Tuesday, March 5, 2013

 My Time Now is a memoir that keeps on ticking...


I'd like to begin this story about how a durable Swiss timepiece became a family legacy with a toast to Bob Ridley, Master horologist and his assistant, Barbara, who is responsible for encouraging me to gather my thoughts and reflections about my father's Rolex Explorer and record the tale of this watch's circuitous path through the last 55 years.

The story starts with my father, purchasing "the watch that climbed Mt. Everest" at the Rolex factory in Geneva in 1963 to 1983 when he passed it down to me on my 25th birthday all the way until December 7th, 2018 when at age 55, it will be passed down the line to the grandson who will be turning 30.

As of this first entry my sights are on it's full restoration in trade for a neon sculpture as the next recipient is unknowingly yet steadily ripening for the hand off...

GO Spencer!

 Straight and level at 2500ft.
Compass heading is pointed towards Hung Chow, TX.

Thanks Jeff!

Thanks to Barbara, fragmented memories take on a relevant and meaningful form as I express this sentimental journey.

Let's start with some pictures from Bob Ridley of the watch in it's current state..
Look at those pretty guts! 

She runs way faster than I do at age 54, so here it (UPDATE - I'm naming this watch Namaste Rolex after the kids in Nepal yelled that out at me) Namaste Rolex sits in my wife's and my sacred chalice from our wedding on 11-11-2005 in Thimpu, Bhutan, in the matrimonial department of my family reliquary.


Here are some other pics of the watch in it's current condition.. Apparently 50 well spent years is at least as tough on the same Explorer as Tenzing Norgay schlepping his up the world's highest summit. I consider them both honorable accomplishments and entirely note worthy.

  1953, Nepal

 2013, Texas
Okay, I can't believe it but  I've just found the little poem I was telling Barbara that I wrote in my travel journal in 1993 about this watch becoming my own. This was after the National Endowment for the Arts granted me a fellowship, providing enough money to afford the first repair of the Explorer (which I promptly knocked the life out of it upon the impact of being a wildly active 25 year old) and also enough dough for a trip to the scene of it's original fame.. Nepal!



Here's an edited update of that little poem for you.


Last night I had a dream
My father's watch, it came to me
an heirloom of his time
A distorted memory

I put it on 

it was to fragile for the way I lived.
So back from the factory just came a silver amulet
filled with MY time to give.

"A Things of Beauty is a Joy forever."

Wrist cranked, displaying my new ol' Explorer and many other meaningful bracelets picked up along the way.

Somewhere along the trail between Gorkha and Ganesh Himal, Nepal.

Fall, 1993

Now Ben, be careful with that watch!

The merit is in this message... 
"Proves dependable"

Unless you are this guy...

He was me!

Let's move on as I must try and stick to the theme of this story, being: "Legacy really is universal."

That being said, I just told a close friend that I was writing this story and he responded by suggesting  this film clip.

"The Gold Watch"   Parental discretion advised...


 I digress... But hey, at least I'm sticking to the theme...


From Wiki...

Pride: "When viewed as a virtue, pride in one's appearance and abilities is known as virtuous pride, greatness of soul or magnanimity, but when viewed as a vice it is often termed vanity or vainglory."

Honor: Can be viewed in the light of Psychological nativism as being as real to the human condition as love, and likewise deriving from the formative personal bonds that establish one's personal dignity and character.

Virtue: Virtue is moral excellence. A virtue is a positive trait or quality deemed to be morally good and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being. Personal virtues are characteristics valued as promoting collective and individual greatness. The opposite of virtue is vice.

Legacy: Legacy is a similar concept as inheritance and heritage. It is something we inherit from our parents and pass to our children. Usually heritage refers to material and economical inheritance, while legacy refers to immaterial and cultural inheritance.  

My Dad, Bless his heart, as I recall, was a witty, clever, opinionated and rather contentious fellow with a soft heart and big ideas. He was a risk taker and in retrospect that wasn't always such a good idea.. He was very kind to animals and good with plants, however he was deeply burdened by an inner darkness that caused unfortunate moods and vices that sadly crippled him as a family and small business man.

I remember he and my mother so often having the most amazing ideas but then never doing anything to make them happen.. This was incredibly frustrating to me as a kid... I wanted my dad to be my hero for his accomplishments!

But as some of our best models in life teach us how "not" to be, I can thank my parents and surfing, yes surfing, for showing me that "going for it" is the way for me.. So as you will see, very early on, I made a solem pact with myself that this would be my way.

So be it.

Times were good in 1963, partially from dad's entrepreneurial efforts, but the lion's share of our family's fortune was as a result of my mother's dad.

My grandfather was a well respected community minded family man who became quite a prominent merchant by his own merits but as I understand, his big break was landing a contract that would provide all the soldier's uniforms to military bases around South Texas during WWII. Oh how I wish I could have known him better. He was a stylish gentleman who I believe wore a stylish watch called a Mido.

Paw paw died too soon in 1960. I think he wore a Mido.

