Thursday Thoughts – Your Friend the Potto

I like weird animals. This stems from an early love of dinosaurs, but since those glorious beasts died off and/or evolved into birds, I’ll happily take any oddity nature provides us. But what counts as “weird” when a bus-sized, tusked-faced, hose-nosed behemoth like the elephant feels pedestrian?

There’s countless answers to that, which I’d gladly babble on about at length, but my all-time favorite will always be the potto. My fascination with the little fluffy oddballs earned me the nickname “potto” in college, and it’s stuck as a nickname (and mistaken surname) since.

Roughly the size of a cat, they don’t look like much at first glance. They’re just wide-eyed, round, hairy things. (The similarities I share with them are staggering) But under that bundle of innocuous fluff is a hardcore creature!

The most metal of all is the fact that its neck vertebrae extend out as spines. That’s right – that doe-eyed teddy bear will stab you with its neck bones! And if that wasn’t enough to drive you off, it’ll bite you with a special saliva mixture that inflames the wound. Still haven’t learned your lesson? It’ll just curl up and drop out of the trees like a cannonball and waddle off like it ain’t no thang – good luck catching up. It is the living embodiment of the trope where the goofball supporting character is secretly the utter badass.

No, it’s not one of the four venomous mammals in the world. It’s not going to set any world records in terms of speed, strength or ferocity. But it’s a stub-fingered cuddle-monkey that can stab you with its spine! Isn’t that just fascinating and delightful?!

Useful as a Solar-Powered Flashlight

One of my biggest inspirations is my father. He was the first person to introduce me to the idea that if I wanted to tell a story all I had to do was sit down and write it. I tapped out countless pages of nonsense on his electric typewriter, futzed about on his computer back when Microsoft Word still looked like DOS prompt, and showed him any number of (now cringe-worthy) Star Trek manuscripts and fan-fics to critique.

Among many of his articles and short stories, one in particular has always stuck with me. I reprint it here with permission:

What? No Post-Apocalypse Skills?
originally published August 24, 1998
© Charlotte Business Journal. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission
Welcome to my nightmare.

Each of us has a situation that we dread we’ll be a part of – a giant earthquake, walking into a really big web full of hairy spiders, having the second phrase of your column end in a preposition – pretty terrifying stuff. I want to let you in on mine. I want to TESTIFY!

I play solitaire on the computer. Yeah, like, you don’t? Why do you think the government’s after Bill Gates? A monopoly? Oh, please. The real reason is some CEO’s special assistant burnt up the mouse chasing that red seven. Because the sales department wanted to win one more game of FreeCell before they started their obligatory cold calls. Because there are thousands of offices out there in Business Land that grind to a halt on a regular basis when the action of the Microsoft Hearts Network is hot. But I digress . . .

I play when I should be working. Just the other night, when Daddy was “upstairs writing,” my nine year old son caught me in the middle of a tenacious game of Vegas Solitaire. The PC gods were smiling. I capped off the last king. The cards wheeled in their little Pentium mambo, ending in a bright green screen asking if I wanted to “Deal Again?”

My son said, “Gee, Dad. You’re good!”

There was no pretense. He actually thought his dad was King of the Keyboard. Master of the Mouse. Sultan of Solitaire. He was proud of me.

There’s something heady that comes from the unabashed adoration of a child. It is a fleeting feeling. I know, deep down in my primordial core, that sooner or later he’ll grow up, work a computer with the same ease I manage trimming my toenails and leave me in my old age, wheezing in his binary dust. But right now, he’s proud.

But was his pride based on the two novels I have lurking on the hard drive? The three dozen short stories searching for a publisher? The wall full of advertising awards? Nope. I play no-prisoners solitaire. It gave me pause. And brought me to my nightmare.

It’s after World War Three on Earth. India has obliterated Pakistan. China, defending its borders, has taken out India and, oops – ha-ha, one little rascally Scud slipped into Taiwan. America and Russia heave a couple of MIRV’s at China and France launches at the United States because it’s a good excuse to get back at us for introducing Le Drugstore into their language.

