Wednesday, October 24, 2007

God, It's Hard To Make a Living As a Snowman Expert

OK, so the checks aren't rolling in as fast as I thought they might. It's going to take the public some time to see the role of a snowman expert within the context of the commerce world. It'll happen.

So, never one to sit around waiting for the electricity to turn off, I have taken a part-time job. Above you can see my co-worker Irene at Gate 218 at Giants Stadium. I work the microwave. I sought employment which would utilize two of my distinct skills. 1) My ability to know exactly how long to microwave any food by just looking at it. This gift I have for being able to determine how long any food product should be nuked before it turns rubber goes back years and I've used it onLy for recreational purposes.

And 2) my great loyality towards the New York football Giants. I have not missed a game since 1968. It seemed logical that I go after a job within Giants Stadium and getting a job at a food concession stand proved easier than one would expect.

What I didn't think through was the fact that although I was never closer to my beloved team, I wasn't able to watch the game while working. I had to ask everyone buying food how the Giants were doing. Ironically, I missed my first game in almost 40 years. To make matters worse I learned that I cannot collect unemployment because I only worked 4 hrs.

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Jessica Seinfeld, Lance Bass, Kaavya Viswanathan, James Frey

What do those people have in common? Not much.

Except they are all famous, wealthy and cute as a button and each have a book which brought them much attention and scrutiny. Mrs. Jerry Seinfeld’s Deceptive Cooking at the top of the best-seller list for hiding, among other things, pureed vegetables in junk food. Kaavya shared the same agent as Seinfeld. Frey and Seinfeld's common tread is that their respective Oprah appearance sent their books instantly to number one.

Meanwhile Lance Bass, formerly of NSYNCSRYS, just came out, literally, with his new book called I’m Coming Out or something like that. My connection to Mr. Bass, aside from the fact neither of our books has been mentioned on Oprah, yet, is that my book shares the same publisher and stuff (last night was his book party attended by the same people working on my book and Michael Musto, who I used to share a cubicle with at The Village Voice. We hated each other and he made the news for his lewd behavior at the party.)

I doubt if Lance Bass has to worry about window displays. Last night I was in my basement making Styrofoam snowman mobiles. I’m sorry but that doesn’t sell books. I put up a video on YouTube that has 16 views so far. Pretty boy Lance was on Tyra Banks, The View, Dateline and a dozen other shows venting about being gay in a boy band. His book is currently ranked at #126. Mine is at #685,785. Granted his book has been in stores a full week ahead of mine but someone, whether it's me or the snowman, is going to have to come out of the closet. I explained to my agent and publisher Simon & Schuster today that if that’s what it takes to get some notice, some airtime, I’m willing to give this sexual orientation thing a crack and go the extra yard. I’m already pretty disoriented in the bedroom. I’ll do anything the publisher and my publicist wants me to try.

Anything short of starting a boy band.

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Soup Is Good Food

freelance |ˈfrēˌlans| (also free-lance) adjective working for different companies at different times rather than being permanently employed by one company : I work freelance from home. In other words, I'm on the dole. ORIGIN early 19th cent.(denoting a medieval mercenary who works in under-wear): originally as two words.

An item ran in about freelancing which triggered interesting responses from readers. Brian Farnham, editor-in-chief of TimeOut, apologized to his freelancers for not having been paid and mentions he himself was once a freelancer so he understands. But he was smart enough to get out.

Many incorrectly commented one should get paid in 30 days but the industry standard is 90 days, at best, any freelancer will tell you. I just did a job for a magazine that was six months late paying me for the previous assignment even though I persisted nudging them. They asked me to do a job for them Friday but I declined. They insisted they would pay me up front, which to their credit they did. Meanwhile, TimeOut owes me for many, many old cartoons (one of the real reasons we parted ways – most whiny posts here are drama-queened up here to try to be funny. Some readers actually think I'm depressed over being a freelancer and have sent me words of encouragement but I'll assume most of you see I'm being sarcastic). TimeOut might not have paid me yet but Brian, the editor paid me a huge favor giving me a great quote for the cover of my snowman book. A lesson to those who deal with cheap clients. Many fellow freelancers tell me the satisfaction they get from telling off clients. You never realize how much you're burning a bridge and who knows who. There have been times when someone screwed me over and I kept my cool only to have the person make it it way down the road. In the meantime remember soup is good food...for all artists.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Snowman Interview

The following is an interview I did for Advance magazine, the largest trade magazine for book buyers. I know, the questions are corn-ball. I did my best to turn them around.