Soon after my grandfather's death, mom spent gobs of his money and two years remodeling a beautiful old house into her architectural/interior design masterpiece for us to live in However, her real dream had always been to live in Europe. And thanks to the first Air France flight to ever land in San Antonio, mom got a glimpse into that dream via a bon voyage European tour with their pals.. And awaaay they went!

All I remember upon their departure was being sad that the nice carpenters were gone from the house project and happy that my dad and I had dug and planted a great garden before they left the country.

My widowed grandmother was assigned the task of babysitter which would be a first for her. She didn't cook or clean, and luckily the dowager was fully assisted by an angel who I adored as much as anyone on Earth named Lucille. And so together and challenged we all struggled but made it through that long hot summer of love.

The garden was my refuge. There was always something to do that would offer up some sort of immediate gratification, like feeling quiet inside, connected to the dirt or just simply an excuse to get away from my chain smoking Granny.

While mom and dad were away, I was busy growing corn, okra, green beans, tomatoes, bell peppers and tons of marigold flowers that I learned weren't "sissy", but they actually kept bugs off of my crop, which I grew to think was exceptionally cool. My fantasy and mission was to cultivate a bumper crop with all my might in order to show off and feed to my weary travelers upon their arrival back home.

Meanwhile, as I toiled away in my garden in the sweltering Texas summer sun, thousands of miles away, my parents and their friends were having the time of their lives indulging themselves in the richness of a wonderful European experience.

A few months after their return, the local post master called in hysterics because: "A box had just arrived from Harrods of London with a tiger's paw hanging out!".

My next recollection is of the mountains of torn open boxes and wood shaving stuffing all over the dining and living room floor. The contents of amazing stuff along with that huge tiger 's skin rug spilled from their containers like a cornucopia...  with paws.

Mom was clearly elated with her bounty containing everything from beautiful hand painted die cast figures of the royal coronation coach drawn by the famous Windsor Grey to her fabulous jewelry and designer outfits, not excluding the uber embarrassing leather lederhosen see brought me from Germany that I totally refused to wear.. Ever!

                Geez! What in hell was my mother thinking??! 

I'm forth generation Texan... I've got my pride... Catch me wearing these goofy ass drawers as a kid? Over my dead verdammten Körper!

Another spectacular prize that my sister and I received from mom and dad's cultural adventure were a pair of those incredibly useless yellow wooden Dutch farmer's shoes... The first thoughts that came to mind were: "I can't believe these ridiculous things really exist." followed by: " I could get my ass kicked with these clunks on my feet, I'd never be able to defend myself or outrun some bully who's chiding me for wearing those stupid lederhosen."

Why me for God's sake?!

FYI - Just in case you ever wondered about these shoes..  

  • Dutch clogs or "klompen" originated in antiquity, from the shoes worn by European peasants during Roman times. These were known as "galoce," and had wooden soles and patterned leather tops. Up until the 19th century, they were worn by women to protect their feet from muddy village streets. Later on, they became useful to protect feet against injury from nails and to promote air circulation.

What ever...

Me and my sister were ordinary kids,

and by the way,
I STILL dress like this.

So there sat that pair of canary yellow wooden shoes, reminding me of other worlds that might be interesting to others, but not me... I have two last memories of those clogs... One was of my neighborhood friend, Willy, age 6, who for some reason, decided that it would be a good idea to pee in one of them in my closet.  To Willy's credit, he saved me a world of trouble by fessing up to my mom that he did the deed. Willy, to this day upholds that fine and rare core of integrity and he is now house trained. 

Too bad Willy didn't hold it a little longer because the last memory I have of those poor "klompen" was of stuffing black cat fire crackers in side them, squirting BB-Q lighter fluid all over and lighting them on fire.. 

Now THAT was awesome... Thanks Mom!

Oh shoot! I digressed again..

Get used to it dear reader...

But of all the imported accouterment that my parents returned with there was one thing that stood out to me more than anything as incredibly distinctive and that was the new black faced stainless steel watch around my father's wrist.

Even at my young age, I recall that there was an unmistakable authenticity about this time piece. Even the band was metal...Very 007!

In fact, just this evening as I write this, Bob Ridley told me that this is the same watch Ian Fleming wore - An Explorer 1016.

My dad was really cool like that. So it was no wonder that it was with great pride, he told me: "Son, this is the watch that the famous explorer Sir Edmund Hillary wore as he climbed the highest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest!"

It wasn't just 007 and the Hillary/Norgay expedition that dad was now rubbing wrists with. Also made punctual by these watches were the world's top movers and shakers of the 60's like the gift from Marilyn Monroe to JFK, Chuck Yeager and even Fidel Castro, who wore two.. One for Cuban time and one for Russian time.

     Hey Fidel, в какое время это?


My dad had an apartment complex on Ocean Drive in Corpus Christi with a wooden pier that jutted out a several hundred feet into Corpus Christi bay. The family would all get to stay there for whatever part of a summer that there was a vacancy. I'd spend wonderful days getting all sunburnt from fishing and playing in the water out there off that pier.

From my dad growing up on this bay, I am a Gulf coast salt water baby tried and true.

Oh how we loved our days together on that boat.

