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Words Can Change a Life: A Q&A with Tim Graham

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Tim Graham on sports, writing, and his journey to Buffalo.

In a world filled with participation trophies, I’m a strong proponent of the championship belt. If you happen to be the best third grade teacher or donut maker or librarian in town, you should be able to walk around in public with 30 pounds of silver and gold strapped around your waist. Think of it as a simple way to separate the good from the great, a convenient tool to ignore the talkers and honor the doers.

If such a belt was awarded to the best newspaper writer in the City That Smells Like Cheerios, Tim Graham would be strutting around town like Ric Flair circa 1984. Since his return to The Buffalo News in 2011, Graham has authored some of the most memorable long form pieces in the history of the sports section at the paper.

If that sounds like hyperbole, read this piece by Graham on Darryl Talley’s physical and emotional struggles after the conclusion of his NFL career, or this piece on Bjorn Nittmo’s estrangement from his family and battle with CTE, or this piece on Scott Norwood’s journey to reconnect with his former teammates and the City of Buffalo 25 years after Wide Right. At present, the number of journalists in this town who can write as well as Tim Graham falls squarely between zero and zero.

Recently, Graham was kind enough to reflect on the life of a Buffalo Sabres beat reporter, the creative process behind writing a long form piece, and his special relationship with Buffalo’s favorite beer vendor.

DBTB: Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. In March 2016 you suffered a shocking loss to Conehead in the first round of the Tournament of Buffalo. By a resounding margin of 54-46%, the citizens of Buffalo cast you aside to the kiddie table and decided they’d prefer to have a beer with a guy whose only claim to fame is attending sporting events wearing a conical rubber prosthetic skull. Are you still haunted by that loss? Looking back, did Conehead defeat you or did you defeat yourself?

TG: It was a classic case of the constituency not knowing what was best for it. The premise was somebody you'd want to have a beer with, not somebody you'd want to bring you a beer. Conehead brings you the beer, which you have to give HIM money for. Plus a tip is expected. Then he walks away. And even if Conehead did stick around, what the hell would you talk about with him? How much puke he has stepped in? What his cone smells like at the end of a shift? You can't even talk sports with the guy. He doesn't watch the games. Meanwhile, I always buy whenever I'm out and somebody introduces himself to me. The voters just weren't very bright.

You’ve worked in a number of markets including Cleveland, Boston, Las Vegas, and Palm Beach, but most of your professional life has been spent here in Buffalo. What led you to set down roots in Western New York?

I've moved to Buffalo twice, the first time from Las Vegas and the second time from Florida. Both were by choice. When I came from Las Vegas in 2000 it was to work in a big-league market and be closer to my family in Cleveland. I met my future wife and we had our son here. We had our daughter in Florida, which never felt like home. But I was working for ESPN at the time and, luckily, ESPN didn't care where I lived because I was traveling most weekends during the NFL season anyway. So we moved back to Buffalo to be with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and old friends. This is my home.

The first time I remember actively seeking out your byline was during your coverage of Baby Joe Mesi’s rise up the heavyweight boxing ladder and the subsequent medical issues that forced him to retire. You didn’t appear to be a very popular guy with Mesi’s management or his supporters. What were the biggest challenges connected to covering that story?

My biggest challenges were his father and Bjorn Rebney, the money man behind Sugar Ray Leonard's promotional firm. Joe and I got along OK, although I know he resented that I covered him as closely as I did. Joe at least understood my role as a journalist. Jack Mesi never understood it wasn't my job to support the team and their financial interests.

Jack became a contrarian to the point that when I would break a story about Joe's next fight or a developing business partnership, Jack would scrap the plans just to so he could declare I was wrong. For example, Joe was going to work with a new trainer, Jesse Reid. Joe wanted to work with him. Jack, obviously, wanted Joe to work with him. Jesse Reid is a very accomplished trainer. So I found out and interviewed Jesse about it. Jack saw the story and dumped Jesse so I would be "wrong." Jack was willing to take two steps back rather than allow me a scoop he didn't approve.

After I reported some fibs Leonard's promotion was peddling before a fight, Rebney met with The Buffalo News and threatened legal action if I weren't fired. I don't recall if Rebney wanted me to lose my job entirely or just to be removed from the boxing beat, but The Buffalo News essentially challenged him to go ahead and sue. He never did. Joe eventually got sued by Rebney and Leonard for leaving them.

