plans and then luck determines the outcome; but in Settlers, luck initiates the action and then players must react.   When I broke it down like that, I began to wonder whether the key to a board game being fun for me was in the sequence of luck and strategy.  Whist, Canasta, Cribbage, Scrabble, Scatergories … in all these games the biggest piece of luck comes at the beginning rather than the end of play.

So what does this have to do with The Scop?

Well, the more I thought about my luck/strategy preference, the more I thought it could be applied to more than just board games.  I like the idea that humans have a chance to react to the things we can’t control.  Consider, for example, how luck interacts with stories.  In all my favorite books/movies/plays, some unpredictable event (luck) thrusts a hero into the middle of a plot in which he must react (strategy).

In fact, this idea of keeping your biggest piece of luck at the top of the story is pretty well documented in the writing world.[4. “luck” in this case being defined as a plot event that the main characters have no control over.]  When it happens at the beginning, we call it an “inciting incident.”  But when writers save their biggest roll of the dice for the final scene, we call it a “deus ex machina.”

And nobody likes those things.

*          *          *

I have recently been inspired by book critic Laura Miller to try limiting my in-text links in favor of a list at the end.  Let me know if you approve:

- A fantastic Wired feature about how Settlers of Catan is the "Monopoly Killer"

- Speaking of, watch this hilarious mock trailer for a Monopoly movie

TV Tropes article hating on Deus Ex Machinas

- A discussion of inciting incidents in screenwriting

- The Salon article in which Laura Miller dumps on hyperlinks

Mum's the Word...

Last month I wrote a post about how my father shaped me as a reader -- so I thought today it would be appropriate to talk about my mum.[1. Yes, Canadians actually say "mum." Why? Because we're adorable, that's why.]  That's her in the photo, reading to my cousins ... but it's a pretty accurate picture of my own childhood.

I come from a family of serious readers.  When my mother was growing up in the middle of South Dakota farmland, she read every book in her local library.  My parents didn't have much money growing up, but they did have stacks upon stacks of books.  In fact, it wasn't until I got to college that I learned that reading at the dinner table was considered rude.  Auxiers were readers -- end of story.

Or at least that's how I remembered it.  But recently, I learned something from my mother that made me take a second look at my upbringing ... and made me love her all the more:

It happened right before I entered second grade.  It was the end of summer, just before class would start, and my parents sat me down to explain that I would not be going back to my elementary school.  Instead I would take a year off for something called "home schooling".  At the time, my mother was completing an MA in Gifted Education, and I suspected at once that this whole home schooling thing was something she had made up.  Not that I objected.  As I recall it, my home school year consisted of playing Construx and memorizing lists of random facts she fed me -- art history, prepositions, the presidents, and other things no seven year-old had any business knowing.[2. Mary has since informed me that lots of kids are forced to learn prepositions -- but nobody can touch this guy for shere awesomeness.]   At the end of the year, I went back to regular school.  Only I didn't go into third grade with my former classmates ... instead I was put into a second-grade class with kids that were younger.  It was only then that I realized the truth:

I had been held back.

I remember being confused at why my parents might have thought me unfit for the rigors of second grade.  I mean, it's second grade.  It wasn't like I couldn't handle the workload.  So why hold me back?  Whenever I asked my mother, she would just shrug and say that she had wanted to spend some more time with me.

My second try at second grade was a blast.  The big thing I remember was a year-long reading competition.  Students were required to fill out little book reports, and the kid with the most book reports at the end of the year got an awesome plastic trophy.[3. In my day, you had to earn those dollar-store trophies, damnit!]  My parents, who are some of the least competitive people I've ever known, were uncharacteristically invested in the event -- there were constant trips to the library, and a gentle-but-unmistakable pressure to make sure I handed in those reports.  All told, I read 88 books that year.  Even better than that trophy (which I totally won), were all the great authors I had discovered!  Over those months, I had transitioned from stupid formulaic mysteries to Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, John Fitzgerald, and Lloyd Alexander.

