Rapid Eye Reality -- Home of Brad Willis' writing on family life, travel adventures, and life inside the poker world

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Rapid Eye Recommendations

I've never known whether I'm qualified to review or recommend, but in recent months, I've become a fan of certain things that I feel compelled to share with the class.


Ecco shoes--I've never eally thought of the Danes as a bastion of shoe-making. In fact, when I privately recommended these shoes to friends, I mistakenly told people they were made by the Dutch. Nonetheless, Ecco shoes are among the most comfortable and long-lasting I've put on my feet. I was sold on them by a department store saleslady who learned that my job keeps me on my feet for hours at a time. As a poker tournament reporter, I can spent 16-18 hours in any given day walking around. Plus, I travel a great deal, which leaves me walking, and walking, and walking. I chose the laceless, black business shoe (can be worn casually or with suits) and is easily slipped on and off in airport security lines. I bought mine four months ago and have worn them exclusively. I may never buy another brand of shoe again.


I didn't realize until I started writing this that there is an entire affiliate marketing scheme out there surrounding energy drinks. Nonetheless, I have never been a huge fan of energy drinks. In fact, it was only through necessity that I started drinking them. I can now stomach them all, but due to wanting to keep my girlish figure, I try to stick to the sugar free variants. The only one I really, really like is Sugar Free Full Throttle Fury. You'll find it in the red can in the Coca Cola section of your drink aisle. It tastes quite a bit like Sunkist and there is barely a diety aftertaste.


Because many of the readers here are readers of the Tao of Pauly, you will already be aware of this. However, I feel compelled to pass on what Pauly passed on to me over the summer. If you don't know The Wood Brothers or Galactic, you are really missing out.

Beyond that, for the first time in a long time, we festival-goers are going to LEAF. If you're the type of person who loves the mountains in the fall, music from every genre, and camping with friends, we'd welcome you to come along.


Wil introduced me to this one. If you like hops, you need to drink Arrogant Bastard Ale. It's not easy to find east of the Mississippi, but it's out there. I drank this beer for six weeks over the summer. Careful, though. It packs a higher alcohol content than your average beer.

That should be enough to keep you busy for a while. However, as I love, love, love giving my opinion, feel free to suggest categories and I tell you how I'm living and loving life.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Five years old

I am 32 years old.
My dog is seven years old.
My marriage is six years old.
My son is two years old.

Rapid Eye Reality is five years old today.

I was in the process of putting together a greatest hits album. I made it through 2001 and 2002 before I got tired. Regardless, I thought I should mention that this old friend is still sticking by me.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Feeling bad (and not going down the road)

It started like most important events in history--over a pan full of marinara sauce. Actually, the marinara was to my right, simmering on my flat top range. I was mixing some baby spinich with an assortment of lettuces and some parmesean cheese. Rather than work too hard on Tuesday, I decided to make dinner for my family. It had been a long summer already. Six weeks on the road, followed by a death in the family and a dog which may or may not have had skin cancer, but had surgery to remove the bad spot regardless...yeah, it had been a long summer.

I was washing the spinich when the first bolt of pain shot through my head.

"Damn it," I muttered. I've had these shooting pains in my head since I was a kid. They are exceptionally painful and I've never found a kind of pain with which I can compare what happens. This time, the pain started near my right ear and shot out toward the back and front of my head. The good thing is, these pains usually last for half an hour and then disappear for several months.

Only thing was, this time they didn't stop. They got worse. Then they got more frequent. By 9pm, I was laying on the floor with a heated bag of corn kernels on my head. By 1am, I was holding my son's teething rings against my temple. By 3am, I was wrapped up in a version of the fetal position on my bed. By 3:30am and under duress, I was in the emergency room. The pains were coming about every two or three minutes. As a way to ignore the pain, I started pretending the pains were contractions and my brain was about to birth an alien.

In the waiting room, I remembered why I had avoided the ER for so long. Around me were people who felt a sore toe or a mild cold was reason enough to go to the ER. What's more, there were people who were just there to scam drugs. Suddenly, I felt like one of those people.

"Oh, look at him," I imagined them saying, "he's here because of a headache. Wonder what kind of pain killers he is looking for?"

I wished I had a DVD of the past three years of my life. It would've been easier than explaining to doctors that my father nearly died from an aneurysm and that one of my good friends died after a blood vessel in an unknown brain tumor burst. In both cases, I remember doctors saying, "If you are experiencing the worst headache of your life, go to the ER immediately."

