Space Habitats and Planetary Chauvinism

It is a natural human bias to assume that the way things are is the only way they can be, and everything else is inferior, or even wrong somehow.

As a species, we’re adaptable, and if a kid grows up in a hovel in Calcutta, he just naturally assumes everyone has that experience, and it’s the way things should be. If a rich little girl from New England grows up with servants, she just assumes everyone has servants, and that’s the way it should be. If left unchallenged – as most natural human biases are – then it becomes one of those tent-poles that our entire personality ends up based around, the things we’re given at birth that we never question: Our language, our nationality, our politics, our religion, and our favorite baseball team.

These can be changed, but because they’re such inherent and inherited things, since so much of what we become hinges upon them, it requires great effort to really haul these poles out of the ground and inspect them and maybe replace them without risking bringing the whole Tent down on you.

And this is why people still like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Anyway, if you go out and ask random people on the street – and I’ve done this – what they think of the idea of space colonization, you tend to get a few standard responses. Number one on this list is, as always, “Get the hell away from me, you whackjob,” but you get a few others. This isn’t a scientific survey, of course, but the people I’ve talked to tend to be of the following opinions:

* It’ll never happen.
* Mars is great.
* We shouldn’t be wasting time in space until we’ve fixed all the problems on earth.
* There’s no real point in going in to space until we have starships and can magically find planets that are exactly like earth orbiting other stars and have a Star Trekian society, so what’s the point?
* Someday humanity will colonize all the planets and moons in our solar system (but we’ll all be long dead by then).
* Space merely distracts us from our sacred earth mother, and therefore is sinful.
* God doesn’t want us in space, and therefore it’s sinful.
* Asteroids are great (This one always degenerates in to a discussion of Larry Niven’s Known Space stories. I mean *always*)
* Venus is great (

There’s really only two choices for terraformable planets in our solar system, and both of ‘em suck. The discussions about colonizing the moons are based on a lot of enthusiasm and very little actual knowledge, and obviously the “Star Trekian” aspects are so bluesky as to be not even worth discussing. Really people purporting that view don’t really want space, what they want is in a place exactly like here, only somewhere else – the Science Fiction equivalent of going to Canada, really – without any of that hardscrabble stuff about building a civilization or terraforming or what have you.

So let’s look at earth objectively, shall we?

Earth’s total surface area is about 196,935,000 sqare miles, of which 137,875,500 square miles is uninhabitable right off the top. (That’d be the oceans.) Of the 59,089,500 square miles remaining, we can knock out the entire continent of Antarctica, which brings us down to 53,589,500. Another 8 million square miles – about 14% – are “Hard Desert” which is effectively uninhabitable, which brings us down to 45,589,500 square miles if we’re just talking about Arabia and the Sahara, however if we’re literal in our definition, 30% of the earth’s surface is desert, meaning it gets less than 10 inches of rainfall a year, which is capable of supporting relatively small amounts of human life, but which is obviously only marginally habitable at best. This brings us down to 37,512,650 square miles of useful land on the whole damn planet, and if we factor in the arctic, that’s another 8,733,993 square miles right there, which brings us down to 28,778,657 square miles.

Think about that for a minute: Less than 29,000,000 habitable square miles on a planet of about 197,000,000 square miles. What is that, about 14%? Objectively, it’s clear that Earth isn’t really what you’d call an ideal world. It’s marginally habitable at best. It’s a crazy thought to realize, but if you think about it for a while…it’s disturbingly true. 

The vast majority of people assume that our way is the only way to be, when in fact, something like 85% of our own world is more-or-less useless to us, unpleasant, undesirable, and sometimes actively deadly. So if earth sucks then why would we be so all-fired excited about finding other planets orbiting other stars that, presumably, would be just as bad, or about terraforming planets in our own solar system that, would be much, much worse. If you could terraform Mars in some stable fashion you’re only going to get 2 or 3% of the planet to be what we’d call ‘habitable’, and even then, you’re basically talking about subarctic or arctic climates, high radiation, low air pressure, and God knows what kinds of biological effects from the low gravity. Venus would be even worse, excepting the gravity.

It seems an awful lot of work to go through for very little payoff, when you can accomplish as much by just sticking up a pressure dome and building a nice little 1950s style Analog Magazine cover styled town inside it. That’s cool, right? Artificial pockets of niceness inside the vast, cheap, uncaring void? That’s what colonization is all about, right?

The mania for Terraforming in the ’90s wasn’t so much about colonization, it was ultimately about taking a strange place and turning it in to a new earth. 

We see the same thing in the early age of colonial exploration: People didn’t like the New World because it wasn’t just like home. Spanish Explorers found the Grand Canyon to be ugly beyond belief because it was new, Spanish Explorers declared Virginia to be “Too hot for human habitation,” Generations of colonists referred to the Midwest – best farmland in the world – as “The Great American Desert” because it didn’t look like the farmlands they were used to, and they ignored it for 300 years. In our present age, the smelly hippies can’t see any use for space, so we threw it away just like the Vikings threw away North America a thousand years ago – again, a failure of imagination. “Oh, a whole new continent you say? No, no, don’t like it. Not in that color, it doesn’t go with the curtains.” It takes centuries to get over these kinds of biases, centuries of Englishmen and Spaniards and French looking down on their poor addlepated kin in the colonies. It’s frustrating and senseless, and, again, kind of a failure of the imagination. Presumably the other fish made fun of the Coelacanth when it started eyeing the land lustfully, and condescended to our coelacanthoid ancestors for as long as their tiny, unevolved fish brains could concentrate on doing so.

