On THE WEST WING

“What are you thinking about?”
“Tomorrow.”

Idealism is, at its best, a marriage of hope and pragmatism: the belief in the best vision of the world and the tenacity to realize that vision in the face of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles hurled from every direction. When those of an idealistic persuasion rise to the position of governance, to the opportunity to realize their vision, a battle is waged between preserving and realizing the pragmatic idealism that paved the rocky path from campaign to governance and the danger of compromising oneself amidst the reality of the systemic corruption, unrepentant self-interest, and the dinner theater of the political stage, where the dinner rolls are stale and useful only as weapons to hurl at those who disagree in stubborn, childish, arm-crossing and tantrum-throwing displays of churlishness.

That THE WEST WING so deftly examined those battles, both between walk-and-talk White House staffers and between the detritus-strewn aisles of American politics, with each and every episode is a testament to both its timeliness and timelessness.

During its initial airing (1999-2006), I lived in a tiny studio apartment in Boston with a television whose sole means of communication with the outside world was a pair of $20 Radio Shack bunny ears. My choices were limited: Fox, Pax, or QVC and, as I watched endless reruns of THE SIMPSONS and SEINFELD amidst the fall of my musical aspirations and the backdrop of Bush Junior’s second war in Iraq, my inchoate understanding of the world grew in incremental realizations that the imperialistic, xenophobic propoganda wrapped in flag-waving bravado of the Bush Junior years was not right, let alone human and, when coupled in 2004 with the doldrums of the Kerry campaign, whose namesake was the most ineffective Democratic “standard-bearer” since Dukakis, and the resulant election night heartbreak leads me, in retrospect, to one inescapable truth: had I watched THE WEST WING in its initial airing, I would have slipped further into a despondency wrought by the chasm between the hope of the alternate present of the Bartlet administration, in which an honorable and flawed human being sat in the Oval Office with the humility and sense of duty it deserves, and the cowboy-boot-up-your-ass spur of the then-reality of the world stage in which the leader of the free world was a rodeo clown who didn’t wear the right makeup and the best chance of unseating him was a piece of snowboarding driftwood.

In bringing humanity to the image propogated by the bullet-point-and-Capitol-backdrop sound bite reciters that appear, see-sawing from drone-like chess pieces or well-timed volcanic eruptions of vacuous, rhetorical bullshit, THE WEST WING showed that the people making the laws of our land and halting the march towards World War III were just that, people: some energized, some overwhelmed, some attaining personal self-actualization of their mission in the hallowed halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue–the sacrifice being only family, sleep, and health–by the weight of winning the prize that they sought on the pandering, baby-kissing, hand-shake-and-break reality show of the campaign trail.

That’s not to say that the show was without its faults: the often heavy-handed descents into soapboxing to the detriment of drama; the abysmal Toby-leaked-space-shuttle stuff in the seventh-season and subsequent efforts to show that the show hadn’t lost sight of the Bartlet administration in its twilight; and, most notoriously, nearly all of the show’s fifth season, the first of the post-Sorkin era, which hemmed and hawed its way to find direction, until the magnificent Israeli-Palestinian peace summit sequence at Camp David, which sadly, was all-too-presecient in its harrowing depiction of (then former-) Chief of Staff Leo McGarry’s near-fatal heart attack (John Spencer, who played McGarry, tragically died of a heart attack midway through the show’s final season).

At its best, THE WEST WING represents the epitome of a concept I hold dear: that the best television shows are filled with characters that you look forward to seeing with each passing week. As we approached the end of the series (we watched all 156 episodes in a four-month Netflix binge), I began to lament that I would soon never see these characters again; now I understand why my wife (who watched the show during its initial airing) would perk up as soon as Toby (Richard Schiff) showed up on BURN NOTICE or MAN OF STEEL or Donna (Janel Maloney) appeared on HOUSE or THE BLACKLIST or House Speaker Haffley (Steven Culp) showed up on LONGMIRE: it was a chance to see them, if not in character, again after THE WEST WING–and the Bartlets–had flown off on Marine One at the first light of the new Santos administration.

And now, like the show itself, I must bring this to an end.

I’ve been writing this piece on and off for the four months in which THE WEST WING was an indelible part of our lives and the thought of crafting a final word for a piece on a show that I never wanted to end has been a struggle. So I’ve decided that I won’t have the final word.

A recent Twitter exchange:

Erstwhile, on FARGO: A Review

Note: while this is not a recap of the events of the first season of FX’s  FARGO, spoilers will be, in spite of my best efforts, inevitable. 

 
Three words spring to mind when a translation of a film to a television series or vice versa is announced. The first is “ballsy”: can the producers really expect to bring something that the other didn’t? The second and third are “cash grab”: because let’s be honest, in most cases of adaptation and/or translation, the almighty dollar is a skilled and convincing orator.  And, when the starting point for translation is an absolute masterpiece like the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film, FARGO, cynicism is not only warranted, but unavoidable.

 
In the case of FARGO, that cynicism was completely unwarranted.

 
From the first scene to the last, the first season of Noah Hawley’s serialized exploration of the Coen Brothers’ snow-blanketed, “oh yah,” hunting-hat adorned and wood-chippered world, rises above mere imitation to become, like its precursor, as masterwork of its chosen medium, hurling the viewer into a world that is both as close as the backyard barbeque and as foreign as the surface of Bradbury’s Mars and populated by some of the most distinctive, flawed, and charming characters to come to televised life in recent memory.

 
Billy Bob Thornton gives the performance of his career–a career filled with performances of his career–as Lorne Malvo, a hitman with a penchant for twisting and manipulating the lives of all who dare enter his orbit, making death seem the easy way out, from mindfucking a lowly hotel kid to piss in the owner’s gas tank, to manipulating Martin Freeman’s Lester into “being a man,” to making Oliver Platt’s supermarket king Stavros Milos, in the most overt connection to the Coen Brothers’ film, believe that the travails and blackmail that befall him are God’s vengeance for his becoming an insufferable ass on his way to lording over a supermarket empire where it’s always “July in January.”