So, I waited for several hours to go to the ER, and then waited for two hours after I got there before a doctor looked at me for a few minutes and shot me full of drugs--really, really good drugs. The doctor said I was showing no signs of any other problems. He mentioned possible tumors or menengitis, but said it didn't look like I had any other symptoms.

So, for the past twelve hours of pain, I had experienced a worried wife, a sleepy kid, a doctor who was obviously at the end of his shift, and a lady nurse who wondered if I wanted both shots in the same side of my ass or of she should spread the pain around a little (I chose to have both shots in one cheek, which, in retrospect, was a bad idea).

Due in part to the continuing pain, and due in part to some neat drugs called Meprozine, I lost nearly all of Wednesday. I know I woke up briefly around dinner time, ate some leftover lasagna and recommended a few friends for some jobs. Other than that, I pretty much don't remember the day. All I know is that every time the pills wore off, I was in pain again.

Apparently, during the drugged up period, I also agreed to see my regular doctor on Thursday if the pain hadn't stopped. So, when I woke up on Thursday, I forgot to lie and say I felt better. Half an hour later, I was in the doctor's office.

I go to the doctor about once every ten years on average. I go if I have to (read: insurance physical or otherwise) or if I think I might die. As such, I had seen this doctor once before. When we again met, I had forgotten how much he looked like an Indian version of George Jefferson. In fact, as the Meprozine was still wearing off, I had to fight myself to not ask him if Weezie was around.

I don't understand doctors' offices. They are a lot like the airport, I think. Where airlines want to get you on the plane and pushed back from the gate before you wait (so as to make sure their on-time departure records remain pretty), doctors' offices move you from one waiting room to another waiting room, before making you wait in the exam room. As far as I know, there is no on-time departure record for doctors, so I assume there is some psychological experiment going on. Either that, or doctors are, indeed, sadists.

As I waited in the exam room, my eyes fluttered over the stainless steel garbage bin. Holy shit! As clear as day, I saw the Mona Lisa in the stainless reflection.

I quite literally rubbed my eyes. I was finally worried about myself. While I had been in a lot of pain in the past 72 hours, I had not experienced any hallucinations. The Mona Lisa! When I opened my eyes again, relief washed over me. It wasn't the Mona Lisa after all. It was the Virgin Mary.

Everybody sees her, I thought, and went back to waiting.

When the doctor finally arrived (in my head, it was to the tune of "Movin' on Up" played on a sitar) he examined me and asked about stress in my life. Now, I'm not one of these people that believes in stress-related pain, but I couldn't help but laugh a little as I ran down my list for the summer. He nodded and told me I needed to have a CT scan later in the day.

Well, fuck me. All of that, and he didn't even offer to walk on my back.

The good news is, I had my CT scan yesterday about this time and nobody has called to say I'm dying. Further, the shooting pains have given way to a dull headache and a continuing case of tinnitus. While not great, I can at least sit up and not have to be on anything stronger than a perscription version of Excedrine Migraine.

Also, as it turns out, the dog did have skin cancer, but such a mild version that the surgery she had likely got rid of it all and I should have no reason to worry.

What? Me worry?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Grandpa was a gambler

Grandpa lived in a house that smelled like pipe smoke and old books. His wife, a one-eyed lady named Ruby, sat forever in the corner of the couch, reading and marking out the author's dirty words.

I thought I knew a lot about the couple. I knew Grandpa had a Navy tattoo and had been a small-church minister. I knew Grandma and Grandpa had been married on Halloween and once had hosted a radio variety show. Frankly, I thought I knew everything.

I did not.

Grandpa died last Wednesday at the age of 89. He had died much in the same way Grandma Ruby had. He'd fallen, broken his hip, had surgery, and never recovered from the trauma that surgeries cause old folks. This past weekend, I was supposed to be in Mississippi at a debutante wedding. Instead, I flew through Chicago and down to southwest Missouri to say goodbye to a man I was sure I knew in full.


I thought I knew myself. Before I reached Vegas this summer, I knew I was a card player and considered myself a good one. I was sure of my discipline. I had little doubt in my resolve and knew that I was in control of myself and my faculties most of the time. My ability to control my emotions--or the willingness to purposefully let loose of that control--has always been among the traits of which I am most proud.