It seemed like the entire city wanted to embrace Mesi as a contender for the Heavyweight title, but you repeatedly splashed a cold dose of reality on those aspirations — you weren’t a particularly popular guy in town at the time. Is it ever troubling to be on the receiving end of venom from your readers or do you view angry readers as a sign you’re probably doing good work?

I had covered boxing in Las Vegas for four years, was a boxing columnist for ESPN.com, wrote for The Ring and was a freelance boxing reporter for the Washington Post. I came to Buffalo heavily connected and with the ability to get on the phone with pretty much anybody I needed. My Buffalo News articles didn't include my opinion, but I routinely interviewed boxing experts who were on the fence about Mesi and sometimes pessimistic. Those perspectives were included in my articles, and I understand how my coverage could be viewed as negative when everybody wants to root for the hometown boy emerging as an unusual local phenomenon in a sports-crazed town. But I would say over 50 percent of the feedback I received were from readers who were frustrated over the continual tease. The next fight always was going to be The Big One. Mike Tyson's name was bandied about for years. Ralph Wilson Stadium was mentioned over and over. Then the next fight would be announced, and the opponent would be another flawed former contender or an also-ran with an inflated record. A lot of folks appreciated coverage that went well below the surface.

Since your return to The News in 2011, you’ve written some of the most memorable long form pieces that have appeared in the paper over the past decade. In as much detail as you care to share, can you describe the creative process associated with writing one of those pieces?

Thank you for the compliment. I'm grateful you would say that. I had a second-grade teacher say something that was depressing at the time, although it resonated. There was a kid who often blurted out whatever was on his mind during class. The teacher got frustrated one day and rather than just tell him to quiet down said, "Whenever you think you have an idea -- no matter how brilliant or original you think it is -- always know that somebody else has already thought of it." I remember thinking, "Wow, way to encourage 8-year-olds to reach for the stars, lady." But that moment became ingrained in the way I think. How do you write about Scott Norwood in a way people in Western New York will find worth their time? You have to work the idea. Finding inspiration isn't enough. You must treat any idea as merely a kernel, a starting point. You need to take that idea to another level, enhance it, sharpen it. And then you need to work it some more.

What helps is that I love research. Part of that is to satisfy my curiosity. Part of it is a way to procrastinate in a productive way. I'll do whatever I can to avoid actually writing. So I keep making calls and take another pass through the library or go drilling for another internet rabbit hole. Once I'm ready to write, I draw up an outline on a legal pad. If I've researched properly, then I will have multiple options for the opening. I rank the options and put them in an order that allows my brain to process all the material I've gathered. In essence, I wind up writing four or five stories within the framework of the overall feature, using subheads to break them up. And, again, if I've researched properly, then I'll have quality material that won't make the cut. Sometimes those leftovers can be turned into sidebars or blogs.

What leads you to take the leap and write about something? How does subject matter morph from “maybe I’ll write about this someday” to “I have to write this piece”?

I usually get energized in the research phase. When I look into a story and mine information that hasn't been reported or connect dots for the first time, that gets my juices flowing. There's really not much more to it than that. I'm not easily impressed because a large part of me habitually thinks "It's all been done." The job can get repetitive. So when I discover an angle that gets me excited, then it almost always turns into a story worth the reader's time.

I recognize the value of sound research and finding creative angles into a story, but I think you’re overlooking a unique element of your work that harkens back to guys like Jim Kelley and Larry Felser: you are very skilled at getting people to open up and talk to you. I’m sure Scott Norwood and Daryl Talley have regularly been approached by reporters over the years. Why do you think they’ve chosen to come out and speak about very personal and painful subjects with you?

I think reputation and a body of work go a long way toward that. When it comes to approaching people for a story, even the difficult ones, I'm ambitious and respectful. Ambitious to reach out to people most reporters think might be too hard to reach. Respectful by being patient and making the process as easy on them as possible. I explain to them why I want to do the story and I don't make any demands. Then I don't burn them. Submitting to an interview can make anyone feel incredibly vulnerable. That's what I'm looking for, actually. I want to take them into areas of their life, their minds, their pasts they're not used to talking about. To go over the same ground is to produce a story the reader already has seen. And with sports figures that's harder to pull off. They are used to being interviewed in controlled environments. That's why I want to remove them from a routine format, setting or topic.