Which brings up my fundamental question of why you’d even want to live on a planet, anyway?

You ask, “What options are there?”

Good question!

While I’m all in favor of exploring the planets and setting up outposts, and maybe even giving small-scale colonization a go, just to see what’ll happen, I have to tell you that I wouldn’t want to risk my kids on something like that. I’d go with the safer, more conservative, yet more counter-intuitive option: the Space Habitat which has a zillion advantages over a planet.

For starters, they’re in space. Why go to all the trouble of climbing out of Earth’s gravity well just to climb back down someone else’s gravity well, and spend the rest of your life there? You don’t need to contend with low gravity like on the moon or Mars, just spin the station, and you’re set, which eliminates any biological problems from arising. We know we can reproduce in O’Neil colonies. We don’t know that about anything else. We don’t even know that we can live healthily or even have babies on Mars. If you can’t have babies, it ain’t a colony, sorry. 

And of course the Space Habitat concept is beautifully efficient – you’re not forced to contend with 85% or 100% uninhabitable mudballs here, the entire internal space is usable, functional, biologically active. They can be customized to any climate you want – Mediterranean, Midatlantic, Desert, Polynesian, Jungle – whatever floats your boat, and they can be maintained like that forever. You can stock ‘em with any kind of animals and plants you want, and there’s no reason to assume some of them couldn’t become very elaborate preserves for endangered animals here on earth, which, to me, seems a far better idea than, say, hauling whales off to an ice-choked barely-habitable Mars and just hoping they’ll be able to cut it. And they can be HUGE! Using the constraints of building materials as they existed in the 1970s, Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill suggested the upper limit of colony size would be a cylinder about 20 miles long, about four miles wide, and with a population of about twenty million people, living in a state of crowding far less than most major cities. That was more than thirty-five years ago. We know of much, much better, stronger construction materials nowadays. They could be made vastly larger.

Thirdly, poetically speaking, you’d be halfway to any point in the solar system you wanted to go. By that I mean that since your habitat/city is floating in space, you can easily hop a ship to another planet, an asteroid, a comet, or another colony, without all that mucking about in gravity wells, with huge rockets pounding against the ground using 95% of their fuel just to get to the weightlessness that you can get to just by hopping out a door. It’s simply efficient, and much safer. And of course there’s industrial advantages: power from the sun is virtually free in space, you’ve got easy access to near-absolute vacuum and near-zero gravity, which are very useful for industrial processes. You say you’re serious about wanting to clear up the earth’s environment? Well, it seems to me a very good way to do that would be to move as much of earth’s industrial processes in to orbit as possible, where the Earth would be out of harm’s way.

And there’s cash crops in space, if we’ve only the mind to go after them: Helium 3 on the moon (Though I place little stock in it, it’s trendy to mention it), volitiles, metals, and fissionable in the asteroids, more volitiles on the comets to replace what we loose in the habitat/colonies over time. Reckoning it in mass instead of area, If we had 10 megatons of Solar Power satellites, we could convert the electricity they generate to microwaves, beam ’em to earth in non-ionizing form, convert the microwaves back to electricity, and we’d have enough electricity to power any four American states. More than that, if they were smaller states. Once the initial investment is out of the way, at present electrical rates, you’re looking at something like 8 million dollars of income a day, every day, literally until the sun burns out.

You think an energy-starved industrial Japan would be willing to sign a contract for say three billion dollars a year so they’d never have to deal with OPEC again? Especially with them being all touchy about Nuclear Power nowadays.  How about China? I’m willing to bet they would.

Think about it: You can live in a pleasant, interesting, comfortable, homey habitat with millions of your closest family and friends, living a productive, mostly normal life, with relatively easy access to the rest of the solar system, away from disease and famine and war and terrorism – or – you could live on a crappy 85%-uninhabitable mudball full of disease-ridden megalomaniacs who mostly want to kill you for reasons that haven’t made much sense in 400 years? You can never know a less-than-perfect day, or you can contend with earthquakes and hurricanes and tsunamis, the inevitable rampaging mobs that follow those things. You can live an idyllic existence in something like a new eden, or you can convince yourself that the way things are is the only way they can be, and content yourself with a life in this great big Calcutta slum we call “Earth.”

So that’s what I’ve got. If you’ve read this far, thank you. If anyone’s got any opinions, I’d love to hear ’em.

What does Ronald Reagan taste like?

Five minutes ago:
Me: “Hey, look, I got us some Mexican coke-a-cola! Now we can drink it as a family, and return to the glory that was 1984!”
Sandra: “Where’d you get it? Dollar General?”
Me: “No.”
Sandra: “Mexico?”
Me: “No. I go-“
Sandra: “Mexico in the past?”
Me: “I went to the year 1984, ok? Hey, Bey, c’mere and look at this!” [pulls out bottle opener and pops the caps off the bottles] “Ever seen that before?”
Bey: “Not outside of old movies.”
Sandra: [Clinks bottles together] “To us! To a good family.”
[Everyone takes a swig]
Me: “Oh my God, yes!”
Bey: “I taste no difference.”
Me: “Really?”
Bey: “Really.”
Me: “Here, try a regular one.” [Grabs normal coke out fridge. Bey takes a swig of it, then a swig of the Mexi-Coke.]
Bey: “Oh, yeah, this is way the hell sweeter.”
Sandra: “Thank you for getting a nostalgic beverage!”
Me: “I CAN TASTE RONALD REAGAN! I CAN TASTE RONALD REAGAN!”
Sandra: “That is just wrong on so many levels.”
Me: “What? You’d rather I taste Jimmy Carter? Walter Mondale?”
Sandra: “I don’t want to talk about your taste in men.”
Me: “I don’t *have* a taste in men, I’m talking about what certain men t— oh, yeah, I can hear it now. that’s much worse.”
Sandra: “I bet you’re really glad you didn’t finish that sentence.”
Me: “Yeah. A little grossed out, too. Anyway, the point was the taste of nostalgia, of the old days, of…”
Bey: “Can we please not talk about what elderly men taste like?”
Me: “Well, I’d imagine Reagan would be a little gamey, what with having been dead for so long…”
Bey: “Father, I have a glass Coke bottle, and there is nothing preventing me from acting out that one scene from ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy’ on you.”
Me: “I’ve pushed this bit too far?”
Bey: “Quite a while ago, yes.”
Me: “Ok. Still: Good coke, right?”
Bey: [shrugs]

