Let’s just deal with the elephant in the room right from the start, because it can get stompy, and I don’t want anything to get broken. I can hear you muttering at your screen, “Brad Willis? Who the hell is this guy? What’s he doing here?” This post should go a little way toward explaining how a guy Wil once watched eat Keno crayons (for money, of course) is guest-posting alongside so many familiar faces.
If you’re reading this, you likely know Wheaton’s Law (if not, he explained it here). You know it tells you exactly how not to act. What it doesn’t say outright is what you should do next. Wil Wheaton knows the next part, and it’s how he has quietly changed more than a few lives, mine included. Wheaton’s Law will fit on a t-shirt. The next part takes a little more space. My part of the story begins with a dead man.
When the coroner unzipped the body bag in the middle of the interstate, there was only half of a person inside. A couple of hours earlier, he had been a 19 year-old man on his way to college. Now, he was half of a charred skeleton someone had pushed into a sack and left on a patch of hot South Carolina asphalt.
I spent ten years staring at some of the worst things fate dealt people—sickening twists of happenstance, soulless and selfish pride, unbelievable depravity. All of it is stuck in a place in my brain I try not to visit too often, but that sticky August day in 1999 comes calling more often than most. It’s what I think of when I think about my life before 2005.
See, I spent most of my life wanting only to be a storyteller. The goal has always been to write books. Somewhere along the way somebody convinced me it would be a lot more practical and meaningful to become a TV newsman, so that’s what I did for a decade. It was a fine profession and it let me do what I wanted, but the business was changing in way that didn’t necessarily suit me. What’s more, I’d seen enough dead people.
What happened in those intervening years isn’t so important as what happened almost exactly ten years ago when Wil Wheaton changed the direction of my life.
In 2004, the online poker company PokerStars wanted Wil to go down to the Bahamas and write about an annual poker festival the company hosts at Atlantis. Wil couldn’t make it, and though he’d never met me, he had been reading my stuff.
I started blogging in 2001, and some of my poker writing caught Wil’s eye. He recommended me for the Bahamas gig. It was meant to be a week of writing about poker in the Caribbean. It turned into a second career, one that’s allowed me to tell stories, support my family, and travel all over the world.
This story makes sense to very few people who hear it. Why would a man I’ve never met go out of his way to recommend me for a gig? Other people would’ve simply said, “I’m unavailable” and hung up. Wil didn’t do that, and that’s the part of his raison d’être you can’t necessarily divine from Wheaton’s Law. Apart from actively working to not be a bad guy, he quietly works as a life-changing good one.
THE HOLLYWOOD REFRAIN
Harold Ramis died yesterday leaving a lot of folks more than a little sad about the new laughs we’re going to miss. I read one bit from him in which he talked about how creatives—especially those from Hollywood—often don’t think about people other than themselves. In the process, they can miss out on some partnerships that would’ve made their art better.
“How am I doing? How am I doing? Which is kind of a refrain in Hollywood, you know,” Ramis said on American Storytellers. “People are desperately trying to make their careers in isolation, independent of everyone around them.”
Wil’s life and career have evolved several times in the last 30 years, and he could’ve been forgiven if he had fallen victim to that Hollywood refrain. Instead, when he was square in the middle of a career shift of his own, Wil kicked open a door for some guy three time zones way.
I’ve thought a lot about that in the ten years I’ve known Wil, but his stealth kindness has felt more pronounced since my dad died unexpectedly a couple of years ago. When Wil called with his condolences, it occurred to me he was cut from the same cloth as my old man. Dad made sure people he cared about had jobs, no-interest loans, or advice when they needed it. When he died, everyone had a story about a quiet favor my dad did for them. Of all the wonderful things Dad did, his legacy is that selflessness attention to helping people for no reason other than he could.
If the lead on the poker gig had been the only kindness Wil offered me, it would’ve been more than enough. Instead, he became a friend and confidante. He introduced me to his treasured family. And one night, he helped me cross a line in my head that I couldn’t have crossed on my own.
Several years ago, I sat with Wil and his family at a Hibachi joint. While the chef chopped and pounded on the grill, a man sharing our table asked Wil what he did for a living.
“I’m a writer,” he said.
The man turned to me. “What about you?”
I couldn’t finish the sentence, because I didn’t feel like there was any honest answer. I’d spent years and years getting paid to tell stories, but I hadn’t achieved what I wanted, and I certainly didn’t know how to answer the guy’s question. What was I? A blogger? A poker reporter? An aspiring novelist?
Wil looked at me, waited a second, and then turned back to the man.
“He’s a writer,” Wil said. And that was that. Back to the onion volcano, shrimp gymnastics, and knife juggling.
For reasons that still don’t make a lot of sense to me, Wil joined my closest friends and family in believing in my writing and championing me to people he knows. It confounds me to this day.
Now, not only have I spent the past ten years telling poker stories, but I’ve also managed to finish a novel and begin work on another. I’ve not yet gotten to where I want to be, but I’m a closer today than I was ten years ago when a guy I didn’t know changed my life. What’s more, I feel comfortable calling myself a writer, and Wil is one very big reason why.
Yeah, Wheaton’s Law may be Wil’s best-known axiom, and it makes for a fine meme. But this is the part that stands out for me: Wil can give a half-hour keynote on how not to be a bad person, but he’ll never tell you about the small kindnesses that make him who he really is. If there is a take-away for the rest of us it’s that we could all do a little better at lending a quiet hand when we don’t have to.
Now, if Wil had just stopped me from eating those crayons…