 
Thornton’s Malvo is, like the best fictional villains, a force of nature, a chameleonic alpha predator (his “why do we see the most shades of green” exchange with Colin Hanks’s Gus will send chills down your spine) who toys with his prey before ending them in the tradition of the best of the best: of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigur in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; of Robert Mitchum’s Reverend Harry Powell in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER; of Heath Ledger’s Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT; of Christopher Lee’s first performance as Dracula in HORROR OF DRACULA; of Anthony Hopkins’s first performance of Hannibal Lecter in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS; of Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS; and of Darth Vader in STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

 
The lynchpins of FARGO, and the shots that set off the devasting events of the series are the insecurities and the perception of a demolished masculinity of Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygard, who goes from slippery little shit to more of a monster than Malvo in his quest for an awakened, bastardized form of masculinity and self-preservation. Lester is the kid who was picked on at school and who never got over it, always running on the thin ice of perception and paranoia, desperately trying to put one foot in front of the other; he’s the guy who, in a burning building, would cry out “women and children first” but flee the inferno before anyone else, then set his shirt on fire for the third-degree burns so he can say that he tried to save everyone, all the while saying “oh, geez.”

 
In Alison Tolman’s Molly Solverson, as with her spiritual precursor, Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, we are given one of the great female protagonists of television: no-nonsense, relentless (though there was  one scene which stood out as untrue to her character; you will probably be able to spot it), and driven to solve the tangled web of the murder of her mentor, Chief Vern Thurman (Shawn Doyle, who, though appearing in less than 1/10th of the series, manages to stay with the viewer for the entire series, much akin to Linus Roache’s exemplary and underrated performance as Thomas Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS). Tolman brings rationality, doggedness and a willingness to see beyond the mirage of peace and tranquility wrought by lifelong connections and small-town neighborliness (given voice by Thurman’s successor, Chief Bill Oswalt, portrayed by Bob Odenkirk in a post-BREAKING BAD, pre-BETTER CALL SAUL foray into brilliance).  Through Molly’s eyes, we see the pendulum of horrific and heartbreaking swing back and forth as FARGO makes its way towards its inevitable and endlessly satisfying conclusion.

 
The ultimate success of FARGO lies in its willingness to veer wildly through a slalom course of tone and character: within a single scene, FARGO can be laugh-out-loud funny and, seconds later, shatter the viewer with heartbreak and violence. In the hands of less capable storytellers, these tonal permutations would feel half-baked and representative of indecision; in FARGO, these permutations are essential elements of both the world and themes that hurl the viewer through an addictive and visceral television experience, one that can only be described as “aces,” with a Billy Bob Thornton smile and finger-gun.

TW

On Writing

The following represents all of the advice I have on this weird craft of writing. I’ll update it as pearls of wisdom hit. Those pearls hurt sometimes.

 

+ Read because you love to read, not because you want to study what the author did and mine their work for the hidden secrets of “method” and “advice” and “tricks” that you can then apply to your own writing.
+ The secret to writing? The big trick? The one that you seek when you read because you want to study? Somebody had more endurance and more discipline than you. So sit down.
+ Stop aspiring. Be or don’t be.
+ Follow your own path.
+ Readers/viewers/etc. only care about what you’ve done. Your job is to care about what you’re doing. No one cares about what you are going to do.
+ Ideas are made good or bad by the person writing them. The good ones possess you to the point that the only means of exorcism is writing.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” — E.L. Doctorow

+ If you want to write, read. Read everything.
+ Learn everything you can, then forget it and just do. You often have to do this at the same time.
+ Never stop learning.
+ Never stop loving to learn.
+ Find a writing time that works for you and stick to it.
+ Take care of yourself physically; I maintain a six day/week exercise regimen to offset my love of pizza, beer and candy.

“I’ve tried to write faster and I don’t really enjoy it. I don’t enjoy the process… No fun for the writer, no fun for the reader.” — Donna Tartt

My Essential Writing Library:

Strunk & White’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE
Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD
King’s ON WRITING
Murakami’s WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING
Chandler’s THE SIMPLE ART OF MURDER (essay)
HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT
McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS
Lynch’s CATCHING THE BIG FISH
Madden’s 99 WAYS TO TELL A STORY
Suzuki’s ZEN MIND, BEGINNER’S MIND
Dillard’s THE WRITING LIFE
Le Guin’s STEERING THE CRAFT
Bradbury’s ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING
Steinbeck’s WORKING DAYS: THE JOURNALS OF THE GRAPES OF WRATH

+ Trust your gut.
+ Finish
+ Shortcuts are bullshit.
+ Be wary of writing classes and groups.
+ #amwriting means #noyourenot.
+ Write what makes you happy, not what you think will make others happy. People have fickle tastes; they often don’t know what they want until you put it in front of them.
+ If someone says, “you should write about me,” run. Or, tell them to read this page and write it themselves.
+ Being published changes very little. You get up, you do the work, same as before. You just have one more book on your shelf.

“Listening is writing’s occasionally overlooked and undervalued companion, and when not clacking away at the keyboard, comes the chance to sit in sometimes awkward, sometimes painful silence with the characters and world you’ve struggled to create. Even if not a single word is written, you have shown up, you’ve affirmed the simple fact that you care and have the patience to endure” — Dinaw Mengestu

+ The hardest part is sitting down. The really hard part is staying there.
+ You can’t compare yourself to others. It’s a pointless exercise.
+ All that matters is the words on the page.
+ Find a hobby.
+ Writing is a craft.
+ Don’t romanticize what you’re doing. You’re doing your job. You happen to have a cool job.

A Paragraph on Writing

Writing is waking up alone on the hard floor of a dark house you’ve never been in. Even though you can’t see a thing, you can feel that you’re in a house; the vibe is in the air. You decide to hunt for light. As you wander through the room, your head brushes past a lightbulb dangling from a chain in the dark. You reach for a way to turn on the light, but you don’t find one. You feel around the room, run your hand over the walls, and finally, you find a light switch. You flick on the switch but nothing happens: the bulb is out. So, you have to feel around all of the other rooms and all of the cabinets in the house to find one. The room you’re in is the only one with a light switch; you try to find it in other rooms, but you don’t; there are no bulbs dangling from the ceiling. You accept the darkness and get on with finding a lightbulb. You feel and touch and eventually find where the bulbs are kept: some really odd place, behind the dog food in the bathroom closet. Then you find your way back to the room in which you began. You know the way because you’ve felt it out in the dark. When you return to the bulb dangling from the chain, you grip the old bulb too hard and it shatters in your hand. By this point, you’re so tired of being in the dark that you grab the shattered bulb and the broken glass cuts your hand but you twist anyhow and out pops the old bulb and in goes the new. You see the room and now, because of the light in that one room, you can see the outline of other rooms, and all of the other rooms that at first didn’t have light switches now have light switches and broken bulbs dangling from chains and because you went through the first bulb-hunt at least now you know that the bulbs are behind the dog food in the bathroom closet. So, you go room to room, switching on lights and replacing bulbs until finally, the house is illuminated. You see that the house is in need of repair–but at least the foundation is solid–so you set to work painting and filling in holes in the walls and re-doing the flooring and your cut hand aches and you have to change bandages but you keep going until finally you’re done and you see that you’ve built your dream house out of the darkness. And then you put a “for sale” sign in front of your dream house, massage your scarred hand, and wake up alone on the floor of another dark house, ready to begin again. – TW, 24 April 2014

