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Tuesday, September 30, 2003

My life as a criminal

It's 5am. I haven't slept in a long time. I'm wearing an orange and black stocking cap that doesn't belong to me. I-55 through Memphis, TN is a strange stretch of road, hop-skipping back and forth between Arkansas, Tennessee, and eventually Mississippi. Making the quick turns and merging correctly requires peak concentration. I forgot to pack that, so I'm making do with a little white pill they sold over the counter at home. It's called ephedrine and it seems to be doing the trick.

I'm awake, my radio is blasting, and in a few short hours I'll be checking into a hotel in New Orleans.

It's March of 1995 and save the few extra miles per hour I'm putting on the speedometer, I am a law abiding citizen.

It's a stretch of highway that eventually I will become very familiar with. Later in life I will drive north eight hours, twice a month, in the dead of night. I'll almost always be tired. I will always make it safely to the warm bed at the end of the line.

Then, the year 2000. Two men decided it would be a good idea to take a few people hostage. After all, these men were locked up in a medium security prison and they weren't feeling all that neighborly. I stood outside the prison, watching my waking hours tick-tock by. I had been up for nearly 24 hours when the guys decided they were bored with the whole hostage thing and gave up. The three hour drive from prison to bed was marked with nodding, slipping, and probably at one point falling into sleep. I shared the responsibilities with another driver, but he wasn't in much better shape than me. By both of our accounts, we shouldn't have made it home and in bed two hours before our next work shift was supposed to begin. We laughed when one of our bosses called us (while we were still on the road home) and asked when we would be coming into work.

In New Jersey, state lawmakers have just passed Maggie's Law. It allows prosecutors to go after drivers who are DWD--Driving While Drowsy. The people behind the law cite a few anecdotes to support their assertion that drowsy drivers kill. The examples are horrifying. A 20 year old college student killed by a sleeping driver. A tour bus operator who gambled all night then got behind the wheel. A businessman who killed two people after falling asleep at the wheel, then continued on to his business meeting.

The law sounds like a good idea, but I'm not sure I'm convinced. I get a little wiggly when the government starts criminalizing the amount of sleep I've had.

Make no mistake, I am one of the biggest advocates of road safety. I lost a cousin and a good friend in car wrecks. I wear my seat belt. In the past few years, I've taken to driving at safe speeds.

However, there was a time or two in college I drove after having too much to drink. There were a few years when I didn't wear my seatbelt. I used to think it was fun to drive 125mph down old country farm roads. And goodness knows I've driven while drowsy.

Perhaps...and this is just a post-lunch, lazy idea...but perhaps we should take a harder look at how we as a society treat sleep. Simply put: We treat sleep as weakness. Sleep is lack of productivity. Sleep is for those people who can't hack it. A truck driver has been six days on the road. A business exec has a big presentation tomorrow. A news guy has one final story to file. We will--to be a little trite--sleep when we're dead.

In college I was not-too-kindly referred to as Bedsore. I slept a lot. Since then, my body chemistry has reversed itself. Now I feel like shit if I get more than seven hours sleep. I more commonly get about six hours and don't feel too bad.

But is that enough to drive through New Jersey?

Or maybe a better question is: Why would I want to drive through New Jersey in the first place?

Monday, September 29, 2003

Now, that was unexpected

A couple of months ago I got a fairly unexpected e-mail It was from the managing editor of an industry trade magazine. He wanted me to write a short 1500 word article on my recent success in the world of political news reporting. I agreed, thinking at the time it would be good PR for my bosses and, frankly, for me.

I forgot about my promise to write the piece unitl about a week before deadline. With as much effort as I could put into a story about me, I did a couple of interviews with other people in the industry, strung together a few anecdotes, and submitted the piece for the editor's review.

A couple of days later he e-mailed me and thanked me for my submission. He wasn't sure when he would publish the piece, but he said to expect it this fall. I filed the experience in the "make sure to look for that later" file and went back to working for peanuts.

