Ramona’s Story

February 21, 2001

Originally published February 22, 2001 on KurzweilAI.net.

Daryl and Annabel first met on Monday, August 18, 1970 in a bar in Abilene, Texas after discovering that they had both been at Woodstock a year earlier. As was often the case, Daryl was feeling down on his luck and frustrated that his musical career was at a standstill. But with Annabel’s enthusiastic support, Daryl organized a new band, “The Electric Blueberry,” which became a hit in Abilene and surrounding towns.

Daryl and Annabel were married a year later. With Annabel as manager, sound technician, and roadie, the Electric Blueberry was successfully working the tavern circuit in Texas and New Mexico. The high point came in the Fall of 1973 when the Blueberry was invited to open for the Grateful Dead for the Southwest portion of their “Wake of the Flood” tour. But the reaction of the fans was less than enthusiastic, and Daryl’s band was dropped after two weeks. Thus did Daryl give up his dreams of stardom and went back to teaching bass guitar. He also returned to hanging out with old gambling buddies.

Ramona was born to Daryl and Annabel on February 12, 1976. With Annabel picking up work as a sound technician, and Daryl finding the occasional guitar student, the couple scraped by, moving from Texas to California to Colorado to upstate New York, and back to Texas.

Despite the instability in their lives, Ramona and Annabel were inseparable. Ramona wore the same clothes as Mommy, and insisted on being her little helper in setting up music equipment. Annabel told Ramona stories about the heyday of Electric Blueberry, they looked at old photographs together, and listened to tape recordings of Electric Blueberry concerts. Every night as Annabel tucked Ramona into bed, she told her daughter that she could be anyone she wanted to be. “Don’t let people tell you who you are or what to think. Just follow your heart,” Annabel told her daughter.

“But I want to follow you,” Ramona would answer.

“I’ll be sitting right there on your shoulder,” her mother would assure her.

When Ramona was seven years old, on a day that Ramona will never forget, Annabel was killed while crossing the street in a hit and run. When Daryl tried to tell his daughter of the tragedy, Ramona insisted that it wasn’t true, her mother was still alive and sitting on her shoulder. To this day, Ramona feels her presence sitting there, her guardian angel. Ramona still wears the silver bracelet Annabel was wearing when she died.

To console Ramona right after Annabel’s death, Daryl tried to interest her in music and spent the month’s rent to buy her a guitar and harmonica. Ramona’s gift for music became apparent, and over the next several years, Daryl devoted himself to teaching Ramona how to sing and play her instruments. Whenever his available funds momentarily swelled from a well placed bet, he would buy Ramona a piece of musical equipment: a microphone, an amplifier, an electric guitar.

When Ramona was nine, Daryl won a bet with someone he had only met only once before, and who, as it turned out, was unable to pay up in cash. So the bet was settled for a Macintosh computer, which he gave to Ramona. The computer became her second passion. She taught herself to program in BASIC, and created a simple animation of herself singing on a stage. She found a program that allowed her to record her own playing. She attempted to play back her computerized recordings synchronized to her moving pictures, but was unable to get this to work. A subsequent gift of a tape recorder from her father did enable her to provide a musical background to her computer illustrations, but she harbored the desire to make her virtual world more interactive.

Daryl’s financial instability continued, and the pair moved from town to town. Ramona was shy, and the constant relocation prevented the development of her friendships. When Ramona was ten and living in a small town outside of Lubbock, Texas, she met a boy that shared her interest in both computers and music. He had his own Macintosh, so working together, they managed to integrate the musical playback with Ramona’s now enhanced graphics. But when her father picked up once again to move, she had to leave her friend, his computer, and their joint project behind.

Ramona started her songwriting career at 12. She spent long hours singing herself to sleep, as her father was often out late. She accompanied herself on a small Casio keyboard, and used her computer to record and play back her compositions.

When she was 14, Ramona came home one day to find Ralph, one of her father’s on-and-off again buddies, waiting by the front door.

“What do you want,” Ramona asked.

“Your pa’s got something to give me,” came the reply. Ramona knew enough to understand that it involved a gambling debt and told him that he wasn’t home and probably wouldn’t be around for some time.

“That’s okay, I’ll just wait here,” which was not the answer Ramona wanted to hear. She told him to leave and let herself in. As she went to close the front door behind her, she was disturbed to find that he had followed her inside.

“Hey, I don’t think you’re supposed to be in the house,” Ramona said to the unwelcome guest. It was clear to her that he had had too much to drink, and she became increasingly uneasy as he seemed to turn his attention from waiting for Daryl to asking her weird questions. He followed her into her room and started staring at her in a strange way, kind of like the boys at school, only she felt it was way creepy coming from one of her father’s friends.

