The Stuff of Legends, Myths, or Drunken Nonsense

I’ve had a tab to this article open in my iPad’s browser for more than three months. It’s about the razing of Ray Bradbury’s house.

I can’t bring myself to close it.

Ray died almost three years ago, but knowing his house still stood was a sort of balm. I posted about the house back in July, just after was it sold. If I’d known the buyer was going to tear it down, I would’ve tried to organize a public fit of hysteria or something.

Of course no building can stand forever. But I hoped this one might have been the exception. A grand, eternal Second Empire, not a slowly slackening clockwork.

It’s weird to feel so connected to a place I’ve never been, and to feel so sad when it’s gone. Kind of like the emotional unrest we all experienced at the loss of our local Kenny Rogers Roasters.

Ray’s house was such an integral part of his work, and his work is such an integral part of me. And if I can manage to never grow up, I wanna be just like Ray. He helped me believe in immortality, and helped me to understand that death is often a part of living forever.

What I wouldn’t give to spend an afternoon with him in his perfectly chaotic basement office, talking about dinosaurs, and séances, and the Egyptian sands of Illinois, and the weather on Phobos .

large-Ray Bradbury at the typewriter

But I guess, in truth, I’ve spent more than my fair share of warm, print-scented afternoons with Ray—and rocket fire–bright mornings, and sinister midnights, and weary-souled 3:00 AMs, too—so I shouldn’t really have much room for melancholy. I still miss him, though, this man and friend I never met but have known so well since I was 12. I wish he were still sitting at that desk.

Of course no one can live forever. But I hoped Ray might have been the exception.

And a small part of me will never give up the idea that maybe he is.

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I Think that I Shall Never See a Poem as Asinine as … I … Am.

I’m a little behind in my rambling. But luckily, I’m also a little obsessive, so the topic I’ve wanted to meander through for the last little bit is still fairly clear and meander-able. That being said, it’s not too late to bail. I won’t hold it against you. Life’s short, brevity is not one of my virtues, and there’re mines to be crafted.

So, if you’re still reading, all I can say is, “Thanks, Mom.”

Anyway, I was sick last week, which let me spend some time in a couple of new books of poetry. New to me, anyway. One of them was Susan Stewart’s Red Rover. I’ve been an admirer of Stewart’s work since I first read The Forest a few years ago. This fierce, untitled poem was the one that hooked me:

We needed fire to make
the tongs and tongs to hold
us from the flame; we needed
ash to clean the cloth
and cloth to clean the ash’s
stain; we needed stars
to find our way, to make
the light that blurred the stars;
we needed death to mark
an end, an end that time
in time could mend.
Born in love, the consequence-
born of love, the need.
Tell me, ravaged singer,
how the cinder bears the seed.

Awesome, isn’t it? I love poems like this, that in just a few lines can leave you in a very different place than you expected to be. And if you read it aloud a couple of times, just as Gloria Estafan warned would happen, the rhythm is gonna get you.

Now, with poems on my mind, I’ll say this about poetry:

It’s not what it once was.

Not that its quality has somehow diminished, although I’m sure plenty o’ folks would argue that it has. It’s just that it’s not what it once was to the world. It’s not as appreciated as it used to be. Maybe because it’s not as approachable; it comes across as esoteric or pretentious. Or maybe it’s voice is just too quiet to register in a world where only the thunder can be heard over the rain.

I think part of the shift is in the way we receive poems, or maybe in the way they are presented to us. Like puzzles with only one correct solution. Either it looks like a basket full of kittens when you’re done, or it doesn’t. Billy Collins (possibly the most popular and commercially successful poet working today) illustrates the problem in his “Introduction to Poetry” better than I can.

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

It’d be so much easier if poetry were objective. But it rarely is, as is the case with so many things in life. Even so, we’re still always trying to define it. To valuate it. The individual examples, as well as the whole twirling, multi-hued umbrella.

A lot of people have said a lot of things about what poetry is, but I’m partial to one of the ways Robert Frost defined it:

The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.

But that’s just, like, his opinion, man.

