Very Much At Home: A Brief Update

Hi Friends,

Just a quick update on the new Uncanny Valley book and related stuff, since some people have been asking. My goal over the summer was to write another 30,000 words of it, but my divorce and the move that went with it took up most of my time and focus.

With that in mind, I only ended up writing 22,000 words this summer. That said, just yesterday I took a look through my writing log and realized those 22,000 words include 12 new story-chapters, all completed over a six week period. The book is now 66,000 words long (about 220 pages, divided into 33 story-chapters), and I’m estimating it will take another 20,000 words, about another dozen chapters, to wrap up the rough draft. So there’s still much to do, but I’m also happy with what I was able to complete in the midst of a very unusual summer. Besides, keeping personal deadlines is great, but simply crossing the finish line is more important, regardless of the detours that have to be made or how long it may take. I crossed several important finish lines this summer, and will cross those related to the book in due course.

So now I’m in my new apartment, completely unpacked and feeling very much at home. And while teaching, especially during Covid, takes up a lot of my creative and professional focus, those 220 pages of the new book have found a semi-permanent home on my new kitchen table, so I can dig in, revise, and edit whenever I have the time, and take inspiration from my new library/living room just across from it.

For example, this morning, over coffee, I was skimming through a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald and came across this beautiful quote from her:

Nobody has ever measured, even the poets, how much a heart can hold.

Truer words have seldom been spoken.

Until the next time, stay well and Happy Fall,

Greg

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Happy 100th Birthday, Ray Bradbury!

Today, August 22nd, 2020, is the 100th birthday of Ray Bradbury, one of the greatest writers of modern times, and a dear friend.

It is difficult to believe that he passed away over eight years ago. Time is like that, of course…It sweeps us steadily forward, so you hardly realize until you stop to think about it just how far away from shore you actually are. But his influence also remains incredibly strong, so there is a fine and positive reason why Ray still feels so present, too.

Ray speaks to us now through what he left behind. And what he left behind, in addition to the memories of those privileged to know him personally, is a life’s work of immensely powerful creativity spanning eight decades, in multiple fields and just about every imaginable genre. Through it, one can still kindle a deep connection with the powerful, brilliant, quirky, hilarious, serious, angry, kind, optimistic, inquisitive, dedicated, and caring mind of a truly singular human being.

On my final visit to see Ray, in April 2012, just six weeks before he passed, the day had come to an end, and night had fallen. Ray was very ill and totally bed-bound, but we’d enjoyed a good, quiet day together in between his periods of rest, watching Looney Tunes (a favorite), talking, and reading…When friends came to visit during that last year or so, we would read to him, either his own works or the works of his favorite authors — a routine he loved.

As I was packing up to leave in the den adjacent to his room, I heard Ray’s evening caregiver ask him about his day. “Oh, it was wonderful,” Ray replied. “I had a wonderful day.”

I learned so many lessons from Ray Bradbury…about writing, and about living. But the lesson perfectly encapsulated in the final words I ever heard him say in person is perhaps the most profound: Life is worth celebrating, even when the limitations are great. Ray once told a mutual friend, “Every day is a good day.” That’s not to say certain days aren’t filled with great tragedy, loss, anger, illness, or hurt. But they are our days. We are here. And that in and of itself is a gift that should never, ever be taken for granted.

And for as long as Ray’s work continues to be read, he will teach others that same lesson, along with many more. Here, then, are ten other things I’ve learned from him over the years…just a few from the wondrous pile, and in no particular order, some in my words, some in his:

1. Celebrate your existence. We are, as Ray said, the eyes and ears of the universe. That is an extraordinary gift.

2. If people ridicule you for what you love, let those people go; cut them right out of your life. Ray said, “I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows, or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

3. If you love what you’re doing, see it through. Get it done. No matter what obstacles and detours are thrown in your path, no matter how long it takes, every challenge that matters to you, big and small, should be met with vigor. Ray said, “You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”

4. As a continuation of #3, Ray also said, “I have two rules in life: to hell with it, whatever it is, and get your work done.” When I would call him, or he me, I’d naturally ask how he was doing, and he invariably replied, “I’m getting my work done.” If he had a setback health-wise, or in some other way, he’d mention it briefly, then add, “Well, to hell with it,” and chuckle. The setbacks did not deter him from pursuing his goals. He had things to do, and life to live.