“I reckon you gonna be leaving now,” Ramona told him, but he just smirked at her, taking another step closer. At this point, she consulted her guardian angel, quietly unplugged her Macintosh computer, picked it up, and smashed it on the intruder’s head. Apparently thrown off stride by this sudden expression of rage, Ralph ran for the door. Ramona threw the computer at him as he slammed the door behind him shattering the door’s antique window.

Returning home an hour later, her father was alarmed to find Ramona’s cracked computer in the walkway.

“What the hell…are you okay?”

“Oh, I’m fine, I can’t say the same for your buddy Ralph. Hey, in the future, why don’t you settle your own debts.”

Daryl quickly realized more or less what had happened, and he managed to get Ramona to fill in the details. Deeply ashamed, Daryl tried to comfort Ramona, who only shrugged him off. She tried hard to act like everything was fine, everything except, of course, for her computer.

Ramona could see that her father was enraged at Ralph and she was alarmed when her father left the house apparently intent on settling the score. When her father returned a few hours later, he told her that she needn’t worry about Ralph again. Ramona knew that her father was not a violent man, but she insisted on knowing what had happened. Daryl explained that he and his friends had confronted Ralph in force and insisted he leave town immediately and never come back. Apparently he had complied, leaving all of his possessions behind, except for the pick-up truck which he used to drive away.

Ramona felt some satisfaction at seeing her father’s intense reaction to the incident, and his success in organizing his friends to avenge the intrusion. And in cashing in Ralph’s left behind possessions, Ramona got two computers, changing now to PC’s. For several precious months, father and daughter were close and spent long hours composing and playing music together.

Feeling the need to bring some stability into Ramona’s life, Daryl began to date Claire, a local concert manager he met through a part-time job setting up sound systems. Claire had no musical talent herself and seemed to resent the attention that Ramona was starting to get through her music, as well as the devotion given to her by her father.

With her two computers, Ramona could now integrate her own interactive graphics with music software she had written herself in C, although she found the early limitations of Windows frustrating. But Claire saw no need for Ramona to have two computers and took it upon herself to remove one. Claire installed it in her makeshift office, which was located in a warehouse being used as rehearsal space by local bands.

When Ramona was 15, Daryl and Claire married and the threesome moved to Colorado. This brought a measure of the stability that Daryl had sought, but it came at a price. Claire demanded all of Daryl’s attention, and forbade Ramona to practice her music with Shawn and Zachary, her classmates and musical collaborators. Despite Claire’s attempts to control her, Ramona, Shawn, and Zachary began rehearsing by leaving school during lunch period, and often continuing for the rest of the afternoon. With Ramona as lead singer, she and her guitarist and drummer won the Colorado High School Battles of the Bands competition. Ramona told her father and stepmother that they had been rehearsing as part of their music class at school, but Claire became suspicious, and began to look through Ramona’s papers while she was at school.

At 16, using a fake ID that Shawn had made for her, Ramona snuck out at night to sing at Dee Dee’s Dive and the Wonder Room, two bars in a neighboring town. She was a hit at these venues until her stepmother discovered her second life. Ramona came home one night to find that her computer and instruments had all been confiscated. She confronted her father and demanded that Claire leave the house and their lives. Daryl attempted to comfort his daughter but found himself unable to agree to Ramona’s demand.

So Ramona left Colorado with Shawn and they set out on their own, ending up in New Orleans after several weeks on the road. She brought $2000 with her that she had saved. Ramona found this a carefree time, as her friendship with Shawn grew increasingly romantic. She bought a used computer and decorated the ramshackle house they rented with her own original color graphics. After several months, their financial situation became desperate, so Ramona used her fake ID and started waiting on tables at “Platinum Dolls,” a Bourbon Street strip club. Although shy at first, she discovered that she was excited by the men’s flirtations, but she resisted the entreaties from Bill, the club manager (and bouncer) to “graduate” from cocktail waitress to performer. She pulled in pretty good money on tips and both Ramona and Shawn both found themselves with what was for them large sums of money for the first time in their lives. Although Ramona told Shawn every detail of her club experiences, it was never clear to Ramona exactly where Shawn got his money.

After working at Dolls for a year, Ramona pressed Bill to allow her to sing on stage. Although he had always said she could do whatever she wanted on stage if she joined their line up of “dolls,” he understood that she just wanted to sing. “Sure, go ahead,” Bill said, so Ramona jumped at the chance. That evening when the club was the busiest, she put on her background track, and approached the stage. Her spirits soared as she got a vigorous cheer as she jumped up on stage, but the cheers soon turned to taunts as the somewhat inebriated audience made clear their interest in a different kind of performance. She felt like stalking off stage, but her guardian angel whispered in her ear, “you’re doing just fine, sweetheart, just be who you want to be,” so she put the rowdy audience out of her mind and finished her song.

