Wasted Space, A short Film

Great films have a habit of forcing me to scratch my head. And this one left a pile of dead skin on my shoulders. (gross. I know.)

Gene Roddenberry claimed at that “all art was an attempt to answer the question, ‘What is it all about?’” and I have taken that claim and held it up to almost every piece of worthy art I have come across.

For this one, I’m struggling to find an answer.

Here’s one take:

Negative Space is practically perfect. Like so many shorts I admire, the film incorporates multitudes of seemingly contradictory qualities: at a mere 5 minutes, there is really no wasted space, and yet it is exceedingly spare. Based off a celebrated Ron Koertge poem that clocks in at only 150 words, it allows for moments of subtlety and contemplation that are so necessary in visual storytelling—those perfectly blocked shots, held for an extra moment, that drive home the rich emotional interiority of its characters. It’s simultaneously one of the most humanistic films of recent memory, but it also stars no humans. Its stop-motion animation is expressive, detailed and grounded, and yet it has no compunction about taking off on flights of fancy, segueing via delightful transitions into fantastical asides that play with scale and setting.

And, most remarkably, none of these elements are simply stylistic choices, excuses for technical bravado, or kludgy compromises to the process of adaptation. They are all deep reflections of the film’s core themes, representing and enriching them. Adapting work from another medium is rare for shorts, but rarer still, in any medium, is an adaptation that exceeds the original. Negative Space fills in the subtext of Koertge’s poem, but doesn’t bludgeon it, and the insights and personal experiences the film’s creators bring to the source material prove additive rather than incongruent, elevating the work." - S/W Curator, Jason Sondhi (via).

But that doesn’t help. What themes are reflected? Enriched?

I agree that the artistic nature of the film is spot-on and “nearly perfect.” But what about the message? What is he trying to say?

And what poem does it help fill in? . . . oh. I found it. It’s called, Negative Space (huh) and is the narration to the film:

My dad taught me to pack: lay out everything. Put back half. Roll things
that roll. Wrinkle-prone things on top of cotton things. Then pants, waist-
to-hem. Nooks and crannies for socks. Belts around the sides like snakes.
Plastic over that. Add shoes. Wear heavy stuff on the plane.
We started when I was little. I’d roll up socks. Then he’d pretend to put me
in the suitcase, and we’d laugh. Some guys bond with their dads shooting
hoops or talking about Chevrolets. We did it over luggage.
By the time I was twelve, if he was busy, I’d pack for him. Mom tried
but didn’t have the knack. He’d get somewhere, open his suitcase and text
me—”Perfect.” That one word from him meant a lot.
The funeral was terrible—him laid out in that big carton and me crying
and thinking, Look at all that wasted space.

So what is the wasted space? Was it time spent apart? Wasted opportunities? Is his dad nothing more than a packed item now and no longer human . . . because he never was? Because he was only just a figure or title?

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Is he crying at his father’s funeral because he’s acknowledging that he should be thinking about something else? That he should be mourning the loss of his father and not the wasted space? That he should have a coffin full of memories to think about and talk about, rather than a phone full of simple texts that read “perfect” but which meant so much to a lonely son back home?

Should they have meant so much to a lonely son back home?

Maybe. Probably.

What do you think?

Man I love stop-motion films.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes : My Grandfather, and the tools he left behind : Short Films

Blue Eyes Never Turned Brown, by Jenny Mashak

"This is my dad as he appears in my mind - in the woods, ready to cut firewood, pipe in hand."

"This is my dad as he appears in my mind - in the woods, ready to cut firewood, pipe in hand."

(Guest post by Jenny Mashak)

A few years ago, a friend lost his father, somewhat unexpectedly. The father was elderly, his health had been in decline for awhile but he had been more or less fine one day and then the next, he was not. He was gone within three days, barely enough time for my friend's brothers to travel and say goodbye to their father. We attended the funeral and my friend spoke about his dad. He told stories and related memories of his father, and talked about how much his father influenced his own parenting. It was a very typical funeral, I imagine, but it stuck with me because it was a friend who had lost his parent and because my own father had had a major health issue very recently.