By 1:30 this afternoon, my day had been through three generations of stupidity. As I walked out the door to do some work, I noticed a strange envelope in my mailbox.

Enclosed, a short letter, including the phrase "enclosed is the fee for your contribution."

Fee? I don't remember anything about a fee.

I dug a little deeper and found a check...for $350.

Now, in the long run, $350 ain't going to pay for the mortgage. But, it might go a little way toward making this month's bills a little easier to pay.

Thing is...this is the first time I've ever been paid to write something. How about that? People will pay for something other people write.

This is a foreign concept to me. As I go through the fourth generation of my day's stupidty, I find myself musing about this little development.


Friday, September 26, 2003

Hi there, boys

The hooker was duly impressed with my lack of maturity. She had given up the ass-swagger walk used by most ladies of the night for a motorized walkway.

My friends and I had just finished the third night-long bender of the Vegas trip. We were using the opposite walkway to make our way toward bed and eventually our homes. I was lightheaded, tired, and a little more than loopy. I was entertaining my friends with walkway tricks. The moonwalk with the walkway. The sprint against the walkway. Walkways are fun.

As the hooker slid past us, I finished my final sprint in the huff of overdrunk pre-30 white boy. I looked up, breathed in her general direction and tried to compose myself.

"Hi there, boys," she said, the smile of a streetwalker fading into the amused laugh of a regular girl. Boys are silly.

That was how my trip to Vegas ended. A hooker being taken away by a motorized walkway. It seemed appropriate.

The rest of the trip was one continuous day of poker playing, drinking with my buddies, and more laughs than I can count.

I have recounted a few tales over at Up For Poker. You'll find the first two installments under the heading Otis in Vegas. One more installment is still to come. As the site is geared toward gamblers, it's written with gamblers in mind. Nevertheless, you'll get a feel for my trip.

Now, I'm in a post-Vegas fog and trying to get my head back together.

Until then, may all your gambles be winners.

Friday, September 19, 2003

Dim lights, rural county

Rich's hands shook. Anxiety that makes its way down the arms always seems worse when the hand is holding a piece of paper. It fluttered easily, belying the weight of its contents.

Rich was holding the statement he would read before the judge, hoping it in concert with his dark blue uniform and star-shaped badge would be convincing enough for the judge.

His Honor was not a hanging judge. He was known about town as a sympathetic man, devoutly religious. However, those who had watched him before knew he didn't believe the term "tough love" was not reserved for parenting classes and rehab clinics.

It had been a long time--two years, in fact--since Rich had come face to face with man who now wore the familiar orange and white striped jump suit of the county jail. At the time, both of them had guns. At the time, both of them would be carried out of a dark little whole, bleeding to death.

That neither of them died was a surprise in itself. Rich had been shot through his groin. The bullet shattered his pubic bone and ripped through his rectum. The shock force of the 9mm bullet had ruptured his urethra. The man in the jumpsuit--they call him Iceen--had gotten himself into a worse fix. When he landed at the hospital that night, he had 25 gunshot wounds all over his body. Iceen had been alone. Rich had brought his fellow deputies.

But there they stood, both upright, both--at least physically--healed.

The room was full of people, most of them blissfully ignorant of the full magnitude of what was happening in front of them. Still, they were silent as they listened to the men speak. Rich sought justice. Iceen sought mercy. Neither could be fully satisfied when it was over.

It was the type of thing that happens every day in courtrooms. A defendant--knowing damned well he'd be found guilty at trial--hopes for a lighter sentence by pleading guilty and saving the court the inconvenience of a trial. A victim struggles to deal with the fact that some day his attacker will be out of prison.

For Rich, it seemed, the greater injustice was that Iceen would be going to prison for longer if he'd been caught carrying a few keys of coke. Instead he nearly killed a law enforcement officer. Since he didn't succeed, the maximum sentence on Assault and Battery With Intent to Kill is 20 years. Iceen will be out before his hair turns gray.