+ Write what you care about. If you don’t, don’t write about it.
+ Ghostwriting is nothing to turn your nose up to.
+ If you do ghostwrite, be up front about what you will and won’t write. Stick to your values, if not your name.
+ Don’t tell anybody how they should do their jobs. Everyone has their own methods.
+ If you have to collaborate, collaborate with people who will make the final product better than you envisioned it.
+ While the right negative comment can be just as effective as the right positive one, don’t be a dick.
+ My perpetual New Year’s resolution: write more, write better, care less.
+ Outlines are fine if you use them. I don’t. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” — Octavia Butler

 

Spinner Racks and The Keepers of Post-Industrial Folklore

Note: this article represents the uncut version of remarks I delivered at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum at The Ohio State University in November 2013. The talk was part of a panel that included Aaron Kashtan, Geoffrey Long, and Henry Jenkins.

***

When I interviewed him for my book, COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES AND ANIMATION, former Batman group editor and writer Denny O’Neil told me of the backlash he faced after readers decided the fate of Jason Todd in BATMAN #428. He said that in that backlash came a realization, that he was more than “just a writer-editor,” he was the “keeper of post-industrial folklore.”[1] The simple truth (and therefore the hardest to see) of neverending, serialized storytelling is that it represents a legacy passed on from one generation to another and perpetuated through the inspiration to create. I fear that mine may be the last generation to feel that inspiration.

Like most kids of the ‘80s, my first exposure to the superheroes of the Marvel and DC Univi was in other media: SUPERFRIENDS; SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS; Tim Burton’s BATMAN; re-runs of the 1960s BATMAN TV show. That same means of exposure has reached a fever pitch today, as movies based on comic book characters become the de-facto entry point for a new generation of comics fans and rake in astronomical gobs of money. However, in my book, I stressed that the material waiting for the new comics reader–for the uninitiated who has become a fan of a character through other media–must be absolutely irresistible and instill in the new reader a burning desire to dig deeper, to explore the world of the story, be it in a single medium or fragmented across media parts, by telling stories that reflect and distill current generational values. This was unspoken pact was understood, though in its twilight years, during my comic book-reading pubescence.

Today, we are in an age of the erroneous belief that legitimacy for one medium, comics, must first be found in the box office draw of another medium, film, and that irresistibility has to do with seams on costumes, brand consistency and nostalgic pangs of iconisism. In its rampant quest for legitimacy, specifically after the amalgamation of the two biggest mainstream comics publishers, Marvel and DC, by large corporate parent companies and subsequent neutering into R&D departments, the comics industry, and DC Comics in particular, has lost sight of the power of irresistibility, bastardized the emotional core and draw of exploration that made their product and characters so exciting to young readers, and in so doing, has hammered yet another nail into the coffin of the long-term survival of comics industry by forsaking their role as keepers of post-industrial folklore and failing to inspire the next generation of storytellers. DC’s own survey, conducted in 2011, right after the roll-out of their “New 52” reboot, revealed that less than two percent of respondents were under 18 years of age[2]. Kids are abandoning comics… but let’s not mince words: comics abandoned kids first.

However, I believe there’s a way to rectify that egregious misstep and set the industry on a path towards redemption and long-term survival.

Returning to my comic book pubescence, my first comic book was GREEN HORNET #3, written by Ron Fortier and published by NOW Comics. I pulled it from a spinner rack at Rite Aid in Millersburg, Ohio. My grandmother bought it for me. We had gone there to buy Peeps or Metamucil or something. When I picked up that comic book off the spinner rack, I had no idea who the characters were, though I vaguely remembered Bruce Lee on Channel 23’s reruns of the 1960s Batman show. The Green Hornet even had a heart attack at the end of the issue. I came in in the middle of a storyline. All I knew was that the story was cool and I wanted to learn more. What did I do? I learned as much as I could about the character – and this was before the ubiquity of the Internet. I learned that the character got his start in radio in 1936, a revelation which began a lifelong obsession with radio dramas and led to my unabashed love of The Shadow, particularly Denny O’Neil and Mike Kaluta’s 1973 series and the 1937 Orson Welles radio show, that has permeated every iota of my storytelling in the 24 years since. Today, that comic book is framed in my office, as much a memory of her as of my first experience with comics and the obsession that wrought.

The newsstands and the grocery store / Rite Aid spinner racks, the vehicles for my physical discovery of the medium – not necessarily the characters – and for most kids of my generation and the generations previous, are a relic of the past. Sure, you may see the odd one at a grocery store, but the contents of most are untouched, lost in the entertainment shuffle to the bright screen in one’s hand; at best, the spinner rack selection might pique the curiosity of shoppers bored to tears with the selection of beef tips and cream cheese.

Where are the Spinner Racks and newsstands now? According to a survey conducted by Common Sense Media,

“among families with children eight and under, there has been a five-fold increase in ownership of tablet devices, such as iPads, from 8% of all families in 2011 to 40% in 2013.”[3]

The study goes on to find that,

“the percentage of all children with access to some type of ‘smart’ device at home (e.g. Smartphone, tablet) has jumped from half (52%) to three quarters (75%) in just two years.”[4]

As their ubiquity increases, tablets and smartphones have the potential to be the new Spinner Racks. They have the potential to be as powerful a vehicle for discovery as corner newsstands were in the cities of the Golden Age and the Spinner Racks born in the suburban flight of the 1950s. But why haven’t we seen that push, that, pardon the Gladwellian term, that tipping point, with digital comics and comics delivered digitally? If my grandmother was tickled pink to buy me a comic along with her Metamucil and Peeps, what’s stopping a parent from letting their kid purchase a comic when they buy the latest app they never use?

