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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

A little inspiration for ya

We'll get back to the "Get to Know Your Otis" series in the next day or so. In the meantime, please give these two guys a read. You won't be disappointed.

Steve Fishman is a writer in New York who creates some of the most touching long-form pieces I've read recently. He writes with a certain attention to character, detail, and catharsis that forces you to read until the end. Pay particualr attention to his write-ups about September 11th (they're unlike any you've read), the Italian eatery in Harlem, and The End of the Game.

When you need a break, check out The Tao of Pauly. Pauly is an artist, writer, and Phish-head from New York. He used to trade on Wall Street. Now he does whatever he wants. Recently, he's been on the road for Phish's final tour.

For different reasons, these guys give me a window in my windowless "office." Perhaps when you're looking for a window, they'll help you out, too.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004


RER's "Get to Know Your Otis" series continues today with a question from a long-time mentor and sense of direction.

If you were doing whatever you wanted, what would it be? --rj

So, here's an embarrassing admission.

I was 18, maybe 19 years old. I was deep in a conversation with my mom. She'd always been a good ear and rarely judged my mistakes or failures. Unless I had booze on my breath, just about anything was fair game.

That particular night, I found myself struggling with what would become a running theme in my life. I had no idea how I wanted to spend my remaining years. Pre-twenty offered endless possibilities. Dad still had the business and I still had the option of taking over when he decided to retire. My life had not yet taken on a ultra-rowdy craziness and I was still fit for government work. And then there was always that writing thing.

That running theme somehow took on a sprint that night. I was just beginning to understand what it felt like to be paralyzed by life's possibilities. Before I knew it, I found myself in the middle of a sobbing, crying fit that still embarrasses me to this day.

That was not the way our family operated. We did not refuse to act. We correctly believed that inaction was not, in fact, some sort of action. Somehow I had a hard time figuring that out.

More than a decade later, while a lot has changed, not a lot has changed. Now, instead of crying on my mom's shoulder, I sit in the garage and play guitar. Or I rest my elbows on the varnished Bait Shack bar and tell the bartender to keep'em coming. Or I stay up late and night, pretend to accidentally wake up my wife when I go to bed, then talk to her until she falls asleep.

The problem is not actually a problem at all. I am again paralyzed by possibility.

Let me lay it out for you.

I'm about six weeks away from being a father. I am being considered for jobs in my current hometown, and a few other towns along the Gulf Coast and in the American Southwest. Those jobs would either give me a great promotion in my current line of work or remove me completely from the profession in which I've spent eight years trying to build a reputation. What's more, I'm actually getting paid to write these days (not enough to make a living, but getting paid nonetheless).

That all sounds pretty good, right?


Every possibility gives me a similar feeling. To recreate it, go to your nearest vat of low-grade acid, spoon an ounce or two into your gullet, then eat a cheeseburger.

That's a long way of getting to an answer, I suppose.

If I were doing whatever I wanted, what would it be?

Simply put, I guess, I'd be doing the things that I enjoy and writing about them. I'd be spending time with the people I love and writing about that. I'd be going to see live music shows and writing about that. I'd be watching movies and writing about that. I'd be playing poker and writing about that. I'd be hiking the Appalachian Trail and be writing about that (wait, did Bill Bryson already do that?).

Yep, another admission.

I'd be writing.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Slip-slidin' etc.

We're up to ten questions in the Get to Know Otis section of Rapid Eye Reality. Since this post officially marks the 500th entry since RER came to be, I picked one of my favorite questions from the list to answer. Rest assured, though, that all questions will be answered in due course (that is...when I come up with a good answer or find the balls to actually write about the subject).

Question--What is your most memorable "Sliding Door"?