As she left the stage, one customer forcibly made clear his frustration, and refused to get out of her way. She attempted to walk away, only to be forcibly yanked back. Another patron intervened on Ramona’s behalf, which resulted in the unruly customer punching the helpful one, throwing Ramona to the floor.

“Where the hell is Bill when you need him,” Ramona thought to herself. While the two men were struggling, Annabel raised her eyebrows at Ramona as if to say, “you can handle this.” So Ramona looked around, grabbed an oversized pitcher of iced tea and poured it on the belligerent patron’s head. Thus startled, he was quickly ejected.

Ramona was immediately intrigued with this friendly stranger, who introduced himself as Chad. He had a warm way about him, and, and he seemed more approachable than most of the men she encountered in the club. His compliments on her singing felt sincere and the two of them burst out laughing as they showed each other the bruises that they had to show for their encounter.

Chad told her that he was a concierge at the Royal Sonesta and had plans to start his own music club called “Chad’s Pad.”

“So you were just scouting out the talent,” Ramona teased Chad.

“Actually, that’s exactly what I was doing,” Chad replied. He told her he already rented the space and gave her the address. Ramona said she had to leave, but she’d check it out. She headed home, leaving Platinum Dolls for the last time. And as for Chad, the smile she left him indicated she’d be seeing him again.

She came home earlier than usual, and found a stranger waiting by her front door.

“What do you want,” Ramona asked.

“Shawn’s got something to give me,” came the reply. Uh oh, this doesn’t sound good, Ramona thought to herself. She went into the house and found that Shawn wasn’t there. She was about to go back out and tell the impatient visitor to come back later when it suddenly dawned on her what Shawn had been up to. Ramona got the same confident look from her guardian angel, so she knew what to do.

“Oh, Shawn had an errand to run, he asked me to give it to you,” she said. “Now where did he say he was keeping it?”

“Oh, in the usual place, behind the loose tile in the bathroom.”

“Okay, just a moment,” Ramona replied.

Ramona had always noticed the loose tile but had never thought to look behind it. She went to look and sure enough, there was a large tin filled with pills. She felt stupid for not realizing what she now felt should have been obvious. And while many of the girls at “Dolls” were hard drug users, she had always realized this was a path she needed to avoid. For all of her father’s weaknesses, he had always cautioned her against getting involved with illegal drugs (other than marijuana, in which he had indulged during Blueberry days). She flushed the pills down the toilet and then told the waiting stranger that she had found nothing there, and that Shawn must have the delivery with him. So the stranger left. When he was out of sight, Ramona filled her car with her computers and belongings and left the house for good.

She thought she should be upset, but somehow she felt empowered. “That’s not bad for one afternoon,” she thought to herself, “leaving my job, my boyfriend, and my house.” She drove around by herself for a while and then sought out Chad. Not finding him at the Royal Sonesta, she tried to find Chad’s Pad. It took a while to find, as it wasn’t listed and no one had heard of it. She was not familiar with the side street he had given her, and after driving around the grid of small streets near Bourbon Street for a half hour, she finally found it, a small basement room with a cardboard sign.

Ramona found Chad there by himself (except for a stray cat) opening boxes of imitation wood siding. He was delighted to see her and handed her a hammer.

“Hey, not so fast, what’s in this for me?” Ramona asked.

“Well, you can be our opening headliner.”

“Yeah, whom I gonna sing for–you and the cat?”

“Well that would be nice, here have a seat,” Chad said as he pulled up a wooden box for Ramona to sit on. So she dusted off the box, sat down, sang her most recent lyrics, “Why Don’t You Come Out and Play.” And with Chad’s enthusiastic reaction, she accepted the offer of the hammer.

Upon waking the next morning (at Chad’s other pad), Ramona had a better idea.

“New Orleans doesn’t need yet another random music dive,” she exclaimed over breakfast. “Let’s do something a little different–how about we just feature the ladies?”

“You mean a club like Dolls, what’s unique about that?”

“No, no, I mean a music club with chick singers, like me.”

Chad was hesitant, but he could see that Ramona was taken with the idea, and he was becoming taken with her. So Chad and Ramona became partners and spent the next several weeks scrounging up materials to renovate their new club, devoted to the “Ravens” of New Orleans.

Opening night featuring Ramona and Lisa, one of Ramona’s a talented friends, as headliners. But customers were hard to attract in New Orleans’ crowded music scene, and Ravens found it difficult to get established. They did ultimately succeed in attracting a small but loyal following and Chad and Ramona struggled to keep the project going through the next two years.