I see four ways.

 

Price & Discoverability

 

The idea of charging the same amount for print as digital is asinine. An “issue”–a term I use very loosely now–of a digital comic should cost no more than a song on iTunes. At best, ten cents, adjusted for inflation is $1.99; let’s not forget that those 10-cent comics were almost always 64 pages.

With print comics, the page count and paper quality is often the deciding factor in determining a price point. With digital comics, paper quality is irrelevant and page count can be irrelevant. The main transactional currency with digital reading is the time it takes to consume the product, not the number of pages. Examples of this can be found with Medium’s “two minute read” demarcation on new posts and Madefire’s time-based consumption of their motion-comics / digital comics hybrids; Amazon’s Kindle tracks amount of time left in each book. Let me be clear: I neither condone nor decry this “innovation,” I simply state for the purposes of this pondering that “it exists.”

Purchasing a comic on a spinner rack in the days of yore was not a designed purchase. It wasn’t my intention when I went with my grandmother to purchase Peeps and Metamucil to come out with a comic book. I was drawn to the comic book through my own wanderings in a controlled environment on a trip to purchase something else. In short, the guiding beacon of a digital comics purchase has to be the same trigger as in the Rite Aid: there has to be some base appeal, be it covers, content, or the sheer cool factor.

To purchase comics direct from an app designed to sell comics is more akin to the comic shop experience. While this is an invaluable experience, it’s also one where the intent is to purchase comics, not to be invited to purchase through their appearance in everyday life. I’ve often said that the best and most exciting transmedia experiences come from technology already at use in our everyday lives–in other words, expecting someone who doesn’t play video games to go buy a console to get an integral part of your story from the film is counterproductive. The discovery of digital comics should be no different.

But here’s the rub: the Internet and the iPad and all other tablets are a beacon of a culture of push, less one of pull. How can we create that irresistible feeling of pull in a culture designed to push a seeming unending strain of content down the gullets of readers? The short version? I have no idea. As my friend Geoff Long said when we discussed this paper in its talk form back in November, “if you can solve that, you can solve the Internet.” Nobody knows; or, rather, everybody thinks they know. If you figure it out, go collect your billions.

 

Recapturing Fun Stories

 

I’ve often said that comics were 70 years ahead of their time when they were first created, and are now 30 years behind it. What made those Golden and Silver Age comics so good, so addictive? They were fun. They weren’t WATCHMEN or THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS – both of which, obviously, have their place, though I would venture that the “mainstream legitimacy” they brought to comics, while saving the industry and readying it for the 21st century was also a Trojan horse that has gone wildly unchecked.

The gateway drug for many of us were disposable reads that could be read and thrown aside for the next thing. They weren’t envisioned as collector’s items or to be handled with white gloves. Their value was directly tied to the content and stories and the value that we, as readers, implanted on those stories–not in the collectible value that publishers, through variant covers and whatever, told us, the readers, to find. Comic books were designed to be entertainments. They were designed to be read on subways on the way to work, in a bleary, pre-caffeinated haze. The great comics creators of decades past, the Kirbys, the Eisners, the Siegels, the Lees, the ones that birthed the medium and fueled its rise understood that they were making entertainment for kids, yes, but also entertainment for adults. There was an outlaw value to their simplicity and fun. They were, quite simply, cool.

The two traits that have always attracted me to Golden and Silver Age comics are their sense of fun and their sense of making it up as they went along. The stories were entertaining and fun, and clearly, the creators were having fun doing it (in some form or another, working conditions notwithstanding). There was always a flair of experimentation that has been sadly lost, replaced with an unflattering self-seriousness that does no one, least of all the readers, any good. Digital comics can recapture that sense of experimentation; creators are free of the constraints of print… so why act like digital comics is the digital delivery of a paper product when in fact, it represents an entirely new medium, one custom-built on a delivery platform that kids can’t get enough of?

 

New, Touch-based Continuities

 

Clay Shirky has a marvelous quote in his book COGNITIVE SURPLUS about a friend’s four-year old daughter:

“In the middle of the movie… she jumped off the couch and ran behind the screen. My friend thought she wanted to see if the people in the movie were really back there. But that wasn’t what she was up to. She started rooting in the cables behind the screen. Her dad asked, ‘What are you doing?’ And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, ‘Looking for the mouse.’”[5]

Shirky goes on to say that:

“Four-year-olds, old enough to start absorbing the culture they live in, but with little awareness of its antecedents… will just assume that media includes the possibilities of consuming, producing and sharing side-by-side, and that those possibilities are open to everyone.” [6]

How can we bring Shirky’s postulation into comics? Continuity.

I like to call continuity a series of story links agreed upon in a silent (or not-so silent) pact between creator and reader. Let’s take that link argument a step further, into the realm of possibility: I would love to be able to dig into a fight between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin that happened an issue before, just by touching that little editor’s note star. And who’s to say that I couldn’t participate in that battle if the version in the comic before became a small video game? Or maybe it didn’t even happen in a comic, but rather in an animated short? And then from there, dig deeper.I could see fragments of stories, a panel here, a panel there. I could see how the world fit together, I could move it around just like the pile of photos in my photos app. It’s Wikipedia comics reading and just as comics presents unlimited storytelling possibilities, so can a marriage of comics and touch technology present unlimited opportunities for exploration and the sharing of expertise and excitement. It would be the world’s coolest editor’s notes.

Through the creation of digital-native continuities that are based in currently available technology, comics publishers could create a comics experience for digital natives, not a skeumorphic replication of the pamphlet-reading experience. What if readers could literally touch continuity; manipulate it? What if they could move it with their fingers, open up whole new worlds inside a single comic and choose to share them in an environment conducive to fun? The possibilities are quite literally, endless, and could present a veritable storytelling goldmine for creators and publishers that would bring comics into the 21st century in a way only dreamt of by the mad scientists of the Golden Age.

