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Wednesday, February 25, 2004


When you don't see someone for several years and lose contact like old friends sometimes do, you wonder if they changed much.

As I read my friend Xan's obituary tonight, I realized that as far as the obit writer could tell, Xan was pretty much the same as when I knew him. The only difference was instead of working toward a college English degree, he was now working toward an English Masters degree.

Beyond that, read the section below this one and join me in wishing peace to tonight to Xan, his family, and all his friends.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Summers gone by

Summer in southwest Missouri was an odd time. In the hottest part of the season nightfall did as much to break the heat as the dark did to break the sound of the nightbugs. Sitting inside was a relief if you had air conditioning, but it felt artificial.

So, even at a young age when I wasn't offended by the artificial nature of life's occasional luxuries, I found myself outside at night, getting stung by little mosquitoes and sung to by the nightbugs of America's middle.

There are far too many nights like those to pick the best. There was a quiet but wonderful night on an elementary school playground. There was an intense--if very silly--night walking in circles discussing the merits or lack thereof of anarchy in America. There was a rough night of screaming and insanity. There was a night when somebody died.

Maybe it's because summer and its evenings were my first real intoxicants, or maybe it's just nostalgia and sadness playing some sort of romantic trick on my mind. Whatever it is, when I remember an old friend with a funny name, I think about the way Missouri summer nights have defined most of my life.

Xan never stood very tall, but he had muscles and smiles that made women blush. There was something confident in the way he laughed. Cherub cheeks and an uncanny impersonation of actor John Goodman did nothing to turn friends or females away.

Xan actually began in my life as a friend of a friend of a friend. Over time, laughs, and beer, the stories we could mutually tell grew in number. We would never stand up for one another at a wedding ceremony, nor even keep in touch after the college years. Still, I would assume that if we'd seen each other at a bar or on the street last weekend, we would've talked. Laughed. He probably would have given me a little grief about what I was wearing. He did that a lot. I always thought it was funny that a guy who never wore much other than t-shirts and sandals associated with guys who often looked like their mothers or girlfriends had dressed them.

Perhaps because the nights I knew Xan were in young and rowdy years, my memories of him more often involve music, women, and drinking than anything else. An afternoon turned to night, sitting on a hillside pouring drops of Rose's lime juice into Natural Light beer cans and listening to Bob Marley cover bands. A wet-humid summer night passing a bottle of Jose around in the back of a pickup truck, the girls in between us getting tipsier and more friendly with each revolution. A July 4th party where Xan would meet my future wife and say something just clever enough to make me feel a little jealous.

Like all the other summer nights, those with Xan number too many to tell the full story. Many years later, I look back and realize with no small amount of amazement that there were many other people who knew him much better than I. Without trying too hard I can think of several folks who could tell this story much better than I.


It's not been too many months ago that I found myself rekindling an old friendship with a young woman who knew Xan very well. She and I sat and talked for a short while about the old days, sipping on a couple drinks, and listening to live music in the middle of Southeast America. It was so far away from Missouri that it barely seemed real. South Carolina nights are intoxicating, but different, like beer and wine. She stepped off into the night and nostalgia and now we do like most old friends do. We share e-mails when life is good or when life is bad. That is the reality of white collar nomads in the 21st century.

When I found her e-mail in my inbox this afternoon, I quietly thanked her for bracing me for what was certain to be bad news. The subject line said as much. In the hurry that most workdays bring, I thought briefly to set the note aside until I had an opportunity to digest it. Instead, I opened it, read quietly, then cursed out loud.

The story stands in stark contrast to Xan's colorful life. He was playing basketball and collapsed from a stroke. Though at last report he was still alive, apparently there hasn't been any sign of brain activity for quite some time. He's 30 years old, just like me.

If I sit around long enough and stay awake on a cold February night, I might start to hate myself for how little value I put on life and the beauty it offers. There are only so many signs fate can present before it gives up for good.


