He found what was to his surprise a golden morsel

This post was supposed to be about Planet Comicon this weekend, but it ended up being about something different.

When I was 20, I grabbed the yoke of my life and yanked it in an entirely unexpected direction. I was frustrated with everything about myself, unhappy, confused, and only certain of one thing: I didn’t like the person I saw when I looked in the mirror.

After meeting a the people who were NewTek during a Christmas party in 1991 or 1992, I felt inspired by their efforts to fundamentally change the way television was made with the Video Toaster. See, in those days, if you wanted to make anything to put on television, it was insanely expensive, and profoundly complicated. Someone who wanted to make a show or even a short film needed tens of thousands of dollars and an experienced editor who could help them work with huge, complex, expensive machines. And there was no such thing as digital.

The Video Toaster was hardware and software that could, for about five grand, put the same tools professionals used — at a cost ten times greater — into the hands of regular, creative people. It was amazing, and it thrilled me to be part of what we knew was a fundamentally changing who was allowed to make television. We did that, but until there was online video streaming, the revolution never actually happened. I left the company when I was 22ish, and returned to Los Angeles to complete my Jedi training. Soon after, NewTek fractured, and I lost touch with the people I worked with for those years. I think about them often, and what an important influence they were on me.

It was a tumultuous time in my life. I was angry at a lot of things the way a young person who is trying desperately to get the XP necessary to level up to adult is, but I like to think that I had some of the self-awareness needed to work on changing who I was so I could get on the path to who I am.

During those years, I flew in and out of Kansas City International Airport (MCI) a lot. Like, three times a month a lot. It was something like a two hour drive from Topeka (where we lived and worked for NewTek), on a highway that just kept going and going and going and. It was not a drive I looked forward to making, but the world was at the end of it, and knowing that kept me going.

This weekend was the first time I’ve been in that airport since 1993, and it didn’t seem to have changed at all. On my way out of the airport, I looked back across almost 20 years of memory and saw the garage where I parked my car whenever I was there, and a flood of memories nearly drowned me. It was a tumultuous time, as I said, but it was also, on balance, a very good time. I’ll write about some of my memories one day, when I can sort them all out.

I don’t know how my life would have turned out if I hadn’t lived in Topeka and worked for NewTek when I did. I don’t know who I would be or where I would be if I hadn’t turned off the autopilot of my life and learned to fly while I was already in the air, during a thunderstorm … but I’m glad the flight path I took ended up eventually landing me back in Kansas City this weekend.

I have a lot of memories to visit and process.

25 thoughts on “He found what was to his surprise a golden morsel”

  1. I had no idea you worked for NewTek. Kind of neat to know someone who did. It was actually sneaking into a COMDEX back when I was 13 or 14, and spending time in a NewTek booth, enraptured with their Digiview product and early graphics stuff that convinced me I really needed to learn to program (I can still recall, vividly, this digitised woman stuttering like a female Max Headroom on the NewTek screens, saying, “Welcome to NewTek. I was captured with Digiview). Later on, I got hooked, yet again on a NewTek product (Lightwave) that taught me rendering and animation (poorly, as I’ve always been a horrible dilettante, but I had a wonderful time doing bad modeling and animations anyway, and have met some incredible people doing it). Glad to know they had just as much positive influence on their own employees as they did on their users.

  2. It makes me a bit wistful for Topeka, when you talk about that forever drive from Topeka to MCI. I know that drive like the back of my hand, gotta love the Turnpike and its never ending construction.

    I had that feeling the first time I went home after moving to Phoenix.

  3. Had a very similar experience to yours yesterday when I went to downtown Denver for a benefit concert for a friend of ours who is a performing artist and facing some difficult health issues. I spent the 1980s working in Denver (downtown), and commuting in by bicycle from a funky neighborhood across the freeway from downtown. Those were interesting times, and I was a very different person — it was before I went back to grad school, and about the time I was logging hours as a science writer and screenwriter for astronomy documentaries. Of course I was much younger…

    So, going back yesterday and seeing how some things had changed a LOT while others had changed very little evoked a LOT of memories… still processing those, too. The old ‘hood has changed, our old house is gone. Condos in its place. Downtown has changed… and the building where we ate our dinner (now a Ted’s Grill) used to be a funky art gallery and gift shop.

