Category Archives: Brad Willis

A guest post from Brad Willis: A field full of lightning

Brad Willis is a writer, reporter, and aspiring author. His personal blog is Rapid Eye Reality. He is @BradWillis on Twitter.

When I was in grade school, we played outside at recess. Hilldale Elementary had a small playground and a forever-scape of dirt and grass that we turned into our warzones, dragon lairs, and Super Bowl gridirons. A dormant but deep sinkhole sat on the north edge near Highway EE, and that’s where I was headed when the lightning cut out of the clouds. It was one of those bolts that carried its thunderclap on its nose, and for the noise it made, a bomb might as well have dropped on my head. Instead, because I was a pre-teen doofus, I jumped in the air, pulled my knee to my face, and knocked my nose sideways. My nose is still crooked, and I still know lightning doesn’t have to strike on target to hurt like hell.

LINDA

Something looked different about Linda.

It’s been more than a decade since she started handling my finances. We handle most things online. I see her this time every year to settle my business and personal taxes. When I went to her office yesterday, I was struck by a niggling suspicion that something was wrong. She’d stopped coloring her hair. She looked tired.

I was distracted, worried about how much I was going to have to pay, whether I could get in a run before dinner, and every other silly thing that goes along with life as an adult. She asked if my family was planning any big vacations for the year. I babbled about my finances, and then asked her what she trips had planned.

“We usually go somewhere after tax season, but I don’t think we can this year,” she said. She drifted off and looked at my returns on her dual monitors.

“Why not?” I said.

I heard the words leave my mouth just as my brain figured out what was different about Linda.

She had no breasts.

“Oh, Linda,” I said.

Three months ago, she went to the doctor for an ear infection. Something seemed off, and her doctor sent her to a cardiologist. That doctor found a mass, and together they elected for the surgery.

“Don’t go to the doctor for a ear infection,” she said with a half-smile, and then went back to working on my K-1.

MONSTER IN THE FIELD

Last week, police say a man named Craig Wood snatched a ten-year-old girl named Hailey Owens from a neighborhood street on the west side of Springfield, Missouri. Wood, a stranger to Owens, then allegedly shot her in the base of the skull, put her in a bag, and hid her in a plastic tub. When I wrote about it, I took a modicum of comfort in the fact that such crimes were exceptionally rare. I called them lightning strikes without a god to blame for them.

The crime shook the Springfield community in a way few have. Thousands of people took to the streets in the hope of finding some peace in the kind of rare crime that will haunt a city forever.

When you have a career in news, desensitizing yourself to tragedy is a survival skill. You learn to turn off your heart to the daily earthquakes humanity inflicts on itself. I don’t know how many dead bodies I saw in my day, and I’m grateful for that. I moved away from Springfield more than 20 years ago, and I still felt my stomach clench every time I saw a new part of the Hailey Owens story come out.

As children, we feared bogeymen who would snatch us off the street. As adults, we fear what might come up from our guts, attack our insides, and confuse our brains. The rest of the time, we think about how those same invisible creatures might take our friends away from us.

Last month, in the span of a few days, the following things happened: a person I know committed suicide. A guy who went to my high school was arrested for murder in a Texas ghost town. Two of my friends died of cancer. It felt like a veritable field of lightning where every strike tore holes through my eardrums and shook the ground at my feet. It made me wonder which was worse: the fear of losing someone to a monster, or the sadness that inevitably follows.

And then I went to finish my taxes.

TAXED

Linda is worried about the chemo. Six years ago, her mother struggled through it.

“I don’t want that,” she said, shaking her head.

The doctor has convinced her the chemo treatments have improved and that they could save her life. It’s tax season, though, and this is when she has to work. She literally can’t afford to be sick.

“I’ll do chemo on Fridays,” she said, but then as if just thinking of it herself, “but I do returns on Saturdays sometimes.”

She nodded again, as if saying to herself, “I’ll get through it, because I have to get through it.”

“I’ll be thinking about you,” I said when I left. Linda smiled and thanked me. I haven’t stopped thinking about her since. She was handling her cancer with a southern woman’s strength and poise that I couldn’t help but admire. It was like the lightning had struck, and she had managed to grab it with her hand and hold it tight.

COURAGE NONETHELESS

There is a certain freedom in being a child. You’re expected to run with abandon, be careless, and live like tomorrow is as sure as today’s sunrise. That’s how it should be, no matter how dark the sky gets.