Regardless of what poetry has become—or has always been—to some other people, it’s still what it’s always been to me. A balm. An explanation. Duct tape. And since last week, an insistent little couplet has been gently but tenaciously stuck to the side of my brain:

Then the traveler in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark

It’s from one of the most oft-recited poems in the English-speaking world, but I doubt many people would recognize it by itself. So here it is in context:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

Then the traveler in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark,
How could he see where to go,
If you did not twinkle so?

In the dark blue sky you keep,
Often through my curtains peep
For you never shut your eye,
Till the sun is in the sky.

As your bright and tiny spark
Lights the traveler in the dark,
Though I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

That elegant tidbit is dense. That’s what has me hooked. I keep wondering and wondering, and wandering and wandering, and no matter how many times I start at the same point, I never reach the same destination. I always end up hearing a different story.

I guess it just amazes me how poignant a few lines of poetry can be. Sometimes it’s a complete poem, like Langston Hughes’ “Poem [2] (To F.S.),” one of my favorites:

I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
Soft as it began,-
I loved my friend.

And sometimes it’s just a snippet of a larger work, like this:

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

And this:

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still

And this:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

And this:

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

This, again, is a short, but complete, poem:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

But this isn’t:

Creo que el mundo es bello, que la poesía es como el pan, de todos.

And my blood boils up and I laugh through eyes that have known the buds of tears.
I believe the world is beautiful and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

Nor this:

When I die choose a star
and name it after me
that you may know
I have not abandoned
or forgotten you.

Nor this:

God, give us a long winter
and quiet music, and patient mouths,
and a little pride—before
our age ends.
Give us astonishment
and a flame, high, bright.

Nor this:

Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

Nor especially this:

I depart as air—I shake my white locks at the runaway sun;
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you

At this point, if you’re still with me, Mom, I have to apologize for my lack of snark. I know I’m out of character. But I want you to love poetry. I’d like it to be important the way it used to be. Not for the sake of nostalgia, and not because what’s right for me is necessarily right for everyone else. But because of the possibility that you might find the same experiences and healing in poetry that I, and untold others, have found. What’s right for us might be right for you. What speaks peace to our souls might speak peace to yours as well.

It might.

Doomsday Prepositioners

Today I was going to get all wide-eyed and giggly about that miraculous carbon, especially about graphene, Vantablack, flexible OLEDs, and all the other stuff I think will make Star Trek happen. Solid Friday fare, you know?

But that’ll have to wait. I’ve just come from a [s]troll through an Internet forum, so I’m going to rant about grammar awhile. Not about the grammar people use, but about the grammar people tell other people to use.

I know few of you obsess as much about words as I do. Thank goodness. Most people are much more inclined toward usefulness and productivity than I, and as much as that ensures the continuation of our species and the periodic creation of amazing new Reese’s Peanut Butter-based products, it also means that some bad ideas about language haven’t been quashed as they ought to have been.

Like the throwing of shade against deferred prepositions.

If you’ve ever been exposed to a high school English class, or at least 74 consecutive seconds of American pop culture, or the back of any cereal box from the 1950s, then you’ve probably been taught that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. It’s the go-to rule of people who want to sound as language-authoritative as they can while committing themselves to as little effort as possible.

The problem is, it’s not a rule of English grammar. It’s a rule based in Latin grammar, and is actually a pollution of Latin grammar.

In Latin, the rule isn’t that sentences can’t end in prepositions, but that clauses can’t end in prepositions. More accurately, the rule requires prepositions to pre-position (Get it?) their objects, meaning that they come before and not after. Since the preposition regularly precedes its object, it rarely comes at the end of a clause or sentence.

But either way, we don’t speak Latin!

We can thank John Dryden, perennial downer and Latin fanboy, for inflicting centuries of cankerous grief upon our language. In his 1672 Defence of the Epilogue, he criticizes Ben Jonson‘s use of clause-final prepositions as a part of his quest to prove that he’s a better playwright and poet than Jonson (and Fletcher and Shakespeare and pretty much everyone else who ever put quill to parchment). Sometime after that, some well-intentioned English teacher at PS 358 caught a nasty case of Dry-phoid, and the rest, as they say, is hysteria.