I'm referring to the Gwynneth Paltrow movie, you know, where we catch a glimpse of parallel lives depending on whether she makes or misses a train.
It's the "what-if" factor. Where's your biggest "what-if" in life, your sliding door?
And you're not allowed to answer "I don't have one because my life is perfect", because if you'll remember in the movie, the two parallel lives...eventually...meet up again.
Uncle Ted

Bumpkin was a bitch and I was the only one who hadn't figured it out yet.

In retrospect, that's a really mean thing to say about a girl who eventually became a decent friend. But at the time, Bumpkin had dealt my psyche a death blow. She'd convinced me to do something I'd never really considered.

Try broadcast journalism. You have a nice voice, she said.

I don't know why I trusted her, to be honest. She screwed me up a couple of times before then. But I did it. And motherfucker if I wasn't in the dumps.

This story, though, is not about her.

Frankly, the future didn't look too bright. Big nose, no motivation, an emerging alcohol problem, and a general distrust of all things academic made me a less-than-motivated student. But there I was.

Here's a good indicator of either my advancing age or the speed at which technology travels: About the time the door started to think about sliding, I was learning to splice analog tape with a razor blade and special tape. For those brought up in the digital age, that was how radio folks edited their sound back in the day.

The girl sat behind me, expressing no small amount of confusion at the number of milimeters at which to make the splice without ruining a valuable piece of audio tape. For the first and, perhaps, last time, I taught her how to do something.

She was in the middle of a rough patch. Her favorite uncle had just died under less than pleasant circumstances. She was dating a guy who lived eight hours away. She was living in a whole new town and she, frankly, thought it was too fucking cold.

I was not doing much better myself. Somehow a rocket-fueled relationship had degenerated (some would say...evolved) into some form of social union that allowed sex biweekly and fights bi-hourly.

And, damn, if that confused girl wasn't the cutest little sailor-mouth I'd ever met.

The tribulations that followed in the ensuing months are well-documented and well-edited. No one really wants to hear the story of the roller blade salesman and fajitas again. I might get myself in trouble if we talk about the bisexual again. And, apart from the story of cooking bacon on a BBQ grill, most people I know are aware of the whole sordid tale. Those who aren't can corner me in a drunken moment some night.

Suffice it to say, after nine months of courting, it appeared the future of Tape Girl and your buddy Otis was going nowhere fast.

In a weak moment, I grew facial hair. It seemed like the right thing to do. Going to a bar seemed to be the next best option. So, I went.

The Blue Note was a second home for me during those years. The stage always featured something with a guitar and the upstairs bar always featured the town's best bartendress. She'd always ask for your drink order by saying, "What's up?"

In those days, I often ordered a shot to wash down my beer. That night, the night the door started to slide, I was about three orders into the night when someone came up and whispered in my ear.

"She's on her way here."


The answer could've been anybody. I didn't really care. Turned out, it was the girl who ate the bacon off the grill.

"Hmmm. That could make for an interesting night."

The party inside the Blue Note was starting to get loud and I was happy the boys had secured a table near the bar, and happier still that the bartendress had learned my order without having to ask. Order four brought another person to my ear.

"You see who just walked in the door?"

"Bacon girl?"

"She's coming?"

"You mean it's not her?"


There stood an old high school girlfriend, a couple years younger than me, and a recent addition to the collge town three hours away from home.

I nodded, downed the shot, and thought, "This is going to make for a very interesting night."

The Blue Note has a couple of good exits and one really bad one. None of them looked appealing.

I should run. I should go hit another bar. Find some music. Go somewhere nobody knows me. Even if I have to go out the bad exit.

Forget it, I thought. I'd spent three months lamenting Tape Girl's absence in my life. I'd abandoned the old rocket-fuel relationship for hopes of something cool with Tape Girl and it hadn't worked. I'd been reduced to a beer-swilling monkey face who hid in dark bars and tried to avoid old girlfriends. This was me now.

"You see who's here?"

"Just stop it."


"Yep. I've seen'em both. Hide me, okay?"

That's when I saw my girl across the bar. She'd walked in with a big group of people. And she was looking at me.