ADVANCE Q&A with Bob Eckstein, author of The History of the Snowman; As a humor writer and cartoonist, where does your funny streak come from?

Bob Eckstein: Grandma was a real cut-up. But I’ve never thought of myself as having a “funny streak.” I’ve been cartooning and writing humor my whole life as my sole source of income and never had another job so I take a kind of workman’s approach to it. I see it as a skill learned and honed having done hundreds of pieces for dozens and dozens of places like Spy, National Lampoon, Playboy, GQ, etc. There’s nothing funny about trying to make a living being funny, let me tell you.

Everyone is always trying jokes on me or suggesting cartoon ideas for The New Yorker, but they are usually disappointed when I don’t reply with a belly laugh. Well, I’m like a doctor, a joke doctor if you will, and if you get naked in front of me I’m going to be very professional and not laugh.

ADVANCE: What sparked your interest in snowmen and sent you on your self-proclaimed “Holy Grail” search for the very first snowman?

BE: I’m a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes and I wanted to write a mystery. But I wasn’t interested in solving a murder mystery or writing fiction. I wanted my book to be funny and breezy yet really attempt to break new ground and solve one of life’s mysteries. The book could’ve been who invented love or who said the first joke—although two examples that actually might not have worked. Anyway, I remember walking into Barnes & Noble and imagining I was shopping for everyone I know and asking myself what book, not yet written, would that be. The History of the Snowman. Just like that.

It became clear, early on, when I considered a book on the snowman that I hit the lottery. Not only were there amazing skeletons in the snowman’s closet, but also I learned how thirsty people were for any new story or angle for the holidays. Everyone’s response upon hearing about my book was “What a great idea – why hasn’t anyone written this book before?” I liked the idea that this would be a holiday book that was non-denominational and I was providing a holiday reading choice that wasn’t a cookbook or for children only. It’s a book for all age groups and finally something for the college crowd as well as those who own a glue-gun. As far as holiday books go, The History of the Snowman is a very cool book.

ADVANCE: The History of the Snowman is not just pure entertainment (though it is entertaining)—you spent five years researching snowmen and traveling around the world to talk to historians. Will you tell us about your research, travels, and your most surprising discoveries?

BE: I did consciously make it entertaining and user-friendly. I had no interest in creating something academic where I would be speaking at institutes. And it could have easily gone that way—the first draft was scholarly and much longer but the last thing I wanted was to be the guy who took all the fun out of the snowman. I want to revitalize his image, give him his due…and add humor to history. I’m a gentleman scholar and I love history. And if I can do my small part making history more appealing…

I’m glad my wife convinced me I had to actually go to where historic snowmen once stood. I had no idea at the time that other wrinkles of the story would unfold. I had spoken to heads of departments and libraries who, they themselves, did not realize were sitting on crucial clues to the snowman’s past. It was something I had to go myself and see. An example would be my visit to The Royal Library at the Hague, which houses the largest collection of images in the world (at 8 million+). There I camped out with a magnifying glass and this very real competitive drive to find snowmen in far reaches of their archives (the search was narrowed to the 15,000 woodcuts, drawings, etchings, and paintings categorized as winterscapes.) At this point, the hunt for the first snowman was at its peak. It had become a real full-blown mystery with the clues scattered about in front of me waiting to be strung together. It was incredibly exciting time because even though I hadn’t completed the puzzle, I knew I had everything I needed like when you see the last pieces left to a jigsaw. I was aggressively chasing leads at a break-neck pace jumping on trains, hitchhiking, finding entries in diaries, discovering never before seen snowmen in engravings and tracking down experts hiding in different corners of the world…all very Da Vinci Codey.

My quest culminated with my face-to-face meeting in Amsterdam with a Professor Herman Pleij, a leading authority in medieval cultural studies. His De sneeuwpoppen van 1511 is the only book to tell the story of the Miracle of 1511, a Woodstock-like event in which after a famed snowstorm the whole town of Brussels celebrated by making pornographic and political snowmen. The deep secrets of the snowman were by this time uncovered but I wanted, with the help of my Dutch translator friend, to thank the professor in person for his integral role in solving the mystery. It was time to reflect on our five years of detective work, and like Holmes and Watson sipping cognac while summing up one of their cases, we basked in our findings, almost daring to think that what we had just accomplished may be a big deal and not go unnoticed. When we parted, the professor gave me his blessing and declared he was passing the torch of snowman expert to me.