The judge did all he could. He hit Iceen with the max and told him to make himself a better person while he's inside. Iceen apologized, but made sure to mention that his blood was spilled that night, too. Some people just don't know how to apologize.

Rich was as satisfied as he could be without the law being changed. He knew as he walked out, there were other people he'd need to talk to about that...people who spend four months out of the year talking about "doing things for the children" and "making education a priority."

This year, in a county that doesn't even hold half a million people, two of Rich's fellow deputies didn't survive.

That's how I spent my morning. I've spent several weeks out of this year standing around in the dark, in the rain, in the heat watching deputies mourn their fallen brothers.

I still struggle to understand how someone considers shooting a cop as a viable option. I'll admit, my environment--while exciting--has never been one that made me afraid of the police. However, of all the law enforcement deaths I've covered during my career, not once has the shooter been "afraid" of the police and trying to protect his life. He's been afraid of going to prison. Selfish defined.

This is Friday. I'm not coming back to work for a week. In 48 hours I will be on a plane to a week of debauchery with some great friends. Two of us will turn 30 in the next couple of months. It's time we have one last blow out and then get about figuring out what we're going to do with our lives.

There was a time I thought I'd like to make a career out of law enforcement. As I pound on thirty's door, I think less and less about law enforcement possibilities. The lack of respect our country has for its lawmen and women, I think plays a large role in my waning interest.

That feeling duly recorded, I shall now stop thinking for a few days. This trip is a necessity and I plan to make good use of it.

Back next week. Until then, keep an eye on and an arm around those you care about. And give them a kiss on the forehead for me.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

A diversion

If you've tired of the blather herein, may I direct you to some interesting writing on an interesting subject? The first piece I read reminded me of a story from my youth...except it involved a lost handgun.

Click here for an interesting read. I offer it at the risk of making my future stories seem a little less exciting.

--Editor Otis

Monday, September 15, 2003

Admissions of Excuse Boy

The smell of the burning chicken feathers was less pronounced as it usually was. Apparently the chicken plant on Rutherford Road had burned off the day's supply that morning. It's a horrible smell and one I'm glad doesn't waft toward my home unless the winds are blowing the wrong way.

I was in the middle of a complimentary tale of a friend's law school success. She was smart, got out of the news business, and went to law school in Boston. She's doing quite well.

Maybe it was the fresh air, free from chicken feathers. Maybe I was just feeling day-dreamy at night. Whatever it was, I launched into another if-only story.

"I think if there were a law school here in town, I'd do the same thing as Susannah did. It if it weren't for the geography..." Yada, freakin', yada.

If my brother or father had been sitting in the car with me at the time, I would've received the standard Willis response to if-only stories.

"...and if you're aunt had balls, she'd be your uncle."

Willis folk don't take kindly to if-only stories. Willis folk do or don't and don't worry about what's in between.

I'd like to say my wife--who happened to be the unfortunate sounding board for my bi-monthly blathering about the future--was nicer than my brother or father would've been. However, she again hit below the belt.

Instead of responding in-kind with day-dreamy stories of a life less ordinary, she waited a few seconds, waited for me to turn off Rutherford Road and hit me with her best shot.

"You know what you should be doing with the rest of your life, don't you?"

My fragile pschye wanted to ignore the question or respond with an absurdity: Professional poker player, island bar singer, network news correspondent. Sadly, though, the foundation of her question has been a long-running war of attrition on Mt. Willis.

My wife wants me to write for a living.

The same morning we were eating brunch as I scanned the local weekly (more a society rag than actual newspaper). A local doctor had written a column about his recent trip to Las Vegas. The column was about as average as you would imagine. He even went as far as to admit this about three paragraphs into the missive: He was writing the column so he could write off the trip as a business expense.

Fucking, great.

I have a long list of excuses that I whip out any time my wife gets on this kick. I begin with the simple fact that I don't have much to write about. She generally responds by pointing a finger directly at Rapid Eye Reality. I continue with the fact that most the people who read this thing are people who know me. She rarely has a good answer for that one, but jumps into a quiet rant about what great fodder my daily work provide for material.