5. Intuition is the key to creativity. Ray used to keep a sign posted above his typewriter that read, “DON’T THINK!”

6. “‘Stuff your eyes with wonder,’ he said, ‘live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that,’ he said, ‘shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.’”

7. We stand on the shoulders of those who taught us, loved us, and believed in us, both here and gone. Our success is therefore partially their success, and in that way their lessons, their love, and their belief in us blossoms, and they live on in us.

8. “Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all.”

9. Enthusiasm is the vehicle by which we challenge ourselves, triumph over adversity, and find our happiness. And love is the engine that powers it…the only thing that truly matters.

10. Never be afraid to say, “I love you.”

Ray’s greatest wish, he once told an interviewer, is that one night, in some future year, a child will read a copy of The Martian Chronicles in bed, under a blanket, with a flashlight…on Mars. Today, exactly 100 years after his birth, I remain absolutely convinced that his wish will eventually come true.

He is still very much with us. He always will be. What a gift that is. And what amazing things love can do.

Happy Birthday, Ray.

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“A Cult of Ignorance”

A few weeks ago I was cashing a check. Since my bank currently allows only a certain number of customers inside at a given time, I ended up standing outside with some other people while we waited our turn.

One man, probably in his late-fifties, struck up a conversation.

“Nice mask,” he said.

“Thanks. Yours too.”

“My neighbor’s daughter made it. It’s my third one in two months. In construction you tear right through them. Lungs get a good workout, too. Kind of sick of the whole thing, but what can you do?”

And so on. He asked what I did for a living, and I told him I’m a teacher.

“Oh, I feel so bad for the kids,” he said. “Especially the high school seniors. They lost the whole end of their year. Same for the college kids. It’s a sad way to end things.”

I agreed, and so we chatted along like that for another five minutes or so. He was a friendly guy, affable and kind of funny. It felt good, having a nice, unexpected conversation with a stranger. The last few months hadn’t provided many chances for that.

“But that Bill Gates,” he said abruptly, during a lull.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

“What about him?”

“I don’t trust that f_____.”

I exhaled. “What? Why not?”

“He’s developing a vaccine. All that money he’s giving to charity to get it made…He’s going to make that back ten times over. And you know what else?”

“No,” I said quietly. “What else?”

“They’re going to implant everyone who gets it with a microchip to track us. He wants our information. F___ that. No way in hell I’m ever taking a vaccine. Especially from him.”

Sometimes less is more, so I kept my response brief: “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” I said.

And that ended that.

But the whole thing kind of broke my heart. I like exchanging pleasantries, joking around, and meeting different people. That moment outside the bank was a small, nice chance to simply interact with someone new…And there had been plenty of common ground.

Until, suddenly, there wasn’t any left at all.

The thing is, when it comes to certain issues, I just don’t have the patience any longer for ignorance…willful or otherwise. The man outside the bank was a nice guy, except for…

And that’s what I can no longer overlook: the “except for,” that awful blind spot on an issue that grown people simply can’t afford to be blind about. It’s a deal-breaker. A brake slam. Years ago I might have overlooked it, but these last few have been eye-opening. A statement like that is now all it takes for me to step back and say, “I don’t want to know you any longer,” because it’s the kind of absolute nonsense that costs people their lives.

One of my favorite quotes is by Isaac Asimov. It’s been making the rounds again lately, since science, education, and fact-based knowledge (as well as a great deal of common sense) have been taking some hard hits these last few years:

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

I find myself simply unable to excuse that cult any longer. “Well, that’s just how she was brought up,” doesn’t cut it. Neither does, “Oh, he’s older, and his generation believed…”

And as for, “Well, everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” please re-read the quote above.