I think it’s strangely poetic. Not only have we been taught to adhere to a foreign grammatical structure, but we’ve been taught to adhere to an incorrect interpretation of a foreign grammatical structure. Sure, English is the adorable love child of German and Latin-based French, but kids can grow up and make their own syntactic choices. English has the chance to take its diverse inheritance and become something truly awesome—the Schokolade-covered pommes frites we’ve all been waiting for. Instead of taking a page out of Dryden’s Illustrated Latin Grammar Primer, I’d rather climb onto the brown-shoes-and-belt-with-a-black-suit-esque bandwagon with Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Byron, James Thurber, Robert Frost, and every other writer who rendered unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s and kept the fun, spicy stuff for him- or herself.

Of course there are times that call for more formality (when the bailiff instructs you and your defense attorney to rise, when a colonoscopy is involved, when you’re in a room with Prince, etc.) and in those times it’s more than appropriate to add a little rigidity to your language. Most of the time, however, we’re all just going about the everyday tasks of trying to find roast beef sandwiches and attempting to peacefully coexist. No reason to gussy up our speak for that. You’re not going to impress anyone when the words “Cynthia, with whom should we go to Forever 21 this evening?” leave your mouth.

If you simply can’t stand to strand those prepositions, that’s okay. Some people are always striving for what they see as “perfection” in their speech and writing—the members of the “I’m doing well” crowd. If that’s you, fantastic. Live your life, kid. But please stop telling the “I’m doing good”-ers they’re wrong to let their prepositions caboose it up. The world will be better because of your tolerance.

No matter what, various dilettantes throughout the English-speaking world will clench at the sight of prepositions at the ends of sentences until the zombies bring an end to all non-grunted languages. But in the interim, those fops will probably be happier if they can learn to un-pucker.

p.s. Next week’s diatribe should probably be a self-directed lesson on restraint in the use of italics.

Hooray for this, the Oingo Boingo-est of Months!

I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. And I hope Ray, the eternal MC of October, will forgive me for not opening with one of his. First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys, would’ve been a fine choice, too. Today though, I feel like Maud’s words are a better place to start. Plus, as a PBS-raised lad, one of my childhood crushes was Megan Follows, and I think Ray would approve of me letting my boyishness take the lead.

I love October. It always feels like the true beginning of Autumn. It’s when crisp straw-broom breezes sweep up all the apple orchards, pumpkin patches, crackling golden trees, caramels, skeletal corn stalks, cinnamon sticks, and nutmeg seeds, and scatter them about in every direction. It’s when mischief is anticipated and encouraged, even by the virtuous. When specters ride the growing shadows, some full of antagonistic-but-amiable celebration and laughter, and others eager to burn and topple and terrify as much as they can before they’re warded away by winter’s arrival, by collective faith, and by the presence of a different order of spirits who touch our minds with hope and songs of great joy and on earth peace, good will toward men.

San Diego and his friends are welcome to their perpetual springs. Most people would gladly settle under forever-sunny skies. But I need the clouds and the rain and the cider and the hocus-pocus.*

In October, the world transforms. Every yard becomes a graveyard, every leaf skittering down the sidewalk becomes a promise of something mysterious, and every kid running through freshly harvested fields becomes gypsy royalty.

And an even better reason still: I fell in love with my wife in October. I could’ve led with that, and the rest would’ve been a few odd Fun Size Skittles in a pillow case full of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

*Hocus Pocus—arguably humankind’s greatest artistic achievement. We should all just play it on a loop for the next 30 days.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but you nerds will never have the upper body strength or motor skills to use them against me.

Nerd Pride is a beautiful oxymoron. And yes, it might be something of a clichéd idea now that nerds are more accepted in the mainstream, but I remain an adherent. ‘Cause although we nerds don’t have to hide in our parents’ dank basements anymore (though you’ll probably find the pale majority of us down there anyway), we’re still prone to extreme levels of shame. But we possibly … maybe … kind of … shouldn’t be?

I’m an ardent believer that everyone is nerdy about something. Nerdiness is really just a product of passion. Sports fan(atics)s, for example, are by definition zealous in their devotion, including the tracking of statistics and crunching of numbers. And historically, under whose purview have numbers and statistics and crunching fallen? That’s right—under yours. Nerd.