I enjoyed all of this with the belief that all of the qualities were self-cultivated. While I hold undeniable love, affection, and pride for my family, I was sure that my personality was one I created for myself. My life-perspective, my ability to see things in a rational and purposeful way, they were all mine.

Sometime in mid-July, though, a small amount of doubt began to creep in. Something wasn't quite right. I remember sitting with a friend one night and saying, "Six months ago, I was sure of who I was. Now, I have no idea."

There may have been an unintended amount of hyperbole in my statement, but the simple fact was this: I was lost in Las Vegas. Even worse, I was lost in my own head.


Mom was making coffee while I tapped away on my laptop's keyboard.

"You should take a look at those photo albums on the floor," she said.

While I am a sentimental guy, I had made a personal vow to not get sappy while on the road home to Grandpa's funeral. I was there for one reason: to support my dad while he said goodbye to his father. As such, I had little desire to take a five-album walk down memory lane.

I've seen all those pictures before, I thought and continued to peck away at busy work until it was time to go to what was sure to be an uncomfortable open-casket visitation.

After a few minutes, I could see my mom watching me and I felt like I should at least make an effort to look like looking at several hundred pictures was something I really wanted to do.

Five minutes later, I was alone in a world of black and white history that I never knew.


Grandpa's jaw was stronger than I ever could've imagined it could be. As he stood beside a beautiful and buxom woman that would someday be my grandma, Grandpa looked like movie star from 1940. His hair was slicked back. He was a young and tough kid raised in the dirt farms around Garza County, Texas. He was to be the eventual father of nine children, one who would die before he saw five years old, and eight more that would outlive their father.

On the face of one picture, a shirtless John Willis painted commercial signs in the hot Texas sun. Written on the back of the picture in pencil were the words, "A way to make ends meet."

I had always thought of Grandpa as a man who had fought in World War II and gone on to live a life of a minister. As it turned out, both of those pursuits took up less than ten total years of his life. He'd been a sign painter, a father, a radio man, a bowler, a lover of beagles, and, at his retirement, a guy who worked at a paper cup manufacturing company.

The pictures told a lot of stories, but none really meshed with what I thought I knew about the man. Much like I believed for 32 years of my life that my father was born in El Paso (I learned two days ago that Dad was actually born in Houston), I also believed my grandfather had been on a Navy ship around Iwo Jima. Lately, I had come to doubt that story and wondered whether my grandpa had done any more than swab the deck of a navy ship in an American harbor.

As it turned out, there hadn't been an Iwo Jima for Grandpa, but he had seen Asiatic action in WWII. And the story of how he ended up there is the one that has me thinking this morning.


The black and white photo didn't show much. A lamp lay broken on the floor. The rest of the room was a mess. Unlike most of the photos that showed Grandma looking like a 1940s magazine advertising model, this one was out of place. Written on the back of the photo were the words, "The work of an intruder."

Grandma was living alone in New Orleans. She had some money in her purse and a kid to take care of. Once the intruder left, she only had the child. Her family packed her up and moved her back to Texas. Left unanswered in the picture--and in any stories told to me before this weekend--was the location of my grandpa. As my dad would say as we sweated in a 2006 Missouri heatwave, "He was a good father that did the best he knew how."

It seemed everyone believed that. But, if so, who leaves his wife in the ramshackle confines of one of America's roughest cities to be looted and violated in the middle of the night?


The early 1940s were a time of war. It was a time when a man could simultaneously be patriotic and earn enough money to feed his wife and child. Grandpa, like his brother-in-law Grady, enlisted in the military. The black and white photos of the two young men arm-in-arm would make them look like recruitment posterboys. The photos would not show Grady's death at St. Lo, France or the bullet hole through his dog tags.

As Grady made his way toward France's northern shore, Grandpa made his way toward the Navy. He ended up in a shipyard in New Orleans. Combat was certainly a possibility, but, perhaps not a big one. As Grady would die, the simple hope of three generations not yet born would've kept Grandpa on American shores. If Grandpa had run over a dune and into a bullet on D-Day, I would not be here. While that may be no huge tragedy, my son would not be here. That would be depriving the world of something perfect.

