Full Banjo Practice Session, July 24, 2017

This is where I play along with Murphy Henry–a very young Murphy Henry–on some bluegrass standards: Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Old Joe Clark, Salt Creek, Fireball Mail. Man, Murphy played ’em fast in those days! I can keep up with her slow versions, but fast? Nope. Find out more about the great Murphy Henry and the Murphy Method at murphymethod.com.

Story: Spin Room

I know you’re uncomfortable in here, so don’t try to talk. Let the chair do the work. Just concentrate on breathing. You’re good now, but you’ll have to pace yourself if you’re going to stay in here more than just a few minutes. If the window bothers you, we can point you away from it for a while. I like the curtains open and I like to sit by it and watch the world go around, like I did when I was a kid. You’ll feel better in a little while, just relax and let the chair do the work. I’ll do all the talking, at least for a while. Just breathe in and out, in and out, that’s right. Nice and easy.

Okay, I don’t know how much you know about my early life and what it is exactly that’s wrong with me, but I’m dying, and I want to get this story out before that happens. I get a lot of requests for interviews, as you can imagine, but I’m not going to talk to anyone who won’t come in here and sit with me for a while. So they can see how it feels, you know? You see how it feels, don’t you? Not pleasant, I know, but believe me, after forty years, you get used to it, and besides, I wouldn’t survive long without it.

You sure the window isn’t bothering you? I’m told the constant blur bothers people sometime. If it gets to be more than you can handle, just press that button under your right index finger. If you need to leave, you press that button twice and Murray or somebody will come and get you out of here, all right? Good. I’m going to sit over here by the window where I can put my bad leg up. That’s better.

My mother was an engineer at the nuclear plant in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. She was there the day of the accident in ’71, maybe you learned about it in school. The Clearwater accident? She was there, and I was there with her, three or four days old, floating in her Fallopian tubes or whatever it is. Some think that’s what caused me to be this way. I don’t really know and it doesn’t much matter. Two hundred and sixty days later, there I was, screaming, a bloody red mess. It was very obvious right from the start that there was something bad wrong with me—in fact, I was dying. They did a bunch of tests and the doctors told my mother that it was a lack of sufficient density gradient in the cells that form the linings of the cell walls, that they were failing to stick together, and that I would not survive unless they tried a last-ditch, unusual therapy. 

She said the only thing she could say–okay–and so they put a box at the end of a centrifuge arm, put me in there, and spun me up. It worked, too–at 1.7 gravities, I stopped screaming. At 2.2, my color started to get a little better. At 2.7, my head started moving around looking for a nipple. They spun down the box, rigged up a bottle so I could get to it, spun it back up, and I was off to the races. You can watch the video in my records, if you want. I’ve already signed you into it. There’s a whole bunch of video in there, me taking tests, me having a birthday party, me eating and sleeping. All inside a box at the end of an arm. You can’t really tell that it’s a centrifuge in the videos because the camera is fastened to the box, but if I’m not screaming, then it’s spinning.

For the first few days, my mother stopped the box every couple of hours, wanting to pick me up. But when the box would spin down, my cell walls would start flaking, peeling up and off, and I would start screaming and my skin would go haywire. Eventually, she did what the doctors told her to do and left me in there. After that, I was in the box pretty much all the time.

So a few years go by and I grew. I progressed much more slowly than my peers, but at 2.8 gravities, it’s no surprise that I rolled over late, sat up late, and all that. I didn’t stand until just after my first birthday. By that time, my body was adapting to the forces that were needed to keep my cell walls from coming apart, turning in to what you see here. In the beginning, I was just generally stronger; when I started standing, my lower half started getting larger and stronger from the constant pull, and my arms started demuscling, and that’s why I look so strange now. This neck problem didn’t start until I was a teenager. It’s just the constant pull.

When I was about five and walking steadily, they transferred me from the makeshift crib-slash-playpen I started out in to a two-room structure in a centrifuge they built for me in Flint. Five is late to walk, I know, but at 2.8 gravities, it’s not so easy. Balance is much harder, and falling can be a real catastrophe. My left leg has been broken twice, and liked to never healed that second time. Anyway, my first memory is being moved to the Flint box–it was a hell of an ordeal. Even with everything set and ready, it took half an hour or so to get the old crib box spun down, fly me out there, put me in the new box, and spin me up. They blindfolded me for the chopper ride, but I remember my mother held me on her lap. Yeah, I remember that.

The Flint box wasn’t on a track the way the crib one was, it was just at the end of an arm, and it had a window, so I could see out of it. I had never really seen outside before I got in the Flint box. I spent a long time every day staring out of the window, watching the city outside, the kids playing in Condor Park, running around on the grass. You won’t be able to make heads or tails out of what you see out this window, but you stay in here long enough, you get to where you can see what’s out there. With the box set at 2.8, as it is now, that’s nearly five revolutions per second, it’s just a blur to you, but I can see every little blade of grass, every little thing that happens out there, even with everything spinning like that. It’s one of my many adaptations. I watched the kids running around in the grass–that’s what I always wanted to do. Run around on the grass. That was my childhood ambition. Some of the engineers tried to make a little grass area in my front room in the box, but grass won’t grow at 2.8 gees, did you know that? I bet you didn’t. Water doesn’t boil right, some plants will grow but not grass, lots of other little things are different too.