ADVANCE: In one section of the book, subtitled “Snow Sells,” you write about how the snowman was an advertising darling of the 20th century. Why was he so appealing to Madison Avenue?

BE: Aside from religious figures, the snowman is one of the world’s most recognizable icons in the world and the advertising world has hadcarte blanche to do with him what they wish royalty-free. Easy to work with and pliable to any likeness it’s no wonder the snowman is the darling of Madison Avenue.

Of course there are also excruciatingly dull psychological reasons why he’s such a popular figure in the media. There’s the human connection we all feel in some way toward him, whether large or minuscule. Companies sought out pitchmen that the common man could relate with—friendly, plump, full of humor—the snowman fit the bill perfectly. The more he was used, the more identifiable he was. His popularity just snowballed.

ADVANCE: Not until finishing your book and seeing the snowman and his influences scattered throughout history did I realize his impact on art and culture. When you first began this project, did you have an idea of how vast the snowman’s mark was on world history?

BE: My initial research showed the snowman continually popping up at cultural benchmarks like Zelig or a frozen Forrest Gump. Quickly I discarded the kitsch snowman of present and realized what I was really on to was nothing less than one of the few activities we probably share with our ancestors and one of man’s oldest forms of folk-art. Every snowfall, every dumping of free art supplies pacified man’s urge to create an image of himself and traveling back in a time we see there was less and less forms of communication and recreation to compete with, making snowman-making only more and more popular the further back in time I looked. As my respect for this art form grew, so did my expectations to what I could find and I began searching deeper and more abstractly. By the end, nothing surprised me to how far reaching the snowman’s history was.

ADVANCE: You are an avid collector of snowman memorabilia, right? Can you tell us about some of your favorite finds?

BE: While my snowman collection (800+) does turn heads—it IS beautiful—it’s more about their historical place in telling the story of the snowman. When I was scouring flea markets and eBay for snowmen items, I was looking for artifacts, collecting clues like an archaeologist at an excavation site. I don’t have knitted snowman toilet seat covers or snowmen salt & pepper shakers everywhere in my house—but I could only because everyone keeps giving me anything with a snowman on it. Truth be told, I promised myself that once I finish having my collection viewed I would start eating the chocolate and marshmallow snowmen. There’s about 40.

But my favorite item from the collection is also the largest and most expensive—a graphic billboard ad for Austrian chocolate from the 1950s that’s exceptional. While many of my favorite items are in the book, most of my collection had to hit the cutting floor (including some of the most amazing examples of postcard illustration) and I’m hoping to one day put out a coffee-table book of the collection. But fear not, The History of the Snowman does include the stranger items from my collection including a photo of a little girls accosting a snowman with a rifle, a Charles Addams painting of a snowman stabbed by a broom and a disturbing picture of the snowman being run over by a car driven by Santa Claus.

ADVANCE: Do you recall building your first snowman? Do you still build snowmen when weather conditions are right?

BE: Ironically, no, but I do recall as a little boy painting hockey uniforms on plastic army men. I realize that’s not the answer one expects but it’s the truth. And I think it’s interesting that when I was very little I did these “political statements” and then I went on to do political cartoons in the ‘80s only to learn that in The Middle Ages the snowman was an early form of political cartooning. Since becoming a snowman expert I do make snowmen and I hope to make some more, à la Beatles, on bookstore rooftops. When my book was bought, I was to meet my new editor at an Indian restaurant in midtown Manhattan. It was a rather somber
establishment until I started erecting snow people outside. All of a sudden the owners of the restaurant came out and gave me food to create faces. When my new editor finally arrived and met me inside I asked him if he noticed anything coming in but said only that there was a large crowd outside the restaurant.

ADVANCE: What are your thoughts on how the global warming trend will affect the snowman?

BE: For better or worse, global warming has made the snowman more popular. Who paid attention to the duck-billed platypus before it became an endangered species? Would the snowman have ever appeared onYouTube in the recent presidential debates if it wasn’t for global warming?

As this problem continues, snowman awareness will only grow. The snowman will become a hugely popular, sympathetic figure and ultimately trigger what I call “panic snowman-making” as many will suffer a (real and misperceived) sense of loss. I, personally, harbor no fears of this being the snowman’s last lap. From what I understand, global warming creates a situation where temperatures will drop with the eventual interruption of the jet stream. No, the biggest threat to the snowman is our youth’s short attention span and increasing inactivity. It’s hard today to grab
anyone’s imagination with anything that requires any imagination. People are convinced that the only things worthwhile must cost an arm and a leg. Some people are probably waiting for Apple to come out with an iSnowman.