In July of 2013, my dad nearly died from an aortic dissection. By all accounts, he is one of the luckiest people alive right now. The typical lifespan for someone who suffers what he did is twelve seconds. He was incredibly lucky in that the aneurysm did not fully rupture but started leaking into the layers of his aorta. It was painful and required a life flight and emergency surgery, but he lived. The doctors who performed the surgery told us initially the best case scenario they could foresee was paralysis from the waist down. Not only did my dad live, he walks and lives normally. About two years ago, he also had a bout of lung cancer. His tumor was discovered in the course of looking for other issues and so was caught long before he had any symptoms. He received a partial lung resection from a world class surgeon and did not have to undergo radiation or chemotherapy. While speaking with his surgeon, his aortic dissection came up and the surgeon was amazed at my dad's story. Weeks before, the surgeon had performed a double lung transplant but he said my dad's survival was miraculous. 

I have a lot of memories surrounding Dad’s triple A, from the white-knuckle, completely silent drive to Rapid City, to the sudden realization, after two days of staring at them, that there were posters on the walls of the ICU waiting room. Most of it has faded to the point that I no longer get panic attacks watching medical shows on tv. But what has stuck with me is how completely unprepared I was for the thought that my father might die. From the moment I finally heard the phone ringing at 3am, to the moment the phone rang in the waiting room to tell us Dad had made it through surgery, I did not believe he could actually die, even though the various doctors and surgeons tried to make it clear that his death was not only possible but probable. During the long night after his surgery, we took turns keeping vigil, monitoring the beeping from the twelve machines and thirty two different tubes keeping him alive. We all spoke of what we would need to do to accommodate possible disabilities, preparing ourselves for my dad not being able to care for himself. We did nothing to prepare ourselves for the possibility that he would die. 

In the immediacy of his medical emergency, there were things to be done, things to be researched, things to take care of. But none of us ever brought up the things that needed to be said. And in the years since, I don't think any of us have really taken the steps we need to deal with our emotions for and about each other. 

When Dad got his cancer diagnosis, he initially misunderstood his diagnosis and spent an entire day convinced he had mere weeks to live. He was preparing himself to do the paperwork necessary to take care of my mom and then off himself. In a strange way, it gave my sister, who has always had a somewhat fraught relationship with our father, an opening to talk about the things he needed to talk about and give her an insight into what kind of man he is. She spent several hours with him, listening to him and actually hearing him, for the first time perhaps. A lot of the things she had believed about our dad weren't necessarily wrong or false, but skewed and colored by her own life. 

Here's the thing about my dad: he doesn't talk about himself much. He has a big personality and lots of opinions but he loves to argue enough that you can never really know which opinion is his truest. He is also often overshadowed by the personalities of his wife and three daughters. The four of us are border collies, constantly in motion, herding everything and everyone towards a destination. My dad is a Great Pyrenees, blending in, looking like he's sleeping but aware of everything around him, ready to roar into action if something threatens his charges.

A few months ago, my sister, who is a counselor, was messing around with the Meyers-Briggs personality evaluation. She asked me to take the evaluation- my type has been pretty consistent for over 20 years. Hers was predictable as well and for kicks, she asked our parents to take it. We were able to predict my mother's type pretty well but neither of us had the slightest idea of what my dad would be. He still hasn't taken it, or at least, hasn't told us that he's taken it. I think the fact that I can't predict if my father would be an introvert or extrovert probably indicates that he tends toward introverted, but it also says something that I don't know for sure. 

All of this comes together in my head in a morbid way- what would I say about my dad at his funeral? There are things I know about my dad, like how old he is, or that he tells everyone he is 5'10" when he is most definitely not. There are things I think about my dad, like that he is incredibly stubborn and I get my tendency towards clutter from him. There are also things I remember about my dad, like how he used to climb trees when we played hide-and-seek with him so he was impossible for us to find. Or how he told us his blue eyes would turn brown if we forgot to kiss him goodnight. And then there are things that were filtered through my mother, like how he could barely handle when each of us started dating. He never said a word to any of us about what he was thinking or feeling but according to my mother, he hated it and would have kept us penned up at home until we were 30. 

For Father's Day, my sister purchased tickets to take my father to a Beach Boys concert. She invited me to go with so it would be just the three of us. The only other memory I have of just the three of us was in our old green Córdoba, on the way to pick my mom and new baby sister up from the hospital. I was two, my older sister was five and my dad was 29. That was 37 years ago. 

The concert was fun and we had a great time. I had always known my dad liked The Beach Boys but listening to them and watching the videos they play as accompaniment to the music seemed to awaken memories and feelings Dad hadn't thought about in years. He told us about his first car, a 1936 Ford he'd picked up somewhere when he was twelve. It didn't have a title and he drove it around the farm where he worked. Now he wishes he hadn't been so rough on it and had kept it. At intermission and any breaks in the music, Dad talked about listening to The Beach Boys as a kid and in high school- he liked that they sang about cars, even if the hot rods they sang about weren't as popular in rural Wisconsin as they were on the West Coast. He told us stories of driving around with his brothers and friends, usually doing something legally dubious, but they were just kids having fun.