I've long known a mischievous grin on Grandpa's face, but it never really made sense to me until my dad ended up telling me the story while my grandpa laid in a casket a few feet away. As it turned out, it was a story that could be my own. The following is not word for word or, perhaps, even all that true. It's how I imagined it as my family recounted the legend. As someone said later in the weekend, "I have full confidence that every story Grandpa ever told at least had its genesis in truth."


Can you hear that sound? It doesn't belong on a ship or barracks, at least as far as the man with the stripes on his arm was concerned.

It was a few whispers, a few louder voices, then a tell-tale clicking. One man shouted, a few groaned. Then it all fell silent as The Man walked in.

Kneeling down on the floor were six men. They surrounded a few small piles of cash and two ivory dice.

Maybe they called it craps. Maybe they called it dice. The Man called it forbidden. In wartime, several indiscretions may have been permitted. Among Granpda and his friends, though, there were two forbidden pleasures. They must not fight. They must not gamble.

Grandpa did both.

As the piles of cash found their way to pockets, there were warnings given and promises made. Never again, The Man said. Never again, the men promised.

The next night they did it again. The Man gave another warning and the men offered more empty promises.

The warning eventually seemed just as empty. The Pacific was a world away and the war would certainly be over soon. And, really, would The Man send them away--send them to war--over a few silly games of dice?

Six months later, Grandpa was in the boiler room of the USS Adair as it set out from San Diego and to the waters around a land called Japan.


A farm field in southwest Missouri is the last place anyone wants to be in August 2006. It was nearly 100 degrees by 11am and the 40 people standing along the fence were sweating faster than they could dry their faces. It had been more than 60 years since Grandpa's ship had navigated the waters around Okinawa and made it back to American shores. It was a mission for which he would receive several medals, among them, ironically, one for good conduct.

I stood in a ten-year-old suit and stared at the flag-draped casket. In the distance, three uniformed men stood with guns at parade rest.

My sister-in-law nudged me.

"Look at the butterflies."

I turned to my right and looked at the 20 acres of purple-flowered weeds on the other side of the fence. I was still struck by the odd placement of the cemetery, but now I was transfixed. Like ten thousand tiny flags, a swarm of butterflies danced and weaved over the purple blossoms. There was nothing particularly poetic about it. It was simply a 20-acre scene of beauty that could not have been created by anything other than the God my grandpa loved. It was haphazard, hard-working nature. There was just enough randomness to make it exciting. There was just enough control to make it beautiful.

The uniformed men leveled their guns and fired in unison. The mourners jumped at each shot, then bowed their heads as one of the men played taps through the humid air. The men then marched in line to the casket. They folded and presented the American flag to my father.

Grandpa may not have been one of the men to raise the flag at Iwo Jima, but he was an American war hero all the same, at least in the eyes of the people who loved him.

More than that though, I remembered my dad's words: "He was a good father that did the best he knew how."

It was not an epitaph worthy of a headstone, but it was my Grandpa's life.


When people die, their life--no matter how mundane--often takes on legendary status. Their stories become bigger than the actual man was in his breathing years. For Grandpa, though, his stories, his tall tales, and his pictures were not larger than life. They were life. From painting signs as "a way to make ends meet," to falling victim to his own mischievousness, to making it back home to love his wife and raise eight children to adulthood, Grandpa lived a regular life of a man who made ends meet until he died at age 89.

I wrote all of this in a South Carolina coffee shop while waiting for my dog to get out of surgery. In about 15 minutes, I'm going to pick her up and take her home to my son. My dog surviving the surgery and my ability to take her home to someone who will love her unconditionally is the reason I woke up this morning.

I am a gambler. I know that now. And regardless of whether the story of my grandpa getting sent to war over a game of craps is true, it's helping me understand myself. I am a man of mischief that I control less than I thought I could. I am rational, but I am not perfect. Youth, or a mind still set in youth, can be a dangerous thing. Still, it gives us--no, it gives me--time to figure everything out.

When Dad told me Grandpa was a gambler, I only responded, "That makes a lot of sense."

What I meant was, "I understand."

I understand that life is like the field surrounding my grandpa's grave.

There is just enough randomness to make it exciting. There is just enough control to make it beautiful.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Bye, Grandpa

We were packing to go to a wedding when my wife's cell phone rang. We didn't answer. We were in a hurry. When the house phone rang a few minutes later, we didn't answer again. The caller ID was a number we didn't recognize and we were planning to get on the road as quickly as possible. When my mom's voice popped up on the answering machine, I knew Grandpa had died.

