flourish October 10, 2006 flourish

flourish Blotto!

› 04:44 AM | Music

Yeah, I know what you're thinking, particularly if you've been personally present for some of my more incandescent displays over the past several months. But that's not what I'm talking about. And, anyway, I've once again turned over a "new" leaf.

No, instead I am referring to my recent musical collaborations with a juicy (if obscure) Chicago band named Mr. Blotto, efforts which have now bourne fruit in the form of an album named Barlow Shanghai. (Download it or order the richly illustrated CD here. It's cheaper than bailing me out of jail and I will be almost as grateful.)

Here's the back-story:

A couple of years ago, I was passing through Chicago, and, as is his custom, my local pal Peer Munck made another attempt to disabuse me of my belief that Chicago is little more (or, more likely, less) than New York without a sense of humor.

On this occasion, he took me to an amiable little club to hear a band named Hack and Wheeze. (Given the cultural flavor of both the band and the audience, I would guess the name did not derive from one of them having once suffered pneumonia.) I thought they were pretty good fun - though I am sort of a slut for music - and besides, they had a particular fan I really enjoyed dancing with.

Hanging out with them after the gig, I learned that a couple of them were also members of a band named - you guessed it - Mr. Blotto. The latter happened to be playing a much larger venue the next night. It turns out there was nothing unusual about this since Mr. Blotto has been playing somewhere in Chicago about every week for years.

Apparently, the members of Mr. Blotto had made a strategic decision, early in their musical career, that they didn't want to become a big deal touring band. These were family guys, neighborhood fellas of the sort that are Chicago's real strength, who had observed the perils of the road and decided instead to stay home and earn a solid enough local reputation to ward off day jobs. They had seen how disruptive such common touring practices as "off-shore drilling" (as it is known in the trade) could be on the integrity of home and hearth. Besides, they weren't and aren't fancy. Someone else could drive the pink Cadillac over the cliff.

I was impressed by their modesty and wisdom, and, come the next night, I was really impressed by their musical energy. While there was no mistaking who had been their central musical inspiration (a certain California cult whose name rhymes with dread), the same could be said of a large number of other improvisational groups with a more national reputation. And they had managed to graft some genuinely new growth on those old roots.

Thus, whenever I passed through Chicago after that, I made a point of hearing Mr. Blotto if they happened to be playing that night, which they generally were. I got to know them pretty well. They were easy to dance to, particularly if the above-mentioned fan was present, which she almost always was.

Meanwhile, on another track, my own song-writing career had become discouraging. My various post-Dead endeavors had been systematically butchered by producers who were determined to make something "commercial" for bands that by nature were not. I felt like I was getting less respect than Rodney Dangerfield at a Greenwich garden party and was beginning to think that I didn't deserve it either. If people were going to make a consistent practice of thoroughly rewriting my songs, it was possible they weren't much good to begin with. Songwriting wasn't fun anymore. There is little delight in being sold out without your assent and even less if you don't actually make any money in the process. I'd decided to hang it up.

But one night about a year and a half ago, the Blottos (encouraged by my friend Peer, who also has a little record company called MunckMix and want to record them) asked me if I'd be willing to write some songs for them. Furthermore, they offered to let me co-produce any record that came of it. Since they clearly weren't lusting for suites at the 4 Seasons and had even offered to let me keep a hand on the wheel, I said I'd give it a try. Little was at stake and, besides, I enjoyed their company.

The process turned out to be a gas. They were almost frighteningly easy to write with and they seemed to genuinely admire the work I was doing with them. Nobody was wearing much of an ego about it. Not even me.

Cut to the near present, next Friday (the 13), when Barlow Shanghai will be officially released. (The name refers to the innocent drunks who were press-ganged, or "shanghaied," into shipboard service against their sober will. It's a little misleading, since I was sober and came willingly, but I can see what they were thinking with they came up with the name.)

It's not going to change the history of music, but it's entertaining stuff. For something done so casually, it's really pretty cool. In fact, I believe, with admitted bias, that it's a good bit cooler than those labored productions to which I had submitted myself previously where money, fame, and Big Art were the object.

So. Give it a listen. If you dig it too, tell your friends about it. And even though I didn't do it for the money, I hope a bunch of you will buy it. The Blotto boys are, as I say, modest in their aspirations, but that doesn't mean they ought to starve for their virtue. And even virtue should sometimes be rewarded with something more than itself, if only to confuse the bastards.

Also, if you happen to be in Chicago, we're having a BlottoFrenzy there on Friday night to celebrate the release. I'll be there and so, I hope, will a number of you. Most of the usual BarlowFrenzy principles apply. If you can't make it, send someone who can that you think I'll like. It's a little different in that this will take place in a club and there will be a cover charge to support the venue and the band. But, if you go to Peer's website and buy either a download or a CD you'll get five bucks off of that. (Just print out your order confirmation and bring it to the gig.)

Here are the details:

When:  Friday, October 13, 2006 at 10:00 pm
Where: Joe's on Weed  940 West Weed, Chicago, IL

Even if you don't like the record, for which I'll have to take considerable blame, I can guarantee you'll enjoy hearing these guys play live. And it's always good to be around an audience where just about everyone gets down with it.

Following that event, by the way, I'm actually headed to Shanghai (for the second time in three months), but more of that later.

flourish June 9, 2006 flourish

flourish Alas, Vince Welnick

› 02:05 PM | Music


The Dreadful Great, among our other bad habits, had a reliable propensity for killing off keyboard players. It was a kind of ritual sacrifice, I suppose, but the really terrible aspect of these departures was the bottomless sorrow that drove out of the physical world Ron "Pigpen" Mckernen, Keith Godshaux, Brent Midland, and now, on June 2, Vince Welnick.