The radiation. Nuclear winter. Those are the up-sides, along with the fact all the talk-show hosts will be vaporized in the first strike. No, the bad thing is I survived.

And have no marketable skills whatsoever.

After they drop the Big One, what is going to be in demand? Society will need professionals to help it get back on its feet. Doctors, mechanical and electrical engineers, even farmers that can get the crops perked up will be the new barons of Armageddon Industry. And I’ll be at the bottom of the post-apocalyptic pecking order, right there with politicians, radio sales people and the Spice Girls.

Think about it. The last vestiges of humanity are scrapping for survival and the best I’ve got to offer is a dynamite Mr. Haney impression and my prowess at Solitaire. I’m a damn good public address announcer, but with the NBA experiencing a 30 megaton lockout, there goes that gig. If I only had something to offer my fellow survivors, a mastery of some necessary craft…

Bloodied, but bold leader –  “This computer is our last hope to get the power back on so the old people and children won’t freeze. Suggestions?”

Me –  “Umm . . . red jack on the black queen.”

I feel a sudden urge to walk around with a sign saying, “Take the Bomb outta Bombay.” And I will. Just as soon as this column finishes printing out.

Might as well play a little Solitaire ‘til it does.

As I write this, my old home town is currently under a State of Emergency. I’m a two-day drive from my parents as the National Guard marches in to stop rioters and looters. While my family isn’t near the worst of violence, I’m left sitting here living my father’s nightmare – there is a crisis and I’m just about useless during it. And that’s nothing compared to larger racial, political and terror concerns facing the world and the nations I call home.

I’ve spent many a long night staring out towards Lake Ontario, where night and water come together as one, and try not to be crushed by the worry and the sense of powerlessness. And on the more hopeful nights, I come back to this thought: if I need an escape, so does everyone else. What I do isn’t big. It won’t shape national policy or cure disease. It won’t end systemic violence or convince people to accept the simple concept of treating each other equally. But it will give people a few minutes of escape. As long as you’re invested in that comic, you’re taking a break from reality. Sometimes a breather is all you need to shoulder the burden you carry for just a bit longer.

So today I’m going to find that escape by working – with my phone, email and messenger all immediately in my grasp and a weather eye on the news.

Stay safe, everyone.

Why I Write

This past Fan Expo I had the good fortune of meeting lots of incredible fans. Some came specifically to see me while others did a double-take when passing the table and being happily surprised to find me there. But there was a particular duo that stopped by that put my life into perspective.

First though, a bit of context: I grew up engrossed in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, so it’s a point of personal pride to have become a fixture of it. After ten years I’ve typed my way to being the most prolific writer for the franchise. That right there is a spiffy feather in my cap. Then there are the fans that have come to enjoy my take on the series, some of them passionately, which is even better. It’s not just me enjoying my work, but others are enjoying it too.

But that can’t match the father and son pair at Fan Expo. They introduced themselves at a panel I was on about writing for young readers and followed up with me at my table later. The son had grown up with reading and speech disabilities, so getting him to read anything was difficult. But when he picked up my run on the Sonic books, something clicked. They entertained and inspired him to push on with his therapy. The young man I met at Fan Expo was well-spoken, represented himself superbly, and I wouldn’t have known he’d had endured any struggle without hearing his story.

Their story isn’t the first of its kind I’ve heard. Usually once per show I’ll have a family come by and talk about how my writing got their child to read, even catching them up with their peers. It never gets old, or any less humbling. That weekend there was someone who met their personal hero, and I had the overwhelming privilege of being that hero.

So yeah – ten years of writing my childhood favorite is a joy. Ten years of making fellow Sonic fans happy is even more delightful. But five minutes of meeting someone’s life you helped change for the better? That’s unquantifiably amazing. So everyone who has been helped or touched by my work – thank you. You make it all worth it. You give me worth.