Mom left a simple message. "Call me when you can," she said. Since I had talked to Mom just a few hours before and she said Grandpa wasn't doing very well, I knew that "Call me when you can," meant Grandpa hadn't survived.

A few days ago, as we prepared to celebrate L'il Otis' second birthday, Dad got a call that his dad had fallen and broken his hip. It's the kind of thing that happens to old folks all the time. My grandpa was an old Navy man who, true or not, was supposed to have been at Iwo Jima. I never figured out if there was any truth to that story. I sort of figured there would be time to figure it out.

Grandpa hadn't been himself since his wife died 18 months ago. He was lonely, sad, and skirting toward dementia. Still, he had a smile for the right occasion.

This past Christmas, I was able to get my son back to my hometown to meet his great grandfather for the first time. As it turned out, it would be the last time, as well.

After surgery to repair his hip, Grandpa developed an infection. Doctors couldn't seem to get his blood/oxygen level to an acceptable level. From there, it turned into one of those unfortunate scenes where the doctors write off the patient and let the family sit in waiting for the inevitable.

The call came in about an hour ago. I called Mom back immediately and she confirmed what I already knew. Even now, I'm not really sure I know what to think. I'm not quite right in the head and my decision-making skills are not exactly where they need to be at the moment.

From the moment mom called, though, I was intent on finding a picture I set up during the holiday festivities. I spent about half an hour searching through two computers before I found the digital camera card on a shelf in the office.

For now, I'll be thinking about four generations of our family. It's an old Navy man turned preacher who raised a son. That son pulled himself out of poverty, built a business and raised a son of his own. That son watched his grandfather age, his father work his ass off and survive a certain-death experience. That son is still trying to figure everything out while raising his own son. And that son is eating shrimp fried rice, oblivious to it all, and simply happy that his grandpa and grandma gave him a trash truck for his birthday.

It's not poetic, but it's our family as we say goodbye to a dustbowl patriarch with a smile that outlived him.

Hot guy-on-guy action

The problem with hanging out exclusively with writers for six weeks is that I stand a good chance of being quoted when I least expect it. I don't mind my mutterings being recorded and published for all the world to read. It keeps me honest. Still, after six sexless weeks in Las Vegas, I sensed a theme building among the chronicles of the sexless.

Example #1 (from Tao of Poker):

"I need to have sex. For three weeks straight," he muttered fidgiting with his wedding ring with his thoughts drifting towards Mrs. Otis back home in G-Vegas.

"That's funny, because I want to have sex right now. If you want to..." answered Ryan.

Example #2 (from Michael Craig's Journal):

My night with Shannon Elizabeth – I had a great time playing hooky from the Main Event by watching Shannon try for her third cash of this World Series. I’m writing “Shannon Elizabeth Has a Cold” for my Mr. Inside column for BLUFF in October but that’s about her. This post will be about US – us means, me, Shannon, 45 other players, Wil Wheaton, a bunch of other writers who spotted me, and Brad “Otis” Willis (who, when I told him how interesting this was compared to the final two tables of the Main Event, said, “what I find so interesting is the visible butt crack on the guy to Shannon’s left).

Yeah, it appears my time in Sin City turned me onto the love that dare not speak its name. As somebody once said, I am as straight as John Wayne and Casey Kasem put together (imagine that Brokeback Top 40...), but damned if Vegas doesn't get lonely.

About four weeks into the trip, my back tangled itself into a mass of high tension wire and faux-tumors. My first thought was to find one of the comely poker massage girls who wandered the room and sold their hands for a buck a minute.

(Aside: I just remembered one late night when a North Carolina redneck sat down at a poker table and ordered a massage from the prettiest girl in the room. Ten minutes into his twenty-minute session, he pulled out $100 and handed it to the girl. She looked a bit surprised and said she would get his change. "No change," he said and stood up. He pulled the girl's ear to his mouth and whispered something. Her eyes suddenly looked more tired than they should've been--even at 5am. "I can't do that," she said. The redneck retreated underneath his cowbody hat and sat back down in his seat. He only said, "Okay, then. Just give me the rest of my twenty minutes.")

While I really wanted one of the girls in the room to tear me up, they were often more busy giving two-hour massages to the high-rollers who carried their money in bundles of $10,000. The only available girl was a 40-something puddin'-face who had taken a shine to Pauly. She scared the lot of us and I wasn't about to give her money for fear she would try to make me simultaneously stare at a crystal and rub her netherparts.

