Here Thar Be Monsters!

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25.7.11

Life On The Far Side

It's one of those great Jakarta nights, where the rain is falling and the air is cool, at least by Indonesian standards.

I've been in an intensely introspective mood for the past couple of months.  Tonight I have reached one of those personal milestones that make all of us sit back and take stock.  Tonight, I have officially survived a half century.  In the Grand Scheme of Life, the Universe and Everything, it's a rather meaningless event, but on a personal scale, I'm rather amazed to be sitting here, especially given the astrounding number of opportunities I've had NOT to be sitting here.

I've never been one to worry too much about birthdays.  I've had some great parties, mind you.  30 comes to mind.  21 was a stand-out, as was 18.  35 was intense, as I had become a father just a few months prior.  40 kind of slid by without a lot of fan-fare.  But, something about the number 50 has stuck in my craw.

Friends and family have been stopping by today, but mostly (I suspect) because the Indonesian tradition is the birthday celebrant is required to feed (terakhtir) everyone.  To that end, I made a massive pot of my now truly world-famous spaghetti sauce.  Of course, they all show up in droves everytime I make spaghetti, tacos or po'boy sandwiches.  "Laker," they say.  "Yummy!"

Yes, there's something different about 50.

What really gets me is I am starting to sound like an old fart.  I talk about the way things were back when.  I talk about the kids today, which people have been doing since they invented kids.  I talk about how a Coke, or a candy bar, used to be 5 cents.  Coins were still real silver...or at least 75%.  You'd get the occasional silver certificate in change, too.

All TeeVee was black-and-white, and there were only four stations.  There was no device to record it, either.  If you missed something, you hoped it would be repeated in summer reruns.  September was always exciting because that was when the new shows were introduced.  I always remember being disappointed, too, since the new shows were just as boring and the old ones.  Except for "All in the Family."  I loved Archie.

I was born just months after Yuri Gagarin became the first (modern) human to orbit the Earth.  Those were heady times with Kennedy challenging us to go to the Moon.  I wanted to be an astronaut and be the first (modern) human on Mars.  Now, America has no manned space program.  Two steps forward, seven steps back.

I remember running off with my friends on Saturday afternoon, with my Browning .22 and a hundred rounds, to go plink cans down at the construction site five minutes from downtown Houston.  Dad would say, "Don't point that at anyone," casually over his paper.  The popular kid across the street always brought his .410 bird gun.  We hated him because there's no skill in aiming shotguns, and he would blow all the cans away before we could set up.  That was normal stuff for boys.

I've had a rather unusual life, I suppose.  My dad was a politician, so I spent my formative years on TeeVee and in the newspaper, as a political prop.  My dad helped get Reagan elected and launch the career of Ron Paul.  I met every president from LBJ to GW, except for Carter.  He was taboo in our house.  St. Goldwater was the family icon.

I was a child model and got my first acting job at 12.  I spent decades in the theater and got to know people like Shakespeare, Williams, Ionesco, Wycherley, and Aristophanes intimately.  I worked in some of the great theaters of the world, and traveled around Spain with a group in a covered wagon doing medieval morality plays.  Everyman is my constant companion.

Then I moved to the movies.  I worked on probably 20 films before shifting to TeeVee.  I liked the movies, but I hated the egos.  People who did almost nothing but show up after all the work was done and read a few lines, for some reason had the attitude that we-who-made-them-look-good were but mere mortals invading Olympus.

That period was when I tried just about every natural and pharmaceutical mood-altering substance known to Man.  I went to Hollywood parties that lasted for days and spent large spans of time not knowing what city I was in, because once I found out, I was already on the road to the next one.  I can't really call them "The Lost Years," because I remember every sordid detail.  I just think of them collectively as the "Whuchamacallit."

At 18, I moved to Europe for a year, then took up backpack and followed the rising sun until I ended up back in Houston.  I ran out of money in an opium den in Bombay (wasn't Mombai then) and had to work off my passage to Perth on a Chinese merchant ship, were I could get a ticket and fly home.  There was no internet or texting or BBM.  Just telegraph offices where you could place on overseas call that was like trying to talk in a badly dubbed kung-fu movie.

I've toured with, or was local hire, for some of the Legends of Rock.  That's part of the reason I can't hear myself think now.  Robert Plant even complained to management at a hotel in Chartres, France, that my room was too noisy.  He and Jimmy were playing backup to Lenny Kravitz.  Now they are both "where are they nows."