Like all of his previously mentioned colleagues, Vince killed himself. But unlike them, he did it very explicitly, using means too appalling for even me to relate.

The Coroner's Reports for his predecessors were somewhat more ambiguous when it came to conscious involvement in their deaths. Pigpen very clearly drank himself to death, though, given the nature of alcoholism, I suspect that even in his last moments, he was surprised to find himself at Death's Driveway. Keith was a passenger in the car wreck that killed him. Brent did his best to tread on the slimy serpent of Thanatos coiled in inside him. And I did my best to argue it back with songs that, as it ironically happened, only amplified the love he could not stand, the approval he was not psychologically equipped to reconcile with his own lousy self-image.

I remember the time when Brent died better than I wish I did. Time magazine, ever the supercilious snot-nose, honored me with the "George Orwell Doublespeak Award," as the result of an interview with me in Rolling Stone, conducted the day after the event, in which I declared that he had "died of rock 'n' roll," when it was plainly obvious that he succumbed to a drug overdose. (Upon winning this dubious distinction, I wrote a letter to the editor of Time in which I said, among other things, that "anybody who can't tell the difference between metaphor and euphemism probably can't tell the difference between poetry and lies." They didn't publish it, of course).

Like the rest of his doomed and gifted predecessors, Vince was a strangely sweet man, apparently too empathetic to endure the cruelties of this world. He had a passion he brought to his music that was electric, a quality that, like his personal shyness, he also shared with them. Writing songs with Vince was - as I've said of the same marvelous process with Brent - the most intimate thing I ever did with a man.

When Jerry Garcia died, Vince was alone among us in his wretched sense of utter loss. He attempted suicide about six months later, thereby 86ing himself from any further creative interaction with what was left of the Grateful Dead.

As a culture, we were never big on emotional vulnerability. Like a caribou herd, we had learned, over a long period of time, to leave our cripples behind on the tundra rather than risk the entire local genome. That's life, Dude. Devil take the hindmost.

At one point, shortly following his suicide attempt and consequent exile, I went up to Forestville, California to encourage him. He was still in a heart-rendingly desolate state. We wrote a song the lyrics of which went like this:


Forestville, California , Thursday, January 11, 1996

What do you want from me?
Whatever it is, I am fresh out of it.
Ain't nothing here to see,
Best move along,
There ain't no doubt of it.
I get up in the morning, I go to bed at night
The hours in between seem to pass without a sight
No sight of mystery, no magic round the bend
No expectations 'cept a few I don't intend at all...

Look out on the sea
Big as it is, that's only the top of it.
Down at the bottom of the sea
You can sink forever
Cause there's no stop to it.
No end of trouble, no end of pain
No end of people to tell you you're to blame
No end to this world
And nowhere to go,
Except the music must have ended a long time ago.

So I am waiting for...
Waiting for...
Waiting for something strong.
Waiting for something to sing about
Waiting for the song to come.

When it does, there will light again
There will be colors in the world and birds across the sun
And everything that's been going down so hard
Will be coming right again...

But I'm still waiting...
I'm still waiting...
I'm still waiting for the song to come.

Meanwhile, I got you,
Your tender words and all the little good they do.
Meanwhile, you got me
Ain't no great prize, but at least it comes for free.
It's an act of conviction, baby, simply holding on
Keeping forward motion, pretending to be strong,
Listening with all my heart for voices in the wind
That will be singing for us, Baby, when the song begins again.

Till then I'm waiting...
I'm still waiting...
Waiting for something strong
Waiting for something to sing about
Waiting for the song to come.

When it does, there will light again
There will be colors in the world and birds across the sun
And everything that's been going down so hard
Will be coming right again...

But I'm still waiting...
I'm still waiting...
I'm still waiting for the song to come.

As I recall it, this song had a stark and yet occasionally soaring melody. Vince orchestrated it on his beautiful Bösendorfer piano as though he were Beethovan writing a requiem. And now I can't remember a single note of it. It was all in his lovely head and has died there.

Several weeks ago, he called me. He sounded upbeat. He was talking about getting together with me and writing some songs. He told me that he was working on reuniting The Tubes, his original - and marvelously peculiar - band. I was into the idea of writing some new stuff with him, just for the fun of it. And it had been fun, even in our darkest moments. (Perhaps it was fun precisely because of the surrounding bleakness.)

I told him I'd make of point of riding my motorcycle up to Forestville the next time I was on the Left Coast.

I wish I'd done that. But then I wish a lot of things.

When my friend Spalding Grey committed suicide, I wrote this about clinical depression, a nightmare I've experienced myself:

Fighting clinical depression is inevitably a lonely struggle. What could be less conducive to compassion than a disease that make you whine? Laymen and loved ones tell you to get a grip. They make you feel ashamed to be sick. Even if they're more enlightened about the disease, they can't help but harbor a secret, naturally human, belief that you are suffering a failure of will rather than biochemistry. Meanwhile, the doctors consider little but the neuro-soup and turn you into a shambling medical experiment, testing pharmaceutical nostrums on you that are as blunt as the mind is subtle, though just as unpredictable. But, for you, life just trudges on. It remains, despite whatever visible signs of well-being - wonderful spouse, great kids, well-located house, etc. - a purgatory of uselessness, barren of joy and meaning. Love, incoming or out-going, becomes something you think, not feel.

