By Shae Davidson
When Bill Bradley moved during his sophomore year of high school he gave me a white porcelain statue of Hotei.
It was a large knick knack his family had won as a door prize that presided over their vintage seventies basement rec room. We played role-playing games there on long weekend nights, stayed up reading science fiction and the unseemly and unsavory books left behind by previous owners, or watched trashy horror movies on an old TV with shifting bands of color.
The rec room was also where we used his parents’ camcorder to film movies Bill had written. If we needed an extra person the statue of Hotei was drafted into action. He played a talk show panelist, a barfly and doubled as a stuntman on a few occasions. I kept looking for reasons to shoehorn the statue into what we were doing—even making side comments to it as we played games—and the night before Bill moved he handed it to me.
Bill loved the bad horror movies, novels, games and comics we consumed, but he was drawn to something beyond entertainment and escapism. He was intrigued by the variety of ways people told stories, and wanted to sound out the depths of narrative each style offered.
Bill’s explorations took him to some odd places.
On more than one occasion he delivered long, pre-written soliloquies during games of GURPS. The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s audience participation fascinated him. He ended up playing Rocky when we dressed up, but his true love was the responses shouted by the audience, a body of oral literature that was passed from one generation of fans to the next but which was open to changes and adaptations.
He wrote his own soap opera. Clumsy stories in the local paper contained a strange lyricism that only Bill could appreciate. One weekend he queued up tracks from musicals to highlight key moods and moments as he shared an anecdote.
Decades later I can’t remember what he was talking about, but the image of Bill fumbling with a CD player as he spoke is burned into my memory.
Bill moved away and matured into William. His fascination with narrative evolved as well as he turned to personal essays as tools for understanding life and the world.
William incorporated the comics and soap operas he loved into his work, turning them into meditations on the nature of time and growth. He invited his students, friends, and readers to treat the world and themselves gently—or at least with a certain bemused detachment—recognizing their own flaws as clearly as they saw the injustices in the world.
He openly acknowledged the trashiness of some of his choices in pop culture, but the sheer joy he’d found reading a comic as a kid and an appreciation for the strange relationship between nostalgia and personal growth gave every comic, bad TV show, and movie meaning and beauty.
Engaging with narrative was an act of empathy for William.
He could share in the lives of others—even people it would be easy to describe as abhorrent, and his fascination with different genres connected him to something broader, something more abstract. It became a lens for viewing the range of ways people experience joy, tragedy and wonder, and for understanding how they imagine the world and how they reach out to others for sympathy and meaning.
The medium added layers of complexity and expression beyond the content of the story itself.
“We want to feel beautiful together,” philosopher of play Bernard De Koven wrote, “to experience grace together.” Essays, homemade horror movies, and urban legends shared during slumber parties give us the chance to embed ourselves more deeply in the world. They also give us a chance to be in the spotlight, blending creation and reflection to capture readers’ imaginations.
Over the course of his life William saw different forms of storytelling as different tools for exploring the balance between the mysteries of personal moments and the wonders of hope and compassion—the balance between beauty and grace.
The statue of Hotei is in my parents’ basement rec room now. More than 20 years after Bill moved he wrote, “I think we’re well-served by making an effort to remember the world as it existed, as we perceived it at the time. Holding onto what was real keeps us rooted to who we have been, and reminds us of the world—or, perhaps more accurately, worlds—we have lived in.”
The knick knack anchors a handful of people to a very particular place in time, to the strange worlds we created together, and to the wonders of how other people share their stories.
Historian Shae Davidson has worked in industrial and social history museums throughout Appalachia and has taught in West Virginia, Ohio, and Illinois. Shae’s past publications have included articles in Turning Wheel and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Editor: Dana Gornall