I've got a lot of scars, mostly from knives.  I've never really been shot at, at least not yet, even though I've been in war zones.  I've been near bombs going off and surrounded by Gardia Sevil with sub-machine guns pointed at my heart.  I've been in the middle of a couple of riots, but always as a recorder, not participant.  There's a strange kind of power, almost a magic, about being a recorder of things.  You float above them without really feeling the emotion of them.

I've put my hands inside a human body and watched as some of the finest surgeons in the world remodeled what was near-perffect to begin with.  The only people with egos larger than movie stars, are surgeons.  In some ways, they are more tolerable, since they actually have a skill and art.  Movie stars just hit the mark and say the line.

I've seen dozens of people die.  I actually held the hands of three people when they died.  Two were perfect strangers, and one was my dad.  Death is the great mystery in my life, though it is less fearsome the older I get.  From what I've seen and heard, the secret is how to die.  And yes, you can choose that moment, if you try.

I've been a Benedictine monk, a Buddhist monk and a student of every sacred book.  I've always been intensely curious and have never said 'no' to a calculated opportunity to learn.  I absorb information like a sponge and have learned 15 languages, so I don't have to read the translations.  I value other people's opinions, but trust only my own.

My models have been a bit strange.  Orson Welles is certainly one.  Marco Polo another.  Leonardo da Vinci is a model of the intellect that I want.  Movies like "The Man Who Would Be King," and "Little Big Man," inspired my wanderlust and sense of adventure.

I've never really been a thrill-seeker.  Rather I am an adventurer.  I don't jump out of airplanes or strap rubber bands to my ankles for the sake of adrenalin.  Rather, I want to go places others are afraid to talk about.  I want to know things others keep hidden.  I want to amass the experiences that others are content to read about.  It's all we take with us, after all, when this existence ends.

Since I was a child, I have dreamed of living in Asia, and here I am.  Took me a while, but as Edward the Confessor famously said, "All holy desires come to those who wait."

Fifty is a stange time, at least for me.  I have never really concerned myself with age, until now.  Suddenly, I find myself estimating how much is left, compared to how much has passed.  Since I plan to die on my 100th birthday, I have reached the mid-point.  Alec Guiness' famous line in "Lawrence of Arabia," always sticks in my brain.  "Young men make war, old men make peace."  Certainly, I have stirred enough passion on one side of the scale, perhaps its time to sow the seeds of peace on the other half.

This column is an effort to share some of the things I have learned and the truths I have found.  When I write it, it has only one audience in mind, that of my children Jacob and Kathleen.  One of the incredible beauties of the internet is that I can transfer my thoughts and experiences to a medium that is accessible to them, both now and in the future.  It is unlike anything Mankind has ever invented and is to our Age what Guttenberg's press was to his.

As I scan the pages of the book I call my life, here at the mid-point, I have no doubt which event was the most incredible, influential and personally sacred moment.  It was the moment I held my daughter for the first time, still connected to her mother and steaming in the cold delivery room.

My life changed at that moment.  I no longer cared about anything but changing the world to be better for her, and her children.  Here was a life, that no matter what happened, no matter who stepped in and tried to separate us, no matter what events conspired, she would always be a part of me and I of her.  All the crap in the world could not change that simple fact.

And now I have five children: to Jacob and Kathleen, I add Alfred, Aldo and Vanny.  Out of love for my wife, we create a family, regardless of progeny.

And so I write my postcards from the edge.  I throw my seeds to the wind.  I put into words what I can't even understand in my Self.  It is the hope that somewhere in all this is the spark that will ignite a new fire for the future.

On the old sailing maps, there was a point where the map maker gave up and said, "Here there be monsters."  Every moment of every day, I push the edge of my maThe Tp a bit further, then I set down in words the shape of the world for those who come behind.  If they know the perils thus far, then they can push the edge that much further, until one day there is no need for monsters.  There is no darkness to fear.  There is only knowledge to be spun into the fine cloth of wisdom.

I only one second of my life has lit a spark, then I have given light to future darkness.  If I have caused that bit of light, then I have no reason to curse the darkness.  And if I can sum up 50 years in one line, it would be:

The only bad experience is the one from which we don't learn.

One should always embrace darkness, because it is the other half of light.  And that, I suppose, is the essence of Life on the Far Side.

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