How can we ask of anyone that they insist on living in such a world as this? How can we be so arrogant as judge anyone harshly for taking a pass on such demanding material manifestation?

I loved Vince Welnick. I wish, of course, that I'd been able to show him that love in a manner that would sustained him. But, once one has been pitched down that hole, it strikes me that he ought to enter a condition of general amnesty. He took something from me that I cherished, but I certainly won't hold it against him.

flourish February 6, 2006 flourish

flourish Missing Link

› 11:59 PM | Bush Outrages/ Current Affairs/ Web/Tech

I'm having a rare (and only mildly) paranoid moment. Tonight, while clearing out a condominium in Salt Lake my mother inhabited much of the time from 1962 until 1999, I took a break to check the New York Times online. There is (purportedly) a story called The Legal Arguments: 2 Laws and Their Interpretation in Limelight at Wiretap Hearing.

But when I click on it, I get an ad for a movie called "The New World" and then a perfectly blank page. I've tried this in several browsers with the same results.

It's probably just an error on the Times web site and the link will be working by the time you read this, but I thought it was odd that this particular story should be blank. I felt, for a shivery moment, that someone didn't want me to read the story until the Times had written it in a more fair and balanced way.

No. Of course not. But, nevertheless, I smelled at that moment, and was smelling still when I began this post, the scent of censorship. This is the first time that the idea of direct, coercive governmental force being directed at American media has felt plausible to me.

But no. That's goofy. I'm just stressed out from sorting through 94 years of feminine packrattery. Surveying the whole of one's dead mother's life, at some interval following her demise (6 years in this case) is enough to give one the proper humility of a mortal, and to remind him as well of the whimsical nature of fate.

Anything can happen.

flourish February 2, 2006 flourish

flourish Katrina's "Immoral" Victims

› 07:24 PM | Bush Outrages/ Current Affairs

Our Televangelist in Chief preached quite a little sermon to Congress and the nation night before last. It should have been no surprise that the State of the Union Address was chock full of statements that were, at least to my ears, the moral equivalent of fingernails on the blackboard. There was, for example, Rev. Bush's assertion that it was now necessary to surveil all Americans in order to protect our liberty, but one assumes this guy has never heard of George Orwell. Or irony, for that matter. His admonition that America is addicted to oil was one of the most sublime ironies of an administration whose reign has been especially rich in them. His promise to the Iranian people that we would provide them with democracy seemed especially bizarre given that they have just conducted their first free election in decades. Of course, we don't like the guy they elected, so perhaps Bush was talking about American style democracy, where we can rig the results to suit the ruling class.

I could go on, but I'm trying to keep my blood pressure down.

There was, however, one passage that lunged at me with particular vigor. He said:

Yet many Americans, especially parents, still have deep concerns about the direction of our culture and the health of our most basic institutions. They are concerned about unethical conduct by public officials and discouraged by activist courts that try to redefine marriage. They worry about children in our society, who need direction and love; and about fellow citizens still displaced by natural disaster; and about suffering caused by treatable disease.

Which of these phrases seems out of place? He groups "citizens still displaced by natural disaster" in with a list of perceived social ills that includes governmental corruption, same sex marriage, improperly parented children, and, I would guess, AIDS. He implies that all of the above involve choices that only the morally lax would make, as if there were no difference between accepting bribes and failing to return to a home one no longer has.

Now, when we wonder why the Federal Government has generally abdicated its responsibility to assist the people of New Orleans, we will at least know why. They don't deserve help. Like crooked politicians, queers, and negligent parents, they have, by their lack of character, made themselves unworthy of our compassion..

This is just part of the dilemma New Orleans faces at the moment. But at least now we know who to blame for the suffering of the The Much Smaller Easy. It's the people of New Orleans themselves.

Again, I'm thinking of moving there. Some time back, I spent close to a year wearing a button that said, "I am Salmon Rushdie." In much the same way, I would now be proud to declare myself a citizen of New Orleans.

flourish January 5, 2006 flourish

flourish Here and Now in the Floating World

› 10:29 PM | Bush Outrages/ Current Affairs/ Drugs/ Music/ Politics/ Religion

I'm back. This time, I believe I'm back with more determination.

Actually, I returned to one corner of Cyberspace on New Year's Eve, which I dispatched the following missive to the BarlowFriendz list with the subject line:

New Year? What a Great Idea!

I'm deeply down with the idea of a New Year. Twenty uh-oh Five is one I can trade in without getting any sort of look at the alternative.

I'll go with door number 2006, Bob.

And, praise grace, I will go there with you. I hope I will see you many times in it and that we'll both be glad every time I do.

In the meantime, all I know is that I am really here now and only now, and whatever perils the future may hold, this particularly moment, in San Francisco, California, where the air has just been washed clean by a biblical rain but where the weather is now so clement that I will ride my motorcycle to the Sea of Dreams tonight, where all three of my daughters are gathered around me, each growing more beautiful by the second, where, even though distant from you, I can still feel you as every photon in the Universe feels every other at all times.

I think I may be about to break my general silence. Maybe I won't. In the meantime, be assured that I'm both well and taking advanced courses. I pray the same for you.

May you feel loved. May you be able to accept it.

Now, as presaged in the preceding, I proceed with this screed...