Grass Islands, Pt. O'Connor , TX 1968-70.

With Gulf coast living comes Hurricanes and if you own property on or anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico, you know that potential devastation is always lurking in that fate.

August 3, 1970 – Hurricane Celia  made landfall in Texas. Celia killed 20 due to extreme gusts, and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. The storm produced microbursts, which are rare in a tropical cyclone. The wind bursts caused heavy damage across the city. In Corpus Christi, Texas, one person was reported dead with over 460 others injured. Damage accumulated was about $1.8 billion dollars. 

Dad was exhausted from riding out the storm and dealing with the aftermath and no utility infrastructure for the following two weeks.. One night he was driving home down a ninety mile stretch of pitch dark road through the coastal plains between Corpus and Victoria and fell asleep at the wheel.

Police reports stated that he entered the opposite lane of traffic and ran underneath an oncoming eighteen wheeler. Both vehicles were estimated to be going around 70mph upon impact.

 From that moment on, my father and our family would never be the same.

Dr. Glover told me years later: "Your father was dead upon arrival to the emergency room at our hospital but was resuscitated back to life. Your father is very tough and lucky. He suffered a bad concussion and multiple fractures including his back after being thrown over 100 feet from his car window." Then he smiled and said: "The ambulance driver told me that his final words were: "FIND MY WATCH!" And they did...

I won't go into the tragedy of what a brain injury does to a person but let's just say that not all of poor ol' dad ever came home. To me it was like his body was there but it was suddenly possessed by a stranger.

This made me wonder if when your life gets knocked out, maybe sometimes part of you just keeps on going...

Life indeed goes on no matter what, that's for sure - and so it did and it remained pretty bleak as this man of the house went through five cars within the next seven years breaking about half the bones in his body.. He was like Phoenix - always rose from the ashes... Physically, that is.

I could go on but this story is about things that your new Rolex kept time to.

I grew up slow as a pretty mixed up kid who didn't have much of a clue about things other than what drifted into my room over Houston's radical Pacifica radio. Seems like I spent most of my time drawing pictures and plotting how I'd get myself free of the bondage of my hormones and parents ASAP. Then I found music, pot and surfing, the refuge I needed to get through high school, which would have been abysmal without it.

It was a ritual to smoke a doobie on the way to school most mornings and one of those mornings was what they called "Kid day" that was the one day where seniors were allowed to dress up like children. Being the clown, I went all out - naked, only wearing a folded towel pinned up like a big diaper.

My friend Clark had gotten some Thai sticks for his graduation present from his big sister's boyfriend. I don't think we really knew what that was..

Cut to: Me, a senior in a diaper in a junior world history class.. That means that I was the only one in costume..  I was so stoned that my entire body was throbbing.. I had never experienced anything like this feeling before. I was on the verge of freaking out when there was a knock that seemed to reel me in a little. I watched Mrs. Pearson walk past to greet the door. In my stupor I could  hear faint talking and then the volume rose to a fully audible: "BEN, Mr Sverchek would like a word with you... Ben.. BEN?

Coming to my senses, I turned towards the door. Barely able to rise from my desk while trying my best to compose myself, I ambled toward the door as the class snickered..

The assistant principal of the school had made a special trip to call me out.. This was a first as I looked up at this man who towered over me.. He was very serious as he sized me up and asked in a stern tone, "Ben, are you going to make it?"
It came out in slow motion as about the most cryptic thing I'd ever heard in my life, especially given my mental state. I followed his gaze down which was a sudden and harsh reminder of what I'd completely forgotten standing in front of this authority figure stoned out of my mind in a diaper.

I did make it - by the skin of my teeth. Thanks to surfing and Meyer's Rum I dropped out of Community College prey soon, going from one crumby job to another. Carpenter's assistant, bus boy, waiter, yardman... I couldn't seem to hang onto anything for more than a few months when things just seemed to run out of steam and I'd quit.

I can only imagine how frustrating that must be for parents to watch a potential looser on thier hands.

The most fun time I can remember after dad's wrecks and recovery was when he gave me a job.. We painted the house together.. That big beautiful ol' two story "Green Banana" colored house with white windows and dark green shutters. I remember buying an electric sander at JC Penny that was a piece of crap but well worth the price just for the warranty. We must have burnt up a dozen of those things..   It took all summer and fall to get the job of sanding down all the wood siding. and and repainting everything. He needed a project, I needed a dad. Together we had a blast working our asses off.

Here's the man during those great days in his best form. I guess I was about 19 then.


The best gift dad ever gave me and that was turning me on to George Plimpton. His thing was "participatory journalism". That gave me license to do whatever I wanted in life as long as I didn't hurt anybody and hopefully myself. So the art of living through writing a story with my life became my trajectory as I chanted my new mantra: "Anything Goes!"

My first big adventure was to get a job offshore in the Gulf of Mexico as a grunt/gas gauger (I'm the shirtless one in the picture) So many crazy stories to tell here but just know that life is cheap out there and that the most dangerous thing that can happen out there besides loosing a limb or crashing down into the choppy Gulf waters in a helicopter during a hurricane evacuation is blocking the stairway to the galley two minutes before General Hospital airs on the 13" black and white TV. 