I haven't yet found the words to articulate the emotions that night brought out in me. Part of it was watching The Beach Boys, live and the memorialized versions in the photos and videos playing on the large screen behind them as they sang. They are clearly old men now, with a career starting in 1961. It was somewhat heartbreaking to see the photos and videos from 57 years ago, peopled with the old men on stage and their friends who didn't make it to old age. The larger part of it was seeing and listening to my dad, and thinking about all of what he's been through in the past six or seven years, realizing that at one point, he was one of those vital young men who has now aged into an old man.

On the drive home, Dad said that he could check seeing The Beach Boys off of his bucket list. Until he said that, I had no idea that seeing The Beach Boys with my father was on my bucket list but it turns out it was and I am grateful that I was able to check it off.

As I grow older, and my dad older still, I realize there is so much I don’t know about him. I don’t know that we can learn to communicate at this stage of either of our lives, through the membranes of long history and our own reticent personalities and emotional repression, but I do know that I want to at least push the barriers a little. Because one day, I will stand at his funeral. I will shake hands with people who knew him, hug those who loved him and hear unfamiliar stories about him. I will also have a chance to share my stories about my dad and I want to have more than just enough to say. Because he deserves it. Because he’s my dad. And because his eyes never turned brown.


If you have a story or link or something you'd like to share, let me know! 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Fatherhood  :  On Parenting




The Great Wall: More than a History Lesson

"Climbing the Wall was very scary in the beginning," Judah writes in his journal, "but as we got to the fourth tower, it got a lot more fun and I got more brave." 

A little over a year ago, I mentioned to Josey (my wife) that I would like to take a small trip with Judah to the Great Wall. She thought it was a good idea too, but the conversation somewhat ended as soon as it started, because there wasn't time in our schedule - we were soon planning to have our fourth child and move back to the States. Near the halfway point of our last hundred days however, she brought it up again and suggested maybe we look into it - as a sort of last goodbye to our five years in China. 

In the coming months, the idea began to gain momentum and my journal slowly accumulated ideas and plans for the trip. Some of which would come to fruition, others would not, and that was fine because what I unexpectedly gained was the chance to watch my son, over the course of a couple hours, overcome his fears and learn foundational life-lessons. All because we made time to hike the Great Wall of China.

The Great Wall of China is long, 21,196 km (13,171 mi) long, and it holds some of the most splendid and awe-inspiring images Google can offer. But we didn't go to those places. Instead, we went further north, where the Wall has not been refurbished, where portions appear more like raised dirt paths than an ancient impenetrable barrier, and where we could stay the night without being bothered. 

Isolated, we walked on the original, untainted yet weathered, Great Wall of China.  

From the beginning, the path was tough. Often, the stairs were higher than Judah's knees, a few sections required straight up climbing, and at all times, the terrain was rough and uncertain. Steep edges plunged down on either side. For a ten-year old boy carrying a fifteen-pound pack (there were no lakes or streams around, so we had to carry up all our water), it was a bit unnerving. "It's dangerous," he kept saying, hunched over, clinging to the wall with both hands, "We could fall."

At first, I was patient and tried to sooth his fears. Then, as the whining continued and the sun grew more and more hot, I wasn't. "Stop being afraid!" I barked, but it didn't help. Unsurprisingly, it made things worse. Tears came to his eyes. "Just make it to the next tower," I said, "Then we can take a break."

Inside the tower, the temperature dropped about ten degrees and a swift breeze rushed through the windows and doors. We sat, pulled out our lunches and had a talk about fear, about how it's okay to be afraid because it can act as a guide - it can protect us. But also, how it should never control us. "You need to respect the Wall, son, but not fear it. When we climb, we need to be careful and go slow, but we don't need to give in to our fear. We overcome it." 

He nodded and said, "okay," but I didn't really know what that meant or if what I'd said mattered. I wasn't sure if he heard me or not. So we finished our lunch and continued, him in the lead and me encouraging from behind, and I watched my son transform. He started attacking the Wall, embracing the harder sections and walking with a confidence and surety he hadn't shown before. The whimpering stopped, his back straightened, and our speed steadily increased. Suddenly, we were hiking the Great Wall of China.