Trying to regain sobriety when your several drinks into the night and you have three girls staring at you is a tough proposition.

Then the door slid.

She kissed me. Or let me kiss her. Or something.

In one moment (one that would be sealed over the next few months) my life took on a direction that has led me to today.

Had I left the bar, I would not be living in South Carolina today. I would not be a TV news guy. I wouldn't be on the verge of fatherhood. My life would not be as good as it is.

Had I left the bar, and had we not kissed that night, I don't know where I would be today.

There's a part of me, though, that fears that if I had left the bar and the door had not slid, I might be the best damned BBQ bacon chef in Missouri.

And that is a damned scary proposition.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Alis Ben Johns

Dawn of the Dead, Autumn of the Alive
...or...The Answer to Question #1

In a recent post, I solicited questions from my minions. I opened the floor, opened my doors, and offered to answer anything. I figured since I made the offer, I should probably come through. So here goes.

Question #1: Go back to the day you felt most alive. The day you could feel the blood pumping through your veins. The day you wanted to last forever. And tell me about it. --CJ

If you've ever smelled a Missouri spring night, void of humidity, the musty scent of decaying autumn leaves just fleeing the air, you know what it smelled like that night. You know what April smells like in the middle of Missouri when the lakes aren't so far away and the animals in the nearby trees feel like fucking. It's spring and it adds energy to almost anyone who can stand to suck it into their lungs.

The past six months of my life had felt like spring. I'd ridden out the end of fall and full cold of winter in a springlike daze. I'd met my future wife the year before. She'd made me feel more alive than any woman ever had. She'd teased me with clothes that weren't sexy. She found a way to wear them that made me wander in circles, mumbling and counting to fifty. Then, later, she abandoned all the clothes and wore nothing but a sterling silver necklace. If I wrote about that, corporate filters would block this site and you wouldn't be able to read it at work.

Gambling and women have always been the two things that made my heart beat faster. That spring, I'd not yet found Vegas, but I was getting my fix. It was passive-aggressive risk-taking at its finest.

I was a little more than a month away from graduating college. Sleep was reserved for the time I wasn't drinking or rolling around in the covers with the woman who had somehow elevated herself above the standard muse of the moment. The rest of the time I skipped class and thought about Alis.

I've written about Alis Ben Johns before. Some people called him Joe. Some people called him Indian Joe. He was a backwoods Missouri boy with little intelligence, but an incredible knack for surviving outdoors.

He was also a born killer.

By the time I got interested in Alis, he'd already killed two people. The first victim was a willing participant in a drunken roadside argument. Alis shot guy named Teddy along Route KK in Pulaski County, MO. He went on the run, which was easy for him. He claimed--and most people believed--he could sneak up on a cop in the middle of the woods and grab the cop's gun before the officer was ever the wiser.

The cops started getting a little more eager to catch the woodsman after he killed an old man named Leonard. Like he would many times in the future, Alis broke into the old boy's house and killed him for no real reason other than he could.

A week or so later, as the manhunt started to get a little crazy, I found myself sitting in the old dude's house. It was the only time in a career that's now spanned eight years that I've ever seen a law enforcement agency convert a murder victim's house into a command post. It was first time the cops took me back and let me take a look at the actual murder scene, blood stains and all.

They had maps strewn all over the room, coffee makers doing overtime, and a secretary working in the den. It was odd with a capital "O" and I was just beginning to get off on it.

I only worked part-time for a TV station then and I was not required to follow the Alis story wherever it went. Still, I spent an inordinate amount of time tracking through back woods and gullies, doing target practice at lake-area gun shops (I was a crack shot with a .40 caliber), and looking at every man's face to see if he might be Alis.

No one was really surprised when Alis killed again. He didn't seem to have much of a capacity to understand that the more people he killed, the harder the cops were going to look for him and the more his picture would be on TV. So, when he killed an old lady named Wilma in southwest Missouri, it stood to reason that the manhunt would intensify.