The Flint box had a crawlspace spinlock, not as nice as the one you used to get in here, but at least they didn’t have to spin the box down in order to get inside it anymore. Did you see how ingenious the spinlock is? You start out at the far end of a tapered barrel that has sections. Each one is spinning, the first one slow enough that you can step onto it, the second one a little faster, and so on. By the time you get to the tenth one, you’re at my speed. We put you on the couch on the third section so that you’d be more comfortable, but my mother used to come all the way inside under her own power, on her own two feet, and sit with me. She was already in her late forties by that time, but she lifted weights and got to where she could spend a couple of hours at a time in here and still manage to get out without a couch or wheelchair or whatever. 

She died when I was ten, and then I was all alone. 

By the time I was seventeen, I had pretty much outgrown the Flint box. I was spending all my time chatting up girls on the Grid, trying to talk one or the other of them into coming in here, you know. Some of them did–none of them could handle it very long, and none of them had the energy to fool around once they got in here. Frankly, most of them were turned off when they saw me from the waist down, even with my pants on. I used to turn the room down to the lowest I could stand, about 2.1 or so, but even then, when my head was floating around the room and my skin was starting to itch, none of my girlfriends could even get off the couch for more than a few seconds. Some of them could barely breathe. I didn’t want to make anybody uncomfortable, so mostly I just sat at the terminal and chatted. 

I did have a real girlfriend for a while in those days. She was a weightlifter, and so she was better able to be in here with me in the first place. She was strong; she could sit up on the couch and she could even stand for a minute or so. If she reclined, as you are in your couch now, then she could stand it long enough for us to watch a movie together. I even kissed her a couple of times, but that was about it. She’s divorced now, I understand.

That same year, the box we’re in now was constructed. It’s been modified quite a bit since then, and it’s my home now. The bathroom is big, and it works pretty well, considering, and it’s got a genuine bathtub, which is not too bad if the room is turned up a little. There are two private rooms for me in the back. The bedroom back there’s got a nice big window I like to look out of from the bed. I always did like the windows.

I moved into this box the summer before the signal from Ross 188 arrived. It came on my birthday–that’s right, I was born on October 12th–but then you probably knew that already. After the signal was decoded and figured out, it didn’t take long for the powers that be to think of little old me as the obvious candidate to make the trip that the Rossies suggested. It was a hell of a coincidence, actually. They said the slowest ship they could send would accelerate at 2.7 gravities, and I was already up to 3.1 by that time and feeling most comfortable at that weight. The Rossies said their planet, which they called Rilla, was fourteen times the mass of Earth, putting their surface gravity at 3.3 of Earth’s. Well, guess what? That’s just right for me. The Rossies made it clear that their religion dictated that only a real, organic human could participate in the exchange of information and culture and that he or she could only do so in person. I might have been damaged goods, I was still human. People came to talk to me about it, I signed the papers, and we started training while the Rossie ship was enroute on automatic pilot to pick me up.

Thirty-two months later, I was on the ship. An easy 14 months of acceleration to turnaround, which involved ten minutes or so a zero gee, which was awful, then another 14 months slowing down, and then the ship landed, just as the Rossies had programmed it to do. Inside the ship, it was just like being inside my box, except that I couldn’t see outside. There were plenty of camera feeds, but I miss the blurring. I know that seems strange to you, but I’ve been in here for most of my life. 

When the ship landed and I stepped out that first time, I nearly fell over. Nothing was spinning–not me, not the planet, nothing. Everything looked frozen; it was still as far as I could see, and yet, I was not falling apart. I was having a hard time standing up, but my cell walls weren’t disintegrating. I’d never been out in the open like that before–all that space, it was a little frightening. More than a little, actually. I got used to it after a while, but it gave me a headache to look at the horizon: the green stayed in one place and the blue stayed in the other. Weird. Outside the ship, the air was warm and fresh, and while Rilla doesn’t have grass, the spongy lichen that it does have felt great to walk around on barefooted, which I did a lot during the 22 months I was there. I did enjoy that part. 

The Rossies, however, were a complete disappointment to me. I just couldn’t identify with them, and believe me, I tried. I’d had more than three years to study their language and culture, and I could speak pretty well, but I just couldn’t make those brown blobs with spider legs and eyes on stalks understand what I had been missing all those years in the boxes. You know all about that, of course. My reports and videos were among the top-rated news broadcasts of all time. They still are, even after all this time. Everybody knows the January 4 sequence, but look at the last half of the January 8 one sometimes, the one where they’re herding hatchlings into the sea. If you know what to look for, you can see that the young are being herded into the mouth of a waiting hammerfish, which is of course happy to chew them up. Then you see the Rossies swim into the ocean and the clip ends. What you don’t see is that they swim out and slice open the hammerfish. A big blue cloud of hammerfish blood churns out into the water. The Rossies retrieve the chewed-up and half-digested young, and that’s what I got as food every other day for nearly two years. Yeah, I know: lovely.