Finally, though, the pain became too intense. After dinner one night, I happened by a massage station set up in the convention hall. It was populated entirely by the less-fairer sex. With memories of George Costanza and "it moved" flashing in my head, I saddled up on the massage chair and let the obviously gay dude go to work on me. For twenty minutes, he rubbed his man hands all over my back, neck, and shoulders. About two minutes into it, I decided that his strength was actually a good thing. I also decided that it didn't make me gay.

Five minutes later, I couldn't speak. The dude was seriously in the groove, expertly spotting my knots and tense-spots. I was gurgling into the napkin-draped headrest and thinking, "If I have to be gay to feel this good, my wife is just going to have to understand."

By the time I stood up (no erection at all, thank you), I felt better than I had in days. In fact, while I wasn't perfect, the guy's work would continue to improve my physical health over the next three days. I ended up over-tipping the dude and walking away with a swagger.

Somehow, I avoided going to a bath house or a manicurist during my six week tour of duty. Still, I sense that my apparent latent homosexuality is now less-than-latent. Yesterday, I went to get my hair cut and ended up with a 50-something bald guy standing behind me. He wasn't a barber, mind you. He was a stylist. With nary a word from me, he started running his hands through my hair. Now, I understand, just about any stylist will do that--you know, get a feel for the canvas and such. Still, his trip through my follicles took just a little longer than it should've.

Well, you know how this ends.

I ended up over-tipping the guy and walking away with a swagger.

Monday, August 14, 2006

On finding friends

Now back from Vegas, I probably have enough to write to keep me busy until this time next year. Right now, however, I'm struck by how much people care about me when I don't given them good reason to do so.

The dinner was meant as a "thank you." We sat in the back corner of Nob Hill. It was right in the middle and a world away from the metal-slug clanking and faux-winning jangles of the MGM casino. Ryan had cashed in the World Series of Poker a few days before and had invited a few folks out for a dinner that turned out to be the top five in my life.

There were people there that meant something to his success. Several of the people had chronicled his exploits on their blogs. I hadn't done anything to deserve my $200 of food and drink. At least anything I was aware of. I had taken him out for a couple regretful evenings and traveled with him on a failed mission to the World Series of Beer. Other than that, I didn't deserve to be sharing his tuna and bison (that sounds like a euphemism, but it's not).

After a couple of toasts, I got around to saying why I was happy to be there.


Five weeks earlier, I was alone in Vegas. Although millions of people travel through McCarran every year and turn the city into the world's most insane party, I had never felt more alone. Though I knew some people there, I didn't have any friends I could call at 4am when I got off work. My eating and drinking were done alone.

One night I rode the elevator downstairs. When it's 4am in Vegas and you have to get up at 11am, insomnia is a real bitch. If you're a poker player, you know getting into a game means you're going to be awake until it's time to go to work. I you're a drinker, you're forced to sit at bars that are populated by drunks and hookers. While I am both a poker player and a drinker, 4am was no time to be at the table or at the bar. And so I went to the only other place that had seats. I sat down at a blackjack table.

See, Vegas is about activity. Several weeks later, I would look at Ryan and say, "I need to do something active."

"I think there's a rock climbing wall..." he mused.

He knew scaling fake walls wasn't what I meant. I meant I needed to be doing something--anything--that made me feel like I was doing, well, something.

In those early days in Vegas, gambling seemed to be the only active thing I could find. What's more important, though, was that there were people there--people with whom I could form half-hour friendships that didn't cost me $200 and my marriage, anyway.

One night I met Craig and his wife. Craig was a gambler at the tail end of a too-long Vegas trip. A half hour later, we had become blackjack buddies. We'd even formed our club's motto: "Drinking and winning."

We did both for the next three nights, until he was no longer winning and we were both tired of drinking. When we parted at 6am one morning, his wife gave me a hug, and Craig shook my hand.

I think they were from Chicago.


At the Nob Hill dinner, I was sober and quiet. I listened to people tell stories and offered only a few of my own. Although most of the people there were people I'd have died to impressed in an earlier life, now I was content to sit back and just be. Every person there came from some sort of creative background. I occasionally swallowed and wondered if I really deserved to be among such creative people.

