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Thursday, September 30, 2004

Head from the clouds

When you're inland, mountains to your north, long trailing foothills to your south, and stretches of interstate to your east and west, your view of the world is as through a prism of possibility. The wild mountains with flora and fauna of marvelous inspiration offer a sense of natural unknown. The foothills lead through hill and dale to an inevitable oceanic terminus, wondrous confinement. The interstates lead everywhere and nowhere in particular.

Such as it was Monday night when the remnants of yet another tropical event blew in on a gale of what seemed impossible strength. It had lost its true menace as it crossed through the wetlands of south Georgia. But still, as it whipped the trees in my little burg, it inspired a sense of some awe, like watching an aging prize fighter's roundhouse in perfect form.

When it's windy out, or blowing with tropical power, I like to sit on the second floor of my house. The view is not great, but the limbs of the tall Sweetgum and frail Bradford Pear knock the side of the house. The vinyl siding offers a bit of a whistle that makes the weather sound a little tougher than it really is.

So, there I sat in a chair with too little padding, and listened. Something was happening in my head. The kid slept. The wife slept. The dog slept. I tried to write. I tried to play my little game. I couldn't concentrate.

Rhythms have been poking their way inside my head recently. If I can't find some good diggy-diggy music to keep my head straight, I find myself creating them with my hands, feet, or voice. Usually when this happens, I find myself in the middle of a mental move, a seismic shift in the old noodle. It's disarming and disabling at the same time.

It's around these times that I become increasingly unproductive in my professional life. Like a graduating senior or man on the verge of retirement, I cannot motivate myself to consider the task at hand.

Take, for instance, this very moment. I've been working all day with precious little progress toward the ultimate goal of actually producing something. Instead, Sam Bush diggy-diggies out of my computer speakers (if you don't know Sam, you're missing out...even--or perhaps, especially--the heads among you). I'm blogging with no real focus, but a sense that if I don't write something, I may, in fact, explode. I occasionally will minimize the blogging screen and focus for a moment on the work at hand, but it rarely lasts for longer than ten minutes. I'm counting on my co-workers who read this to keep my little secret.

It could be the same affliction that seems to strike me once or twice a year. When the Lake Eden Arts Festival (aka LEAF) comes around, I find myself thinking more about sitting at the mainstage or by the lake, a drink in hand, and an unexplainable sense of peace. LEAF is now two weeks away and in my head I'm already hearing the music across the water. I'm feeling the chill of a mountain October, bundled up at the poetry tent, burning up in Eden Hall, or...otherwise...at the drum circle at 2am.

But, again, that's a couple of weeks away.

Is it hope I feel? I think it may be. Parenthood is taking a turn toward something close to understandable, my professional life may have a new possibility in the coming weeks, my sense of self seems to be re-forming.

More than anything, though, it's a rhythm, pulsing through my noodle. It's a beat of optimism and new breath.

Let it continue, because I think I like it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Otis, the sicko

A proper man, the kind that averts his eyes when driving by a bloody wreck, would not look in the rearview mirror like I do. A good fellow, the kind that holds his wife's hand in public, wouldn't tap the brake to see what reaction follows. This is to say, a respectable human being wouldn't be so curious about the Orders Street hookers.

When I leave work, I take a shortcut through an old mill village near my office. For those who have't lived in the land of textiles, back in the day, entire communities built themselves around the neighborhood textile mill. Yarn men and thread men would walk to work together, down the hilly streets, cashing thier paycheck at the company store, then home to the wife and kids, all of whom probably worked at least a few hours a week in the mill. Rarely did anyone have to venture far from the mill village. Many of the communties had their own baseball teams. Shoeless Joe Jackson himself played ball in a little mill vllage around here before going off to find infamy up north. Each village was a self-sustaining microcosm of the American work ethic at large.

Times, though, have changed. Most of the mills were long ago abandoned. Those that are still standing are giant firetraps, homes to the homeless and kids with a penchant for pyromania. The communties around them have crumbled as well. Some of the older folk still live there and talk fondly of the old mill days. But more and more, the mill villages are becoming home to the poorest of the poor and the most desperate of the desperate. And Shoeless Joe? He's a statue in the now-fashionable West End arts district.