This approach doesn’t negate the already pre-existing fan and comic-shop based continuities. It can exist side-by-side with the current way of doing things. DC can still make their comics for 45-year olds and do whatever they want. Marvel can keep on now, Now, NOW-ing the hell out of their line. I’m talking about a refocusing of efforts on digital continuities, not half-measures. They can still do their direct-to-digital adult comics, they can do their television continuations. All I ask is a little more thought for their legacy and their place in the history and future of not just comics storytelling, but storytelling as a whole; I ask for a recapturing of the experimental, outlaw spirit that has been lost in a creative culture that rewards storytelling homogeneity and brand consistency in spite of pervasive eclectic posturing.

 

Tools for Creation & Sharing

 

When one finds the urge to explore, the urge to create isn’t far behind. I’ve often said that the appeal of the great comics characters and the reasons for their longevity is that the characters are so elastic: you can do anything with them and it will still work.

Let’s not forget something important about comics, something made beautifully clear in this quote from the Telegraph:

“At book events around the country and talking with children, I’ve noticed that when they fall in love with comics, they’re inspired to pick up a pencil and make comics, in a way that they very seldom respond to books without pictures. Comics don’t make for passive kids; they’re all about doing and making. The format is wonderfully approachable: if you don’t know how to draw something, you write it; if you can’t write it, you draw.”[7]

Comics don’t make for passive kids; they’re all about doing and making. That’s true, isn’t it? I know it was with me. But I was inspired to do that by the fun stories told in the comics I was reading. I fear we’re not seeing that today.

Along with entertaining stories, digital comics producers should provide readers with a regulated platform for creating and sharing their own stories. Imagine if DC brought back Elseworlds as a fan-fiction arena. Note that I do say “regulated.” These characters are the intellectual property of a corporation, and I recognize that.

A combination of touch-based continuities and built-in creation tools wouldn’t just ensure a future for digital comics and comics in today’s digital culture, it would be absolutely revolutionary: stories brought to digital life that would inspire a new generation of storytellers to create by giving them the means to absorb, create, and share without fear or confusion.

 

• • •

The best way to understand and, more importantly, to get excited about, any medium is to create within it. If DC allowed kids, the market they seem to have abandoned, to integrate comics more into their lives in a way natural to them, with stories that excite and inspire–in other words, utilize the idea of transmedia storytelling, that the stories meet the audience in arenas that are already part of their lives–the industry would be in a much better place.

Why does DC insist on their current path? It’s because it’s safe. It’s safe for now. It’s far easier to think in the short term than it is to think in the long-term; it’s easier to think selfishly than selflessly. It’s easier to think that ownership of a character is only a legal document. It’s easier to keep making the same mistakes than admitting that somewhere down the line, you went down the wrong path and lost sight of your true role, keepers of post-industrial folklore.

Aside from all the technological jargon and tablet visioning I threw out, it’s worth remembering that all great folklore is passed through sharing. From the first stories shared around a campfire to the immersive tales told through video games, sharing and creating is what makes a folklore vibrant. Digital comics and transmedia storytelling offer a way to do that, and inspire that next generation by speaking to their values and the technological tools they have at their ubiquitous disposal.

But, I’ll admit. I’m too much of an idealist here. The only was major companies will learn is with the power of the wallet, and that’s not going away. As long as something makes gobs of money, the slippery slope into long-term obsolescence will grow steeper and more perilous. As much as it pains me to say this, I fear that the mythologies of DC Comics are beyond saving under the current regime and mindset. Maybe, hopefully, somewhere down the line, new keepers of the post-industrial folklore will emerge and bring DC back to its roots by understanding and utilizing all that the digital world has to offer beyond a new way to cram nostalgia down the throats of anyone who will hazard to read them.

But, in spite of all this talk about cool technology and whatever, the future of storytelling is the same thing it has been since the dawn of time immemorial: great stories that inspire an emotional reaction in the audience and a desire to explore. I can only hope that a refresher course in this lesson isn’t swept under the rug.

 

SOURCES

[1] Tyler Weaver, Comics for Film, Games & Animation: Using Comics to Construct Your Transmedia Storyworld (Boston, Focal Press, 2012), p. 179.
[2] “New 52 Appealed to Avid Fans and Lapsed Readers.” ICv2, February 10, 2012. Available online at http://www.icv2.com/articles/news/22113.html
[3] Common Sense Media, Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013 (Common Sense Media, 2013), p.9
[4] Ibid.
[5] Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (New York, The Penguin Press, 2010), p. 212.
[6] Ibid, p. 213
[7] Sarah McIntyre, “Comic Adventures for Kids of All Ages,” The Telegraph, September 01, 2013. Available online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bath-childrens-literature/10273425/Comic-adventures-for-kids-of-all-ages.html

 

A Paragraph on Writing

*This post originally appeared at my (TW) Tumblr on 04 April 2014. 

Writing is waking up alone on the hard floor of a dark house you’ve never been in.  Even though you can’t see a thing, you can feel that you’re in a house; the vibe is in the air. You decide to hunt for light. As you wander through the room, your head brushes past a lightbulb dangling from a chain in the dark. You reach for a way to turn on the light, but you don’t find one. You feel around the room, run your hand over the walls, and finally, you find a light switch. You flick on the switch but nothing happens: the bulb is out. So, you have to feel around all of the other rooms and all of the cabinets in the house to find one. The room you’re in is the only one with a light switch; you try to find it in other rooms, but you don’t; there are no bulbs dangling from the ceiling. You accept the darkness and get on with finding a lightbulb. You feel and touch and eventually find where the bulbs are kept: some really odd place, behind the dog food in the bathroom closet. Then you find your way back to the room in which you began. You know the way because you’ve felt it out in the dark. When you return to the bulb dangling from the chain, you grip the old bulb too hard and it shatters in your hand. By this point, you’re so tired of being in the dark that you grab the shattered bulb and the broken glass cuts your hand but you twist anyhow and out pops the old bulb and in goes the new. You see the room and now, because of the light in that one room, you can see the outline of other rooms, and all of the other rooms that at first didn’t have light switches now have light switches and broken bulbs dangling from chains and because you went through the first bulb-hunt at least now you know that the bulbs are behind the dog food in the bathroom closet. So, you go room to room, switching on lights and replacing bulbs until finally, the house is illuminated. You see that the house is in need of repair–but at least the foundation is solid–so you set to work painting and filling in holes in the walls and re-doing the flooring and your cut hand aches and you have to change bandages but you keep going until finally you’re done and you see that you’ve built your dream house out of the darkness. And then you put a “for sale” sign in front of your dream house, massage your scarred hand, and wake up alone on the floor of another dark house, ready to begin again.