Throughout the Uh-oh's - and I'm more convinced than ever that I called this decade right from the get-go - I've watched with growing stupefaction as successive tsunamis of surreality swept through the world, macro to micro, from the icy works of Darth Cheney to disruptions in my own little life that were as nonsensical as they were either menacing or exhilarating. I began to feel like Kafka, or maybe Nietzsche, had become my invisible friend - but if Nietzsche, then one whose God is not dead, but crazy.

Now it seems my life - indeed, the world itself - has become manic depressive.

But I am not. Not yet. Disoriented, perhaps, and certainly susceptible to occasional bouts of chemical self-immolation, but not crazy. Why bother to go crazy when reality has already done it for you?

I know. This is not the first time you've heard this sort of thing from me. After four years of raving at you about how outlandish things seemed to be getting, I've come to feel like the boy who cried, "Weird!"

But then we entered the strange dream that has been 2005. By the end of January, I had run out of psychotic superlatives and, not being Hunter S. Thompson (thank Satan), I chose to dummy up. I quit writing BarlowSpams, aside from the occasional announcement or invitation. I threw in one bland blog post from the utterly surreal Madrid conference on Terrorism in March and thence ran on radio silence. I made no further public pronouncements in 2005. For 9 months, Tar Baby, he say nothing.

It was certainly not that I beheld no phenomena worthy of comment. No, indeed. Rather, I've had adventures that Baron von Munchausen would have kept to himself. I beheld beauties so monstrous and horrors so sublime that they exploded my attempted descriptions like Katrina scattered seagulls. Moreover, they came upon me too quickly. (Or perhaps I came upon them too quickly. I accumulated about 150,000 frequent flier miles in 2005, at one point circling the globe, with significant stops in places like Kyoto, Geneva, and Charleston, in only 8 days.)

I began numerous BarlowSpams and blog entries only to have them slam, half-written, into the next improbability, where, beached with awe upon the present, I no longer felt like reporting yesterday's apocalypse. (Perhaps one day I will bundle up some of these half-vignettes and post them here.)

The BarlowFriendz, dear souls that they are, worried about me in my virtual absence and I was touched by that. I received many concerned e-mails from folks who figured that only a severe stroke, spiraling alcoholism, or Trappist vows could have shut me so completely up. But I'm alright, pretty much. I've always been something of a psychic canary in the cosmic coal mine - and thus particularly susceptible to invisible turbulence - and I'm telling you one thing about the present: Surf's up!

For about two years, it's felt like one damn thing after another, unexpected deaths, twisted romances, harrowing scrapes, whether with the law or with fate, and unexpected financial reverses. Of course, there have been as many epiphanies and shining moments, but these can be as dumb-striking as catastrophes if they are frequent and painfully bright. Much of the time I've felt tossed wildly in these waves, submitting to the whitewater, waiting, like Noah, for the feel of something solid below.

Continue reading "Here and Now in the Floating World"

flourish March 10, 2005 flourish

flourish Terrorism and Democracy in Madrid

I re-emerge.

Sorry for the hiatus. I will do my best in following posts to recount the sound and fury in my part of Meatspace that has led to my recent silence in Cyberspace. For now, here I am, in real time.

I'm in Madrid at a meeting convened by the Club of Madrid, a group of former heads of state, led by former Brazilian president Fernando Cardoso and, including everyone from Bill Clinton to Mikhail Gorbachev to Vaclav Havel, to John Major, all seeking to expiate their sins of office with subsequent good works.

The good work at hand is called The International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism, and Security. It feel a little like the World Economic Forum, though smaller and more focused. The security is intense and the press is excluded.( Though, interestingly, I am posting these words from inside a session, along with the many other bloggers.)

I fear, that despite enough good intentions to pave a superhighway to hell, not much is likely to come from this. Everyone seems to be playing we within the boundaries of his usual rule set. I have yet to hear anyone say something that seemed likely to mitigate the idiocy of this age.

And I'm no better in this regard. I spent all damned day yesterday in session with many of the stars of Cyberspace, folks like Joichi Ito, John Gage, Dan Gillmor, David Weinberger, Ethan Zuckerman, Marc Rotenberg, Andrew Mclaughlin, Rebecca MacKinnon, etc. etc. Laboring long and loud, we collectively produced the following statement:

The Infrastructure of Democracy
Strengthening the Open Internet for a Safer World
March 11, 2005

I. The Internet is a foundation of democratic society in the 21st century, because the core values of the Internet and democracy are so closely aligned.
1. The Internet is fundamentally about openness, participation, and freedom of expression for all -- increasing the diversity and reach of information and ideas.
2. The Internet allows people to communicate and collaborate across borders and belief systems.
3. The Internet unites families and cultures in diaspora; it connects people, helping them to form civil societies.
4. The Internet can foster economic development by connecting people to information and markets.
5. The Internet introduces new ideas and views to those who may be isolated and prone to political violence.
6. The Internet is neither above nor below the law. The same legal principles that apply in the physical world also apply to human activities conducted over the Internet.

II. Decentralized systems -- the power of many -- can combat decentralized foes.
1. Terrorist networks are highly decentralized and distributed. A centralized effort by itself cannot effectively fight terrorism.
2. Terrorism is everyone's issue. The internet connects everyone. A connected citizenry is the best defense against terrorist propaganda.
3. As we saw in the aftermath of the March 11 bombing, response was spontaneous and rapid because the citizens were able to use the Internet to organize themselves.
4. As we are seeing in the distributed world of weblogs and other kinds of citizen media, truth emerges best in open conversation among people with divergent views.