This was the only place that an uneducated kid like me could make real money.. $12.65 and hour adds up fast when your stuck out there for seven days at a time. So I saved and bought stuff like this awesome Les Paul Standard (OMG, if I only had that now!) and a brand new Seiko Sports SQ100 7546-818F quartz watch. I think it cost about the same as dad's Rolex at around $160. I agonized over that purchase for weeks as I gazed at it in Ben Barnes Jewelers window. Oddly it looks a lot like the Explorer, doesn't it?The quartz movement was revolutionary enough to get the Swiss shitting in their pants because it was flawlessly accurate.. This era the "quartz crisis".. I have to say that it was my go-to timepiece as I'd save up my shekels every time the Rolex would stumble. 

1977 - 82

My bullet proof Seiko Sport 100 SQ

A-76 Gas Platform way off shore in the Gulf of Mexico oil patch.


Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico

Coleto Creek Drainage Ditch - Victoria

My favorite Steed - Algebra.

The Seiko endured this fun loving idiot without fail.


I quit my first tour of duty working off shore after saving up enough dough to buy a little trailer and enough tools, used bikes and parts to fill it and then of course topped off with my beautiful  6'8" blood orange Jeffery Dale surfboard. I was dead set on starting a used bicycle shop out in California where my cousin's Joe and Jamo were enrolled at UCSB. This was right at the same time Mom, then a famous party designer, who was worried sick about my west coast business endeavor, was asked to come to Washington DC to throw a big party for the Washington Projects for the Arts. Another story there - but the point is that her strategy for distracting me worked and I went along  as her set builder. It was a fabulous time where one thing led to another which got me hired and moved there two years later in 1982. That's where I fell in love and made the trip to Europe with her that I'd saved up for working off shore.
My 24th birthday was glorious, it was in Athens, Greece.. College just wasn't going to happen for me so I had worked hard offshore in the oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico and saved enough money to get myself a "traveler's education". So with that mechanical skill set, I had a different plan for my European travels than most kids that age. Instead of succumbing to the predictability of Euro-rail, I shoved a roll of my favorite tools inside my pack and upon arrival in Luxembourg, I bought a rusty old Datsun 210 for $420.US. 

My sweet girlfriend Jodie and I drove that jalopy south through Alsace, France, Italy, Yugoslavia and on to Corfu. From there we traveled to several Greek Isles ending up in Athens.. That was August 2nd 1982. 

My next, 25th birthday was in Austin after we had made our way home to the US across the Atlantic, compliments of Jodie's parents who gave us a pair of unexpected one way tickets on the QE II after almost a half year of galavanting around Europe, including a drive through the Swiss Alps and Geneva as we were making our way towards the English Channel.

I really wanted to stop and check in on Rolex where my dad had made his purchase. It must have been Sunday because I don't remember the place being open and it was probably getting late so all I really remember about Geneva was that crazy - humongous "Jet d eau de Geneve" water feature. What's up with that thing anyway? 

Well I'll tell you...

The Jet d'Eau (Water-Jet) is one of the largest fountains in the world. Situated at the point where Lake Geneva empties into the Rhone River. It is visible throughout the city and from the air, even when flying over at an altitude of 10 km (33,000 ft).

Five hundred litres (132 gallons) of water per second are jetted to an altitude of 140 metres (459 feet) by two 500 KW pumps, operating at 2,400v consuming over one megawatt of electricity. The water leaves the nozzle at a speed of 200 km/h (124 mph). When it is in operation, at any given moment there are about 7,000 litres (1849 gallons) of water in the air. 

Unsuspecting visitors to the fountain—which can be reached via a stone jetty from the left bank of the lake—may be surprised to find themselves drenched after a slight change in wind direction.

And there you have it..  

Dang.. I digressed AGAIN!

The whole point of this story was simply to tell you that in 1983 at my 25th birthday party, my dad smiled at me, took the Rolex off his wrist, and as he handed it to me, all to my surprise, told me that he was proud of me and the way I had put my life together.. Holy Moly, I just about flipped my wig! 

And then, promptly afterward...

Though I had a nice girlfriend and a job that supported me, being 25 years old also meant that I was still immortal and so I acted accordingly by treating myself and everything around me like it was indestructible. Sadly, when that poor 1016 was pronounced DOA after beating the daylights out of a chunk of red hot iron with a hand held sledge hammer, perhaps I learned a bit of temperance.. But then again,  I doubt it.

So I took the watch to a local Jeweler that had "Rolex repair" painted on the window. The repairman said something to the effect that I had dislodged the mainspring or something like that, meaning what my young adult mind interpreted as: "When you act like a dumb-ass to a tiny self winding mechanism, this is what you get - no matter how fine it is!"

This kind hoorologist was actually able to get the thing going again for me. But soon it ran fast again and well, let's just say that my dad wouldn't be quite as proud knowing that he'd handed the torch to an irresponsible knucklehead. So I just kept taking it back to to the repair shop where he would continue to cobble it back to some vestige of a time piece. He became sympathetic to my situation and it got to the point that when he saw me come in to the shop, he'd say: "Your Dad coming in this week?".