    Those memories stirred up by your visit are important…

    cherish them: they’re seminal because they remind you of what you were, and as you rightly sussed out, those times made you what you ARE.


  4. Reminds me of my days at grad school at Purdue from ’96-’98 studying for a Ph.D in Medicinal Chemistry. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Purdue, but 10 minutes in any direction from campus, and you are in the middle of wheat and corn fields. I was just married and it was just the two of us. I thought I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, but Flamed Out tremendously. I realized that there were other things in life than doing what I had thought I was supposed to do. Sounds like you had a similar experience, and had the guts to change your path. I just wished I’d figured it out at 20 instead of 25.

  5. Allowe to join what I’m sure will be a vast chorus of voices thanking you for coming to Planet Comicon. Thank you for giving a talk/ panel that was heart warming and touching and funny and inspiring. Thank you for signing my Cards Against Humanity card with charm and humor at the end of a long day that came at the end of a long weekend. Thank you for knowing it was okay to laugh when I told my friend Mitzi that I had actually waited in line to see her. Thank you, Wil, for being unfailingly kind to the con staff and volunteers (yes, they have already mentioned that) as well as to the patrons. It is a rare and wonderful thing to know that you truly do live the life that you are encouraging others to live. I was honored to have the opportunity to meet you, and I hope that life will have your return to the Kansas City area slated much sooner than twenty years from now.

    My warmest regards,

    Amber(Bob) Bingham

    1. BOB! I didn’t know you followed Wil’s blog. (Hi, it’s Leo, btw. *grins*)

      And I have to second everything Bob said here. Wil, you were unfailingly kind and generally awesome to everyone, and lots of the other volunteers at the con told me how kind you were to them, too. I wasn’t surprised, of course, and I’m sure you know this anyway, but I wanted to emphasize that it really does make an impact on people. it warmed my nerdy heart.

  6. Sad I didn’t get to see you at planetcomicon this weekend (my husband and I had tickets but had an emergency so couldn’t make it :( )

    I’ve lived in Kansas my entire life, it’s a place that is easy to both love and to hate. You grow up thinking that it’s a place that no one ever ends up only escapes from, as I’ve gotten older I’ve discovered that sooooo many people have a connection in some way to this area.

    Also since I didn’t get a chance to say it this weekend (I had a super practiced what do I want to say to Wil Wheaton speech :P) I want to say it here (not sure if you read these comments but I’m gonna throw it out into the universe). I actually owe you a huge thank you – when I was a wee kid I had a major crush on you (the kind of crazy crush that 7 year old girls are prone to). Because of that crush I was bound and determined to watch TNG even though in my kid mind it wasn’t a cartoon and didn’t seem that interesting – I was soooo wrong. TNG opened my mind to all things sci-fi, all things geek, all things amazing in the world. It also became this wonderful bridge for me and my new stepdad to connect over, no matter what was going on I knew that every week him and I were going to watch this show – we bonded over it and today all these years later my stepdad is my dad and we still love to geek out over shows together.

    Hopefully you can make it out here again next year – from what I heard from people who went the con was awesome!

    1. I’ve said it many times, both here and elsewhere, and I’ll say it again now. Greater love hath no man than he that loves the children of another. I’m glad you and your stepdad geeked out together over TNG and that you forged a bond that is still strong. It’s things like that that really matter in this world.

      Thanks for sharing your story, and I hope you get to meet Wil one day. Also, I hope the emergency has settled down and everyone is alright. Best wishes to you and yours.

      P.S.-my only connection to Kansas City is a trip to the Cabela’s there several years ago for the Dock Dogs National Championships. My dog missed the finals by one dog, but I scored a missing Star Wars collectable from some little toy shop, so the trip was a win after all! Much love to KC!