This lesson, this time and transformation of my son, was not listed in my journal prior to the trip, but it presented itself because of the trip, and because I was fortunate enough to be there and to, literally, walk through it with him. On the Great Wall of China! (As often as I write it here, I said it there. Every time we stopped for a break, every tower we summited, and just about every ten minutes or so, I'd say, "Judah, we're on the GREAT WALL OF CHINA!")

Around five-thirty, we reached the last of the towers (there were more, of course, but this one was in the best condition). We set up camp. We rested.

"We put our bags down," Judah writes, "and went up the mountain a little bit more and found a destroyed tower. A whole side of it fell into the inside and me and my dad sat on the edge and looked at the mountains. Then we found some firewood and we started back down and I slipped but I was far from the edge but then gave my firewood to Dad because we were right at the edge."

"Me and my dad." I love that, because that is exactly what this trip was, just us. No cellphones, no computers, and no games. Just us. 

And a hammok. 

And the sunset.

When the sun went down, we crawled into the tent and read by lamplight. Birds picked at our leftover dinner, the wind shook the flaps of our tent, and Judah asked if I'd rather stay in China or move to America. "I don't know," I answered, "I love them both. What about you?"

"Same." He said. Then we talked about moving from China and leaving family and friends and school and all the things we love about China. This conversation was in my journal of things to do, but coming up this way, in the still of the night, seemed much more appropriate, more natural. And even though it didn't last that long, for Judah, it was enough. Which was enough for me.

That night, we both slept better than expected. I even set my alarm, just in case, and was surprised that I actually needed it. I rolled out of bed around 4:30 but didn't have the heart to wake Judah. The little guy was tuckered.

Right outside the tower, on the edge of the wall, was a small ledge of crumbled stones, and it was just large enough for me to read, drink some coffee, and watch the sun rise in the far, hazy distance.

Judah slept for almost another three hours, allowing me plenty of time to think and consider the last true days of China. 

In recent days, the packing and cleaning and scrambling to put the major pieces in play for this trip has stolen any chance of considering all that we're moving toward, and all that we're leaving behind. But, while sitting in the quiet and watching the sun rise, a question finally surfaced, "How can our leaving bless others?" I've been so consumed with what we'll be missing, what we'll be leaving, and how we will be struggling with the transition that I've thought very little of how our leaving could bless others.

It suddenly occurred to me that I've been rather selfish in my final days. That I've been thinking of me and my family, not others. Not how I could bless them and love them, but how they might help me, how they could bless me. Many people did, graciously, but what did I do for them? 

Not much.

Before leaving for Beijing, I grabbed a few cards and stuffed them in my backpack, not sure what I might use them for but pretty confident I would need them for something. I snatched them from my bag and pulled the permanent marker from Judah's. Then, I sat and wrote a note. I knew how our leaving could possibly bless someone - even if it was too little  too late.

It was time to wake up Judah.

"What are you doing?" he asked after everything was packed. "I'm leaving these here," I said.


"Because it might bless someone."

He was warming his hands by the fire, but then stopped and walked over, "But don't we need them?"

"Need them? No. We could still use them for sure, but don't you think it would be pretty cool to hike all this way and find these nice things?"


"Well, that's why we're gonna do it. To leave a blessing for someone."

A small smile crept in, "We should leave a note with your email address."

I smiled too, "Already done."

"I have learned two lessons," Judah writes at the end of his journal, "but my dad says I learned three. He says I learned that it's okay to be afraid but fear cannot overcome you, and that dads know everything. I also learned that video games won't teach you anything but physical work can teach you to endure even when you're tired."

Like any other kid, Judah loves playing video games. He's playing one now, as I write, and it is a constant discussion of when and for how long he is allowed to play. Near the end of our journey, at the place where Judah was initially afraid and wanted to stop for the night, I asked him, "Aren't you glad we didn't stop when you wanted? That we kept going to the top."

He laughed a bit, "Yeah. We wouldn't have made it very far."

"Nope," I said.

"I don't know why I was so scared, it really isn't that big of a deal," and we both walked, with ease, over the section that challenged his heart so deeply the day before. Something a video game could never have taught him.


To paraphrase and steal from Thoreau, we went to the Wall because I wished to live deliberately, to suck out all the marrow of our last days in China, and to see if we could not learn what it had to teach. At the end, all my thoughts and emotions are reduce it to its lowest terms...

A night on the Great Wall of China, with my first-born son, to cap off five years living in this beautiful country. I can think of no better way to say goodbye.


For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Fatherhood  :  On Parenting