At that point, I actually started looking for a woman. Everyone knew Alis had a mama somewhere, but no one could find her. Though I can't remember exactly how I did it, I tracked her down and became the first reporter in Missouri to do so. I eventually made a few hundred bucks selling the interview to CBS' 48 Hours program.

At one point in the interview she looked up at me and said, "They're going to kill him." I couldn't make myself comfort her by telling her it wasn't going to happen because I knew that if a cop had an open shot at Alis, he'd take it.

One night in late March, I found myself at another odd command post. The cops and media had taken over a small bar in Benton County, MO near Cole Camp. They had reason to believe Alis and his girlfriend Beverly were hiding in the area. It had become a full-blown Bonnie and Clyde story without all the messy bank robberies. I stood in a crush of media, barking questions at the county sheriff. National network camera rolled on either side of me. My voice would later be heard on national TV asking the sheriff about Alis' movement around the county woods. At the time, that seemed about like the coolest thing ever. That night I spent the night in a noiseless cabin, soothing my nerves with a beer or two, and wondering how close Alis was.

Then came the night. A Water Patrol officer was checking out a house and ran right into Alis. The killer burst out of the door with a .22 to his girlfriend's head and screamed out, "I've got a hostage. I'll shoot her!"

Just like mama predicted the officer leveled his gun and fired a shot. The elusive Alis Ben Johns was on the ground in a second.

I drove at nearly 100mph all the way to the hospital in Sedalia. When I got there, I found almost every door locked. The glass emergency bay doors were blocked by cops and media. The front doors were sealed shut.

These days I probably wouldn't do what I did that night. I wandered around the perimeter of the facility until I found a janitor who would let me inside. Once inside, I sneaked up to the emergency room where I found a friendly face: The sheriff of Pulaski County. He fed me a little bit of information about Alis' condition and how the arrest went down. Minutes later, I was giving live reports from inside the hospital for my employer and my hometown station in Springfield.

I miss those days of pure, new journalism. I wasn't getting paid anything and didn't care. It was pure adrenaline and sex and one of the best tomes of my life. I wanted that night to last forever. It wasn't the only one that got me off, but it's one of the first and the one I remember most clearly.

Alis is on death row now. That woman in the unsexy sexy clothes is downstairs writing thank you cards to the girls who gave her baby shower gifts. And me? I'm sitting in the dark, drinking unsweetened iced tea and trying to decide which is more important: a sense of home or a sense of accomplishment.

But that's another answer for another question.

Previously: Indian Joe and Why I'm Nuts

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Thursday, June 24, 2004

I don't need no mirror

The dream shook me awake like a bad friend on a bad morning. I thought I should be hungover, or at the very least, bleeding from an extremity. I felt like I should cry or, again, at the very least, be sweating a little bit.

Someone intimated to me recently that listening to other people's dreams is like watching a vacation slideshow. You'll usually humor a person up until you see the third or fourth shot of the kids playing in the sand or kicking the bell boy in the nuts. After that, somebody better be naked or it's goodnight, Irene.

With that, I won't go into the dream. It was a little personal, anyway, so, go screw yourself.

I opened my eyes and had no idea where I was. It reminded me a little of the morning I woke up in an empty room on a bare mattress. That time I was hungover. That time I was sweating a few ounces an hour. That time I was as alone as alone could be. I'd been out the night before with a group of people I barely knew. I didn't remember making it back to my buddy's house. I didn't remember crashing on the mattress. That was ten years ago this week. I know this because the O.J. Simpson story was in the news at the time. I was 20 years old, going on 18.

This time, I was 30, sober, alone, and scared. I was in the presidential suite of a semi-swanky hotel. I'd only recently noted the difference between the presidential suite and a regular room: It was on the top floor and cost $65 more per night. Bah. I certainly didn't feel presidential and the only suite I knew was Judy Blue Eyes. It is certainly getting to the point, you know?