The same arguments are used to defend racists, too. Our little exchange outside the bank, by the way, was just days before the horrific murder of George Floyd. As I write this, worldwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality have entered their 11th day. I wonder what the gentleman who thought Bill Gates was out to get him thinks about that? I wonder what he’d randomly bring up in conversation now?

I’ll never have to find out.

Sometimes people disappoint us. Sometimes they anger us. And many times they can be forgiven. Hell, we all make mistakes, even big ones, and if not for the understanding of others, none of us might find the strength to change for the better. But when it comes to some issues, explicit, clear outrage toward ignorance – and the hate that often goes hand in hand with it – is appropriate. And when faced with it, the ignorant can either try to change, grow, and learn along with the rest of a maturing society, or be held accountable for their inability – or unwillingness – to do so. For me, holding them accountable includes dropping them like a bad habit, and if they ask why, telling them. “Putting up with it” or “letting it slide” is accepting it, and that is no longer acceptable. Anger is healthy when the stakes are high enough.

Now is not the time for silence. Without doing harm, speak up in your own way.

Without doing harm, be loud in your own way.

And make sure everybody hears.

 

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Some New Glimpses of Uncanny Valley…

I’m extremely happy to report that John Randall York, who has done the covers and interior illustrations for all my books since 2009, is on board for the third installment in The Uncanny Chronicles. Entitled Echoes from the Valley: The Uncanny Files of Emil Fitzhugh, I’ve been working slowly but steadily on it, and currently have 25 story-chapters written with around 15 more to go. Meanwhile, a few months ago I began sending some of them along to John, and he’s already completed several interior illustrations. Below are three, showing, amongst other things, some extremely traumatized citizens of Still Creek, the town closest to Uncanny. Beyond that, I’ll leave them here without comment, save for the story titles. I think they serve as a good taste of what’s to come…at least in part. There is always another side at work, too.

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“When They Come Calling”

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“Learning to Fly”

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“The Fire Hag”

Thank you, John, for going on another adventure with me.

Exciting things are under way for this series on another front, too. I can’t say more yet, except that there has been significant outside interest in adapting the books in a different medium, and a contract has been signed. But with so much still up in the air, I’ll leave it at that for now. That said, it makes me so happy to see The Uncanny Chronicles gaining additional recognition from people I highly respect professionally, and at a time when I’m having so much fun exploring that world once again.

This summer will therefore be a “deep dive” into the remaining chapters of the new book, and I’m sure that as I work, I’ll still encounter plenty of surprises along the way. Endings may seem clear at times, but we seldom wind up exactly where we expect when we begin…or even as we go along.

Isn’t that wonderful?

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“Trout Fishing on the Bevel,” by Richard Brautigan

There is no author like Richard Brautigan (1935-1984). His writing is utterly unique, and in a society where so much is built on the shoulders of what came before, that’s very special. Early on he had literary influences, but then sailed off in his own direction, and in the process created some of the finest, most idiosyncratic, personal, and addictively readable works in modern American literature. No one has come close to capturing his style, and no one has been able to write about the (supposedly) mundane aspects of the world around us in a way that imbues them with such magic.

To Richard Brautigan, the most overlooked and seemingly trivial things — and people — were worthy of respect, appreciation, and remembrance. This can be seen not only in the subject matter of his poems, stories, and novels, but also in the way he wrote them. He is the master of the unexpected simile or adjective, and somehow, amazingly, they always work. The normal, prismed through his extraordinary mind and talent, becomes precious.

And during this time when, perhaps more than anything else, most of us just want to sit in a café with a cup of coffee, have lunch with a loved one, walk into the building where we work to begin a normal day, or go to a movie…or even just buy stamps at the post office without a plastic barrier separating us, sit on a public bench without concern, or chat with a stranger in a bar…Brautigan’s appreciation for the overlooked and trivialized has not only become particularly relevant, but also worth emulating in our own ways. Deprived of aspects of our normal routines both large and small, we need to find pleasure and fulfillment in things that previously would have gone almost unacknowledged…little things that, given proper attention, can be both meaningful and significant.