I think forgiveness more often comes from confusion than anything else

I think – at least in my own life – forgiveness is more accompanied by confusion than anything  else. Not relief, or peace, or love, or completion, but more a sense of, ‘Well, ok, what am I supposed to do with this?’

I’ll give you an example:

I had this relative that everyone in the family hated. His wife was nice, and he was mister get-rich-quick scheme. He was always shucking and jiving and coming up short because he was a sucker. He was also big into conspiracy theories. Over the years it got worse and worse to the point that no one could stand him in the family, and I suspect no one could stand him out of the family either. If his wife – who we loved – was invited to a party, he would just sit in the corner, completely ignored.

If you made the mistake of saying ‘hi,’ he’d try to talk you into paying for a hyperbaric oxygen chamber for him to start his own business, as that’s the coming thing, or something equally groan-inducing.

I grew to hate him because of the pain he caused my relative. She…I could never tell if she was unaware of what a mess he was, or if she was afraid to leave, or if she actually believed his latest rivulets of ridiculousness were actually gonna work and this time they’d make it big. I dunno. I guess I never will.

I had this recurring fantasy that one day she’d die – I just always assumed he’d outlive her as her health was not great – and then at the funeral I’d walk up to him and say, “Now that she’s gone, neither I nor the rest of the family have any reason to tolerate you. We hate you, and stay away. You are completely alone for the rest of your life.” The wording changed from time to time, but something mean like that. Events didn’t play out like that.

Over time I began to realize he was a paranoid schizophrenic, or most likely so. Undiagnosed. That’s one of those diseases that gets worse as you age if untreated, and he was too paranoid to ever go see a shrink. And he definitely got worse as he got older.

I don’t think anyone else in the family ever got that he was crazy, I think they just thought that he was despicable, and he certainly did some despicable things, so they weren’t wrong, but I’m not at all sure where the line between “Utter bastard,” and “Lunatic who really isn’t responsible for his actions” lies. I assume it’s a wandering border that snakes around a lot. I still hated him, of course. He was so easy to hate.

Then he got sick, and after a lot of rigmarole I won’t bore you with, he ended up in hospice. I called to straighten out some arrangements, and then the nurse guy said, “You wan to talk to him?” I said, “Sure,” and to this day I don’t know why. Probably just because it would have seemed mean to say, “No.” I’m plenty mean, but I don’t generally want total strangers to know it.

I ended up on the phone with him, and he was pretty deaf, so I had to talk very loudly. I asked him how he felt, and he said he was in a lot of pain, which wasn’t possible as the staff informed me they had pumped him full of oh-so-very-much dope.

“Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked. It was a safe question because I’m 700 miles away and poor, and hence nobody ever asks me to do anything.
“It won’t be long now,” he said. In my mind’s eye I could see him staring at a big black hole that doesn’t exist somewhere between the foot of the bed and the far wall. In the background I could hear staff futzing around with tubes and wires and things.

“Ok, well, I’ll check in on you again tomorrow,” I said.

“Oh, God,” he said.

“We love you,” I lied. Straight-up lied.

“Ok, thank you.”

Not an hour later he died. I was the last person to talk to him. Last in the family, anyway.  The last thing I did was tell him that he was loved. He totally absolutely completely was not. Nobody loved him. He only knew like six people in the world, none of them could stand him by that time. I’m not some big, noble hero, I was just being polite. A polite lie for a dying man, and that’s all it was. There’s nothing noble in it.

So that hung over me for a few days, that mine was the last familiar voice he heard, and that even though I hate him, the last words from the family were nice. It was a weird, weird, weird irony. Confusing.

Time passed, and I got to thinking more about his obvious mental illnesses. Most of the rest of the family never considered the option, they just disliked him because of very good reasons. Most of them have since died.  Counting me, I think there’s only three people who even remember him. No, wait, four.

He had pissed away every dime he’d made in one lunatic scheme or another, and there was no funeral. He’d alienated everyone in 700 miles in every direction. I honestly do not know what happened to his body. Probably in a bar-coded thermos in some state-run crematorium somewhere, filed and forgotten.

His illness…well, I’m not saying he wasn’t responsible for a lot of the bad stuff he did, but his illness probably tended to push him in the direction of bad decisions. They were still decisions, mind you. I won’t go into what all he did. I got to thinking about my own mental illness, which does not drive me to make poor decisions, but it does make me pretty goddamned useless. If I’m better than him on some measure, it’s just the love and support of my dad in my early life, and my wife in the second half of my life. But I’m still pretty useless, and I still pretty much hate myself most of the time.