Honestly, when I arrived on Rilla, I had intended to stay for the rest of my life. I was fed up with people, and I had imagined that walking around on the surface of a planet that I could tolerate would be this fantastic experience. I imagined that I would be part of their community. I thought I’d be some sort of human honorary Rossie and I would go to and fro and up and down laughing and talking and touching like I’d seen all those people do from the window in my box, a regular guy among regular, if non-human, guys. I don’t know what I was thinking. The Rossies don’t do that sort of thing. They don’t have the concept of community or family–they don’t even have names, did you know that? We gave them names for the purposes of the broadcasts, and I gave them names so I could distinguish one from the other, but they don’t really have them. They just come and go at random, as far as anybody can tell; they just all just breed whenever and with whomever they want, and the males abandon the eggs at the edge of the water, to make it or not on their own. Most of the eggs don’t, of course. About the only community that the Rossies have is when they assemble in the clearings to do that thing they do with their forelegs as part of their religion. And I couldn’t buy any of that, neither there nor here, and so I felt alone again, even if I was out on the surface. As the only human for 11 light years, I realized I really was alone out there, so I said screw it, I’ll go back home. I delivered my cargo of information and culture, loaded theirs, and when the window for the return trip opened, I shrugged my shoulders and came on back here, in the same Rossie ship I’d rode out there on. Fourteen months, turnaround, 14 months, and right back into my box here in Dallas and my chair by the window.

They were always promising me that some drugs were in the pipeline to make it possible for me to get out of here. By the time I got back from Rilla, a drug that had been invented to address blood clotting problems which had the unusual side effect of bulking up the cell wall structures. Some researcher somewhere thought of me, and I got approval to try it as a way of fixing my cell walls so I could come out of my box. I took the pills and it did work, mostly, and for a couple of months I bounced around outside, but there were several problems. First of all, my body simply doesn’t work very well at 1.0. It has adapted to the 2.8 to 3.1 range over a period of more than 40 years, and there’s really no going back from that. At least on Rilla, when I was outside, I could walk around. I can’t walk right at one gravity, I can’t swallow right, I can’t pee right, and I’m uncomfortable all the time. 

I tried to tolerate it for a while, taking this pill and that for this issue and that. It wasn’t worth it. The main reason I wanted to be outside in the first place was to chase girls, and I went to clubs and the places people go. I didn’t like that very much either, and I certainly couldn’t dance. I dated, but my legs are never going to be like yours are, and that puts women off. I did have a real girlfriend for a while when I was outside, another weightlifter chick, and we tried rolling around together in bed and whatnot, but that part doesn’t work right at one gravity either–at least mine doesn’t. It’s very embarrassing. I just don’t feel right at one gee. It’s the feeling I had when I went swimming on Rilla–I just didn’t like it at all, I feel like I’m floating all the time, pitching forward and vaguely seasick. I don’t know how you people handle it, I really don’t. The pills gave me a headache. And I noticed that people pointed at me on the street when I would go out. You can see that I look a lot different than your average human–the lower half of my body is about three times larger than it has any business being, and let me tell you what, it’s solid muscle. My neck–I’m not holding it this way because I want to. It curved downward like this as I grew up. Hey, you spend 40 years at 3 gees and see what you look like. Damn people pointing and whispering, “That’s him, it’s that guy that went to Rilla,” or “Looks like he’s got elephantitis,” or whatever. Ha ha, very funny. One time I was standing in a supermarket trying to figure out where the damn exit was and these three little kids were laughing and pointing at me and my big legs. The mother was smirking too–that’s where they get it, I guess. I turned the corner and was already nearly out of the store when I realized that the woman looked like what my old girlfriend from back in the Flint box days, before Ross 188, might have looked like now after all these years. I really think it might have been her. That and a bunch of other stuff pushed me over the edge. I gave up the drug and came back in here where at least I can sit by the window in peace and watch the world go by. I always liked doing that.

I’m 43 years old, and they tell me I’m dying now, side effect of the pills on the one hand and structural damage on my heart from all the pulling over the years on the other. Even as adapted as I am, the body isn’t meant to take that, they tell me. I need an operation on my veins, but I’m afraid I won’t heal well enough to support the 2.4 gravities I need to feel comfortable, so I just keep my leg up most of the time now. I’m tired. Push the button under your index finger twice, and Murray will come and get you through the spinlock. When you get the article written up, just send it to me through the Grid and I’ll edit it and we’ll go from there, all right? 

Let me close that window for you, you’re looking a little green around the gills.