  7. It is those experiences in life that helped you become the pilot of your own life and also colored in who you are now. It sucks to have the painful memories, the angry memories, the ones that just make you feel down, but they are part of life!
    I’ve been having many flashbacks while reading a great book called “Just a Geek” of the frustration I felt about being too quiet the time and the admiration I had of another coder and geek.
    Thank you!

  8. Thanks for being a part of Planet Comicon this weekend. I was one of many, many people who had a chance to meet you, and it was an honor!

    BTW, I was in the gaming room when they held the raffle. I hope Space Cadets went well, because you had five very excited, enthusiastic people eager to play!

  9. I forgot that you were involved with NewTek. I first encountered the Video Toaster in 11th grade when our high school got one in ’91, I think it was. What an amazing piece of technology. I cannot say that enough. There are products today that are direct descendants of the Toaster.

    You’re right about the accessibility. I spent HOURS playing around with that stuff and it really fostered my love of making television, which, before then, was not the career I was going for at all.

    Now, I’m a television technical director, and it’s awesome. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

    (Kiki Stockhammer. That name just popped into my head! Why is it there after all of these years?! Where’s my “pull down the shades” wipe?)

    1. “There are products today that are direect descendants of the Toaster.” Yup – we have a Tricaster Studio at work, which is more or less a fancy small-form-factor Windows computer with a dedicated VT[5] card inside.

      And yes, had I had access to hardware like the Tricaster when I was much younger, I almost certainly would have gone in the same career path as you did.

  10. Your analogy of flying through a storm reminds me of how I sometimes comfort myself when things get rough here.

    “Storm’s getting worse.”
    “We’ll pass through it soon enough.”

    Yeah, Firefly (okay, Serenity, but you get the point) is serious comfort food like that, and this entry is quite lovely, too. Thanks for sharing it. I’m just glad you learned to use your wings eventually. Well done. Here’s to love keeping us all in the air a good while longer.

  11. I know that stretch of interstate far too well, I live in Manhattan and drive to KC quite often. Born and raised here in Kansas, it is certainly different out here, and I hope to sometime follow in your footsteps and get out, onto bigger and better things, but never forget what I learned and where I came from.

    It was a pleasure getting to meet you, even if for a brief few moments, this weekend at Planet Comicon! Very glad you made the journey back here – I think between just the brief chats with fans, the talk you gave, and the gaming room, it touched a lot of lives. (How you handled little Addison’s “questions” was genius.) Looking forward to your next journey to the area!

  12. Speaking of editing…

    “After meeting a the people who were NewTek during a Christmas party…” and “…what we knew was a fundamentally changing who…”

    Those “a” gremlins are at it a again. At least is wasn’t the “Q” gremlins.

    No preview feature for comments. I’m fairly sure I’ll regret posting this…

  13. Yep, well, you’d be right about the familiarity of MCI. The only thing that’s changed is that there are bathrooms and Starbucks stands inside the gates, and one security station for about every five gates now. Everything else is the same.

    Being a bit on the broke side (waiting for Sallie Mae to send money to KU so that they can drop it in my bank account, so I can give some of it … back to Sallie Mae; the irony is not lost here), I couldn’t afford to come this weekend to Planet Comicon. I hope you come back next year!

  14. I wasn’t able to make it Planet Comicon this year. I’m doubly kicking myself over it now that I know it was your triumphant return to Kansas (or at least Kansas-adjacency). I hope you decide to make Planet Comicon a regular stop. They are completely insane if they don’t try everything they can think of to get you to come back, of course.

    I remember your Topeka period (born, mostly raised and still residing here in Topeka as I am). You’ve taken several prestige class levels in Cool Dad, Seasoned Actor and Generally Awesome Dude since then.

    Still, your heart was in the right place back then, too. I remember you talking about how the Video Toaster was going to let artists get their ideas to the people without having to go through the Powers That Be at the networks. It was “Information Wants to Be Free” phrased another way. You had the mind of a hacker under that ’80s hairdo.

    We knew you were going to become something pretty special, and you did. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you didn’t.