Awful thing to hate yourself, but I think it’s served me well. I’ve never deliberately hurt anyone, and I’ve only accidentally hurt very few. I’m worthless, so I tend to value others. In his case, well, you can’t second-guess crazy, right? I’ll never know, but I think that capacity for self-loathing wasn’t there to protect him. People like harmless, interesting, sad folks. People have always looked out for me. Even my bullies on occasion (Weirdly enough). Nobody likes the oily wheeler-dealer who’s lost money on his last 15 sure things, and wants you to fund number sixteen.

I’m digressing. He’s dead and nobody misses him, not even me. But how different from me was he? Well, a hell of a lot, honestly. Just the same, I do totally understand what it’s like to just never quite get the hang of life, how there’s some great gulf fixed between what the common people do every day without thinking about it, and the stuff that I can do, which ain’t much.  Him, too, I assume.

So he died, and I told him, “I love you.” As I’ve said, I was lying. DIdn’t love him then and I don’t love him now, but I guess I’ve forgiven him. I’m not sure if it’s because he was somebody’s baby full of hope once, and he came to a very bad end, and I’m sad over the loss. Or maybe I forgive him because I can see a disastrously failed version of myself in him, had I been so unlucky as to be unloved over the last 51 years. Or maybe it’s just because everyone connected with it is dead: His wife, his kid, the extended family. It’s all irrelevant now.

I don’t know, though the second one seems least likely.

But he’s dead, and I’m haunted by being the last to speak to him, and I’m happy I gave him a nice goodbye, assuming he was even aware of it (As I said: oh-so-very-much dope)

And I forgive him, I guess, but I’m more confused by the forgiveness than relieved by it.

And that always seems to happen to me, though this is obviously the most dramatic example.

What awful thing do you have to do to get kicked out of Paganism?

“What do you call it when you get kicked out of a religion?”
“Most commonly, ‘Excommunication,’ though that’s mostly a Christian term. It differs from religion to religion. Why?”
“I got kicked out of Wicca.”
“What?!”
“Yeah.”
“What do you have to do to get kicked out of paganism?”
“Yeah, I know, right?”
“No, I’m serious: What the hell did you do? Did you stab someone or something?”
“No, but I did argue that we should stab people.”
“Lemme stop laughing here. Ok: Please explain?”
“Well, you remember when I joined and why, right?”
“Of course.”
“Well, it turned out not to be what I expected. It was really political. You have to be a Green or Democrat to worship the earth, I guess, and they won’t shut up about it in the services. And they’re always talking about women’s rights and protesting the protestors who protest against abortion, and lesbian stuff. So many lesbians.”
“I thought that was part of the appeal?”
“I’m Bi, not lesbian.”
“Anyway…”
“Yeah, anyway, so it really was basically like my Women’s Studies class stuff, except that we sat on the floor in a circle and hummed a lot.”
“[Laughing]”
“So after a year and a half of this I was getting frustrated. I raised my hand in a meeting, right before the service, and I said ‘When do we sacrifice the goats?'”
“[Laughing really hard]”
“So they said, ‘what?’ and I said, ‘when do we sacrifice the goats? Or bunnies or whatever? I mean we’ve got the athame [sacred ceremonial knife] right there but we never slit anything’s throat with it.’ So high priestess explained that we don’t sacrifice animals, and that we’ve grown beyond the need for that because we have a fuller understanding than the pagans of old did about the importance of life and stuff. So I said, ‘so we’re not pagans?’ and she said, ‘No, we are pagans, we’re just more in tune with nature than the pagans of old.’ So then I asked if we somehow thought were were *better* than the real pagans…”
“I imagine that got some angry spluttering.”
“Yeah! So she told me to sit down, and she’d explain it all later, and I demanded that she explain it to me now, and then I said that she’s basically said that we weren’t *real* pagans, we were just playing dress-up pretend. So everyone was really mad by then.”
“I’m sure.”
“Finally I said, ‘look, if we’re pagans, and we’re not nailing seven men to seven trees on the seventh day of the seventh month in worship of Odin, then what the hell is the point?”
“[several minutes of laughing, then gasping from both of us.]”
“So I walked out and they yelled not to come back, and called the other covens to warn them about me.”
“[Laughing] You see, this is why I keep you on the payroll.”

Mahatma Randy’s Horror Show

My first real band after college was called, “Mahatma Randy’s Horror Show.” It was pretty much a disaster in every regard.

One day in 1992 or 1993 I was wandering through the Tarpon Springs Crappy Amateur Art Festival when, suddenly, a song struck me fully formed in my head. It was called, “My Baby’s the Last of the Communists,” which, only a year or two after the end of the cold war, seemed topical and funny. I quickly abandoned the poorly-soldered windchimes and ran back to my car to write the words down before I forgot ’em.

It was a pretty good song. Well, good lyrics. Not a song yet.

That motivated me to form a band. My previous (And first) one was “Technicolor Yawn,” which was also a disaster, but for more typical college band reasons. The good thing about a band, though, was that it gives you something to do, people to bond with, and hot-and-cold running chicks. All of that appealed to me as I was bored, lonely, and going through the worst breakup of my life at the time.

I put an ad in the personals section of Creative Loafing, a weekend entertainment paper or tabloid or supplement or whatever you call it. Eventually the phone started to ring.