– TW 24 April 2014

From Post-It to Print: Writing QUIET COUNTRY

With every project I undertake or attempt to undertake, my goal is to challenge myself. In COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES AND ANIMATION, the challenge was to write both a history of comics and provide practical information for the transmedia storyteller and deliver 100,000 words in five months. COMING TO QUIET COUNTRY was a unique challenge. The story came to me through my fiancé’s mother, who told me a few stories from her best friend, who owned a bed and breakfast, Quiet Country, down the road from their farm in Nashville, Ohio. I knew Nancy in passing; we had had dinners at Quiet Country and I knew her as the source of the best Asian cooking I ever had, directly in the middle of Amish country; that alone stirred the storyteller in me. But it was when I learned more about how Nancy came to Holmes County that my interest piqued: fled North Korea during the war. Married a GI. But what grabbed me more was Nancy’s reticence to tell the story and the fact that her kids didn’t know the entire story.

The mission of writing COMING TO QUIET COUNTRY was two-fold: one, I needed to get Nancy’s story written so her children and grandchildren could have a better understanding of where their lives came from; and two, I wanted a new challenge.

I got one.

So, for the next however many thousand words (probably more than the finished version of C2QC, as a I acronymanate it), I’d like to provide you some insight into how I tackled my first–and hopefully not last–work of narrative non-fiction.
 

WHAT IS NARRATIVE NON-FICTION?

 
Ok, perhaps an easy one, but essential to this article. Let’s get a working definition of narrative non-fiction. Basically, narrative non-fiction constitutes the telling of a true story through fictional storytelling devices. Among the best examples of this are Eric Larsen’s THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, James Swanson’s MANHUNT: THE 12-DAY CHASE FOR LINCOLN’S KILLER and David Carr’s memoir, THE NIGHT OF THE GUN.

While COMING TO QUIET COUNTRY certainly isn’t book length, and certainly not article length, it fits in its own little world. But I’ll get to the length and decisions I made regarding traditional vs. self-publishing in awhile.
 

THE LENGTH

 
Why is C2QC so short, and not a novel? There’s certainly enough material for one. The first reason is that, as a writer, I can’t go by word count. I know that’s probably counter to our word-count focused writing landscape, but I can’t say “this is a short story because it’s 7000 words or less.” I can’t proudly say “I wrote 1,368 words today” and rack up statistics. For some, it works wonders; for me, it’s awful, resulting in the worst iterations of self-judgement, self-criticism and self-loathing ever wrought. My writing process is simple: I tell the story in the way I feel it needs to be told and I take however long it takes to do that (unless, of course, I’m on a deadline from a higher power, like an editor or publisher). If that constitutes a novel, great; if it’s a short story, great; if it’s somewhere in between, that’s what self-publishing and the Internet is for.

The great George Saunders had a wonderful insight on brevity when he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert after the release of his stunning collection of short stories, TENTH OF DECEMBER (seriously, go read it, and try to find it in hardback, not the awful blue-tinged paperback). It was something to the effect of, when asked by Stephen about why he didn’t write novels, that would you rather read about someone telling someone they love another over a lifetime, or in the three minutes they have before boarding a train that’s rolling down the tracks?

The short version: I based the finished story on a collection of moments that intertwined with one another and built on each other. When those moments resolved, in whichever way I pieced them together, the story was done. The story came first, then length came from how the story emerged over time.

That said, I’m not ruling out the possibility of turning C2QC into a novel somewhere down the road. But that’s a ways off.
 

NO QUOTES AROUND DIALOGUE

 
This one is pretty simple. I rarely use them in fiction to begin with, but with C2QC, because the story was being recounted to me, I couldn’t base the dialogue between family members in evidence and fact; I could, however, use dialogue that I felt was within the person’s character based upon the actions they took. However, I used what some would call dialogue sparingly, as an accent.

This brings up another unusual trait of writing narrative non-fiction: I can’t ascribe thought to characters, again because there’s no way to directly source thought as it was occurring directly within the action described in the story. I could only describe action in the best way I knew how, which was to let the action speak for itself, devoid of flowery language and emotion. I had to let the reader put themselves in the shoes of the Cho family, and I felt that by being dispassionate in my descriptions, the passion would come from the reader during the reading of the book.

I *did* use quotation marks in the coda, set in 2013, where I quoted directly from my interviews with Nancy.
 

WHY I DIDN’T TALK ABOUT NANCY’S LIFE AFTER COMING TO AMERICA

 
The crux of C2QC was a journey, and I felt that the particular journey of the story, the one I had invited the reader on, ended in that airport in Tokyo in 1960. The conflict was leaving Korea, both the North and then the South. It was about walking the road to building your own family and taking the steps you need to get where you need to go.

While Nancy’s story obviously didn’t end in 1960, the story of C2QC did (with a 2013 coda).
 

TRADITIONAL VERSUS SELF-PUBLICATION

 
Throughout the entire writing, this one weighed on me. I thought maybe I could get it in a local publication, using the Holmes County angle, or the B&B angle, like a profile in FOOD AND WINE.  One reader suggested traditional, the other didn’t know what to say.

In the end, I chose self-publication, and it was the absolute best decision I made FOR THIS PARTICULAR WORK. Remember how I said I can’t go by word count? Well, I can only go by a gut feeling that the story is ready to be abandoned (released). That particular instinct played into this decision. I knew the structure of the tale was such that any change would result in massive edits throughout the entire work and that my own minimalist and stark prose style (again, for this particular work) would result in having to add extraneous words to fit C2QC into pre-determined editorial guidelines. I didn’t want that to happen.

Also playing into my decision to self-publish was my experience in publishing. As many of you know, I ran a non-profit for a few years with a publishing wing, where I became acclimated to the publishing process, albeit on a small scale.This enabled me to make certain decisions, like cover design: at the NPO, I designed all the book covers, so I used that experience with C2QC; I understood how to write compelling back cover copy; I knew the size dimensions for a spine and for an ISBN box for a 6×9 book; I knew how to create royalty contracts. All of this fueled my decision to self-publish.