I threw my hand in the direction of the place I knew I plugged in my phone. The phone would tell me where I was. It would tell me what time it was.

If only it would tell me who the hell I was.

A randier man would be in that four-post bed with a woman. The fridge in the next room would have a variety of alcoholic drinks. There might be some drugs in the bedside table. There would certainly be cigarettes.

That wasn't me and I didn't have to wake up to know that.

I dialed without looking at the phone's keypad. The sleepy voice on the other end was immistakable.

"Hello?" My wife wasn't awake yet. Or, at least, it didn't seem like it.

"Hey, baby. You okay?"

"Of course."

Of course, she was. Why wouldn't she be? I'd only been gone for a day or so. If only a single day couldn't change so much about life. This past year has taught me the power of 24 hours.

"I just wanted to be sure. Bad dreams last night."

I didn't fill her in right then. No reason to share the psychoses right then and there, you know?

So, I hung up and hid under the covers. I had nowhere to be for quite a while. I couldn't really go anywhere. So, I hid. I punched random digits into the alarm clock and pretended not to hear the Hispanic guy trying to start the leaf blower seven floors below.

Fuck that guy.

The mirror in the bathroom freaked me out the night before. Not the big one, but the shaving and makeup mirror that really accentuates the positives and negatives on your face. I ran into one of those mirrors last summer in New York and got jiggy with it. That was a good time. This time, the mirror seemed distorted. Not in any metaphorical way. It really did seem messed up. I didn't even find any fun angling it downward and checking out the old yanger in the relfection. Nope. No fun there.

The TV had sucked the night before. I could've read a little bit, but I was too tired to concentrate. Every other activity was either off limits or out of reach. My old buddy, Tubey, was the best bet. And he sucked eggs. When you fall alseep listening to re-runs of news (yep, re-runs of NEWS), you know you're stuck in a perfectly Groundhog-esque cycle of leaf blowers, funky shaving mirrors, and yangers that look distorted (if the reflection is distorted, I guess my yanger was, too).

Later, I crawled out of the bed and made my way into the big bathroom. The staff had left some fizzy bath salts on the edge of the big jacuzzi tub. I gave some thought to running a bath, fizzing it up, and dropping my happy, confused ass right into the testosterone-less bath. Looking once more at my yanger, I decided I couldn't risk it and settled for a shower.

Eventually I checked out, after waiting for an air conditioner repairman to explain the physics of 1970s central air vs. 2004 central air to the day manager. None of us cared at all.

It was about that time, or a few minutes later when I was pawing at a plate of uneaten french fries, that I realized that I don't mind sleeping in hotels. I just don't like waking up alone. Going to sleep alone is one thing. Waking up alone is up there on the egg-suck meter.

I ate the club sandwich, left the fries, and filled the rest of the hole in my stomach with ice water and diet coke. I asked myself if I could've fixed the mirror to truly reflect me, and by extension, my yanger. I decided it was impossible. The mirror didn't know diddly. None of them really do.

The only real reflection you get of me is right here. That's why I call it Rapid Eye Reality.

Recently, I haven't written much for fear of giving you a bunch of content you don't want. But I need to write.

So, do me a favor. In the comments section below, write one question about me that you'd like an answer to. I don't care what it is. I'll answer it best I can. It'll give me something to write about. I need that right now.

In retrospect, I sort of wish I'd ordered something other than the club sandwich. I wish I'd just driven the two hours home the night before and not woken up alone. I wished I tried to read instead of watching TV. But I didn't.

So, while I'm on a mental and emotional roadtrip of sorts, do me a favor and give me something to wake up with. Hopefully, I'll deliver with some good answers.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Come and gone...again.

I hate when it's over.

Many thanks to those who came. Many more thanks to the people who came so far.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Monday, June 07, 2004


About every two days my wife looks at me and says, "Where'd you go?"