Now the important thing to remember here is that I am not now, nor have I ever been a musician. I’m a slightly-better-than-average singer, and that is it. There endeth my list of talents. I had no idea what this song would sound like, but I intended to put together as large a band as I could with a horn section. I was going for something like Oingo Boingo or Bad Manners or something like that. As to how to write the music, I figured I’d just hum or whistle melodies, and have the other guys jam something together. (I can’t read music. I should probably mention that)

Recruiting was easy. Super-easy. I got a drummer in no time. As anyone will tell you, drummers are the hardest thing to get. Keyboardists? Dime a dozen. Gutarists?There’s so many of them you actually have to pay to keep them away from you. Everyone goes through that “I wanna be a rock star” phase. Bassists? Well, every guitarist can be a frustrated bassist if you ask ’em nicely enough. Drums, though? Drums are hard. There aren’t a lot of drummers, given the expense and size and noise of the kits, and such as there are are always in demand. They have bands lined up waiting for them, so they’re not gonna put up with my crap.

But, nope, I got a drummer. I bought him some Mexican food and he told me about his weird love life, and I listened patiently and said some up-with-people crap of some sort, and – bang – he was in.

Thus I ended up with a nine-piece band, including a four-piece horn section. Ten piece band, if you count me, which  you probably shouldn’t do as I’m not a musician. I’m just a singer.

The first problem was how to explain the sound I was looking for to these fine folks, and that just didn’t go well. I lacked the vocabulary to explain it, so all I could do was play them songs and say, ‘like that,’ which went over worse than you’d imagine because either the couldn’t copy the style, or didn’t understand it, or simply didn’t wanna do it. They wanted to play stuff that sounded like Thelonius Monk or Skynyrd.

Now, that would actually be pretty awesome, and I’d jump at the chance nowadays, but back then I didn’t know a lucky break when I saw it.

The second most obvious problem was scheduling. Most bands are 3 or 4 or 5 people, tops. This makes scheduling easy. Show up at the garage and we’ll jam. We can take my car! With each person you add, however, it gets more and more complicated. An order of magnitude more complicated.

One of the horn players was a doctor. Initially we met at his house. I had to go to the bathroom once, and there were needles all over the place. I don’t know if he was diabetic, or a drug addict, or very sick in some way that required him to treat it at home, but he was definitely a dangerously negligent housekeeper, so we decided to meet somewhere else from then on out.

And he stopped coming.

My drummer volunteered his place, so we met there and jammed in his living room.

You know what? I’d forgotten about it until this moment, but I don’t think we initially had a bassist. I think I tried to play bass. Honestly, my memories are fuzzy, but I know I took a turn at it. I couldn’t do it (Because I’m not a musician) but everyone liked my voice, so we kept meeting.

Well, I say we kept meeting, but the horn section evaporated quickly. Horn players get excited about playing with other horn players because they never get to. There just aren’t many bands with a horn section, though a lot used to have a sax or (Less commonly) a trumpet. Those guys were invariably the first ones to get kicked off the bus, so to speak, when the money doesn’t roll in. And the money never rolls in. So once we were down to just one horn guy, what point was there? He was more interested in playing with the others than with us, now we were just another band, so…gone.

The thing is, I really only had one song. I mean, I had a bunch of songs left over from my previous band, but never recorded any, so I didn’t have anything I could convey to these guys, so there was really just “My Baby’s the Last of the Communists,” which I wanted to be short and punchy and funny, but they were thinking long, serious, dramatic rock ballad. I can’t recall if I ever played any of ’em any They Might Be Giants, but I imagine if I did they probably told me to go straight to hell.

Our drummer had issues. He’d told over dinner one time that he’d been married up until recently. Then he was driving home from work one night and saw this hooker. Then he took the hooker home and threw his wife out, and now the hooker was his girlfriend.

Drummers, right? Amiright?

What can you say to that? “Gee, that’s keen.” I didn’t want to ask any questions because honestly no answer would be a good one. I mean, was she still hooking? Is it possible that I misunderstood her and she just made those hook rugs that were popular in the early ’80s? He never actually said hooker, exactly. Maybe I misunderstood? And he’s a drummer…I mean, I had to keep him, right? And we were practicing in his house. I just resigned myself to avoiding touching anything in his house, and compulsively washing my hands.

Since I wasn’t a bassist (And I can’t remember if we had one before me or not), Tom, the guitarist (And the only guy who’s name I can remember) brought in a friend of his. They’d played together in a band in the past. Power trio. On the surface this seemed like a good idea, as he was a really good bassist, and Tom was a really good guitarist. As one might imagine of a prostitution-enthusiast, our drummer had good rhythm. So: Power trio + me as singer.  I could work with that.

But by this point we still didn’t have any music written out, and the bassist flat out didn’t like my songs, so they took to playing their originals from back in the day. And as I didn’t know their songs, the bassist took to singing them.

I’m gonna be honest: He probably had a better voice than me. So in essence I’d gotten their old band back together.

Nowadays, this wouldn’t present a problem. A decade ago it wouldn’t have presented a problem. Twenty years ago it wouldn’t have presented a problem. Right then, though…well, nowadays I can talk anyone into anything by charm, bluster, or some humorous combination of thereof. Back then, though, I was in my mid-20s, and I just lacked the confidence – no, wrong word – arrogance to step in and force these guys to do my will. I didn’t even know how to explain my will, honestly.

It went downhill from there. The hooker had a serious conversation with her boyfriend about taking over “Some” of the singing duties, by which she meant all. Even then, I would have said, ‘yeah, sure, you can do harmonies and backing vocals and I’ll give you one song to a set,’ but, well, hooker. I honestly didn’t want her around.