Brautigan’s “breakthrough” novel was Trout Fishing in America, first published in 1967. You’ll never read another book like it. My dad bought his copy when he was 20, at a small news store in State College in 1968. I read that same copy for the first time in 1998 when I was 20. The chapter that always stuck with me the most, and still moves me to this day, deals not with the things that are overlooked and trivialized, but the people, and how he would honor them if could. And, movingly, he did honor them, simply by writing the story. It’s called “Trout Fishing on the Bevel.” My reading of it is below.

(With special thanks to Ianthe Brautigan Swensen, for permitting me to record and post it.)

PS: the last novel Brautigan saw published in his lifetime, the elegiac So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away, isn’t as well-known as Trout Fishing in America, but also addresses the forgotten and overlooked in our society in a haunting, poignant, often loving way. It is a work written by an author still at the height of his powers. In it, Brautigan wrote, “In those days people made their own imagination, like homecooking.”

We still can.

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“This Attic Where the Meadow Greens,” by Ray Bradbury

“This Attic Where the Meadow Greens,” by Ray Bradbury, has very personal associations for me. I hadn’t planned on posting a reading of it now. In fact, until this evening I hadn’t read it from beginning to end in a number of years, because, like most things that carry deep emotional weight, the time has to be right.

For some reason, the time was right again this evening, several years after I last read it to myself, and almost eight years after I last read it aloud to others. Times of transition and uncertainty are when we begin to fall, but are often caught up in the strong and reassuring arms of those who helped to make, and help to maintain, the best parts of who we are.

Those arms usually belong to the few, great people in our lives who truly, unconditionally love us. They are the people whose love, we know, will last up until the day they die – which means, of course, that their love will never really die at all. It is with us now, and it will stay with us, powerful and omnipotent, for the rest of our lives.

Needless to say, many people are struggling right now, and in a myriad of ways, even if the root cause is the same. How we view the world is being slowly altered, just as our daily lives are being modified, and just as our greater societies are being restructured. We are being forced to adapt to new scenarios that, depending on circumstances, can range from generally stressful to profoundly catastrophic. In the worst-case scenarios, people are losing loved ones – or even their own lives. At the very least, all of us are losing other aspects of reassuring stability. On whatever level, the burden of change is there, and through it all runs an undercurrent of loss.

So maybe that’s why this evening, as I sat down to work on this entry, I’d planned to focus on one poem, and ended up reading and recording “This Attic Where the Meadow Greens” instead. Ray was a dear, dear friend – “Papa Ray,” my sons call him even now. And there are times, like now, when I still miss him greatly, along with others who were taken away by Death’s “older, stricter rules,” as Ray puts it.

Yet this poem serves to remind me of the gifts they left behind. For many years before Ray’s death, I read it and thought about my grandfather, who died when I was young. Now, when I read it, I think about my grandfather, and also about Ray. And, as always, I still feel those strong and reassuring arms around me that will never allow me to fall.

 

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“anyone lived in a pretty how town,” by ee cummings

Poet E.E. Cummings (aka ee cummings) realized something many artists – sometimes even very successful ones – never do: that in order to build something truly original, you not only have to recognize all the tools at your disposal, but also understand how and why they work. He was an absolute master of grammatical form and usage, knowing all the rules of the English language inside and out. In fact, two of his most famous lectures are about the importance of knowing those rules.

And then, in his work, he broke all of them. Beautifully.

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Sometimes, in the breaking, what he writes at first appears completely nonsensical. It never is, which is why his work always deserves more than one read-through or listen. The extraordinary thing about cummings is that he knew exactly what he was doing. And nowhere is this more evident than in my favorite poem of his, “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” It’s a brilliant, provocative, and meaningful work that, like all the best art, is open to a degree of interpretation, yet is also carefully, meticulously constructed.