My own careless behavior has me observing the next recipient for these two characteristics:

1. Respect for people and things, so he'll take care of it.
(UPDATE - Judging by his home and automobile - He's totally there.)

2. Punctuality - It's the politeness of Kings - Thank God Patti broke me of this terrible habit.
I could never think well of a man's intellectual or moral character if he was habitually unfaithful to his appointments. - A smart person

(UPDATE - As of a text exchange a while back where I was grooming him rather rigorously for being on time.. he quickly showed marvelous improvement.. and so I'm feeling proud of him and very happy that we got him here - on time just before his big birthday tomorrow.)


Now THIS was a great year!

This was the year that the fruits of my labor and curiosity really paid off... In a good way.

But up till then, starting in 1984, an inheritance of $5000 from my grandmother (which was all that was left for me of my grand daddy's fortune) sent me to a Wisconsin neon school and the rest is history.


Twenty five years was the time it took for my grandmother, mom and aunt to blow through most all of Paw Paw's hard work and savings.

In my ignorant and angry youth, I considered that little inheritance a scholarship from my grandfather - the one person in our family who was a reliable hero to me. 

So ashamed of the situation,  I vowed to myself to do whatever it took to put this "aimless" family of mine back on the map. This was a very unrealistic and arrogant burden that I put on myself for 10 long years, and in retrospect, it made me a bitter rather than better person in that way.

With my grandfather's ticket, I took up the neon trade as an apprentice to a master in San Antonio until the entrepreneurial spirit overtook me and I was compelled to strike out on my own back home in Austin.

I remember dear ol dad's disapproving comment:

"Now what's this shit about light bulb school?"

It was less than a year after "lightbulb school" in the winter of 1985, during a big snowfall in Austin where me and friends were running around town high as kites on mushrooms doing doughnuts in the UT parking lot and sliding down the embankment by the Lamar/Townlake bridge that I got home to hear a phone message with an invitation to come and make neon for a shop in Auckland, New Zealand, to which I happily and very prematurely accepted. It was a total reality check about culture shock and my gross inability as a professional. Nevertheless it was in that shop that I had my big first aha moment about phosphorescent mineral colors within neon tubes - and that led me to a passionate search and development of a new and beautiful opalescent color palette for neon. 

 Being open is shooting your arrow at one target and hitting the bullseye of another.  

Aspen, just before moving to New Zealand
The watch was working great!

Thanks to my dear "sister" Pebbles Wadsworth's guidance and a Fellowship from the National Endowment to the Arts, I was afforded a very lucky break and chance to create some real evolution with those phosphors.

Here's some.

Courtesy of Mick Jagger 

                                                     Photo: Carrington Weems
Courtesy of The University of Texas permanent collection. 
Bass Concert Hall 


This single tube consists of the the most beautiful results found in my fellowship investigations.  

Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC
 Photo: Carrington Weems

Collection of Jeffrey Skilling 


Courtesy of Susila Ziegler

Phosphorescent Minerals. 

The essence of my NEA Fellowship.

                                                                       Photo: George Gruel

"Spiral In Tension"

And here's other stuff I'm proud of making too.


Frank Roberts and I beat the statue of liberty with our beloved local Austin landmark -"Neon Mural #1" in the renowned IIDA International lighting design competition.

It graced 30,000+ passers by per day on 
West 5th street 
for over 20 years.

 All things must pass...

                                                                    Photo:Paul Bardagjy


Courtesy of The City of Austin Convention Center permanent collection.

                             Photo: Amy Bryant
Burning copper wearing the 1016 - Making the "Orbits"

Look at that poor watch, it really has been through Hell and back...

                                                                    Photo:Paul Bardagjy




"Texas sized Caduceus"

Dedication party for the large neon and century plant caduceus for our public hospital.
Dad at age 68 (sporting his plastic Casio watch) pontificating to the crowd.



Courtesy of Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller 
and Charlie Soap.

A continuous work in progress


Courtesy Robert Patterson Collection

Ben, showing George Gruel "the glass ropes 

Corning Glass Museum "Masters" workshop.

Courtesy of the 2009 Glass Arts Society conference - Corning, NY

Alot of talented artists apply and re-apply unsuccessfully year after year for grants and fellowship awards from the National Endowment for the Arts... But thanks to "my village" and a few pretty good ideas, I received a full fellowship with my first shot out of the bag. Amazing indeed, particularly for a kid who barely made it out of high school.

I made a lot of plans with the award proceeds. Two expenditures were long awaited.

1. To get that Rolex fixed properly, once and for all.

2. Wear the watch "home", on a long awaited - post fellowship "blow the cob webs out" three week - 200 + mile trek through the Himalaya. This adventure with my best friends through central Nepal up and unknowingly across the Tibetan border is where Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mt. Everest and made this watch famous!

And sure enough it came to pass... 