Several years ago, frustrated by traffic lights along the main road to the office, I started cutting through the mill village. Back then, I was more likely to run over some poor kid than get flagged down by a hooker. The street, just a few blocks long, is home to a church, a scrap yard, about 30 mill village homes, some odd sort of halfway house, and a porn shop around the corner.

It is also home to a collection of hookers that rivals any I've ever seen outside of Las Vegas.

At first, it was just one. She stood abuot 4'10", 95 pounds, and redefined the word homely. She had no sales pitch, no particular swagger. Every once in a while, she'd just climb in some guy's car. On other days, I'd pull up to the stop sign just as she was getting out of a car. And other days, she'd just walk, carrying her homeliness like a giant cross.

As the months passed, a new girl would arrive, then another. Now, I can't keep track of them all (although, my mind has tried to catalogue them for some sick, confusing reason). There's the short ugly one. Then there's the mid-sized dirty blonde. The plump black girl. The skinny blonde. The blonde with too much red lipstick. The biggish brunette with the conservative clothes. And then there's the new girl on the block, the one who sits on the curb and just waves business in. The first day I saw her, I thought she was tired. I've come to discover, she must be just lazy.

Up until recently, we had ignored each other. I treated them with much the same concern I gave to the kids who ran in the street. They kindly stepped out of the way when I was late for my morning meeting.

But in recent weeks, the hookers have started paying me more attention. In the beginning, I did nothing to attract it. They just started doing little half waves as I approached or as I passed. Then they started looking over their shoulder. Then they started stopping the middle of the road and turning around.

I figured it out eventually. I'm a guy, in a suit, driving through a neighborhood that obviously isn't my own. I look like a John.

A few weeks ago, I started tapping my brake and looking the rearview mirror. Sure enough. They think I'm a John.

Though my wife's baby-making body has been unavailable to me in recent weeks (er...months), I have no interest in employing the girls' obvious business acumen. Still, I can't help but be fascinated by the constantly changing signals of silent hooker speak.

I think this makes me a sicko.

There. I've said it and feel better for it.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Finding my inner Muppet

"This is news. This is what we do."

The television news photographer had just been released from duty, released to drive through the outer bands of Tropical Storm Ivan, through the misty, foggy, driving rain to his wife and child just across the county line.

Tornadoes had been slipping up and down from thunderstorms for a couple of hours. The newsroom--always a hectic, but usually composed place--had degenerated into a cursing, desk-kicking, maelstrom of mistakes and, some would say, incompetence.

To be fair, it was an ugly day. Ivan had moved ashore in coastal Alabama and pushed across the southeastern states. It was knocking at our door and making a menace of itself. As had become commonplace during recent weather events, our advance planning had missed its mark. Our resources were in the wrong place. News was happening in places we were not. An automated school closing system that ran in a ticker at the bottom of our viewer's television screens had left our viewers with the impression that the biggest school district in the state had closed schools the next day. That was, to be sure, incorrect.

I had successfully extricated myself from the weather coverage earlier in the day. As a guy who routinely covers dead people and people who kill them, I had gone off on a trip into the foothills to cover the disappearance of a prominent businessman. After a highly public life as a rabidly successful economic development and advertising mogul, he'd retired to a dream life in the mountains. Tuesday, he'd gone to meet someone to close a car sale. He disappeared off the face of the Carolina earth and it was a story that begged telling.

I spent my day at a literal crossroads, sandwiched in between two places that fried chicken for hours at a time. I grew hungry and in serious need of some chicken. The South, friends, makes some good fried bird.

Then, as newstime approached, the western edge of our viewing area exploded in a sea of Doppler Radar Red and hook echoes. That's when a lot of the days plans went to hell.

As the half-hours passed, it became clear that Armageddon was not at hand. Still, the managers believed we needed more staff on board for the nightshift. I drew one of the shorter straws and found myself in the middle of a double shift.

So, there I sat as the people with the long straws made their way home toward their families. And the photographer who walked out the door--after being told he might have to come back if more news should break--said it.

"This is news. This is what we do."

I thought to myself, "Yeah, easy for you to say. You're going home to your wife and kid."

The managers were good enough to bring in food for the short straw staff. Turned out to be a fried chicken dinner which, curiously, was not quite as satisfying as I had imagined it being seven hours earlier.