The work I might be most proud of was from the year I spent outside of sports. I interviewed soldiers about death, addicts, victims of pedophilia, felons. These were people who not only were uncomfortable with being interviewed -- or had never been interviewed at all before -- but also had parts of their lives they wanted to hide. Probably my favorite interview in that regard was with Sherry Holcomb, a Cortland woman who gambled away all the money raised for her son's cancer treatment at Roswell Park. While he was recovering in his hospital bed, she was killing time at the casino and blowing his money. Her arrest went viral. Holcomb was vilified around the world. The major television networks were after her, but she turned down all interview requests. I reached out to Holcomb's attorney and explained I wanted to tell a story -- without judgment -- about how this could possibly happen. At her core was a regular person who got in this position somehow. I merely wanted to tell her story. The attorney remembered me as a sports reporter he liked to read and passed along my request to her. Holcomb agreed and invited me to her home. We discussed every sordid detail. I asked all the delicate questions and just listened. I spoke to her son, who never had been asked what he thought. After the story ran, Holcomb thanked me for giving an honest account of her situation. That was a rewarding experience. Same with the series I wrote about David Turnley's 1992 Operation Desert Storm photo of Ken Kozakiewicz. When sports figures aren't sure whether they want to speak with me, I'll email them links to that series to let them know I'm an experienced and empathetic interviewer, that they'll be treated with respect.

As a former employee of ESPN, what are your thoughts on the recent layoffs at the company? Are the struggles in Bristol a reaffirmation of the long term value of newspapers and local reporting?

I'm no visionary. My situation was pretty unique. When I moved back to Western New York from Florida, I still was at ESPN and intended to stay at ESPN, but The Buffalo News kept trying to get me to come back. I turned down a couple offers because ESPN is the big stage, right? But I had this nagging voice in the back of my head. So contract time came around. ESPN offered an extension that included a raise, but right about then The Buffalo News proposed I come back as their lead Spotlight writer. I had two small children and just didn't feel comfortable worrying about a contract every three years.

The Buffalo News is owned by Warren Buffet, has a union, a strong pension and never has laid off a writer. Besides, I was being offered the chance to do heavy journalism, the kind for which The Buffalo News has nominated me for the Pulitzer Prize a few times, versus Mark Sanchez blogs. Switching back to The Buffalo News felt right for my family and for my career at the time, and coincidentally my concerns over sweating out contracts have been underscored. But what's happened recently is a reaffirmation of only that. I'm unsure what the future holds for newspapers. Still, local reporting remains critical to journalism's foundation.

Quick confession: I have a very conflicted relationship with your Twitter feed. More often than not, I take a weird sort of primal pleasure in watching you rip the heart out of a keyboard warrior’s chest in 140 characters or less, but there are times when I wonder why you bother responding to the barely lucid tweets of @BillsBruhWarrior69. What’s your view of social media and the role it plays in your professional life?

Twitter is my news feed. That's how I keep up with what's going on, whether it's sports or pop culture or politics. I'll retweet or reply to anything I find interesting or amusing. When it comes to responding to people, my rule is pretty simple: Expect to be treated in the way you approach me. Have a question? Just ask it, and I'll do my best to answer. Be a jagoff? Well, when I find it enjoyable to do so, I'll reply in kind. I've become numb to the swipes. Twice, I've had to forward e-mailed death threats to the police. The second instance was from a guy who had access to Miami Dolphins personnel and made a specific threat about one of them. I had someone send a message that he wished my daughter-on-the-way would be stillborn. When I would log onto my weekly ESPN.com chat, I would have all sorts of fun comments waiting for me in the queue: f****t ... n***** lover ... when am I going to stop sucking Brady's d***… why don't I kill myself. I recently had someone attack my wife's character on Twitter because this clearly rational man doesn't like what I tweet. So the average Joe Dingleberry who thinks he got a sweet burn on me will be disappointed to learn I've seen it all and have already forgotten about him 20 seconds after I reply, or, more than likely, muted him.