Still, I can't help but keep my eyes open for a little while longer, pretend it is the middle of a Missouri summer, and I'm listening to Jimmy Buffet sing right along with Xan's smiling face.

I think I can only sleep if I imagine his family and those friends who knew him better than I seeing that same thing as they try to sleep tonight.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Alive in my own stench

Indeed, I am alive, but acting as though I am not. I'm uncomfortable writing right now. After standing too close to a sandwich shop this afternoon, I think I've taken on the stench of half-cooked bread. I need a shower.

When the exercise of writing offers less in the way of introspection, I'll return to this page. For today, however, I must be content in in knowing that I probably wouldn't stink if it weren't for baking bread. And I probably would write if it didn't scare me so much.

Monday, February 16, 2004


"Well, that's annoying."

I was on my hands and knees, carefully pushing speaker wire under the carpet, and trying to make some expensive surround sound speakers work with a nearly-obsolete stereo system. I was about three inches too short of speaker wire. The dog was annoyed because the NASCAR race on TV was now blaring through the rear speakers in the living room and disrupting her puppy nap. I was annoyed because I suspected I might get called to the carpet (you're already on the carpet, son) by my wife for prominently displaying a stereo speaker. She has a thing about "focal points."

An hour or so earlier, the leader of the free world was on TV, decked out in a NASCAR jacket. On the right breast of the jacket, someone had monogrammed "George W. Bush." Underneath the name, presumably the same person had embroidered the word "President." At the time, I was not yet impressed by the surround sound blaring racing engines from four different directions in my living room and couldn't help but laugh at how ludicrous the situation seemed. Here's the leader of our country, the commander in chief, the most recognizable man (maybe next to Justin Timberlake or Carson Daly) in all of America, and we're embroidering the word "president" under his name...on a NASCAR jacket. Beautiful.

Later that night, I was experimenting with rosemary (leaving out the sage and thyme) in my fried chicken breading. Mixed with a little marjoram, cayenne pepper, salt, pepper, etc., it makes for a fantastic seasoning. I like to fry it in peanut oil instead of vegetable oil. Mashed potatoes, country gravy, greenbeans cooked with some sort of pork product in them. As I cooked, the popping of the peanut oil and the boiling potatoes drowned out the Democratic Presidential Debate on MSNBC. In Wisconsin, most of the candidates were firing their final shots at the guy in the NASCAR jacket and lining up to plant a big kiss on John Kerry's hindquarters. The crowd was clapping for Kucinich and Sharpton, but not as much for the man dubbed front-runner or those hoping for cabinet positions (Attorney General John Edwards? Secretary of Being Pissed at the Media Howard Dean?). I went back to frying the chicken and wondering how I could make the meal more fattening.

Later that night I found myself tossing and turning again, staring at the ceiling and counting the dollars left in my bank account.

It was only when I came into work today that I found the perspective I really needed.

That's a picture at the farthest visible spot in space. It's a bit what life was like 750 million years ago. We can only see it with two telescopes, one in Hawaii and one in space. Oh, and because of some weird quirk of physics that allows the gravitation forces of another galaxy to magnify things beyond it several times.

Or something like that.

All of that taken together makes me wonder if it would be such a big deal if the NASCAR President saw the surround sound speaker as a focal point of the living room, and if he did, if it would bother him so much that he wouldn't enjoy a good chicken dinner with John Kerry in my living room.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

The pits

I'm in a van, a bulletproof vest strapped tightly across my chest. Every once in a while I run my fingers across it, marveling at its lack of a steel plate in front of my heart. Technology I don't understand will allow a fabric thinner than an aututmn sweater to stop a bullet from ever reaching my skin.

"It'll leave a helluva bruise, though," one of the guys next to me explains. I hope not to test his knowledge. Last time I hung out with this crew, somebody attached a taser to my hip, pulled the trigger, and left me in the grass, a babbling pile of flesh. These guys are a real hoot.