So here we go. Here's my excuse.

I'm afraid of failing at something I don't believe I'm that good at when I'm already doing moderately well at something I'm moderately good at.

Thereya go.

Tonight on the way home from my jobby-job, I'll drive by the chicken plant and test the air for burned check feathers. If the air is again clean, I'll consider it the mark of a good day and reaffirmation that in the absence of something to write about today, there is at least the possibility that one day I'll be able to write about the renewed burning of feathers on Rutherford Road. I'm sure there's a story in there somewhere.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Rest in peace

Johnny Cash.

John Ritter.

Believe it or not, at different points in my life, these men were two of my heroes.

I just don't feel like working today.

In honor of Cash, tonight I will drink something potent, growl at someone, and may well go to Reno and shoot someone just to watch him die.

In honor of Ritter, I will trip over something and make people smile.

Rest in peace, boys. You made me happy. And for that, I thankya.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Turn off the alarm

About a year ago we moved the alarm clock to my wife's side of the bed. It was a practice in relationship survival. When she had to get up at 6am, I didn't want to be the keeper of the alarm. When she didn't have to get up early, she'd turn into dragon-wife after I hit snooze for the 18th time. Like the TV remote control belongs in my capable hands, the alarm clock belongs to my wife.

It has gotten so that I barely hear the alarm anymore. I wake up more easily to my wife calling from mid-shower. She knows that by the time she's finished, I'll be dragging myself toward cleanliness. This morning, however, I woke up when the alarm went off. My wife rolled over and said, "I don't know why I set the alarm for 8:15." That meant, she probably thought eight hours ago that she needed to get up a little early, but she couldn't remember why. She hit snooze and I drifted into the sleep of a man trying to remember if something important was happening.

My wife bought a fancy new razor a week ago. While I was intrigued by the razor (it looks like someone invented a bar of soap with a blade in the middle), I was more taken with the waterproof shower radio that came with it. It was that radio, not my wife's call, that pushed me out of bed this morning. I heard the voice of a calm NPR anchor and I remembered.

Today is September 11th.

Two years ago this morning it was the phone that woke me up. My mother: "Are you watching this?" I wasn't. I had overslept. Minutes later, I was in my car, unshaven, unshowered, and on my way to tell disembarking passengers at my local airport that their country was under attack. Watching their faces as I delivered the news firsthand is an experience that put a permanent hole in my psyche.

This morning, I didn't turn on the TV. I wobbled to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, and kissed my wife as I entered the shower. The cheap radio was in between frequencies and full of static. I fumbled with the wet buttons, trying to find a news program. Instead, I found a morning comedy team. I left it there and let Peter Frampton joke with the boys of the radio. Just like last year, America was calm. Planes were taking off and landing, people were being good worker bees, and the morning radio jocks weren't being pre-empted by network coverage of hell under the red, white, and blue.

On the way to work, I passed by the news radio stations again. Remembrance, but no news. Peter Frampton was still joking. In my morning news meeting, there was an understanding: Our station would recognize what day it was, but we would not forget the other news of the day. Two hours later, about the time two years ago I was telling a group of confused passengers from the northeast that they wouldn't be going home that day, I was standing at a different airport, preparing a report on a neat new runway improvement.

And then, lunch. Sub sandwich, baked chips, diet soda.

This, for better or worse, is normal.

I wonder as I sit in the middle of a conspicuously normal day, how September 11th will be recognized 50 years from now. Will it be a December 7th? Will it be a July 4th? Or will it be just another day, perhaps recognized on morning news programs during a "This Day In History" segment.

We have, indeed, moved on. But the feeling--at least inside my head--is still there. Otherwise, I wouldn't have woken up this morning until I heard my wife's sweet voice call from the shower.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Dry docked

For the fourth straight night, the sun was setting at exactly 6:47pm. It would start dipping toward the horizon slowly, then slip below the waterline as if being cranked by some plebian sun god servant. There was an exact moment when you knew the sun had set. It was usually marked by someone in the vicinity saying, "There it goes."