III. The best response to abuses of openness is more openness.
1. Open, transparent environments are more secure and more stable than closed, opaque ones.
2. While Internet services can be interrupted, the Internet as a global system is ultimately resilient to attacks, even sophisticated and widely distributed ones.
3. The connectedness of the Internet – people talking with people – counters the divisiveness terrorists are trying to create.
4. The openness of the Internet may be exploited by terrorists, but as with democratic governments, openness minimizes the likelihood of terrorist acts and enables effective responses to terrorism.

IV. Well-meaning regulation of the Internet in established democracies could threaten the development of emerging democracies.
1. Terrorism cannot destroy the internet, but over-zealous legislation in response to terrorism could. Governments should consider mandating changes to core Internet functionality only with extraordinary caution.
2. Some government initiatives that look reasonable in fact violate the basic principles that have made the Internet a success.
3. For example, several interests have called for an end to anonymity. This would be highly unlikely to stop determined terrorists, but it would have a chilling effect on political activity and thereby reduce freedom and transparency. Limiting anonymity would have a cascading series of unintended results that would hurt freedom of expression, especially in countries seeking transition to democratic rule.

V. In conclusion we urge those gathered here in Madrid to:
1. Embrace the open Internet as a foundation of 21st Century democracy, and a critical tool in the fight against terrorism.
2. Recognizing the Internet's value as a critical communications infrastructure, invest to strengthen it against attacks and recover quickly from damage.
3. Work to spread access more evenly, aggressively addressing the Digital Divide, and to provide Internet access for all.
4. To protect free speech and association, endorse the availability of anonymous communications for all.
5. Resist attempts at international governance of the Internet: It can introduce processes that have unintended effects and violate the bottom-up democratic nature of the Net.

In other words, precisely what you would expect us to say. So predictable as to be the equivalent of silence. And yet, it's what we all passionately believe.

We are now all in a session where we are presenting this little manifesto.

It has just been strongly and rather surprisingly rebuked by my friend Benjamin Barber who laid out the usual older, indigerate stuff about how the Internet is nothing but the handmaiden of big media, scarcely better than television.

Now an Iranian lady has risen to discuss, among other things, the fact that all the ayatollahs of Iran have sites on the Internet.

flourish January 24, 2005 flourish

flourish The Intimate Planet

As usual, I'm writing this in the sky, flying from New York City to Rio de Janeiro this time. Below me, Amazonia is waking to first light. Only three days ago, I flew from London to New York. It has become so routine for me to dash across half the planet that it feels a bit like commuting. Or taking some kind of rapid horizontal elevator. While I haven't entirely lost my sense that such mobility is a miracle, most people take for granted that about 95% of the earth's locations are, at most, a day a half away from them. Now we measure distance in money not time. The rigors of the road, so daunting even 75 years ago, are less an obstacle than the cost of the ticket. Marco Polo would be stunned.

As with most miracles, the functional elimination of distance became invisible to us almost as soon as it happened. The planet shrank by several orders of magnitude and most of us adapted at once. But I had an experience - or rather, two experiences - the night I arrived from London which made it seem that the earth had shrunk to a point of global intimacy. Indeed, they felt like that first mystical moment the Internet provided me many years ago, when I realized that I could type "telnet" at a terminal prompt and cause any number of hard disks to spin all over the world.

In any event, I was sitting at my desk in New York on Wednesday night, writing a BarlowSpam, when Skype started to emit the old-fashioned bell tone that signals a request for a voice chat. I looked at the window associated with the request and saw a bunch of Chinese pictograms where the name should be. Some kind of Asian chatspam, I figured, and I ignored it. A few minutes later, it rang again. The name of the caller was "Kitty11_3". There was also a text chat box on the screen, also from kitty11_3 which read, "I need a friend." I was skeptical. I figured that "Kitty," or whomever, was probably looking for "friends" to come see her "relax" in her web-cam equipped "bedroom." But I took the call. A delicate Asian-sounding voice came from someplace in Cyberspace. "Will you talk to me?" she said.


"I want to practice my English."

"Why me?"

"Because your name is John. I think that anybody named John speaks English."

I remained skeptical, but further conversation convinced me that she was telling the truth. She really had no idea who or where I was and had plucked me at random from all the Skype users named John. Kitty11_3 turned out to be a 22 year old girl from Hanoi, who, like her father, works for the state-owned oil company. She had managed to get five of her neighbors in the Hanoi suburb where she lives to go in on a DSL line and WiFi which she had set up herself. Her boyfriend is off in Korea getting a master's degree in telecommunications. She has three sisters, and her real name is Vu My Dung. Here is a picture of her family (at her eldest sister's wedding.):

Dung Family

She's the one in red on the right.

We talked for a long time, in voice, text, photographs, and URLs. I sent her to my home page, so that she could find out more about me. Then I helped her set up an account on Tribe.net, so that people could find out more about her. She sent me a picture of her boyfriend and the dreams they made together. Her spoken English did indeed need practice, but she wrote English with correct lucidity. We talked a lot about politics and economics in Viet Nam. She said she made the equivalent of about 100 dollars a month, that her family was very poor but middle-class by Vietnamese standards, and that they love each other so much that they feel very lucky anyway. Her father had been in the army, making me think that, had things gone a different way, I might have been put in a position to kill him, thus eliminating the possibility of this conversation. I reflected that there are some who visit this blog who even now would think me cowardly and unpatriotic for having refused to be put in that position.