As I sat picking the bird out of my teeth, I discovered that I was experiencing something new. Rarely before in my news career had I been genuinely disappointed to draw the short straw. In the past, I begged to be sent into the fray, to work inhumane hours, and tackle the often bewildering world that is the news business. I lived it, loved it, and based much of my personality on it. It was news. It was what I did.

Seven hours earlier I'd been sitting on a bench outside a home cooking restaurant in the mountains. Old folks and day laborers walked in and out with full bellies. Mrs. Otis had buzzed my cell phone with an uncommon plea.

"When you get home tonight, can I leave the house for a bit?"

I could hear the fatigue in her voice. She'd been suffering through the metamorphosis from career woman to career mom. She'd found the latter to be just as stressful and needed a break.

I vowed to her that I'd be home shortly after six and she'd get a much needed break. When I called to give her the short straw news, the resigned, zombie-like timbre of her voice made me wish I had the luxury of leaving work whenever I wanted. It actually made me feel something else, but I'm not sure what it is.

For those who don't know, Mrs. Otis is not your average news widow. She's lived the life longer than I have. She knows news and breathes it with unmatched competence. Up until the birth of L'il Otis, she'd made me a news widower many nights as she burned not only the midnight oil, but any oil she could find to burn.

I'd groused many times about the struggles of working with my wife. Butting heads professionally sometimes leads to butting heads personally. It's one thing when you're butting professional heads with work friends. It's another thing when you're still battling over the days news during a romantic moment at home (although, I do recommend make up after a news battle sex).

She left for maternity leave seven weeks ago and work hasn't been the same since. It is, in short, no fun. News battles with people I don't know leave me wanting. It's hard to battle with someone you don't fear. While most people don't care to understand how a news operation works, suffice it to say that such an operation requires strong wills, uncanny judgment, and firm belief in your work. Mrs. Otis, for all her silly quirks, had all of those things. Without her, work has ceased being interesting. What's worse, it has ceased being fun.

Her absence compounds an already waning interest I have in working for peanuts and putting my heart and soul into a machine that spits forth an occasional pat on the back and little else.

Lest you think I'm whining, let me assure you I'm not. Hours like these when I sit, still in suit and tie, waiting for news to break, are good times for reflection on one's future.

I've often referred to this business of mine as like a relationship with an impossible woman. While she's excellent in bed, she frequently destroys your heart, soul, psyche and stomach lining. You keep going back for the emotional abuse, because the sex is so good, but you know you're doing nothing but digging yourself deeper into the emotional hole.

That's the way the news business has been for me for several years. Now, though, I feel a decided shift in the relationship. These are the days when the relationship is on the wane. Both man and woman know that the relationship is bound to end, they just can't find the words to end it. So, they go through loveless acts of pseudo-passion and wait for the right time to walk out.

I've seen it happen to many friends of mine in the television news business. It's not a new phenomenon. I, like many masochistic addicts, believed I could survive it--or better yet--change it.

Though this isn't something many people would say, I should've paid attention to what Hunter S. Thompson wrote in Generation of Swine in 1988. Flip to page 43 and recite it with me:

The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.

While I shudder to believe Thompson's indictment is true, more and more I find myself believing it. It's only out of blind loyalty to some of the good men (and women) that I have stayed as along as I have. Well, that and the need to pay the mortgage.

Fortunately, I've recently developed a sense of optimism about my future. I've developed a drive to stop bitching and start making something happen. As my daddy likes to say of stagnation, "Do something, even if it's wrong."

For the time being, however, I'm stuck inside the windowless world that is my newsroom. My tie hangs askew. And I'm wishing, like many others around here, that Mrs. Otis was here to soothe the pain.

Instead, I'm taking heart in a link that a reformed newsie posted on her blog recently. Thanks, Su.

Manah, Manah to all y'all.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Let it rain, I've got clarity anyway

I think better when I'm naked.

Some of the clearest moments in my life, some of the most defining decisions have come when I'm buck ass, damn right I've got a biscuit butt, naked.

Don't get me wrong, I've made a lot of very bad decisions while in the buff, but that's another story for another day.

What I'm saying, muchacho, is that I think more clearly when I have a clear view of my stuff.

Now, in the old days, this didn't always apply. Youth, inexperience, hormones, and alcohol contributed to some questionable thinking on my part. However, in recent years (epecially the last eleven months), the only time I get any real peace is when I'm in the shower. Some may say it is the solitude, but I think it has something to do with being naked. Regardless, I think better.