Still, it’s important to note that not all nerds are created equal. Of course sportier nerds have their own stigmata, but they’ll never reach brony-grade pariah-hood. And we shouldn’t confuse the classic nerdy jock with the new wave of Twitchy eSports enthusiast because despite broadcasting “sports” like billiards and poker, ESPN still refuses to let the gamier nerds of the world join its team. For my purposes though, I’m talking about—and to—the traditional, no-nonsense, no-non-World-of-Warcraft-plans-on-a-Friday-night kind of nerd. Homo sapiens rejectus. The noble outcast.

Finding happiness and success in high-functioning nerdery is all about taking ownership of your ignominy. When the villagers pelt you with sweet, vine-ripened tomatoes, you turn those tomatoes into a robust, yet delicately balanced marinara. It’s all about making your condition work for you, kid, and keeping things on the not-so-heavy side. Don’t get all indignant when you’re playing Legos with your nine-year-old nephew and he circumvents your entrenched muster of stormtroopers by taking his 74-Z speeder bike above its max altitude of 25 (scale) meters. Just give the little Rebel a pass on this one. He may not have the words to label any D-baggery as such, but his emotions will confirm that he’s not happy facing those flagrant levels of untenable pomposity. Just have fun with it, dude, is all I’m sayin’. Recognize that NO ONE outside of your loyal fellowship takes you seriously when you start ranting about how 8-bit is the last pure art form. Try to accept that this ridiculousness is a glorious part of our collective nerd-venture. Be genuine. The fact that you are so nerdy and have survived in spite of it is one of nature’s precious miracles. So don’t hide your lightsaber under a bushel. And be honest about your foibles. I can’t name more than five current non-NHL, non-NBA starters across all of professional sports. I can, however, rattle off a pretty accurate list of the top 25 Magic: The Gathering players in the world. I’m comfortable with that. Sure, I know by most standards it won’t make me the most interesting guy in the room, but it will keep me authentic. And it will ensure I’m home at a reasonable hour most evenings.

So maybe you’re the kind of nerd who watches A Game of Thrones, and maybe you’re the kind who read it for the first time way back in good old 1996. Or maybe—possibly, even—you’re both. One of a new breed of über-nerd. Someone who is pretty sure Ned Stark was only like 35-ish in the book, but is also pretty sure 50-ish Sean Bean is a total bad-A. Either way, you’re someone who is super cheesed at George for takin’ his friggin’ sweet time with errthang! And you’re someone who sees nerd not only as a pejorative, but as a declaration of independence, and a term of endearment, and, of course, a delicious crunchy candy.

I think it’s gonna be a long, long time…

VoyagerReverse

By the time I was born, Voyager 1 had traveled well beyond Saturn. Which means that on a mission that had already exceeded the five-year time limit of the original expedition of the starship Enterprise, Voyager 1 had only gone like 930 million miles. That doesn’t put it anywhere near Qo’noS!

But it’s still pretty good, I guess.

Now jump ahead 30 years, if you’d be so kind. In the interim, I’ve survived my awkward but impassioned The-Fast-and-the-Furious-should’ve-won-Best-Picture phase, watercress has finally gained the plaudits it’s so intensely deserved, and Voyager 1 is zipping along at an average velocity of 37,000 miles per hour (325 million miles per year). And according to last week’s confirmation from NASA, for almost two years now Voyager 1’s solitary journey has taken place in the interstellar medium, the soup of ionized gas, dust, Snickers® wrappers, etc. that fills the space between the solar winds of star systems. Voyager 1 is like 11 billion miles away from Earth, and it’s still not even close to leaving the Solar System. The beginning of the Oort Cloud, which nerds ’round the world agree defines the boundary of the Solar System, is still 300 years out for Voyager 1, and passing through the Oort Cloud could take it another 30,000 years! Even after it leaves the Oort Cloud it will still have only traveled a quarter of the way to Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun.

Oooooort!

And still nowhere in the neighborhood of LCDR Worf et al! STILL!

I know right now all three of you are are asking, “Where’s a freakin’ Einstein-Rosen bridge when we need one?!” However, before we go flinging our wishes for first contact about all helter-skelter, we should remember some of our beloved cautionary tales. V’ger being among the the most obvious. Sure that little bucket of joy didn’t end up destroying life as we (will) know it, but the movie in which it played an essential part definitely came close. Add that to a few xenomorphs (though in anything after Aliens, its less the aliens and more the filmmakers’ decisions that are terrifying), the Reavers (and Fox tearing our hearts out much more brutally than those space maniacs ever could/would), the Reapers (and the near-galaxy-ending collective nerd-rage that accompanied the end of their story), and the Borg (which may have in fact been some sort of herpetic consequence of V’ger itself, but for dramatic effect we’ll count them separately).