Some reporters are constantly combative on Twitter. I can feel their anger. As I read their tweets, I almost hear the veins in their foreheads pulsating. I go the other way with it. It's all positive energy on my side. If somebody takes a shot at me and I find the thought that pops into my head humorous, then I'll tweet it out. Otherwise, I move along. I don't even block people anymore because the slappies find some twisted validation in that honor. So a couple years back I liberated all the people I'd blocked back in the day. To sum it up, I engage because it makes me laugh. That's my payoff.

You were the Sabres beat reporter for The Buffalo News for seven years. Can you describe an average week or two in the life of an NHL beat reporter?

Oh, man, covering the NHL was a grind. But it was a lot of fun, especially the years I was on the beat. I started with Dominik Hasek's last season, so I covered that offseason drama, plus the Michael Peca contract standoff. The Sabres' owner was arrested. The team went bankrupt and was sold. They were awful on the ice. Then I covered the first season-long work stoppage in North American sports. Out of that lockout, the Sabres erupted with Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Brian Campbell, Ryan Miller and the rest. They played in back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals, winning a President's Trophy. And then the heart-wrenching departures of Briere and Drury. My last game covering the Sabres was Briere's and Drury's last game for them. I chronicled that entire arc.

As you'd expect, the average week differed, depending on the year. When I first took over the Sabres beat, The Buffalo News flew on the team charter. That meant I was on the Sabres' daily schedule, not my own. Takeoff would be delayed if Alexei Zhitnik was running late, but it wasn't going to wait for a reporter. Darcy Regier also had a policy that no media, including Rick Jeanneret and Jim Lorentz and the TV production crew for the first few years, were allowed on the team bus. That meant Paul Hamilton and I somehow had to get from the arena to the airport on our own, which sounds simple. But after 9/11, arenas stopped allowing cabs to pull up to arenas, and the Sabres flew out of executive terminals that required extra security access to get through the gate. So at the horn I would have to file an unquoted story, pack my gear and head to the dressing room, interview players, locate the car service that was supposed to be waiting for Paul and me but wasn't always there and phone in quotes while the driver rushed us to the terminal in hopes the team bus didn't beat us there. It was a high-wire act after every road game.

After the lockout, The Buffalo News asked what I wanted to do about travel, and I said I didn't want to be on the charter anymore. I wanted the ability to return to the press box and write my game story like a normal reporter and not have to worry anymore about being left behind. The Sabres were upset with this decision because The Buffalo News paid the team about $40,000 a year for our seat on the charter. That was somebody's front-office salary. But I know our coverage improved significantly at a time when readers truly appreciated every word we wrote.

And imagine how difficult it would have been to cover those post-lockout Sabres teams while rushing for the plane. Lindy Ruff mentioned a stat that before the lockout about 80 percent of the teams that scored first won. That was sweet for a reporter on an evening deadline. Once a goal was scored on the road, I could immediately write with conviction and rarely get burned. After the lockout? No lead was safe those first couple seasons. The Sabres would come back from three-goal deficits. And then the shootouts ... Too many nights I didn't know what I was writing about until the players jumped over the boards to celebrate.

I do miss the camaraderie on the road. The NFL is so regimented. Each team has the same formula. Off Tuesday, media Wednesday, Saturday walkthrough, game Sunday. You fly to a road game Saturday and leave first thing Monday morning. That makes the NFL immensely easier to cover. I can tell you what I will be doing on any given date between the start of training camp until the final game. With the NHL, you might have three road games in a week. This has actually happened to me: I wake up at some hotel in the morning and lie there, trying to remember what city I'm in. Long Island? Philly? Multiple times I recall getting out of bed, opening the curtains and only then figuring out where I was. "Oh, yeah. Boston." When you're away from home that much and never truly able to do what you want do when you want to do it, you band together with certain guys. With me, it was Jeanneret, Lorentz and Danny Gare. We killed a lot of time.

The readers of DBTB would set my car on fire if I didn’t follow up and ask you to expand a bit on hanging out with Jeanneret, Lorentz, and Gare on the road. Would you be kind enough to share an observation or story that won’t get one of you arrested?