  15. This is a beautiful piece of writing. I always enjoy reading your blog because it is so profoundly rich with invaluable impressions and thoughts.

    Thanks, Marty.

    P.s Radio Free Burrito is awesome! :)

  16. AIRPLANE GEEK ALERT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Hi Wil, how you doing!
    I love airplanes and im going to work as flight technician when im done in school. Hopefully i get a job with a US airline, like United, Delta or American, so that I can move to United States. (Living in Sweden now)

    I would like to ask you if you remember what airline you mostley flew with also if you know aircraft type like md-80 or 737, 757? I know that TWA was pretty big in Kansas City Internatinal.

    This is just for pure personal interest, im a HUGE airplane geek!
    Hope to hear from you soon Wil! Take care!

  17. It’s been a while since I’ve commented on your blog (I used to follow over at Exile), but with life being busy, I didn’t have time to follow any blogs for a while. I’d stop in occasionally to read, but I wouldn’t comment. I don’t know why I didn’t bother to comment. After all, I have my own blog where I post political commentary as well as my science-fiction writing, and I always want people to comment, even if the post already has 100 comments. Anyway, after seeing you at Planet ComiCon, I had to stop by again and say something.

    I think I remember from way back that you’d mentioned living in Kansas, but it had slipped my mind. I-70 is mind-numbing west of the city. I’m originally from Boston, so moving out here was intimidating at first (middle of nowhere)… but KC isn’t like the rest of Kansas. (Next time you’re in KC, never mind the barbecue… go to McCoy’s Public House – a local brewery and pub in town with amazing food and even better beer. Their Ursa Major stout is mind-blowing. )

    As I said in reply to my friend Bob up there, it made a big impact on people how genuine and kind you were to everyone. I know I babbled a bit when I came up to you and gave you the 30-second distilled version of my back-story, but when something has been eating at you for a couple of years and you’ve finally got a chance to get it off your chest, babbling is bound to happen.

    My buddy Paul, one of the other volunteers, was thrilled to get a chance to give you some of the Boulevard stout back in the volunteer/staff area where he could present it to you without a crowd around. He’s an actor himself, but works for one of the very fine liquor stores in town, and had been wanting to give you some of KC’s best brew for a long time. He got his copy of “Just a Geek” autographed, and was thrilled when you said you remembered the e-mail correspondence. He was still bouncing about it two days later.

    Anyway, I’m babbling again. An attempt to summarize the rest of my thoughts (can you tell I’m a novelist, not a short-story writer?):

    – Thanks for making me smile, not just years ago in Star Trek, but many times since then.
    – Thanks for taking the time to listen to me, even though I know you had a massive line of other equally enthusiastic fans who wanted to see you.
    – Thanks for being a bright spot in an extremely stressful and rather emotional weekend. You and Nick Brendon being so friendly helped a lot. After seven years in the Army, not too much gets to me anymore, but I guess I’m still a sensitive little geek when I’m overtired.
    – That last time I went to Dragon*Con, I might have spent a lot of time in my hotel room, non-functional and upset about missing so much of the convention because I was sick, but I made damned sure that I got myself to your panel. You had me laughing uncontrollably for the entire hour with your “Cape of Dicks,” and for that hour, I forgot that my body hurt. It was a small blessing, but it meant a lot.
    – I’m glad I got to see you when I was healthy and functional. If I’m lucky, health issues will stay in remission (it’s not perfect, but with meds, I can finally do almost everything I used to do), and I’ll be able to keep going to the conventions I love so much, and maybe get to listen to you speak again.
    And finally…
    – I’m a microbrew beer nut, but I home-brew mead, not beer. Want a bottle from my next brewing? :)

    Thank you again, for everything.

  18. Hoping you got my emails with the photos from Worlds of Fun back in the late 80’s. I emailed them to what I thought I remembered as your email address that you said when I met you Saturday at Planet Comicon. I may have been too excited from just getting to meet you and having you give me an autographed picture in exchange for scanning and emailing them to you.

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