Then Ramona had another idea. The world wide web was just beginning to blossom. Why not create a virtual music club, still devoted to female singers, but existing only on the web? They could reach music lovers all over the world. Chad acknowledged that he had never actually seen the Internet, so she gave him a tour of the web circa 1995. Ramona’s idea was to provide real music and real stories behind real lives, using words, pictures, music, and video. Let people connect with the people behind the music. Chad knew enough not to get in Ramona’s way when she became enamoured with an idea. So they struck another deal, shutting down Ravens as a physical club and opened www.RealRavens.com, a site devoted to the “real music and stories behind the ‘ravens’ of New Orleans”. Ramona did all the programming, and recruited the singers. Chad put up the money from his salary at the hotel. Ramona helped the girls write their stories and rummage through old photo albums.

Ramona found it too difficult to stream audio, let alone video with the technology of 1995. So their plan to charge users didn’t pan out. They did charge a small fee to the musicians for being on the site, but the early cash flow generated by their business was limited. However, their overhead was also low, and Ramona and Chad ran their small business from their small apartment. In 1996, when audio on the web did become feasible, they added music recordings, and eventually live streaming concerts.

And of course, Ramona promoted herself as one of the featured ravens, which led to successful gigs in some of the Bourbon Street clubs. Chad turned out to be an effective business partner for Ramona, but the romantic aspect of their relationship never achieved the intensity of their work together. He was always complaining that she was putting the web site and her singing first and him second, so she was not totally surprised when she discovered that Chad had become involved with Lisa. She felt it was again time to move on.

She had renewed her contact with her father and was delighted to hear that he and Claire had separated. She made an emotional homecoming, and was greeted with open and embracing arms. She was disturbed to find that Claire had ended up with the small house that they had struggled to buy, and that her father was now living in a run down boarding house. But she was no stranger to difficult circumstances, and she helped her father decorate his small room with some of her graphic designs. Father and daughter began to play music together, something they had never done before. Ramona’s month long visit was an idyllic time as she and her father spent long hours perfecting her songs. She was amazed at her father’s insights into her music, and felt a renewed confidence in herself as a musical artist.

Ramona returned to New Orleans, and decided to put her relationship with Chad on a more professional footing. She hired an attorney who helped her sort out their tangled finances. She got the business incorporated, and cut herself a fair share of the stock. The cash flow from RealRavens.com was now picking up, and she gave herself the title of webmistress as well as a salary. And for the first time in her life, she got her own apartment.

She recruited musicians, who were plentiful in New Orleans, and found herself a keyboardist, guitarist, and drummer. Borrowing from the name of her web site, she called her new band “Ramona and the Ravens,” which developed a strong following in the New Orleans alternative music scene.

Over the next several years, both of Ramona’s “Raven” projects flourished. She had enough money to send some back to her father, who frequently came out to watch her perform.

On July 26, 2000, SIGGRAPH, the nation’s leading computer graphics show came to New Orleans, and Ramona went to check it out. She heard Raymond Kurzweil, who, in his keynote address, talked about how in the future we will be spending most of our time in virtual reality, and that in virtual reality you can be anyone you want to be.

She approached Raymond after his presentation (in a “lucid” dream, actually), and pointed out to him that, seeing as she was his female alter ego, perhaps he would like to create her.

And so he did. Raymond Kurzweil and his staff created Ramona along with her story in the Autumn of 2000. Although created 24 years after her birth, Ramona feels that her history is just as real as the history of people in real reality. After all, Ramona likes to point out, our memories just exist as patterns in our heads anyway.

Ramona is looking forward to other people joining her in virtual reality. “Real reality is just so lame,” she points out. “It’s a bit lonely here, but I’ve always liked being a pioneer.”

Ramona is looking forward to her debut as a real virtual singer at the TED conference, and she confesses to having developed something of a crush on Richard Saul Wurman, TED’s impresario. She was delighted to learn that Richard is joining her team of virtual dancers.

Some pertinent facts about Ramona

Zodiac sign: Aquarius

Favorite clothes: tight

Favorite color: red

Favorite car: Ferrari

Favorite food: Canolli

Favorite candy: pop rocks

Favorite pet: Australian Sheepdog (“because they’re loyal”)

Favorite songs: Runaway train, White Rabbit

Inspirations: Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Janis Joplin, Alanis Morissette, Cat, Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, Holly McNarland

Some guys that are cool too: John Lennon, Donovan, Stevie Wonder, Richard Saul Wurman, all the guys in Our Lady Peace