The PURGE Ganesh tour..
Featuring enduring pals - Mike Levin, Jeff Ragsdale, Jessica Fleishman
The world's most friendly and fun guides thanks to the late - great Babu Tamang. 

Jeff teaching Kumar the second chord to "You are my Sun sign".
Even the Gurung people were amused.  

The magnificent Kali Gandaki Valley.


Mike & me - "Say YES to the dress!"

That guy's shirt actually said "Victoria Junior College!

And THEN... My big surprise upon our home coming...

Jeff... Please get down here and play this show with me!

                 Jeff Ragsdale              Terry Allen                  Ben

My first real live performance was opening for the great
Terry Allen 


Joe Ely!
  A wonderful evening indeed and it was Jeff's 40th Birthday.


Stopped off in China to visit my Magloffs 

and do a little qi gong meditation.  
 And then it was time to get

"Namaste Rolex"

But.. Did I mention that within this time. I met the love of my life? She and her adorable daughter lived right next door.. 
Trekking Troubadour buddies... Jeff, Stacy Erickson and Ben

We were 
"The Annapurna Rounders"

"The Annapurna Rounders" 
singing at the top of our lungs 
on top of the world! 
Thorung-la pass 17,769ft.

As close to Hillary and Norgay as I'll ever get on foot.

FYI - Hillary and Norgay were last seen still going strong at the Second Step (about 28,140 - 28,300 ft). 

Over 10,000 feet higher.. GEEZ! 

"The Rounders" - Back on the ground 
with gigs 
back on good ol' Kathmandu 

What comes around goes around.

The Annapurna Rounders - rocking North beach!


1998 - 2001

If you get to return to a sweet place like Nepal, chances are, you'll want to be of service in some way. In 1998 it was our music. 

But this time took more forethought, two years worth as a matter of fact.

This cleanup and education mission was quite successful, in fact my dear Journalist friend, Shermakaye Bass, who was one of the co-founders of our little non - profit group "Clean Nepal" did her magic and  got herself audience with the Royal Nepalese Prince Dipendra, who just happened to be getting on board the same flight. As they chatted away in first class,  Shermakaye reported back that he was very excited about our efforts there, gave her his card, asking for a follow up report.  Here's Shermakaye's tragic story of what happened afterwards - published in the Washington Post. Consequently, shutting down our "Operation - Clean Nepal".

Washington Post
July 29, 2001 

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Shortwave 
news from Katmandu, barely discernible words from 
BBC World. A massacre in Nepal . . . royal family 
killed . . . the king, the queen, the crown 
prince, all dead. Then the crackling radio dispatch 
faded into desert air, and I sat stunned in a 
courtyard in Samarkand.

Only four days before, I had left Nepal for 
Uzbekistan, after working on a nonprofit project in 
the Himalayas. Only four weeks before, I had met 
Nepal's Crown Prince Dipendra on a flight from 
Bangkok to Katmandu. I couldn't have known that day 
that I would meet a prince whose subjects 
considered him a god but who would speak to a stranger 
about the concept of democracy. Nor could I have 
known that a month later, on June 1, he would be 
accused of gunning down his family, leaving a 
tragic and decidedly mortal legacy.

My colleagues and I knew something was up when we 
boarded Thai Airways Flight 319. A bustle filled 
the cabin as a retinue of men in traditional 
Nepalese attire stored parcels in overhead bins, then 
disappeared into first class. Once we were 
airborne, I asked a flight attendant if a dignitary was 
on board. He confided: "It's the crown prince of 

Quickly, I pulled out a card that bore our 
nonprofit's name, Clean Nepal. The founding members 
were headed to the Himalayas for a cleanup 
expedition with Nepal's Annapurna Conservation Area 
Project, and I thought the prince might find it 
interesting. I wrote a description on the back and 
concluded with, "For your information. I do not wish 
to disturb you." Then I passed it to the flight 

Apparently, Prince Dipendra did not feel 
disturbed, for soon the attendant and a Nepali bodyguard 
ushered me into first class. The crown prince sat 
in the first row, wearing a black business 
jacket, a crisp white tunic and a black<em> topi, 
</em>the traditional Nepalese men's hat. He turned and 
smiled as I stood in the aisle.

"Please, sit." He gestured to the seat next to 

"<em>Namaskar</em>," I stammered the formal Hindu 
greeting, my hands steepled to my forehead. 
Graciously, he gestured toward the seat again. I 
hadn't expected this.

"How do you pronounce your name?" he asked as I 
sat, leaving a space between us. I told him, then 
with diminishing dignity, I blurted, "Pardon me, 
your highness -- I am very nervous."

His response was an easy smile, like that of a 
celebrity accustomed to awe-struck legions. "Not at 
all," he replied. "I am curious about this 

As I gave him a synopsis of the cleanup, he 
nodded approvingly. His demeanor, his sheer 
accessibility, struck me; I wondered if this could have 
happened anywhere but in midair, on a commercial 
flight, between countries. I will never know. I do 
know that during our chance encounter, he was 
affable and attentive, and we talked candidly of 
Nepal's environmental problems before segueing into 
more complex subjects.