Toward the end of this conversation, I got another invitation to converse from the mystery person with the Chinese ideograms for a name. This time they were accompanied by a text chat box referring to its initiator as "Christine". I answered in text, while continuing my conversation with "Kitty." As soon as Kitty and I signed off, I "rang" "Christine."

She was, believe it or not, also a twenty two year old from Asia who wanted to practice English. My suspicion that this might be some kind of a scam had dissipated with getting to know Vu My. Still, I began to think my name might be on some list of easily-distracted English speakers, possibly with a penchant for young Asian women, but they both swore to me that there was no such list and that they had parachuted onto my desktop entirely at random. I believe them. They both seem utterly without guile, and they gave every evidence of being genuinely surprised at what their random troll through Skype's waters had fetched up.

Christine is Christine Zhang, a business student in university in Shenzhen,Guangdong Province, just north of Hong Kong. Christine speaks extraordinarily clear English, though her writing needs some practice. (I suspect that Vu My has an advantage with writing in that her language is phonetic.)

We went through the same rapid process of getting to know each other. She told me that she dreams to go to Harvard Business School, which she thought was a long shot for someone from a provincial Chinese university. It didn't seem so ridiculous to me. She is obviously very smart and possesses a subtle understanding of the economic epoch in which she and others like her will ascend into global predominance. She was delighted to hear that she'd happened on someone who might actually be able to help her realize this ambition. Lord knows she sounds qualified.

We also had a wonderful dialogue in several simultaneous media. This included an experiment to test Chinese filtration. I sent her to check on a number of web sites that I thought might be banned in China. None of them were. Nor did she sound like someone who was glancing over her shoulder. She had her own point of view, and she wasn't afraid to state it.

Here is a (rather romanticized) photo of her:


Now, of course, I know what you're thinking. "Poor old fool doesn't even know when he's being exploited by beautiful young Asians." or "Sure, they didn't know who you were, Barlow" or "Yeah, but would you have bothered getting to know them if they hadn't been young women." I've muttered all these things to myself and, upon rigorous examination of both my inner self and theirs, I'm pretty sure I can plead not guilty and do so on their behalf, as well. If they'd been hunting for rich saviors, they could easily have found better candidates than me. (Listening to Vu My rhapsodize about her boyfriend, of whom she also sent me a picture, makes it very clear that she's not looking for a husband.) Also, neither of them particularly needs saving. They're doing alright and are, besides, harbingers of a world in which young Asian women may have the same advantage presently strangle-held by paunchy old white guys.)

The bottom line is this: they reached at random out into the Datacloud and found a real friend. And I feel like I have been graced with a real friend in both of them. Given the fact that I've been getting interesting messages from distant strangers since 1985, why do I think the big deal? Why is this different? Because these strangers have voices. There's a lot more emotional bandwidth in the human voice. I'm always surprised by the Meatspace version of someone I've only encountered in ASCII. I'm rarely surprised by someone I've only met on the phone. But one doesn't get random phone calls from Viet Nam or China, or at least one never could before.Skype changes all that. Now anybody can talk to anybody, anywhere. At zero cost. This changes everything. When we can talk, really talk, to one another, we can connect at the heart.

The potential of establishing a real emotional connection is exponentially advantaged. And I honestly don't think it would have been any different had they been guys. In the days since, I've received another random call from a guy in Australia. We talked, very entertainingly, for awhile. I'm glad to know him too. (He wasn't trying to practice his English. He actually seems to prefer his version. He was just doing it because he could.)

And then there is the mysterious imprimatur of coincidence. This had never happened to me before and then it happened twice in a single night with two Asian girls who are within days of being the same age as my eldest daughter. (In fact, Dung Vu is three days younger than Leah.) Somehow this seems too weird not to have been meaningful. (Though this belief could be another symptom of my well-established apophenia.)

Anyway, I feel as if the Global Village became real to me that night, and, indeed, it has become the Global Dinner Party. All at once. The small world has become the intimate world.

I'm beginning to think this Internet thing may turn out to be emotionally important after all.

flourish January 19, 2005 flourish

flourish Amelia Is Alright. Others Are Not.

For the fourth time in less than a month, I'm airborne over the Atlantic, returning from quaint old Europe (as the Torturer General might put it). Contrary to my expectations when I flew east over this spot on January 6, my darling daughter Amelia is not sitting next to me. I've had to leave her behind in Vienna.

I'm pretty sure she'll be ok in time, despite the fact that her first doctor in Klagenfurt said she sustained the worst skiing injury he'd seen that didn't kill its victim outright. She has been out of the hospital since New Year's and is mending nicely, all things considered, but her Viennese doctor - the best trauma guy in a city famous for physicians - says she shouldn't get into an airplane until the air bubble still embedded in her left lung is gone. His concern is that it would expand at altitude and blow out the side of her lung, following which each breath would pump air into her chest cavity until the mounting pressure collapsed her lungs.

The doctor says that the possibility of this happening is only about five percent, but I have a history of losing my angels in airplanes, and, besides, the mere idea that Amelia could die in such a hideous way is so unendurable that I'd keep her on the ground forever before I'd seriously entertain it. In practical terms though, she shouldn't have to stay out of the stratosphere more than another month. By that time, the clotted blood capsule which encases this dire bubble should be absorbed through the healing process and the air in Amelia's lung will be released back into the atmosphere. But until it has moved, she won't.