After two toasts, I said, "There's always been one thing about me that my wife can't understand: I don't like to make new friends."


It was true. I'm horrible at making new friends. Every time I am forced to move or change jobs, I have a really hard time liking new people. When I left high school, I never thought I'd find friends as good as Brad and Gary. When I left college, I never again wanted friends other than my crew from Laws Hall and Juniper Circle. When I finally move away from Green Vegas, I'm sure I'll have the same feelings about my group of friends here.

To be sure, the friends I have here in G-Vegas are the kind you don't want to lose. My friend, T, called me more times than I could count (he says it was ten times) while I was in Vegas. I never called him back. Uncle Ted gave up after two phone calls, but took care of my wife when I fell into a comatose black hole.

See, while I was in Vegas, I fell into a world that I don't think most people would understand.

One night, out behind the Rio, in the shadows where the card dealers hang out, Ryan said, "After watching you guys for a few days, it makes me think of ex-pat war reporting."

I'm not sure he could've been more correct. While I've never had the misfortune of reporting on a war, the books I've read and the movies I've watched make me believe it's true. While the WSOP and Vegas have been dolled up to look like the world's most exciting carnival, they are anything but. We people who are forced to work in such an environment are stuck there. It's a place where the currency isn't real money, the food and drink are not what we consume at home, where the hours aren't measured in minutes but in daylight and darkness, and where the so-called fog of war is omnipresent. Nothing makes sense after five weeks of 18-hour days and life/professional pressure that is so high, you think your lungs and wallet are going to collapse.


"I'm going with you."

Wil and I are both fathers, and as such, are anomalies. Most people who survive the fog of Vegas reporting are either childless or have children old enough that six weeks of being fatherless no longer bothers them. As for Wil and me, we had slipped away from our families on what most people would see as a month-long vacation from responsibility.

Every one of us measured our level of sanity in terms of "tilt." Taken from the term used to describe messed up pinball machines, tilt is how we describe poker players who aren't functioning with full control of their intelligence and sanity. I rarely went below 50% tilt during my trip. Wil was much the same way.

Wil at the Tilted Kilt, home of anti-tilting

One night, I said I was going to take a walk and Wil said, "I'm going with you."

That was how it started with Wil. We were already friends in some ways. He'd helped me into my new career. Our wives had become friends on a previous trip. We'd shared a love of music, writing, and poker. We'd had drinks. We'd eaten together. He'd tilted me with his affection for manicures and hand creams.

Real friendship springs up when you don't expect it. That night, when I was nearing 100% tilt, Wil talked me down. This continued over the next several weeks. Some nights, when we could see the tears in each other's eyes, we'd take a walk. We didn't really talk about the fact that both of us were about to break down. We'd just talk about our families. It rarely lasted more than 20 minutes, but by the end of it, we were able to go back to work.

Toward the end of the WSOP, Wil's family came into town for his wife's birthday. One night, we finished early and Wil invited me to join his family for dinner. As we knoshed on Japanese food and drank chilled sake, I should've felt like a fifth wheel.

And to the credit of friendship, I did not.


Ryan and I were stuck in Henderson, NV. He'd waited for me for several hours so we could cash in some tickets he'd won in a charity auction. By the time we'd found the venue, we were a $30 cab ride and a million miles away from Vegas proper. Oh, and the charity event was o-v-e-r.

We walked into a sparsely-populated casino and sat down at a poker table. I ordered a drink or two. When the waitress returned to check in on my level of satisfaction, I told what I thought to be the truth: "This could be the worst drink I've ever put in my mouth."

The guy in the ten-seat asked where I was from and I told him.

"I would've thought you were from California. San Francisco, I think."

As I swallowed another drink of the sub-par dirty martini, I took exception to the big guy's evaluation and asked what moved him to associate me with San Fran.

"Well, the hair, the t-shirt, the complaining about the drink."

My hair was a tousled mess, my t-shirt was off-the-rack shopping mall, and the drink sucked, but in Henderson, Nevada, apparently I was gay-boy California.

To his credit, Ryan only laughed a little.

As we left around 4am, there were no cabs. We stood wagging our heads back and forth like a dashboard bobble head doll until a guy dressed as a valet arrived.

"You guys need a cab?"

We did.

"What did it cost you to get here? $30?"

It did.