The only thing that kept me from being forced out was that the Bassist didn’t want her singing, which was lucky as I didn’t have to get into it with the drummer. As a result she just became the worst cliche of local-band-girlfriend, hanging around all the time, banging a damn tambourine at random intervals and…well, to her credit, she didn’t warble much. Generally local-band-girlfriends who want to be in the band just spontaneously sing along.

The downside, of course, was that I was basically the second vocalist in my own band, and tended to be ignored at my own practices. I *did* manage to spruce up a song that Tom had played with an earlier band. It was called “Spot.” We recorded a demo of it. Well, half a demo. The drummer kept spontaneously stopping after the bridge. We could never explain to him that wasn’t the end of the song.

I don’t know where the demo went, but years later I recorded a version of it with another band, “Mahatma Randy and the Randy Mahatmas.” You can listen to it here.  It’s not bad.

The bassist couldn’t make it to practice one day, so I decided to stage a reverse-coup. I brought Dave Teach along to play bass. That would shift things in my direction somewhat. When we got to my drummer’s house, however, he wasn’t there. He’d forgotten. Tom was there, as were Dave and I, but the drummer didn’t show.

We plugged in our instruments on his front porch and jammed there for a bit. I’d like to say we played really loudly until the neighbors came out and drove us off, but we didn’t. We intended to, mind you but, again, I was going through the worst breakup of my life at the time, and just lacked the needed arrogance to front a band, much less that needed for a good pranking.

So we just noodled around for a few minutes, and then Tom left and then Dave and I thought, “This is stupid,” (Given that there was only a bass there now), so we left too. I wanna say Tom was kind of souring on the drummer by this point.

Later on I called up and asked the drummer where he’d been. He’d spaced on the whole thing. I told him, “It’s ok, we plugged in and practiced on your yard for a while, so it worked out fine.” He got upset at that. “You did what? That’s not cool at all.”
“It’s ok, the neighbors only complained a few times,” I lied.
“What?”
“Look, it’s ok, we were gone long before the cops got there.”
“Cops?” He got weirdly quietly upset over the phone. By this point the silent spaces between his words were almost audibly announcing ‘crazy-crazy-crazy.’

He started in on wanting his girlfriend to sing, and at that moment I just gave up. “You know what? That’s a good idea. We could use a female vocalist to compliment my lack of vocals. I think that’d be a good sound.” He didn’t get it. He didn’t even notice it.

“Ok, well, I’ll see you next week,” I said, with no intention of ever going there again, and I never called him back. Never heard from Tom again, either, which is the real shame of the whole thing, as he was really good.

Ah well.

What brings all this up is that I’ve been converting old video and audio tapes to digital, and hear the one practice we recorded, which consisted of, basically, me sitting in the corner while my band ignored me and played their own stuff.

Good times. Good times.

MOVIE REVIEW: “The Other Side of the Wind” (2018)

I just watched “The Other Side of the Wind,” a posthumous film by Orson Welles.

Shot between 1971 and 1975, the production was a typically sisyphean ordeal of a subset so specific to Mr. Welles that I’ve taken to calling it “Orsonian.” The film’s  troubles, and those have been detailed ad nauseam elsewhere, so I’m not going to bore you with them.  Suffice to say that he was placed under an actual honest-to-God voodoo curse in 1942, and since his movie finally came out in 2018, I think we can conclude that it’s still in effect.

So how do you review a “new” Orson Welles movie? It’s always a little difficult since Welles himself disliked symbolism and metaphor in movies. The story is the thing and the deeper meanings, if any, are subject to your own interpretation or, more likely, are only in your own head to begin with.

The Plot (I warn you there be spoilers, but in a movie of this sort I’m not sure they’re really of any significance. It’s not really a plot-driven film):

John Houston plays a washed up movie director who was once the golden boy of Hollywood, but has fallen from glory since the golden age. He is pretty obviously based on Orson Welles himself.  Peter Bogdanovich plays a very successful young director and self-described “Apostle” of John Houston’s character. He is pretty obviously based on Peter Bogdanovich, who was the golden boy of the early ’70s, and the last of the pre-Spielbergian wunderkind. And also one of Orson Welles’ real-life best friends. In fact, Orson was broke and living in Peter’s house for much of the production, and some of the scenes were shot there as well.

I’m just going to call them by their actor names.

It’s Houston’s 70th birthday, and he’s decided to celebrate by screening a film he’s been working on at his home as part of the party. He’s invited film crews, cineastes, critics, directors, producers, Dennis Hopper, Rich Little, and others. In fact, the party scenes are a who’s who of behind-the-camera power of the “New Hollywood” era (About 1965-75), some of them playing themselves, some playing fictional characters. Orson himself even turns up briefly as a disembodied voice asking John Houston a question.

The film, then, is an ersatz documentary about a fictional director’s birthday party. This is actually visually rather fascinating, owing to its quick cutting, and random juxtaposition between film type. B&W, color, 8mm, 16mm, different grains, etc. We’re to believe the whole thing was cut together from the footage of a dozen or more cameras wandering about the house at the time.

Yeah, that’s right, kids: Orson Welles invented the Found Footage style. Who knew?

This is contrasted with what we see of Houston’s movie, “The Other Side of the Wind,” which is in beautiful color, very nicely composed shots, neato-keeno cinematography, and no plot whatsoever.