I wouldn't be afraid of getting arrested as much as I would fear none of them ever speaking to me again. RJ had some colorful nicknames for me. He's one of the all-time great ball-busters. But one thing I would like readers to know about that crew is they were always there when it mattered. Family problems, health issues, whatever. The support was thick. I threw out my back in Edmonton once. I was almost crippled. It was so bad, Rip Simonick and athletic trainer Jim Pizzutelli arranged for the Oilers' doctor to examine me in between the first and second periods. I remember shambling from the press box to the trainer's room, and people on the concourse were looking at me in horror because of the expression on my face, apparently. They parted a lane for me to walk through and stared. The next day I was supposed to drive RJ and Jim to Calgary in my rental car. I couldn't sit. So Rick went to the local pharmacy and picked up some of those pain meds you can't buy in the U.S. without a prescription. He brought them to my room. He and Jim handled my bags and, with me laid out in the backseat, drove my car to Calgary. And RJ even put his ball-busting on hold until I was better. They were genuinely concerned for me, as I would be for them. That's the kind of guys they are.

I’ve always been curious about the unsung heroes connected to a professional hockey team. As someone who was around the Sabres 24-7 for an extended period of time, can you share some insight on an invaluable member of the organization that most fans know nothing about?

The Sabres' equipment staff is unbelievable. Rip Simonick is an institution. He's just a repository of information when it comes to the history of the team. I loved hearing his stories. George Babcock is one of my all-time favorite people. I can't tell those stories. Not here, at least. But I can share one anecdote that ties this question with your previous one. While I still was flying on the charter, the Sabres played a game at Montreal. We were flying back, and because of the road-game rush, my routine on the way home was to pull out my laptop and rewrite my story for our afternoon print edition. I reached into my bag. No laptop. George loved pranks and always sat behind me. So I say, 'All right, George, what did you do with my computer?" I knew George's devilish mannerisms well, and immediately could tell he had no clue what I was talking about. Yep, I was in such a scramble after the game I left my laptop -- my professional life -- in the Bell Centre press box. By the time we landed, nobody was in the arena to check. The Canadiens' PR staff was compassionate about my humiliation and shipped the computer back home. Paul Hamilton still rags on me about that one.

There seems to be a steady current of conflict that exists between the members of media that cover the Sabres. The radio guys don’t get along with the newspaper guys, the newspaper guys don’t get along with the bloggers—the only thing everyone seems to agree on is that Mike Milbury is a goober. Is that a fair assessment? Do you think this type of media on media conflict exists in every market or is it unique to Buffalo?

My answer to this one might be disappointing to those seeking some juicy insight. I don't know if this exists in other markets. I worked in the South Florida market and don't recall a similar dynamic. I was exposed to the New York and Boston markets while covering the AFC East for ESPN.com and don't recall a similar dynamic. But here, everybody's immersed in it. Maybe that makes us hyper-aware.

The radio-print divide, for lack of a better word, is twofold. It started when Jerry Sullivan left WGR for the original show with Bucky Gleason on WBBZ. As several WGR staffers have told me, Entercom management handed down an edict that no Buffalo News reporters would be allowed on the air anymore. I had a Monday morning Bills show with Joe Buscaglia that went away. Guest spots disappeared. The other development was the Sabres' tank. Strong voices on each side became entrenched in their beliefs and seemed to take any debate personally on air, in print, on Twitter, whatever. When I pointed out in a tweet -- that didn't name anybody -- the tank and anti-tank factions seemed to be performing for each other, Matthew Coller took it upon himself to defend WGR's integrity with a juvenile rant, never stopping to consider I meant our people, too. Howard Simon infamously yelled "Screw you, Bucky!" on his show because he didn't like a Sabres column Bucky had written. All of it was silly. To this day, AP writer John Wawrow refuses to go on WGR because of the animus. That said, there are more friendships than grudges between The Buffalo News and WGR.

As for local bloggers, I've been a fan of a lot of their work since my ESPN days, when I would include them in my daily AFC East links roundups. I've gotten to know a lot of writers and consider them friends. There is a segment of that group that hides behind pseudonyms, with a shtick of punching up at full-time writers. Maybe that's because it's the easiest way to get noticed. But there are plenty out there who produce meaningful coverage despite the lack of access. I think the writers who work in earnest to cover the Bills and Sabres should be given more opportunities to cover news conferences, camps and games.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the Sabres? Do you think the terminations of Bylsma /Murray and the hiring of Jason Botterill are steps in the right direction?