"How about I get you a limo for the same price?" he said, nodding toward a stretch limo on the curb.

Well, that would be just fine. I put $5 in the guy's hands and watched him walk to make the deal with the driver.

A strange transformation took place as the dude slipped into the driver's seat, a valet-turned-limo-driver. He sat on my $5 as he drove us back toward he city lights.

By the time Ryan and I stopped laughing, I had consumed half of the bottle water in the back of the limo and we were halfway back to Vegas.

A half hour later, I decided I had a new friend. Ryan and I ate steak and eggs and talked about writing. For once, I was honest about my lack of ability, experience, and discipline. I told him what I thought of myself and my abilities.

And, again, to his credit, he didn't laugh that much.


One thing about the past six weeks is it reinforced how much I believe in my current friendships. I had the good fortune of being able to bring in a team of bloggers that is the best in the business. CJ and Pauly have been my buddies for years, but until this trip, I think I took them both for granted. Craig was a new friend and one of the most mature and hard-working guys around. That was a new friendship I didn't expect. When I was down by TKO to work, indiscretion, and insanity, these guys stepped up and made it look like I was the best blogger in the world.

"You can tell a good boss by the people he hires," CJ said to me one day.

Bullshit, I thought. I wasn't a boss. I was a lucky friend.

CJ in the media event of the WSOP--after he busted he sweated me to a ninth place finish

CJ left town with a migraine. Craig left with no sleep. Pauly disappeared into Pauly-land. I suspect he'll re-appear sometime soon.

Pauly, expressing his love for me


The final table of the WSOP was predicted to last 20 hours or so. The night before it was to begin, I got back to my room early and turned on the TV. Some guy from the BBC was speaking in less-than-British tones about how the world was about to come to an end. Flights were being canceled and people couldn't carry water onboard.

I stayed up most of the night listening to tales of terrorism and the second coming of Bin Laden. I started wondering how long it would take me to drive cross-country to make it home in time for L'il Otis' 2nd birthday party.

When I arrived in the media room, Wil kept looking at me. He saw me power-surfing from CNN.com to Delta.com to Mapquest.com. I kept looking at my watch and checking my cell phone for orders from upper management.

Wil wanted to go home. He'd talked about little else for the past several days.

As night started to fall, Wil disappeared. I thought he'd taken off to call his kids. Instead, he re-appeared twenty minutes later.

"If this thing goes too late, I'm going to stay and blog it for you," he said. "You're going home for your son's birthday party."

I might have cried a little bit.


I made it home in time for the birthday party. The world had not come to an end. I had an easier airport experience than I usually do. Since then, I've done little else than sleep and spend time with my family.

Yesterday, I got to see the friends I'd left behind here. They looked at me like I'd been away forever. And they embraced me like I hadn't been a terrible friend while I'd been gone.

"Otis," one said, "we've been talking. We need to play more guitar now that you're home."

Me and Ted at a friend's birthday party

Me and Ted with guit-fiddles and happiness--photos courtesy of T, a friend who takes more photos than he appears in


That dinner at Nob Hill ended up costing even more than I thought it would. I guess when the chef makes a pot pie out of a two-pound lobster and carves up meets you didn't even know could be carved, it's going to cost a little bit.

I looked around the table. Ryan, Wil, and Pauly were there. At the far end, Spaceman was in full beard, a huge heart, and in good spirits. April was eating lobster for the first time. Change100 was tending to a cosmo and keeping an eye on a new project she has in the works. I realized, I was at a table full of true friends.

Maybe I could blame it on a couple blue cheese dirty martinis, but I finally spit out what I was trying to say--what I really meant about the people I found in Last Vegas.

"There's always been one thing about me that my wife can't understand: I don't like to make new friends. I'm not good at it. But in the last six weeks, I've made friends. Thank you all for making it so easy."

My two best friends, who welcomed me home and forgave me my absence

Friday, August 11, 2006

Going home

I've lived in this room for the past six weeks. Not once has it felt like home. Most times when I move somewhere new, the walls and sheets start to take on a certain scent that reminds me of myself and the people I love. Here, the smell is like any hotel you've ever known. Industrial clenser and mass-washed linens.

In the next 20 minutes, I'm leaving this room and going home. I'm so tired I can't move myself to even take a shower before the trip east.

I don't care. I'm going home. And I write this only as a reminder to myself:

When I get there, I'm going to be better.

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