It wasn't until almost 20 years later that I made the connection between these two memories.  It came while I was teasing my mother for taking me out of school just so I could learn to say all my prepositions in a single breath (which I can still do).  To this she replied: "I couldn't care less about prepositions ... I took you out of school because you didn't like reading."

Huh?  I loved reading!  What was she talking about?!

My mother explained that even though I knew how to read as a kid, my teacher had warned her that I didn't seem to enjoy it very much.  And so she made an executive decision:  pull me out of school and FORCE me to love reading.  Every single day she would sit down and read a book to me, and then she would make me read a book myself.  After that, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted (Construx!).

To this day, I have no memory of this home school reading regiment.  But when I think about the year that followed, about all the wonderful books that I devoured, I start to see that it may have worked.  Thanks, mum.

Easter Traditions ...

Mary and I are orphans here in Los Angeles.  For the last few years, we've taken shelter each Easter with some kindhearted relatives.  These relatives are big fans of games and such, and so last year, they initiated a holiday tradition of doing dollar-store crafts.  We began with paint-by-numbers.  As some of you may recall, I have a low tolerance for toys that require patience or instruction-reading.[1. Mary and I are very different in this regard. While she could do puzzles all day long, I can only sit down at a puzzle long enough to ... hey look, cartoons!"]  So in order to keep myself interested in such projects, I have to add a few personal touches.  Here's what I came up with last year.  It's a landscape entitled Dragon and Valley, a Study:

The more observant among you will notice that the above painting has a frame around it.  That's because it is Art, ladies and gentlemen.  Art that currently hangs on the wall of my office.  And, as of yesterday afternoon, it will be kept company by another addition to the oeuvre.

This year, I decided to tackle the art of engraving (on holographic foil, no less!).[2. The holographic foil is why the image looks funny (like any good artist, I blame all flaws on the materials).]  The task took many hours, and when the flimsy metal "scraper thingy" became worn down to a nub, I turned to a 120v Dremel electric engraver to finish the job.[3. This is true -- my uncle has the best tool shed ever.]   While traces of my earlier style are still present, I think you'll agree that my technique has grown to accommodate my conceptual ambitions.


Without further ado, I present HoloShark with Easter Bunny:

You're welcome, Art World.  See you next year.

In Praise of Bluestockings

I should warn readers ahead of time, this could get sappy.  Exactly four years ago today, I asked Mary Elizabeth Burke to be my wife.  To my utter relief, she said "yes"[1. 1. This is not hyperbole; over the course of our relationship, I had only once brought up marriage ... and by "brought up" I mean muttered something about how fun it would be to one day merge book collections.].  I thought I would honor this date by saying a few words about Mary and women like her:  Bluestockings.

Bluestockings are ladies of a literary or intellectual bent.  In the mid 18th century, writers like Elizabeth Montagu and Hannah Moore formed "Bluestocking Societies."  These were groups of women dedicated to social reform and the world of ideas.  As you can imagine, this was none too popular among men; the Bluestockings were largely ridiculed by the cultural elite[2. 2. with a few notable exceptions].  When I look at the world today, I wonder whether things have really changed.

Yesterday was St. Valentine's Day -- a day when lots of women get to feel special and loved.  But just as many women don't feel special and loved.  I only have anecdotal evidence, but I suspect a number of the women on the losing side of Valentine's Day are modern-day Bluestockings.

Frankly, that sucks.

For whatever reason, smart women have it rough.  This is especially true in adolescence.  I grew up with an incredibly bookish sister, the sort of reader who got so absorbed in stories that she would shout at the characters ... sometimes in public.  I recall her favorite books being ones that had profound love stories:  Anne of Green Gables, Wuthering Heights, Pride & Prejudice... Perhaps it goes without saying that her high school was sorely lacking in Fitzwilliam Darcys, and she was forced to spend Valentine's days alone[3. 3. It is worth mentioning that this sister flourished in college, became a lawyer, and is now happily dating a wonderful guy.].