As adults, however, we know the dark skies mean more than hidden sunshine. We know they’re  going to slam down on the people we love, and then eventually crush us, too. It scares us, this existential indifference and inevitable end we’ll all meet.

We leave the playground, and as adults we bandy our responsibilities while keeping a close eye the rolling gray in the sky. We worry about taxes, careers, schools, mortgages, and retirement plans. When something starts to look odd, we pretend like it’s something else, sometimes until it’s too late, and, too often, we do it alone.

I think about the people who’ve been struck around me: Frank check-raising with a weak flush draw, Texas Scott donning a tiara and laughing like a loon, Chris clipping coupons and proudly getting 60 cents off on chicken breasts. They were people I played with beneath the clouds. Their deaths have shaken me, but they also remind me of the power of childhood. Maybe life is not so much in its potential or its end, but in how much of its games, music, art, and friendships we can harness. Maybe that’s the only shield that can protect us.

Back on the playground at Hilldale, we grabbed hands and pulled each other into the field. Even as the teachers yelled at us to come in from the storm, we sprinted and laughed and dared the sky to explode. It was a child’s courage, but courage nonetheless. Maybe that was how it was meant to be.

Linda believes she is going to be okay. I’m going to believe that with her. To not would be to disrespect the bravery she’s discovered in a place I’ve not yet found.

* Linda’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

A guest post from Brad Willis: Wheaton’s Law Revisited

Brad Willis is a writer, reporter, and aspiring author. His personal blog is Rapid Eye Reality.

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.

HIGHWAY STORYTELLER

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.

HIBACHI

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’m a…”

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…

I’m on a boat, so I invited some guest bloggers to entertain you until I get back.

In a few hours, Anne and I will step into a metal tube in Los Angeles, and emerge from that metal tube in Florida. Tomorrow, we will get onto a boat, and we will live on that boat for five days and twenty-three romantic nights, plus two nights that aren’t romantic, but involve an intense discussion of curling.

While we are away on JoCoCruse Crazy 4: The Fouthening, I’ve invited some of my friends to come back and guest blog, SO THAT YOU MAY BE ENTERTAINED!

Please welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends…

Stephen “Stepto” Tolouse

Meet Stepto. Stepto is probably best known as the leader of The Steptos, and as the former banhammer at Xbox Live. Stepto is a wonderful, thoughtful writer, and once pulled a man’s finger in Reno just to watch him fart. He’s the author of A Microsoft Life, and last year released a comedy album called A Geekster’s Paradise. He blogs at stepto.com and is @stepto on the Steptos.

Will “Two Ls Is One More Than One L” Hindmarch

Will is a writer, graphic artist, game designer, and better at all of these things than he gives himself credit for. If you’ve ever played a game from White Wolf, you’ve probably played something Will put his filthy hands all over. If you’ve played the Fiasco playset we played on Tabletop, you’ve played something that Will and I wrote together. If you’ve read Memories of the Future Volume 1, you’ve seen a cover that Will designed. He blogs at wordstudio.net and is @wordwill on the twitters.

Shane “No Nickname Because Nick is Already In His Name” Nickerson.

I’ve known Shane for mumblecough years, ever since we did shows together at the ACME Comedy Theater. Shane is the executive producer of Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory and Ridiculousness. Shane is one of the funniest people I know, and that’s saying something. He’s also an incredible father to three kids, never uses Comic Sans, and has paid me off exactly the right number of times in poker games. Shane blogs at nickerblog.com and is @ShaneNickerson on the twitters.

And please welcome, for the first time…

Ryan “Dammit Ryan!” Wheaton

Ryan is my son, and is a wonderful fiction writer. I started raising Ryan when he was six, and when he was nineteen, he asked me to adopt him, which I totally did. Ryan is a deadly good Tabletop gamer, a clever Twitter hacker, a MENSA member, and one of the three most important people in my life. He doesn’t know how to look for things in the fridge, and is the Tweetybox as @SirWheaton (and occasionally as @wilw, dammit).

Brad “Otis” Willis

I first became aware of Otis’ writing back in the poker days, when he wrote magnificent narratives about the game in the style of Alvarez and Holden. Eventually, we worked together at PokerStars, and we have spent many regretful evenings together playing Pai-Gow. He’s one of my favorite people to put on tilt, and is a genuinely talented writer and storyteller. He’s @bradwillis on the Twitters.

Please welcome this team of talented, funny, smart, and interesting people to WWdN, and make them feel at home. I’ll expect a full report when I get home from my trip, and don’t even try to replace the fish if they die. I’ll know.