I feel the vest one more time and decide I actually like it. It's tight against my chest and stomach and acts somewhat like a girdle for anxiety. I'm two seconds from feeling a little bored when one of the six heavily armed men in the van with me says, "We gotta go now."

Another man starts speaking in bursts, calmly but emphatically directing the driver into position. Seconds later the van's side door explodes open, light shoves itself into the calm, and the shouting begins.

I can't make out the words at first, but soon they become as clear as a Hollywood movie.

"Hands up! Lemme see your hands! Hands!"

Guns are out, a woman is crying softly, and an old man is babbling.

In a matter of minutes, a suspected crystal meth dealer is sitting in the van, his hands flex-cuffed behind him. A metal stud sicks out of his eyebrow and his face is expressionless.

One of the crew steps next to me and points to the old man. The geezer looks harmless enough.

"Sonofabitch had a gun in his pocket."

I touch the vest one more time and remind myself I'm only an observer.

Over my shoulder, I hear a whine. A chain is holding back a rather docile pit bull terrier. The dog is issuing occasional bulletins of confusion. He's not sure whether to force an attack or play it safe and sit with his head resting on his forepaws. He (and it is obviously a "he") opts for the latter and watches his master, eyebrow-stud and all, get taken away.

I'm in the company of a crack team of narcs and fugitive trackers. They work for a relatively small city, but they are well-equipped and as serious as a Glock 9mm about their jobs. They've agreed to let me tag along as they sweep the streets of dealers and ne'er-do-wells.

This is not new territory for me. Others of their ilk have taken me for similar rides in the past. Hookers, dealers, even killers have become old hat. I don't expect to learn much and am hoping for--at the most--a decent adrenaline rush to fight an old head cold.

Barely an hour of arrests and takedowns has passed before I'm again face to face with a pit bull. This one is not nearly as docile, but he (yes, he), too, is chained. His owner is another hood from town.

Over the next four hours, I start to see more of the dogs. Various colors, various sizes, all pit bulls and all owned by people poor enough to qualify for government assistance.

Two weeks earlier I was waiting to get my oil changed and struck up a conversation with a talkative lady, a school bus driver who was waiting with her son. I took her to be a conservative sort. Her son was a mammoth kid. He claimed to be only a high school freshman, but his size belied his age. He was flipping through the liner notes of a rap CD and looked up suddenly and asked his mom, "Can I have a pit bull, mom? I want a pit bull."

I wanted to ask what a big kid like him needed a tough, ugly dog for. Before I had the chance, his mother shot him down with a look that said, "You're not that kind of boy."

I didn't really understand until the night with the guns, dealers, and dogs.

By nightfall, I'm tired of seeing pit bulls. I'm looking for a labrador. Maybe a yorkie.

The van pulls up in front of the house where the local Animal Control officer is already wrangling dogs. Pit bull puppies are bouncing all over the yard. I count nine puppies and two big ugly adult dogs.

Emory the dogcatcher, when questioned, affirms what I've started to suspect.

"The pitbull is the status dog of the hood."

Status dog? Yep.

Again, flex-cuffs click onto the wrists of the 23 year-old kid on the front porch. He's got about a half-pound of dope bagged for individual sale, a mean-looking gun, about $1500 in cash, and no small amount of crack cocaine.

Oh, yeah. There are also three babies in the house and no other adults.

A neighbor is offering to take care of the kids, but doesn't have enough car seats to carry them all away. As the man is dragged to his car he starts to yell back toward the group of assembled cops. For a moment, I think he's going to direct the cops on how to contact the kids' mother or grandmother. Or something.

"That one in that back, bossman!" He's yelling at Emory. "That's Smoke. He's the only one that doesn't have a license. I got licenses for the rest! Bossman!"

Slowly, the naive observer (that's me) realizes the dealer cares more about his collection of fighting dogs and future fighting dogs than he does the three kids.