(In essence an androgynous man follows Orson’s naked real-life girlfriend around. Neither of them ever say a word. They have sex. It means….nothing. I think maybe it’s supposed to mean nothing. Of course this film-within-a-film is incomplete, and we’re not getting the whole story, but it seems to be a parody of a particular style of European art film at the time, and my sense is that Orson found it pretty but vapid)

As it turns out, the production is broke. The male lead – Johnny Dale (Played by Bob Random) apparently freaked out during a sex scene, ran off the set, and hasn’t been seen since. They’re out of money, out of time, and out of a leading man. The party is a desperate attempt to hit Bogdanovich up for money to complete it, but that doesn’t really pan out.

The screening is a bomb, Houston loses everything, and floors his Porsche into a drive-in theater screen, killing himself.

The End.

So what does it all mean? Well, as with all Welles films, it means what it says, but the thing is I’m just a little less clear on what this says than in his other films. I’m assuming it’s a slice of life of Orson’s own eternal filmmaking torment, and the standard Hollywood bullcrap, but while the failure of the movie does provide a framework for the film, I’m not entirely sure it’s what it’s about.

The most interesting aspect for me was the Johnny Dale character. The androgynous lead of the film-within-a-film, we’re told repeatedly that he was attempting to kill himself by drowning when Houston saw him from his yacht. He saved his life and forced him into acting, against his will. Later on Houston’s own posse do some looking into his past, and discover that Johnny is really named “Oscar,” is super-gay, and that his drowning wasn’t a suicide, it was an audition. Houston is furious and amused that he fell for it.

Johnny/Oscar freaked out during an oral sex scene with Oja Kodar, the perpetually naked lead of the film within a film and ran off.

There’s a curiously gay element running through this picture as well. It’s implied that Houston’s character is a latent homosexual. He has a career-long penchant for discovering handsome leading men, building them into stars, then stealing their women, then discarding both. Susan Strassberg, playing a thinly-disguised Pauline Kael – says this is as close as Houston can get to having sex with his leading men, which she thinks is what he really wants to do. He belts her, which pretty much means she’s probably right.

So is Houston’s character an expy for Orson himself? Yes and no. It has been well documented that Orson was super-de-duper-de straight, so that aspect isn’t him. Also, Orson never had an eye for jailbait, whereas Houston is nailing a 15-year-old girl in the film. I don’t know where that came from (Bogdanovitch says it was a late addition to the script, and that it was a slam at his relationship with the then-19 Cybill Sheppard, which he took offense at, and which made the later stages of production rather chilly)

On the other hand, the fall from early glory, the endless struggle to find financing, projects falling apart for stupid reasons near completion, and the continual hand-to-mouth existence while his acolytes copy him and find fame and fortune – that is all totally Orson. Though he insisted this wasn’t an autobiographical film, it pretty definitely is.

The acting is all over the place. Bob Random and Oja Kodar (Who gets second billing) don’t have any lines in the movie. Houston’s jailbait girlfriend is just a terrible actress (Orson found her waitressing a diner, and insisted she be in the picture.  She was not up to the task.) Bogdanovich’s role was originally held by someone else, then re-cast halfway through production. He’s not bad, as he’s basically playing himself, but he’s not an actor. Given the feel of the bulk of the film, this doesn’t really hurt it at all, though. A surprising amount of dialog is improved, but the more scripted stuff stands out as a result.

I’m never sure about Oja. Some people say she was Orson’s muse and the love of his life. Others say she was his Yoko, or perhaps his Zelda, and the love of his life. So did she keep him going or destroy him? Probably neither, but I’m undecided.  Something that I’ve never heard commented on before I watched it last night: Oja plays her entire role in “Redface.” Or, technically I suppose, given that she’s naked in 75% of her scenes, “Redeverything.” She’s a Croatian actress playing an American Indian for no explained reason (I’m just going to assume that in the film-within-a-film she represents America or the Frontier or perhaps poor treatment of American Indians. I dunno, man, it was the early ’70s). She’s never given a proper name in the party scenes, but people sarcastically call her “Pocahontas” and “Miniehaha” and stuff like that. In 1973 this would have been nothing at all. Nowadays, with all the Whitewashing kerfluffle, I’m interested to see if there’s any backlash, or if Orson gets to play his “Dead-Genius-Beyond-Criticism” card.

The gay subtext – which is relatively subdued – would probably have been rather scandalous in the day. Again, I’m interested to see how that plays out now, with our modern attitudes on homosexuality.  Honestly, this whole film would have been pretty scandalous back then, and I feel like that’s deliberate.

Good lord, is there a lot of nudity in this film! The first shot is a half dozen naked women in a steam bath. Then there’s a hippie night club with nude films projected on the walls, then the “Bathroom Orgy” sequence, where there’s 2 or 3 people in a stall, Oja changing her clothes while an orally fixated lesbian teen looks on, Oja having sex with Bob Random in the car (Which is rumored to have been real, not simulated, but I dunno…), then endless naked wandering through backlots, and the scene on a mattress where she starts to go down on the guy, and he freaks out and runs away. Oh, and her naked with scizors destroying a giant phallic symbol. As I said, it’s a parody of Euro-Art Films)

(I’m not saying this for titillation purposes, but the sex scene in the car is the best-shot sequence in the film. Ignoring the nudity, the car shaking, the rain on the windows, other cars coming past, the rythyms of the camera and the cuts and the lighting are just stunningly put together. It’s mesmerizing and beautiful, and not for the sex. It’s an example that even when he’s just making fun of something, Welles could still do it better than the thing he was making fun of. It’s a pity the scene is too dirty to show your friends, or my Orson-Welles-loving aunt)

My biggest beef, I guess, is the absence of the suicide scene at the end. In the script and storyboards, as I said, Houston slams into the projection screen, killing himself and his car explodes. That shot was never filmed (Because they would have had to destroy the car and the screen, so it would have been filmed last).  As a result, the movie just ends with Houston driving off. There’s no real climax as such.