The other need was for print editions of the work. Again, my experience in publishing, and my experience in dealing with CreateSpace for years before I turned to writing full-time, further fueled the decision to self-publish. I live in the middle of nowhere. The story of C2QC has broad local appeal, and not all of those locals interested in C2QC know or care about digital books and Kindles or the future of storytelling. They just want something to read, and, if it’s good enough, they’re willing to pay for it. By creating print copies that are print on demand, and leveraging relationships with local business, as well as using tools like Square, I can more fully control the distribution of the book on a local, small scale, something I couldn’t do with the same flexibility had I gone web-based, #Longread-only or traditional publisher.

Pardon me a brief moment on a soap box: the argument of traditional versus self-publishing is asinine and counter-productive. Self-publishing is not a replacement for traditional publishing: it has to co-exist with traditional publishing. It creates a freedom for the author to interact with an audience and enables writers to try new forms and experiment with serialization and other forms inherent to the Internet. It isn’t a threat, it’s an opportunity.

I’ve been published by a traditional publisher, and I’ve self-published. Both have their ups and downs. The work dictates the publishing route, not the other way ‘round.
 

 UPDATE: 03 February, 2013:

 
My good friend Geoff Long requested more detail on self-publishing, the ins and outs, the personal experience and all that. So, here it is.
 

COSTS

 
I kept costs low because I did all the design work myself, from interior layouts to cover design. This comes, again, from my experience running a small publishing company in my former life.

Each print copy of QUIET COUNTRY costs me $2.15 via Createspace, in addition to $3.59 shipping, for a total of $5.74. I receive no “free copies.” While I was going through the publishing process, I had to make three versions of proofs to fix mistakes that I had made, including typos and forgotten words. From experience, I never trust the digital version of a proof of a book intended for print, so I purchased a new proof with each correction – the same cost, $5.74. Mistakes cost me a grand total of $17.22. With self-publishing, you literally pay for your mistakes.

It’s worth noting that the stock and finish of the final, printed cover for QUIET COUNTRY is of the same beautiful matte quality of my traditionally published book, COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES & ANIMATION. There was no additional charge for this, and it was an option that wasn’t available when I ran the small publishing company.

As a side note, I did not purchase an ISBN code for QUIET COUNTRY.  The print version carries the publisher as “CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.” While weighing the cost options of a block of ISBNs, I decided against purchasing a bulk group of them. This was a decision I made, and it may not be the best for you. In the future, once my catalog of self-published titles grows, I will likely purchase a block of ISBNs and redo the print version of QUIET COUNTRY.

Now, with the digital version on Kindle, it was a very organic, and simple experience. For a guide on how to prep books for Kindle, I recommend Amazon’s own guide, BUILDING YOUR BOOK FOR KINDLE. I did release C2QC digitally first, and then added a print version later (I believe it was about a month down the road). Changes I made to the print version (that cost me $17.22) were also made to the digital version for no charge. The two versions of C2QC linked up themselves, with no input from me, in about a day.

I also added the option for a signed print edition via Square (I purchased a Square card reader in November). The prices of the C2QC versions are as follows:

• Kindle version: $0.99 (I make $0.35).

• Print Version via Amazon: $7.99 (I make $2.64, the book costs $2.15 to print and Amazon takes $3.20 for the kindness, an expenditure I feel is worth it.)

• Signed Print Version via me: $9.99 + $3.00 s/h ($2.15 + $3.59 shipping to me = $5.74 + Square fee $0.27 = $6.01 + book rate shipping to purchaser = about $2.00 = $8.01, I make $3.98)

 

Not a vast money-making enterprise, but a rewarding one in other ways.
 
THE EXPERIENCE
 
I’m having a difficult time sharing a “personal experience” from the self-publishing process, as it didn’t seem foreign to me at all versus traditional. It was simply, I felt, the best way to get this particular work out there in a timely fashion (infer personal experience with more traditional means as you will, however, you should understand that each experience differs with different companies and I aim to traditionally publish again soon). I trusted my abilities to produce a compelling work in an effective package and to deliver it in a manner that would be pleasing to the reader.
 
WOULD I DO IT AGAIN? 
 

Hell yes. In fact, a hybrid of self and traditional publishing is my plan for the foreseeable future.

•••

COMING TO QUIET COUNTRY was the biggest creative challenge I’ve faced thus far (intermingled with extensive personal ones, which I won’t discuss here).

The most important lesson I learned was one that is the overarching theme of C2QC: the power of listening. Listening saved a family and brought them back together. Listening brings understanding. Listening brings a world to life and gives you the means to dig deeper into it.

The lengthy process of writing it also showed me that I need to have a deep understanding of the world in which I’m working before a story can emerge that entertains both myself during the process and the reader once my end of the bargain is complete.

In the spirit of listening, if you have any other questions about writing C2QC and the decisions I made, or would like me to go into greater detail about any aspect of the writing and/or publication process, feel free to ask me on Twitter, @tylerweaver, in the comments here, or on Facebook, and I’ll update this post as new questions come in.

 

Purchase COMING TO QUIET COUNTRY:

 

Kindle | Print | Signed Print Edition

X Marked The Spot

As throngs in Dallas gather today to celebrate the life and accomplishments of JFK in the spot where his head was blown off, demarcated with an eerie “X” – an “X” paved over last week, a symbolic sweeping under the rug of the city’s historical dirty laundry – on Elm Street, one group will be left off the remembrances. For four years, from 2005-2009, I was a member of that group, albeit in a position that, in retrospect, was not the ideal. I was not a passionate JFK researcher, but from 2005 through 2009, I worked in various capacities on the day-to-day operations at the Mary Ferrell Foundation, an organization, in the interest of full disclosure, where I am still the vice president of the Board of Directors.

One fateful July in 2005, I answered an ad on Craigslist seeking someone to help with data entry. Having been fired from my job at a wine shop in Boston (long story), I was in the market. The job posting satisfied two criteria: one: it intrigued me; two: it triggered the “why not?” notion. In August I got the job, and on August 11, 2005, I began the process of entering millions of pages of documents related to the JFK assassination into the Foundation’s archive. My role expanded to include filmmaking (it was my film school), early crude attempts at transmedia storytelling, and finally, taking over as Executive Director in 2007. During this time, I learned every skill I apply daily to my writing career, from Python programming to book cover design, to the ins and outs of publishing (I think there was some surprise on the part of my publishers when I negotiated my book deal and found tiny details that needed changing), to the most important skill I learned, one that was never honed in music school: I learned to listen.