There are worse places to be stranded. Vienna is a very beautiful city. Say what you will about the Hapsburgs, they had great taste in masonry. It's as though they built their city out of whipped cream. And the Viennese are a trip, their collected minds a rich ecosystem that has supported some of the most sublime and dreadful creatures ever to live on human awareness. (Consider Mozart, Freud, or Wittgenstein. But consider also that Hitler was not in fact German...)

Though the Viennese are, withal, a bit on the cerebral side, and one does begin to yearn for any relief from their utter whiteness, their level of discourse should put a higher sheen on Amelia's already polished mind. She is already starting to understand German and may be speaking it by the time she leaves. When she left America in October, she headed for Spain, hoping to be immersed in another culture long enough to learn its language. She's getting her wish, though crazy fate has chosen for her a different one than she had intended.

It was hard to leave Amelia behind, but, really, she's going to be fine. She is under doctor's orders to relax, kick back, and go swimming three times a week. (I wish I could get a doctor to impose such a prescription on me.) She's staying with her pal, Stefan, in his rather grand apartment near the center of town and is enough up on her crutches that I was able able to take her shopping for a couple of hours a few days ago. (Though shopping with euros when one's income consists mostly of American pesos can be a crippling experience all by itself.)

Amelia is a tough girl, if a little fine-boned and accident-prone. She'd broken her arms five times before she turned 15. She also has a dharma that seems designed to anneal a resolute spirit. In addition to drawing me for a father, she spent a year living with Spalding Gray after he'd lost his joy and recently completed six weeks in a tour bus with my old pal Bobby Weir during one of his more abstract passages. She has tall shock absorbers and they lengthen by the day. Her sense of humor, while a little dark, already provides a lot of the armor she will need against the slings and absurdities of this weird world.


Here is Amelia, while she was still in the hospital, holding the 20 pound bouquet that my New York dancemob sent her.

She has also been the beneficiary of a great spiritual fountain of global good will. In addition to Stefan's doting family - his wonderful Uncle Walter and Aunt Elizabeth have become so attached to her that it may be necessary for me to kidnap her when the time comes to bring her home - I must have received a hundred and fifty e-mails from folks, from both BarlowFriendz and strangers, who profess to be praying for her. If there's anything at all to this prayer thing, she'll be dancing like JLo before Valentine's Day.

If you like to contact her directly in the meantime, here are her particulars:

Amelia Rose Barlow
c/o Stefan Zaffalon
Lammgasse 5/7
1080 Vienna

Her mobile:+43 699 1187 1770
Stefan's mobile: +43 699 10 14 46 18

Amelia Rose Barlow <ameliarosebarlow@gmail.com
Stefan Zaffalon <stefanzaffalon@gmx.at>

Finally, I am very grateful for the spiritual generosity you have focused on Amelia at a time when so many were suffering so much. Our moment of terror seems trivial against the numberless tragedies that rim the Indian Ocean.

L 1502

Luke Scully and Angie Foust before the tsunami.

Indeed, the fleeting Christmas terror that I might lose Amelia was placed in stark perspective by the fact that some of my dearest friends did lose a son and brother during that terrible time. When the earth-tossed waters roiled onto the Thai coast, it appears they took Luke Scully with them.

Luke was the son of former Grateful Dead road manager Rock Scully, the stepson of my longtime pal and Egyptologist Nicki Scully, and the brother of my sweet friends Sage Scully and Pearl Steinbrecher. I'd known him since he was a kid, and he'd become a kind of shirt-tail nephew to me. I was personally proud of him.

It is a matter of record that Luke and his angelic girlfriend Angie Foust checked into room 316 of his Khao Lak beach hotel on Christmas Day. But there the evidence ends. Now, after three weeks of relentless Lukelessness, we can entertain no rational hope of ever again basking in his 1000 watt grin.

This is a terrible blow to blow to those who knew him. It also feels mysterious, since he always seemed kind of indestructible to me. Whether climbing the Great Pyramid in drunken darkness, blazing at Burning Man, or flinging himself more generally upon the mercies of fate, Luke seemed as charmed as he was charming. He was the kind of guy you'd want to stand next to in combat. For both his luck and his humor. I never heard him say a bad word about anybody. He and I toured Egypt with his mother a few years back. We encountered jagged edges of cultural brokenness that would have tested the patience of Mr. Rogers, but I never saw him angry or tense. Luke was born cool and probably died cool. I can see him trying to body surf the tsunami, marveling at the big water. Now that Amelia is less in need of your prayers, you might devote some to Luke's smooth passage into that shoreless sea. And pray for his parents, and sisters, and the countless friends who found the world a more encouraging place simply for having Luke Scully in it.

Luke and Angie are remembered here.


Nick Robbins on the edge

While you're at it, you might cast up a few prayers for another shining young friend, Nick Robbins. Nick is a starring member of my String Cheese posse, a good pal of the Barlowettes, and a delight to his parents and all who know him. Shortly after he danced with our little tribe for two straight days around New Year's, Nick headed off to New Zealand, where, on January 6, following a local tradition among the hang gliders of Queenstown, he marked his first free flight by climbing to the top of a tall tree to carve his initials in it.

On his way back down, a branch gave way and he fell about 30 feet (roughly as far as Amelia did), landing on his brilliant head. He remains in a coma. We are praying to have him back, exactly as he was. Which is to say, witty, eloquent, and bright as the new penny his copper hair resembled. On the morning of his plunge, he wrote me the following in an e-mail:

"Several days ago, I dreamed you had shuffled off these four mortal dimensions. And while I was sure that, within the context, you were fine with it, I had the selfish human reaction that I wanted to hang with you a bit more before you moved on."

