Seismology in the life of Otis

You don’t have to undertsand much about tectonics or seismology to appreciate what’s happening in the state of Washington right now. If the line of satellite news trucks at the base of Mount St. Helens weren’t enough of a harbinger, the frequent–if irregular–expectorations of steam from the crater of the volcano tell us something is happening. Whatever it is, big or small, it is happening.

Perhaps if it weren’t for geologists–and their quasi-pagan brethren, seismologists–we wouldn’t know that an erpution of steam, ash, or, verily, magma may be on the horizon. That’s the good thing about science and science-talking types. At the very least, they can hold our hands and interpret events for us. Otherwise, we might be all afraid, looking for virgins to sacrifice, and muttering “I, for one, welcome our new volcanic overlord…”

Life and its eruptions ain’t quite as easy, however.

I think back on moments of slight seismic shift in my life, knowing now of their importance, but at the time failing to grasp the gravity of such movements. At the time, they were slight tremors–good and bad–that I didn’t fully recognize as life-altering moments.


“I’ve got something to tell you.”

I was at my locker, thinking on the failure of the school to adequately protect its students belongings. I wasn’t thinking that months later I would join in a late-night mission of civil disobedience into the school, in which a group of malcontents opened every unlockable locker and spelled out the words “locker reform” in books in the school hallways.

Danny was behind me.

“I’ve got something to tell you.”

Danny was a star athlete, who against all odds, had befriended an awkward young wide receiver wannabe many years before.

“I’m going to be a father.”

We were 17 years old. I was going on to college. Danny was supposed to go with me. Now, he was going on to be a father.

I was going to college by myself.


It was hot outside Law Hall. Room 616 was empty, save me and Saturday Night Live. I’d gone to college on my own and expected to walk into a world straight out of Hollywood, with girls running around in their underwear, beer-soaked slip-and-slide hallways, and a cranky dean who wanted to put the screws to the roustabouts.

Instead, I was alone and figuring college was going to be giant bore.

I’d left my door open just in case a girl in her panties needed escape from the tickle fights that were sure to be taking place one floor above.

That’s when a scrawny, bespeckled kid walked in.

“Come here. I need to ask you a question.”

I stood and walked into the room next door.

“You think that’ll scare away the ladies?”

On the wall next to his bed was a poster of Friday the 13th’s Jason.

I don’t remember my response, but eventually the kid turned to me and said, “They call me Attitude.”

As it turned out, most of that dorm was straight out of Hollywood. Girls ran around in their panties. Beer flowed as free as water. While I never met the dean of the univeristy, there was a cranky guy named Dean who oversaw the dorm. There was even a good ghost story about the kid who had fallen down the elevator shaft the year before.

And Attitude? Well, over the years, he’d sort of become the mayor, nay, governor, of the whole place.

A friendship formed in the shadow of a fictional mass murderer led me to the rest of the guys in the dorm who remain some of my best friends to this day.


Those are just a couple of moments that come to mind. There are others, of course. The chance meeting with a beautiful, young pixie named Michelle who ripped from my psyche the desire to forever be a rambling bachelor. The post-happy hour drive with a guy named “T” who popped a Tesla tape in his Jeep’s tape deck and waited gauge my response. A life-long friendship sealed in a night of driving fast and throwing 16 ounce bottles from a moving car.

What I’m saying is this: Some moments, like the phone call that said my dad was in the hospital, or my wife stepping into the bedroom and announcing she was pregnant, are obvious. They are moments that scream out for recording.

But there are other moments that are less tangible, moments that you can’t define as important until much later in life.

Often these moments involve meeting new people or sharing a new experience with someone you know. But sometimes, it’s just a day. Sometimes a single day can mean a lot.

If I were a life-seismologist, I would predict that yesterday was one of those days. Nothing too important happened. It was a fairly ordinary day, with a couple of slightly extraordinary occurences. Maybe a 1.2 on the life-Richter scale.

What actually happened is of no real importance. What is important, however, is this: I think I could be a better person, a more successful person, a better husband and father, and a better friend if I could pay closer attention to the smaller moments. That goal stands in contrast to how I often look at the world–waiting for that one big moment where everything is good and it all seems clear as day.

That just doesn’t happen very often.

I took a picture of Li’l Otis last week. It’s back and white, tight-focused on his eyes, his head laid back in the grass, sights set on a single blade that is too close to his face for his young eyes to focus.

My hope is that I can teach him what it is taking me much too long to learn:

Sometimes the things you’re looking for aren’t happening at some un-tellable time in the future. Sometimes life is happening as you live it.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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