Shortly after the nightly "there it goes," my wife made a similarly obvious declaration.

Stirring a plastic cup of gingerale, she looked into nothing and said, "Life is too short to not live like this."

It's something that most people on vacation usually think. However, after sitting in silence for a few minutes, we quietly agreed that life was, indeed, too short. More importantly, we needed to find a way to live like that.

The island of Aruba is a beautiful one. It is not lush and full of rain forests. It is a desert with one medium-sized city and a few poor barios. The back side of the island is unpaved and only suitable for 4x4 vehicles. Wild dogs roam, shade themselves under giant rocks, and will utter frightening barks when startled (note: even upon the suggestion of your wife, do not jump up on big rocks without first checking under them).

That may sound uninviting, but it is not. The water is blue and clear. The days are warm, but breezy. The palm trees provide welcome shade. The nights are warm, as well. The island sits less than 20 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Beautiful latin women with intoxicating accents fill the beaches, chirping at their children, and taking care of their equally beautiful men.

I would not--as some we met had--move to Aruba. Despite its oil refinery and large capital city, it is still basically a third world country. However, I will go back. It was too nice not to.

But as life is too short not to live like that, I think I will search for ways to live in such peace. I may be able to do that from home.

Now, I'm back to eating lunch at my desk. Even if my office had windows, the would not look out to sea. When I'm finished eating, there will not be time for an afternoon nap or exhilarating walk on the beach. There is work to be done.

I don't mind working for a living. I was raised to do as such. However, the practice if living for work may soon fall by the wayside.

Now I need to call the airline. It delivered my luggage intact. However, I think the airport crew forgot to load my head. It's still sitting somewhere in Aruba, undoubtedly sipping on a drink and getting ready for 6:47.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Coverbands and a boy out to sea

It's not that I dislike cover bands. In fact, on many occasions, I'd rather watch a good cover band than a bad original.

The thing is, I believe in truth, friends. On my bi-weekly excursions into local bars I find myself in front of a lot of cover singers. Many are just a guy and a guitar (my favorite way to listen to cover songs). But in recent months, I've noticed a sickening trend. It's almost turned me off to cover bands entirely.

Step with me into a bar once called The Music Bachs (stupid, stupid name). The funk is incredible. The bassline moves through me like a jackhammer. The singer is hitting notes that no barsinger should be able to hit. I am duly impressed. Until I start paying attention. What the motherfuck? That guy just turned his head away from the mic, but the sound didn't change. Waitafriggin' minute. He doesn't have backup singers.

It was liking finding the wizard behind the curtain. The coverband was using a friggin' karaoke machine to backup its weak playing.

Over the past several months, I've noticed at least three other bands doing it. It sickens me. I had almost given up on the entire idea of listening to live cover music. Until Saturday.

I didn't want to go. I wanted a quiet bar where we could make trouble in peace. Plus, I was wearing open-toed sandals. But, there I found myself, on the second level of a popular bar, in front of a coverband. And they couldn't be as good as they were.

The keyboard player was a sexy, natural nymphet in roller derby shorts. Her belly button had glitter around it. The guitar player was in a catholic school girl outfit and was wailing on her guitar better than most men I've seen play. Oh, yeah...and there were a few guys on vocals, bass, and guitar. They were pretty good, too.

I investigated...thoroughly. I watched fingers, hands, feet (and a few hips). They were actually playing the instruments. They were actually singing the songs. They were actually...being a band. Go figure.

If you have the chance, go see McFly (and click here to go to their web site). They are worth the trip.

Now, I'm going to take my tired, jaded ass and head out to sea. If you need me, I'll be on a little island a few miles off the coast of Venezuela. And I won't be back until next week.

Yep...I'm outta here.

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Rapid Eye Reality is the personal blog of writer Brad Willis, aka Otis.
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