I feel the same way. And while, "within the context." he's probably fine with his exile of dreams, but I definitely want to hang with him more and hang with him as he was.

His friends are focusing themselves on praying him back into a condition where his half of the conversation will be as sly and electric as ever. Learn more about him and his current condition at this site. His brother Colin MacNaughton is reading aloud to him the letters and e-mails of encouragement that are sent to <colin@macnaughton.com>. Even if you haven't had the pleasure of knowing him, please feel free to join that chorus.

And radiate your strongest beams toward all these wonderful young people, whether among us or beyond. It's a puzzling God that whacks such beauties in their flower while permitting the likes of me to lumber on unscathed, apparently indefinitely.

flourish December 29, 2004 flourish

flourish A Tale of the Uh-Oh's: Amelia Takes A Fall

At the dawn of this psychotic decade, I proposed, on instinct, that we should call it the Uh-Oh's. Decades need names. How else are we map their unique zeitgeists in our subsequent reflections on them? Imagine, for example, how awkward our historical recollections would become if we could not refer to "the 60's," a decade which needed no adjective, unlike, say, "the Roaring 20's?" The name is the frame, and the frame says it all.

But despite my efforts at that time, and occasional subsequent stabs, no one followed my suggestion. Furthermore, despite all the obvious historical hints, you have refused to see the appropriateness of my proposed name. Now, as we reach the mid-point of this critical passage, it remains nameless to everyone but me. You still have no verbal short-hand to refer to the decade that gave us 911, Bush the Younger, the Iraqi Tragedy, the comeuppance of the formerly Almighty Dollar, and now, one of the the most calamitous shit-kickings we've ever taken from Mutha Nature. (70,000 dead and barely counting anymore...) I cannot count the times over the last five years when when various tidings of the epoch made me mutter an involuntary "uh-oh" upon receiving them. And still, you resist my suggestion. What's it going to take, folks? Oh, never mind. You'll either see my point or you won't.

I had another of those moments on the afternoon of December 22. I got a phone call from Stephan Zaffalon, the sweet young Austro-Italian with whom my youngest daughter Amelia has been knocking around Europe for the last several weeks. Anxiety palpable in his soft voice, he said, "First, I must tell you that Amelia is ok." That didn't sound good. I had been assuming that Amelia was ok. To be told that she was forced me to the immediate conclusion that shortly before he placed this transatlantic call, she might not have been.

"Uh-oh," I said.

Continue reading "A Tale of the Uh-Oh's: Amelia Takes A Fall"

flourish December 21, 2004 flourish

flourish The Windmill Takes the First One...

When one is jousting windmills, the possibility of getting whacked by a windmill blade goes with the enterprise. While I'm a veteran of many Quixotic campaigns, I've never become fully immune to the sting of defeat, and I'm still absorbing last Wednesday's drubbing in the North San Mateo County Courthouse. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, please see my previous post, A Taste of the System.)

To put it bluntly, we lost the first round in our effort to limit the scope of administrative searches of checked airline luggage to something vaguely compatible with the 4th Amendment which states:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Actually, however, this loss was neither unanticipated, nor even unwelcome. We're aiming to set a precedent here, and in order to do that, we have to get to at least the state appellate level. This means that I have to lose twice (at the first hearing to suppress and then at the county appellate level) before I can win in a way that might begin to alter federal behavior.

We may already be affecting federal behavior to some extent. I noticed that one of the links to A Taste of the System was from the TSA workers' website, so at least a few of those who toil in the bowels of baggage inspection are meditating on the hassles they might bring on themselves by reporting non-explosive contraband. The possibility that the bag in question might belong to some prickly fellow like me could make them think twice before calling the cops. (Or maybe not. I've learned from a TSA worker's account in the Miami New Times that some TSA workers are being offered cash rewards of up to $1000 for reporting drugs.)

Moreover, we seem to have hit a public nerve that may encourage a more general prickliness about this stuff. I'm beginning to think that, whatever the judicial result, I've done some social good merely by standing up and saying, as many silently believe, that these searches suck.

We got, and are getting, a fair amount of press. NPR ran a segment on All Things Considered Thursday. CNN is planning on covering the story, along with a broader look at TSA screening procedures, tonight. The Washington Post ran a story about it yesterday. There was also local coverage, including the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco's KGO Television. And the Blogosphere lit up. For awhile on Thursday, according to Web tracker Bloogz, A Taste of the System was being linked more frequently than any other web page in English, save Google.

I've received several hundred e-mails about this matter and the blog entry relating to it already has almost two hundred comments dangling from it. These seem to come in only two varieties: "Attaboy!" and "You're such an idiot for carrying drugs on a plane that you deserve whatever torments you've gotten or will get." (I hadn't realized that idiots might be exempted from constitutional protection - indeed, you'd think we need it worse - but about 20% of my correspondents seem to think otherwise.)

All this fuss has been positive, I believe. (Though if there were any nasty federal lists I had made before, I've probably fixed that now...) Our rights have been slipping quietly away, one secret emergency regulation at a time. We need to either hop out of pot or wait meekly to be boiled in it. If my travails have inspired more discourse on the subject, then it's worth the additional risk.

Still, I want to win this case in a way that will legally confine checked baggage searches to such targets as might actually endanger the aircraft. Achieving that objective will require a long row against a stiff current if my experience on Wednesday is any indication.

And here's what that was like...

Continue reading "The Windmill Takes the First One..."