"The environment is a huge concern in Nepal," the 
prince agreed, "but at the moment, I do not think 
the government can offer additional assistance." 
He paused. "As you may know, our country is 
facing a good deal of unrest."

I was aware that Nepal's prime minister was at 
the center of an alleged corruption scandal, 
prompting increasingly violent protests (he resigned 
July 19). I knew that there were periodic national 
transportation strikes bringing commerce to a 
halt. And I was aware of the sporadic Maoist attacks 
in western and central Nepal.

"Yes, I have followed it," I said, then stopped, 
not wanting to push the subject of Nepalese 
politics. But the crown prince willingly continued. He 
mentioned the palace's neutral position, 
explaining that a decade before, his father had 
relinquished power to elected officials, and since then 
the palace had made few public comments about 
political affairs. "It is not our place. We are not 
elected officials."

Then he said something I will not forget. I have 
re-read my journal several times now -- having 
jotted down highlights from the conversation as 
soon as I returned to my seat -- and every time, 
I've felt an unshakable sadness, not only for a 
country I love, but for a prince I briefly met and 
whose final thoughts and actions will never be 
known. "My country has a young democracy," he said 
slowly. "And there are three necessary elements for 
the democracy to stabilize: national pride, 
unity; the rule of law, which must be upheld under all 
circumstances; and faith in democracy." He 
paused, as if contemplating an unforeseeable future. 
"Nepal must remember that democracy is not a static 
system, and political upheaval is always a 
possible factor."

Clearly, the prince was troubled by Nepal's 
fragile political state; yet he believed the people 
would "hold on" through whatever lay ahead. Those 
words would haunt me later.

When the plane began its descent into Katmandu, I 
took my leave of Prince Dipendra, thanking him as 
I backed into the aisle with a final 
"<em>Namaskar</em>." In my pocket was a calling card that 
read -- still reads -- "H.R.H. Crown Prince Dipendra 
Bir Bikram Shah Dev. Narayanhity Royal Palace. 
Kathmandu, Nepal." The young heir, whom Nepalis 
believe is an incarnation of the god Vishnu, had 
given it to me when I asked about contacting him for 
a future profile. He cautioned that it would be a 
while before he could grant an interview, as the 
mood in Nepal was too tense.

Since then I have considered the parallel between 
Nepal's tragedy and the fall of America's own 
"Camelot" 38 years ago. As for Americans grappling 
with John F. Kennedy's assassination, there will 
never be an answer for Nepalis, no investigation 
that will settle the restless conjecturing of a 
country stunned by its loss and blinded, even, by 
hero worship. As for me, I was profoundly upset 
when I learned of the massacre. According to the 
reports, the man I'd met was the same man who 
killed his family and then turned a gun himself. Or 
had he? Like many Nepalis, I can't quite believe he 
did it.

But the tragedy jolted me for other reasons. It 
reminded me of how mortal all men are, no matter 
how much we elevate them, and with that truism 
came a lifting of the veil that separates princes 
from commoners and gods from humans. What lay 
beyond was a mystery as irreconcilable as the 
massacre: How can any man, or god for that matter, wield 
such horrifying power?

<em> Shermakaye Bass is a freelance writer based 
in Austin.

Serious BUMMER!

This marvelous woman - love of my life traveled to all around Asia for 5 months. I proposed to her on the wall above Xian, China and we were married in an amazing 15th century monastery in Thimphu, Bhutan on 11-11- 2005.. 

Sorry, this story is too personal and sacred to "blog" about. 

But my loyal pals, Jeff and Mike, who the Himalaya would be even more remote for me without, were there with us, cheering us on as we all trekked together from Paro - through the gorgeous Punakha valley, all the way to Thimphu. Low and behold, it was the King's birthday 11-11 and a massive celebration was taking place the whole day and night that we were wed! 

The memory of these days floods me with emotion. 

Our wonderful Bhutanese guides called us "The four harmonious friends" from a children's tale about a donkey, rabbit, monkey and elephant who were best friends. They never would tell us who was who. 



During our five months of travels throughout China, Tibet, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bhutan and Burma, I became very interested in Southeast Asian Supernaturalism and the artifacts that accompany these rituals and traditions. I had a hard time finding literature about this subject so I decided to take the task into my own hands.

Another two years worth of research and planning with Asian friends  found willingness to guide and translate.. So back to Asia I went and "Spirit House Safari" happened.

Here's the real-time blog (with lots of great pictures) from the days on the road, collecting info. The manuscript has been through it's first edit thanks to the venerable pro Jill Mason.. The rest is just a matter of time and I liken completion of a book like this to that last 10,000+ foot climb of Hillary and Norgay's summit to the top.. 

I wonder if I have what it takes? Only time will tell...


I walked past that damn manuscript for half a year... with dreaded  feelings of shame and guilt so many times that I figured that maybe it would be best to find a creative escape in order to devert my attention away from this paper pariah... Hmmm..

How about MUSIC?! 