I like the reboot. Tim Murray made an impact while he was here. I believe he did more good than ill. But he wasn't the front-office leader the Sabres crave. Botterill might turn out to be the wrong guy, but he has been considered a blue-chip executive pretty much since he joined the Penguins organization in 2007. I remember people I respect telling me way back then that he was going to be a great GM someday. Those predictions don't always pan out, of course, but he sure looks the part.

If Botterill called you up and asked you to create a list of suggested changes geared to turning the Sabres into a perennial contender for the Stanley Cup, what would be the top three or four items on your list?

I love his philosophy of re-establishing a winning expectation throughout the system. Much like the acquisitions of Briere and Drury invigorated the staleness from Buffalo's bankruptcy era and then saw it buttressed by young players who did nothing but win in Rochester, Botterill needs to remind everyone it's not OK to be satisfied just "being in the league." That has been a problem with many Bills players and employees over the years, a feeling that they weren't proud to be Bills as much as they were simply "playing in the NFL." That's a big distinction. The Sabres need to cultivate that pride by underscoring the importance of winning not only here, but also in Rochester again. The Sabres are very much in the early stages of an organizational rebuild. I think it's foolish to believe they're just a tweak or two away from turning the corner. Botterill at his introductory news conference showed he fully comprehends a lot of difficult work lies ahead.

As far as hockey personnel, I can't come up with anything that hasn't already been written or said merely for the sake of trying to sound original. Overhauling the defense is paramount, and unloading some fat contracts will help Botterill bring in the types of players he feels will stimulate the roster.

Let’s finish up with a lightning round. What’s your current go-to combo of beer and wings here in town?

Elmos on Millersport Highway in Getzville. The wings are top three I've had anywhere. My current addiction is Cajun-hot double dip. Not a huge draft selection, but the cleanest lines of any bar I've been to because they're so short from the kegs to the taps. Always perfect. Also, it's a great hockey bar.

A bomb is set to go off in your house and your wife and kids are safely outside. You have time to carry three items out of your home. What are they?

1) Laptop.

2) The jersey Darryl Talley signed with the inscription "Your words changed my life."

3) Squatty Potty.

Should people who refer to their children as their “kiddos” be rounded up and incarcerated?

Those prisons aren't going to fill themselves.

Who inspired you to be a writer?

I kind of fell into it. I went to Baldwin-Wallace College for sports management, to work in a front office. I started writing for the school newspaper for beer money and just became enamored with it. The writers who first impressed me were former Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Bob Kravitz and Baldwin-Wallace alum Bud Collins.

What is the greatest sporting event you ever witnessed in person?

The most memorable would be Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson II, the "bite fight." I was at the Patriots' Super Bowl victory over the Seahawks but had to watch the infamous finish on TV because I was at the locker rooms.

Who wins a three-way game of Trivial Pursuit: Andrew Peters, Craig Rivet, or a 5 gallon container of white ceiling paint?

I don't know Rivet well, but I do know the other two. So I'll have to assume Rivet.

What’s the story behind the photo of the dog on your Twitter page?

That's just how my dog looks when I read him Doug Whaley transcripts. (I have no idea whose dog that is; I found the picture online.)

Jerry Sullivan vs. Mike Harrington vs. Bucky Gleason vs. John Vogl in a Tables, Ladders and Chairs match held inside a steel cage. Who walks out the winner?

Vogl loves pro wrestling. So I have to think he has a decided edge over the other three just because he knows the moves. He's also the youngest. He certainly would wheeze the least.

Who was playing at the first, the best, and the worst concert you ever attended?

First: Monsters of Rock with Kingdom Come, Dokken, Metallica, Scorpions, Van Halen.

Best: Lollapalooza with Lush, Ice Cube, Soundgarden, Ministry, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Worst: Cher, at the behest of my high school girlfriend. Don't ask.

Almost 5,500 words after the first question in this Q&A, let’s bring things around full circle: what do you imagine Conehead’s cone actually smells like at the end of his shift?

Liverwurst in a dirty sock.

Many thanks to Tim Graham for his generous participation in a Q&A of epic length. Follow Tim on Twitter @ByTimGraham.

Follow Tim Hirschbeck on Twitter @TimHirschbeck — 38 followers can’t be wrong.