My eyes have drifted off. They might be pointed at a billboard or a eatery menu. A few people know the look, though. It's blank, hollow, and could be 100 yards deep. She knows as well as I do that I'm not looking at anything tangible.

"I'm here," I'll respond.

"Bullshit." She says it in a way that is neither mean, nor condescending. It's a matter of fact statement because, it is, in fact, a matter of fact.

"Everything and nothing?" she'll ask, not even needing to ask the question.

"Yep." That's me, conceding my mind is working overtime on absolutlely everything and absolutely nothing at the same time.

"Okay." She understands. She gets that way sometimes, too. Although, she rarely gets the tell-tale 100-yard stare.

And that's about how it goes. I paralyze myself in an empty stare as my mind works like one of those rock polishers you had when you were a kid.

You know the ones. You find an old rock in the yard, put it in the tumbler for an inordinate amount of time, and it comes out looking like something you might buy at a hippy bead shop.

Something in my head tells me that I'm on the cusp of actually polishing a rock or two. I have some unexplianable sense of optimism. It may just be because life couldn't be much more confusing, so optimism seems to be the best course of action. Regardless, I have some faith that everything is going to turn out okay.

However, with that in mind, I'm developing that empty look more and more these days. I'm rock-polishing like nobody's business.

That's probably the reason for the infrequent posts here. I'm not really focused on the mundane, and everyone has tired of my noodling on the indecision of 30-somethingness.

That all said, I'm about to take a brief hiatus from writing, both here and on the sub-blog Up For Poker.

My to-do list has grown massive and I have more than a lot to do in the next two weeks in preparation for kid stuff, Bradoween, the Bradoween Open, current work stuff, possibly future work stuff, and a sideline writing project.

I'll be back in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, feel free to assault me with comments in the comments section. It lets me know you're all still out there while I'm staring at the menu and wondering whether I want the hot roast beef or a club sandwich.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Graduation Day

I remember looking out over the crowd of people. My parents had a video camera. The administration looked uneasy. Something had happened to me in the three months prior to that day. There had been a shift in my good boy philosophy. I'd been doing things good boys don't do. I'd been doing things then reviewing statutes of limitations to figure out when I could tell certain tales of misspent youth.

In the weeks leading up to that day, someone in a position of power had approved a benign graduation speech I had written. I'd been slated as the last speaker of the program. It seemed obvious, as I started quoting Charles Manson, that the prepared speech had gone the way of the dodo.

I launched into five minutes of instruction to look outside the little town of Willard, Missouri. Find yourselves somewhere else. Don't believe that the Chemistry teacher (and he knew exactly who he was) was right when he said you'd be a failure. Then, as a nod to a few select people in the crowd, I raised my hand in a curious gesture (not the one you think) and bid my fellow graduates good luck.

I left the stage in the middle of a standing ovation and rarely looked back.

It took me four years to get to that point. Four years to understand what graduation really meant. It was not validation, as some might have me believe. It was barely a rite of passage.

It simply was the end of four years of learning how to be a better person and believe in myself.

It ended up taking me five years to get through college (sometimes it takes longer to learn). When I left Mizzou, though, I felt the same way. I graduated and became a better, more experienced person. I was by no means perfect. But I was better.

This morning I woke up to my wife calling me a hotcake. Beyond being fairly bug-in-a-rug-snug in bed, I didn't know exactly what she meant. But as we exchanged "happy anniversary" wishes, I knew it didn't matter.

I've just finished four years of instruction on how to be a better person. I've had one primary instructor. She's done a fine job.

While the bumps in the road have sometimes been big, she's known exactly the right time to kick me in the nuts and tell me to fix what's broken. Like anyone who reads RER, she knows that I'm still working on what's next, and moreover, how to believe in myself.

But she's my biggest fan. And without fans (especially the big ones), we'd all overheat way too soon.

The beauty of this graduation day is that it only begins another round of instruction. This time, though, we learn together.

And what a time that will be.

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