Lovecraft laid the threat out pretty eloquently.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

If that’s not a good reason for underachieving, I don’t know what is.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be space-cowboying our way through the cosmos, I’m just trying to remind everyone that interstellar travel has brought a lot of problems to our door. After everything has been discussed, if we’ve weighed the risks and decided it’s worth flirting with the unending madness that results from the merest glimpse of Azathoth, the horror that inhabits the darkness at the center of the universe and is forever accompanied by horrifically crappy flautists, and we’re still willing to push farther into the infinite and endless expanse of forever and ever, then good on us. It would take us so long to get to the center of the universe anyway. Like, crazy long. Watching-Norwegian-TV long.

So what if the next thousand generations of humans will be long dead when Voyager 1 breaks free of just our solar system? I say bring on the cold vastness of space. I’ve really been jonesing for that sweet, sweet feeling of utter insignificance today.

Maybe this will help.

Star-sizes

p.s. Interstellar Medium could be CBS’s next summer hit. Space psychics? I’d watch that. Somebody tell Chris Nolan & John Edward to start working on a pilot.

Somewhere a Band Is Still Playing

Summer for me begins a season of rituals, none more sacrosanct than my annual reading of Dandelion Wine. I think this will be my fifteenth time through. I’m getting to it a little later than normal this year, but thankfully not so late that my OCD has decided to take up the cause. Dandelion Wine, and Farewell Summer with it (at least for the last several years), is a warm precursor to the pumpkin-and-dead-leaf-and-promise-of-frost-scented tales of newborn assassinsdark carnivals, and October mansions that will dominate my September and October.

As I’ve already had Bradbury on my mind, I was delighted a few days ago to bump back into a story I first read in late May. It’s a small write-up on the listing of the Bradbury family home in Los Angeles.

Cheviot-Front

Of course Ray painted the house “dandelion yellow.”

Creeper that I am, I’ve kind of kept my eye on it, and according to the realtor’s site it just sold for $1,765,000. I guess I got outbid a little. Sigh.

Along with the chance to glimpse where Ray wrote and found inspiration for so many of his classic stories, the article links to a quiet, beautiful piece written by Sam Weller, Bradbury’s official biographer. Part eulogy and part reminiscence, it paints the home as it was before and just after Ray’s death. Weller is a genuine fan, and he’s always written about Ray with less objectivity than serious literary critics might find appropriate. Which is, I would imagine, exactly how Ray would want it.

I think Ray was giving himself something to aspire to as he gustily typed out Granger’s words to Montag. A direction to guide the next six decades of his life. Something even the most eloquent admirer would be unable to top. And it worked. We knew exactly what to say two summers ago when Ray died. “He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.”

And since I’ve geeked out this far, I might as well let Granger speak a bit more of his wisdom.

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between you and the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.

What a great reason to write. Or to garden. Or to paint a picture or raise a child or build a car or a treehouse or a time machine or take a photo or listen to and record the stories of a loved one or go to Mars or learn to play music or …

Well, I was going to stop there for the day … but I can’t. So …

I don’t think it surprises anyone that my literary hero is a true puer aeternus. My own dusting of Peter Pan is pretty obvious. The small part of me that is more or less grown up will forever marvel at Ray’s craft, his mastery of metaphor and theme. But it’s the boy in me who will run with his young poet-guide cohort through the jungle-hot midnight ravines and dusty Egyptian attics and into white-xylophone-bone-littered Martian ruins and through hobo camps where Moses and Plato and Byron and Thomas Jefferson warm their renewed flesh around phoenix-flame campfires.

And here I was getting ready to lose it even further and launch into Mr. Electrico for a few minutes, but I think the damage has been done. So instead, one of my favorite quotes from Ray. It’s not his deepest granted, but it’s among his most honest and it pretty handily sums up my love for him and his work.

tim_quote_crop_041814