As the cops shove the kid on the car, a man comes running down the street, a look of concern on his face. My half-second of faith in humanity is shattered when the first words out of his mouth are, "What's going to happen to those dogs?"

A few hours later, I'm at home in an autumn sweater. I can still feel the tightness of the anxiety girdle around my chest. My little 13-pound mutt is growling at a red, plastic bone. Later she'll run around the room, her rear-end dragging on the carpet in an adorable game of Chase-Me-I'm-Bored. For a half-second, I imagine her getting mauled by a pit bull that's confused by an upbringing of pain, fighting, and blood.

I conceal my shudder and rub her belly as she rolls over. Then I rub my wife's pregnant stomach.

I find myself feeling immensely fortunate that I live a life that is not defined by a status dog, but rather by how I rub bellies.

And as fortunate as I feel, I can't help but recognize my latent anger. It's making me imagine the pit bulls turning on their owners and doing all of us a tremendous societal favor.

I embrace the anger and don't feel an ounce of guilt as I go to bed with my wife, future baby, and dog of mercifully little status.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Mental mini-movie

For some reason, the mind-movie-maker in my head has fashioned a couple of old farmers, standing together at a fenceline, chewing straw, their hands shoved deep in their overall pockets. They're looking out over a field and at the one lonesome workhorse in the pasture.

"He don't look good," one says.

"Nope," from the other.

"Looks like the last one did before you put him down."


"You gonna put'im out of his misery?" Misery sounds like miz-ree.

"Not yet. Johnny'd cry. I hate to see that boy cry."

Johnny is running now across the pasture, a beagle yelping at his heels. They stop at the old horse and feed it an apple.

"It's cruel, you know."

"I know. But I don't know what's worse. Being cruel to the horse or being cruel to Johnny."


The farmers won't talk again on this day. They'll walk away from each other like the light from the horizon. One will go home and tell his wife how his old friend is getting too soft. The other will stand on his porch, blow a loud whistle across the pasture, and watch his grandson run through the field and back to the old farmhouse.

The boy will be out of breath, as will the beagle that ran at his heels all the way back. Both will sit at the foot of the old farmhouse's porch steps and look up at the old man in the overalls.

"Grandma made biscuits."

"I know," the boy will say. "She told me she would. I want to give one to Buddy." Buddy is the dog. "He's hungry."

"That dog ain't hungry. It eats more than you do."

"Yeah." The boy will get quiet and looking back at the fading light on the edge of the pasture.

"Come on in and wash up."

"Grandpa?" The boy's eyes will look wet.

The old man won't say anything. He thinks he already knows what the boy is thinking. The sun looks just like it did the day his daddy died. Purple on its edges, deep orange in the middle, dropping fast over amber foothills.



"Rocky looks sick."

The old man knows that's what the boy has been calling the horse. He watched the boy take rocks from the creek and match them to the color of the old horse's hair.

"He's old, son."

"I know."

The boy won't move his eyes from the field until the outline of the sun is gone. His grandfather will stand there, shifting his eyes from the both to the field. When the dog gets up and wanders toward the smell of biscuits, the boy will turn to the old man and speak.

"You know, Grandpa, we should put Rocky down."

That's when something will happen that the old man didn't expect. The corners of his eyes will get damp. He will stand and wonder how he got so old as to watch everything die before him. He'll see his grandson in a new suit, standing at his father's grave, the beagle standing beside him, his dog's eyes looking just as solemn.

After a couple of minutes he will realize he's been nodding, silently affirming the boy's decision. In a moment, he'll be startled by the dog walking back onto the porch, a biscuit in his jaws.

In spite of himself, the old man will look down at the beagle and smile.


"We'll see about Rocky tomorrow, son. Come in and have dinner."

Together, with the dog on their heels dropping biscuit crumbs on the wood, the old man and the young man will walk into the old farm house, the last light of the day painting their backs with the shadow of an old horse in the pasture.

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