Given the ease of making that scene (They even have Houston’s voice-over!) it would have been easy to shoot it and insert it. Given the amount of money Netflix invested in FINALLY getting this thing made, it would have been a pittance. And Bogdanovich’s opening voiceover has been changed some to reflect the modern day, so clearly slight changes to the film were thought to be acceptable.

Go figure.

 

So is it a good movie or not? Of course. It’s an Orson Welles movie.

Do I like it? That’s another matter. I’m honestly not sure.

 

Why I named my son Beyowulf

Twenty years ago today, (as of 11:11 AM), my wife and I had our first and only kid. he was a couple weeks past due, so we had to go in and get him. For various reasons, we opted for a C-section. “Grande!” A nurse said during the operation.  He was a big kid. I don’t remember how big, cuz I’m bad with numbers, but pretty big. Ten pounds? That sounds right. The doctor’s first comment was, “It’s a linebacker!”   We were very happy.

My wife got an infection, so they decided to make us stay overnight an extra night  in the maternity wing, and then he crashed. SIDS. Fortunately we were in the hospital, and they caught it, but if my wife hadn’t gotten sick, if they’d let us go home, he would have died.

They rushed us by ambulance to All Childrens in St. Pete, and he spent a week in the NICU while we stayed in the Ronald  McDonald House a block away (seriously: give them money. They do great things)

For various reasons, only one of us was allowed in the NICU at a time, so the wife and I took shifts. I talked to him constantly, sang him The Might Be Giants songs, and told him how strong he was and how much fun he’d have if he’d just get well and come home with us. I held his tiny little hand and prayed pretty much every moment I wasn’t talking or singing. My folks came down to see him in his little Lucite crib with all the IVs sticking in him and monitors attached to him and so forth. The four of us looked at him for a couple minutes and cried, then the nurses told us that they’d already looked the other way as long as they could, and three of us would have to leave. I took my folks out.
“I don’t see why we had to leave,” one of them said, “that other kid had six people visiting.”
“that other kid is dying,” I said. “that’s the family saying goodbye.”
“Oh,” the folks said, chagrined. They knew how bad off we were, they didn’t realize how bad off everyone else in there was.

All the other kids died. All of them. Mine lived. I attribute that to God, but you can say it was just dumb luck if you like. I won’t argue with you. This isn’t a sermon.

What this is, I guess, is me ruminating on that time. I’d like to say it was a fairly tale after that, but in fact it’s been a pretty hard couple of decades for all concerned. Additional medical conditions, awful, awful, awful schools that have no idea how to work with special needs kids, poverty, my own ineptitude as a parent, the list goes on and on. It really wasn’t until a little over three years ago, maybe four,  when it finally began to settle down, and feel like the train might actually stay on the track.

Through it all, though, my kid has been a treasure. He is the reason I am alive, the reason I keep on going. With all the odds repeatedly stacked against him, he’s kept fighting and, well, I suppose nothing’s going to change there. The fighting continues. Some people get a normal life, others have to claw and scrape for it. But the important thing is that we’re all still here, the three of us, we all still love each other, which is better than most people in our predicaments.

I could brag about that, I suppose, but I’m humble. I’m fully aware and ashamed of how outclassed I am. if I was twice the man I am, I wouldn’t be a quarter of what my father was, and it pains me that I haven’t been able to be nearly as good a dad to my son as he was to me. He was superhuman, that one. And my son is superhuman, too. All the times he’s faced death and made it back off…well, a hero is someone who keeps on fighting, right? someone who doesn’t give up, and just keeps slugging away when the odds are frankly abysmal?

There’s a moral dimension to heroism, too: like my dad before me, my son has always done the right thing, if he’s been aware of what it is. He is that rare person for whom there is no difference between what he should do, and what he does. He’s moral, he’s smart, he’s ethical, and he’s braver than anyone I’ve ever met in that there are times when he’s abjectly terrified, but he just keeps on going, fighting, striving, winning less often than he loses; but then “victory” isn’t the measure of heroism. A willingness to risk defeat is. I could see all that in his eyes the very first instant after his birth. He was born with them open expression was like someone desperately trying to make sense of the situation, and figuring out what to do next.

(am I reading too much in to that instant? Of course I am. I was overwhelmed then, and now. Just the same…it’s real to me, and it feels real to my wife and him.)

If those qualities aren’t the universal hallmarks of heroism, well, they should be. There is no one in this world that I am prouder of, no one I love more, no one I know who cares more, who feels more, who tries harder. despite all he’s had to fight against, he was, is, and evermore shall be the bravest, most noble person I know.

There’s a reason I named him Beyowulf.

Greetings to everyone who heard me on the radio!

Hello to everyone who heard me on 106.1 FM or 1340 AM. If you’re checking this site out because of that, thank you very much.

Also, the first article (Below this one) isn’t indicative of this page as a whole, or me, I’m just wondering aloud about an issue of mine.

Anyway, thank you for coming, and please do surf around. I got a ton of cool crap on here. Annnnnnnnnd vastly more boring crap than that.