I have heard a lot of criticism leveled at the male love interests from Victorian novels.  More than a few of my teacher friends have told me that when teaching Pride & Prejudice, the male students in their class revolt -- complaining that they can never compare to someone like Darcy, or Mr. Rochester, or Gilbert Blythe.  Even more they resent these (female) authors for daring to suggest that such characters are what men should be.  Call it the Lloyd Dobler effect.

For what it's worth, I think these boys (yes, boys) are dead wrong.  Literary male characters might be ideals, but they are ideals worth aspiring to.  And any woman who accepts less than a Darcy is settling.

So on this day-after-Valentine's-Day, let me raise a glass to my sister, to my wife, to every Bluestocking -- past and present.  Thank you for demanding more of us men, and forgiving us when we fail.  I leave you with some final words from Charles Warnke's lyric essay "You Should Date an Illiterate Girl[4. 4. If you like this essay, you might also want to check out Rosemary Urquico's "Date a Girl who Reads"]:

The girl who reads has spun out the account of her life and it is bursting with meaning. She insists that her narratives are rich, her supporting cast colorful, and her typeface bold. You, the girl who reads, make me want to be everything that I am not. But I am weak and I will fail you ... You will accept nothing less than passion, and perfection, and a life worthy of being storied.

A Drollic Blateration ...

I recently became aware of a site run by the Oxford University Press called Save The Words[1. 1. thanks to Laurel for the link!]. It contains a collection of English words facing obsolescence. Visitors are invited to "adopt" a word -- which involves agreeing to the following statement:

I went ahead and adopted two words because I'm that kind of guy.

Drollic /drəʊl/ Of or pertaining to a puppet show.

Blateration /blætəˈreɪʃən/ Babbling chatter.

Head on over there and pick some words for yourself! Or don't. More for me.

No Blogging. Ever.

When we got married, my wife Mary and I set down some ground rules. Just five simple guidelines to assure our unending happiness. They are as follows:

5)  At no time may Jonathan leave the house wearing tighter pants than Mary

4)  No doing things that might result in appearing on the local news; this includes witnessing crimes, winning the lottery, and living next door to serial-killers [1. credit for this rule goes to superlibrarian and Meredith Sommers]

3)  Should one of us die early, the other is only allowed to remarry on the condition that their new spouse is uglier

2)  Mary is allowed to have as many children as she wants on the condition that Jonathan may raise them like Mr. Von Trapp—whistle and all

1)  No blogging. Ever

As you can see, these rules are listed in order of importance. Tight pants can be changed out of, but once a guy starts blogging . . .

My reason for creating this page is twofold. First of all, I have a children’s book coming out this year and I wanted to create a place where I could post updates and event information. Second, and more importantly, I wanted to get my hands dirty! There are so many amazing children’s book blogs in the world, and I wanted to involve myself beyond the occasional anonymous comment . . .

This site will contain a lot of drawings--because I draw a lot of what I see. It will also have opinions. My wife has told me I have a unique love for developing “theories” about books, movies, art, and the world. Now, at last, I will have a place to put those theories. One that doesn’t interrupt my wife while she’s trying to write her dissertation. [2. which is on Victorian children's literature. Hot.]

So now it’s just you and me, dear reader. And before we get started, I thought it would be smart to lay down a few blogging ground rules. Just five simple guidelines to ensure our unending happiness. They are as follows:

5)  Jonathan will post relevant material at least four times a week, and the reader will excitedly eat up every blessed word

4)  Jonathan will never post pictures of adorable pets

3)  Jonathan will not post “content” pertaining to what he ate for lunch

2)  Jonathan will proofread his posts before hitting “upload,” and the reader will forgive him if a few typos slip through

1)  No all caps. EVER.