So I put in a call to my new friend, the famous Texas "Lost Gonzo Cosmic Cowboy" himself, Bob Livingston. A great musician and master of the stage, who I met up with in Bangkok during my last days in Asia where I was in from Burma and he and his son had been playing in Viet Nam for the US State Department. We hit it off as fast friends there and so I called in a favor of asking Bob to teach me how to put a band and a musical performance together. I had big ideas to putting on a neon art show at the Mighty Continental Club during the big SXSW Saturday, busting the previously condemned doors back open with a full blown neon art and debut music performance... George Plimpton style.

Thank you Bob!

Here's the News paper article about that incredible day.

Neon artist shines on stage

"Ben Livingston moved across the stage toward the microphone at Austin's seasoned Continental Club. He shouldered his Gretch guitar and began to sing.

But Livingston, a Victoria native, is known more for his neon art, having once won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship that he used to search for phosphors in Nepal.

That fellowship was more than 15 years ago. "Been dormant" all that time, he said, "meditating." 

How in the world did an internationally known neon artist get a stage at the Continental Club in the middle of the South by Southwest festival, where more than 1,500 bands were playing in Austin?....

This was one of the most exciting days on my life.

I needed all my angels there for this one..
So yes, I am definitely wearing the Rolex...

And guess what, for some strange reason, it decided to keep good time that day. Go figure...


With Spirit House Safari sufficiently placed on the back burner, I dove head first into the vertical learning curve of my new element.. Writing, recording and performing music! The rest up til now is two critically acclaimed CD's later and history.

Arts Cottage LIVE!
Video by Bob Simmons 

Big in Texas!

                                             The "That's What She Said "Band                  Photo: David Barrow

On the road again!

The Rolex is still ticking...


Ben & Doug sing "Gasoline" 
Balcony TV

"Boneless Chicken"
Ben and the "That's what she said!" band
SXSW Saturday at the Continental Club Gallery

Evil Spirits
With Dan Kaplan and Kristopher Wade 
Continental Club Gallery
Video: David Barrow
                                                                                   Photo: David Barrow

Music doesn't come naturally to me and I wasn't that great at it but the what drove me like gangbusters was my addiction to the pure oxygen that can only be found during a live performance. 

Unfortunately, my good ol' Rolex Explorer can't keep time or up to the pace of performance, so I put ol' (Namaste) 1016 in that chalice for safe keeping until now where we look forward to a full restoration by legendary horologist, Bob Ridley.. 

2011- 2013
I made a record with famous producer and spiritual advisor, Denny Bruce. 

Here it is and with his liner notes...

And THEN.. 

I was cast as an actor in a very culturally important feature film about the Cherokee. 

Click on this link.

"The Cherokee Word for Water"

Notes from the website:

Here's my story of my first glimpse into the heart of a most extraordinary  contemporary American Indian experience.


Moses Brings Plenty as Charlie Soap

Ben Livingston as Curly McQuista
Steve Reevis as Johnson Soap

Charlie Soap is the widower of Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller. He is a very handsome and regal community and spiritual leader. Charlie wears a stainless steel and gold Rolex along with many beautiful culturally relevant personal ornaments.

Seeing Charlie wearing his special watch as he lives his life resonated with me as a reminder of dad's Explorer and what it represents in my experience... 

So from then to now...

I am so pleased to know that Mr. Ridley, master horologist, will breathe new life back into the old Explorer for my last long roundup before handing the torch on to it's new steward.

That "round up" will be scooping the best parts of what I consider to be a  rather well spent life into a way to make a difference by helping the world to be a little better place.

That's what legacy is all about isn't it? 

And all along the way, this old 1963 Rolex Explorer's tiny mechanical heart has kept time with life's events at 18,000 beats per hour as constant reminder of our time to give.

Bring it on!

                                                                                     Photo: Kevin Jordan

Next up... 
The 11-11@11:11 Project 
by Jeff Ragsdale 

I believe I have shot a very large portion of these pictures marking time with my '63 Explorer for over 20 years now.. My apologies, dear reader, these were all I could drum up for now.

Jeff Solos on 11-11 @ 11:11 - 1995 
One year to the minute from when the picture (I am holding) was taken at Ganesh Himal, Nepal

Jeff still flying - Qi gong style. 
11-11@11:11 - 1997
Just finished the remodeling marathon of the house behind him.
11-11@11:11 - 1998?

The real explorer in the family.. 
My Cousin Ed Schlee

Edward F. Schlee and William S. Brock

Schlee & Brock departed from Detroit, Michigan via New York to Newfoundland. They departed Harbor Grace and arrived at Croydon Airport, London England.

They continued their flight across Europe, India and China arriving in Tokyo in 18 days, flying a total of 12,995 miles in 145.5 flying hours. Bad weather forced them to abandon their round- the-world attempt. Rather than trying to cross the Pacific, they returned to New York by steamer.


All I have to say after Cousin Ed's amazing adventure is that this little truck I drive "Bessy" has been with me for the last 27 years of this story and clocked enough miles to make it to the moon, 
if that accounts for anything...

I tried handing over this torch to "The next in line" but he won't come and get it.. 

So I guess we'll go with the Rolex.
"Bessy", The Pride of Austin

I digress...