ADVANCE: Several of your snowman cartoons are in the book, so I’m guessing you also have a few snowman jokes stored away—will you share a favorite?

BE: Like, why did the snowman cross the road? Or the one about a priest, a penguin, a rabbi, and a snowman walk into a bar? Actually, I don’t know any snowman jokes. In my defense, would Albert Einstein ever be asked if he knew any relativity jokes? Would Shakespeare be asked to regale us with a dirty limerick?

ADVANCE: What’s next for you?

BE: Thanks to the feedback I’m getting, I’m considering a children’s book based on one of the stories in the snowman book. I’d like to return to doing cartoons for The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications once things slow down. Meanwhile, my next book will be a graphic novel, a comedy based on the real story of how 17th century explorers searched for paradise near the North Pole.

ADVANCE: Anything else you’d like to add?

BE: If everyone of us went outside and just made one snowman each day, this whole place would look hilarious.


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Monday, October 8, 2007

I Quit!

The finish line is in sight. It's almost over. My five year plan to find another career, a more sane vacation, is coming to an end. I am a snowman expert because I went to Staples and purchased a packet ofcpre-cut inkjet business cards. According to that thinking I can also be a rodeo clown or doctor this morning. I print cards, therefore I am. So because the card says so, I 'm a snowman expert. Can't be any worse than being freelancer.

So this snowman expert thing...what exactly is it you may be asking? Well, on the plus side, it's a wide open field with very few competitors. Actually, none. On the negative, this is due to the fact that there is absolutely no money in snowman consulting or snowman repair (yes, it sounds alot like freelancing...I'm still owed $ from illustration freelance jobs I did in Jan.). But my business plan won't be tapping into those avenues of snowman expertise. My job will be first to heighten snowman awareness and then peddle snowman merchandise (calendars, T-shirts, toilet
seat cover cozies, car accessories...). My first step is to first establish myself as a snowman kook and speak out about snowmen. To that end, I booked some speaking engagements. So far Lacawac Sanctuary, Nov. 3rd, Livingston Manor, Nov. 24th, Everhart Museum sometime in Dec. along Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Center branch, Dec. 6th. These will be 40 min. talks done with Keynote set to music followed by a brief Q & A. Seeing this all in writing now...sure sounds like a bone-head plan.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Making Plans With Nigel

My favorite radio station is Radio Nigel found in iTunes (under Radio). I listen to them everyday off of my computer (with Airport hooked up in my office to send the music wireless downstairs to Altec speakers I can put anywhere – they sound great and they are only 6 inches tall. Cost $35 after rebate.) Go to the section called 70s/80s Pop then scroll down to Radio Nigel. Here's just a sampling of what they were playing during the ten minutes I wrote this post;

06:31:49 Men At Work - Overkill
06:31:42 Bump G2 - Quite Enough ID
06:28:42 Generation X - One Hundred Punks
06:25:02 Gang Of Four - Is it love
06:21:19 Shriekback - Lined Up
06:21:08 Bump E3 - So Help You God
06:16:07 David Bowie - Cat People (Putting Out Fire with Gasoline)
06:08:18 U2 - Bad (live)
06:05:07 Public Image Ltd. - The Body
06:01:27 The Smiths - I Started Something I Couldn't Finish

What hooked me was their very funny spots (ads). I wrote them in San Diego and yesterday I got a call from Steve West, the Radio Nigel DJ. We discussed possible ads for my book and he agreed to do the voice overs, which was very nice. He explained that, like me, he missed the old radio stations like WLIR, WBRE and other Long Island stations of the 80s that played cutting edge college music. I went to high school in Long Island where I remember myself feeling like an outcast listening to the Dead Kennedys, The Split Enz, The Furs, X, Thomas Dolby while everyone else was into Billy Joel, Kansas and a bunch of embarrassing LI bands like Good Rats, Foghat and, ugh, I'm starting to get a headache...I don't know how I would have got through it without those stations (actually I didn't quite make it, starting art classes "early" in Manhattan at Pratt and Cooper instead of attending my senior year in H.S. I sat in on classes I wasn't registered for and then got early scholarships from them.).

Gotta run and write that copy for the Radio Nigel ad!

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