So, while sudsing my buns the other day, I had what alcoholics (quit your finger-pointing) call a moment of clarity.

I'm wasting my life.

Despite how depressing that may sound, it was actually a welcome revelation. As I rinsed off, I felt like Mr. Clean with a little more hair.

I stepped away, avoiding the always precarious slippery floor, with a few axioms by which to live the next few months of my life:

1) Live your life, work your work, and keep the two at a goodly distance so they don't get in a dog fight.

2) Stagnation is for cess pools and people who don't give a damn. You, at the very least, give a damn. So, act like it.

3) Be a friend to friends, but make sure you know who your friends are.

4) Excuses are for sick school children.

5) Live.

So, thereya go.

Now, I'm off to investigate the employee handbook and what it says about appropriate attire in the workplace. If I can get by with sitting naked at my desk, I may just do it.

Monday, September 06, 2004

From platter to cocktail napkin

Buzzwords are the bastard sons of the catch phrase.

Perhaps if it weren't for the invention of the computer, we'd have never heard the word "multitasking." That is, after all, what computers do. They multitask.

But, sometime in the last ten years, some marketing genius decided it might be fun to assign "multitasking" to human processes. Screw that guy.

Methinks there was a larger Dr. Phil-ish conspiracy afoot. That is, if we can convince people they should be able to act like computers, then we can sell them more books teaching them how to act like computers. Then, when they fail at that task (one of several the multitasking propoganda machine prescribes), we can sell them books on how to overcome the depression of failing to multitask. Then when they fail at overcoming their depression we can sell them prescription drugs that make them forget about how they couldn't multitask. Then once they get addicted to those drugs we can sell them books on overcoming addiction. Once they overcome addiction, they'll realize they should be multitasking and buy a book on how to do it more effectively.

All of that said, I can do a whole bunch of things at once.

For instance, I can talk on the cell phone, shift a five-speed, drink from a bottle of soda, and search for a new CD under the front seat all at the same time.

What's more, I can work, play, and rest simultaneously.

My, but humans can be cocky.

Perhaps the blue screen of death taught us nothing. If it had, we would know that even computers sometimes just say, "Okay, that's enough. I'm done."

After 30 years of chewing gum and walking at the same time, my internal processor (one that's fluctuated between a P4 and a 386 for some time) finally threw up the blue screen of death. As of 4:45pm, Labor Day 2004, I gave up.

Let's review.

For the past five years, I've worked to be the best at everything I do, or at least, moderately capable. I've put every ounce of effort into being a productive worker, an insatiable player, a successful chip slinger, a great friend, a loyal son, and a decent husband. I did an okay job.

I was multitasking, friends.

As summer reached its zenith, I got cocky. After working for a few years on two blogs, I decided to start a third (a poker news-based rag that I already hate). I started focusing--some might say, obsessing--on the game of poker. I started working on three different writing projects (one of which has already been published, one should be heading to newstands, the other is in its genesis). I continued to focus on my work too much, but started looking for a new job.

And that's just the extracuricular stuff.

Understand, I had a kid on the way at the time. He has since arrived and brought with him a little thing called perspective. He also shut down my internal computer.

Now, it's likely that I'm just a little tired. While I'm sleeping more than my wife, it is irregular sleep that has thrown off my internal clock. I'm not thinking clearly, and as such, I'm not doing anything very well. I suck at work. My poker game is suffering (thank goodness I had a very profitable July and August). My writing is eratic and sporadic.

Beyond that, I'm not enjoying much of any of it. Poker seems like a chore. Writing seems like an obligation. Work is full of passionless motion. And for some reason, food has simply become fuel as opposes to something I enjoy.

Fortunately, good sense tells me I'm just at the nadir of a manic downswing. I'm overjoyed to have a healthy, cute kid. And the rest of it is just stuff.

Still, I think I need to slow down and re-group. I need to trim a little of the fat.

How to do that? I'm not sure exactly, but I have a couple of ideas.

Foremost, though, the plan is to survive until mid-October when I'll return to the mountains for three days of camping and music.


Upon re-reading this screed, I decided it read decidedly pessimistic.

That's not right.

I'm acutally optimistic. I'm just trying to figure out how to get there.


Yeah, I don't know either.

But, we'll figure it out together.

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