Without that lesson, I never would have been able to write COMING TO QUIET COUNTRY. I never would have been able to hear what the characters I create in fictional worlds have to say. It showed me that people are not only their beliefs, but the fascinating combination of all of their interests to little habits to the laugh they produce. And I owe all of that to my time as part of the community non-grata in Dallas today.

It was intoxicating being around such passionate and driven people, such characters. I had wonderful experiences, some not so wonderful: getting to smoke in a bar for the last time with three wonderful friends, one a staggeringly beautiful Romanian woman who spoke fondly of a double feature of THE KARATE KID and CITIZEN KANE; chatting at the bar with various authors and friends, learning of their lives outside of the conference; Texas-sized margaritas; the wonderful shock when I received a beer at an airport with a shot of tequila and being told that that’s the norm; the most horrendous bout of near-pass-out food poisoning from dessert at the Adolphus before my final speech; the pre-keynote shots of tequila that my predecessor and I engaged in as our tradition; the “buy-a-beer” alternating years; passing the butter; seeing CASINO ROYALE on its premiere date in a movie theatre with huge seats and one of my best friends; running across the freeway from one hotel to the next, and encouraging the others trying to cross the road that they had enough time if they just manned up and ran for it; walking through the night streets of Pittsburgh on its 250th anniversary with fireworks shooting from the buildings with a group of researchers, and asking one why he read all of the plaques on monuments (his answer, “if I’m walking on someone’s blood, I want to know whose it is” or something infinitely more profound); meeting someone who became a great friend and inspired me to take stock of my life at the moment; listening to theories and postulations, all delivered with nothing less than the most absolute of conviction and passion; being told by high school students that I really spoke to them in my final speech (during which I was holding myself up to keep from passing out, thank you terribly bad and over-poweringly sweet chocolate cake), one where I called President Obama’s election the culmination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s respective campaigns for an ideal; receiving a handwritten letter from a brilliant journalist stricken with Parkinson’s and our phone conversations about his work on the House Select Committee on Assassinations and most importantly, how much he loved working on his boat.

It was the little stories within the big that moved and shaped me, stories all brought together by one thing:

I remember my first visit to Dealey Plaza in 2005, when I first interviewed people with a camera. I was a nervous wreck, making sure I remembered how to put the lights together. I remember thinking how small the place was, and how much that “X” freaked me out as tourists waited for a pause in traffic to run out into Elm Street for a photo op. I remember the slogans in the fence on the Grassy Knoll. I remember looking up at the sixth floor window of the Depository. But that “X,” man. That “X.”

Every visit since, in 2006, 2007 and 2008 (my final), that “X” haunted me. It clearly still does. “X” marks the spot. “X” is the reason for the passion, for the vitriol, the laying bare of everything that was simmering beneath the surface of this country for its entire existence; “X” represents the idea that you can “believe,” but you cannot “know;” “X” represents a distrust of government, that “the greater good” functions only as a perception on the part of those claiming to work for it; and with that “X,” history made its final plea: stop with the shit and live together, a plea that hasn’t been realized and I fear won’t be as the 50th anniversary passes into the annals of history and the day after meets with something new, some listicle, some new distraction, a cat video, a manufactured hyperbolic outrage on the vaudevillian stage of modern political discourse, mountains out of molehills and molehills out of mountains.

But then again, the “X” was paved over, swept under the rug when inconvenient, to smooth out “tripping hazards.

Indeed.

My youth – I wasn’t even a glimmer in my 10-year-old mother’s brain as she played tetherball in Killbuck, OH at 1:30PM (Eastern) on November 22, 1963 – doesn’t give me the visceral, personal connection to JFK’s assassination, but it does grant me a perspective on the happenings in the 50 years since, one that I hope is free of the myth making, one instead grounded in reality, in its shades of grey, where history is of a whole cloth, not a pretty one, but a necessary one, a window shade of experience with which to look at the present and hope that we learn from the mistakes of the past and grow as a people beyond the myth and the vitriol into the best ideal we can hope for: agreeing to disagree.

On that note, I’ll close with a quote from the man himself, one that we would do well to remember and keep with us, no matter our beliefs, so that the lesson of the “X” never goes away, no matter how many coats of asphalt may lie over it:

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Orson

He is my best friend. He is the light of my life. He is gone.

My anything-but-standard poodle, Orson, was put to sleep yesterday. He was exactly six and a half years old. It was stomach cancer, throughout 75% of his stomach, that did it. It was found during exploratory surgery after he stopped eating, had x-rays and barium test. I found out about the cancer at 3:39PM yesterday. I made the call to put him to sleep at 3:57PM. I didn’t want to be there for it. I couldn’t watch the light disappear. He knew I loved him dearly, that I love him with all of my heart.

Orson and I have been together since February, 2010. His previous owner was killed in a car crash. It’s very likely that Orson had cancer from the minute he entered my life, but you would have never known it. He was always a happy boy, special, to be sure. Special needs, one could say. The lights, with Orson, were always on, but, at least 85% of the time, nobody was home.

I now realize that my role in his life was to give him the best life I could with what little time he had to begin with. I didn’t always succeed, but I always made sure the car window was rolled down just enough so he could stick his head out and feel the breeze, so he could bite at oncoming trucks and receive a Chicken McNugget from the drive-thru girls at McDonald’s that loved him. He loved those McNuggets. He loved pizza. He loved beer. He was Daddy’s baby boy. He was my son. And now I have a fluffy white hole in my broken heart. I know it will heal over time, and I know he will always be with me.

His great grandma, who died in January, was buried with a picture of him. He was her special boy too. They always had secrets: ice cream, greasy bacon, pizza, creamed chicken, copious treats, big walks in the park. He gave her happiness in the last year of her life, and she gave him happiness in the last of his. I like to think that they’re taking walks in the park now, together, eating bacon and creamed chicken sandwiches, and that he’s doing the poodle twirl and running into furniture every time he sees her.

Orson, it has been the greatest joy in my life to have given you the best life I could. Daddy will always love you, and will always miss you. You were the best son I could have asked for.

Now, paw. [Gives paw.] Good boy. Here’s your treat. Go take a walk with your great-grandma, and don’t shit in my pergola. I love you buddy.