The subject matter is both heartbreaking and beautiful. No amount of brilliance or cleverness can compensate for a lack of depth and emotional resonance. But “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” however you interpret its meaning, has plenty of both. It gets me every single time.

Anyway, here’s my reading of it:

On another note, this pandemic is hitting closer to home now. As I write this, a loved one is in the ICU with it, and two friends are also sick – one hospitalized for observation, one quarantined at home with a milder case but still showing symptoms after nine days. So until the next time, please stay safe and stay well. And may your loved ones do the same.

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“Time held me green and dying…”

“Fern Hill,” by Dylan Thomas, has been a poem of comfort ever since I “discovered” it when I was 20. As I write this, I have my copy of Thomas’s Collected Poems in front of me, with a sticker from Svboda’s Books in State College (long gone, and sorely missed) still on the back. Inside, I signed and dated it on February 5, 1999, the day I bought it with part of a meager paycheck ($6 an hour!) from Mike’s Movies and Music, and less than a week before my 21st birthday.

It couldn’t be more fitting that I bought that book just before reaching the symbolic age of adulthood in the United States. “Fern Hill” is a profound and lyrical rumination on the innocence of childhood Eden, and how Time, even as it lets us play in the garden, is also unrelentingly ushering us toward the wider, wilder world beyond its gates.

Over and over as the years pass, 22 as I write this, I return to it. I have heard it read aloud at the wake of a dear friend Time has taken even further afield. I have read it silently on peaceful summer nights, and in times of difficult transition and crisis.

We keep the art we love always close to us because of what it does for us. When we want it – or need it – it embraces us with the comfort of connection, and the sharing of profound truths expressed with grace.

And here is my reading of “Fern Hill,” for better or worse:

Until the next time, stay safe and stay well.

PS…I’ve always appreciated David Lynch’s hair (not to mention David Lynch). And now, with all the barbershops closed, I’m starting to get some Lynch hair myself…I don’t think it’s been this long since I bought that Dylan Thomas book. Another month without a haircut, and I should be there. Well, let’s see what happens…

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The Constancy of Stars

When I was seven years old, my parents and I moved from our small house in Lemont, Pennsylvania, just outside of State College, and into State College itself, to a house on a street called Old Boalsburg Road. For the first time in my life we lived on a street with sidewalks, so my dad would often take me on walks around the neighborhood after he got home from work.

In the winter, with night falling early, his work day ended at dusk, so we could only walk after dark. That’s when he would point out the constellations to me in the cold, frosty air. His favorite, and so my favorite too, was Orion.

When we moved to Maryland two years later, and everything seemed new and strange, it was odd and comforting to see Orion in its same place that winter, completely unchanged, although so much else in my life was different.

And now, over 30 years later, with just about everything different from the way it was when I was a kiddo holding my dad’s hand, listening to his stories as we looked up at the sky, I still find great comfort in the constancy of the stars…especially when Orion rises up over the trees in the winter night, still hunting.

So I think the reason why one of my favorite poems is “Winter Stars,” by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), will become clear very quickly. Here, for what it’s worth, is my reading of it:

Although very popular in her time, Teasdale’s work is often unjustly overlooked today, and she deserves more recognition. Ray Bradbury used her most famous poem, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” in his haunting short story of the same name. I highly recommend her collected works, which can be found here.

Thank you for all the emails and tweets about my previous post, and for the unexpected but very welcome poetry recommendations! I’m enjoying them, and I’ll try to use some in the future. I’m also going to continue to post these readings once or twice a week, until things calm down a bit and some normalcy returns…or until enough people tell me to shut up.

In the meantime, take care and stay well.

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Certainty in an Uncertain Time

Well, here we are, and all our lives have quickly changed in many ways both big and small – hopefully temporarily, but I think we’re beyond presuming to know what will happen next, or how long it will take before the crisis fades and we can truly take stock of things. Meanwhile, for the time being, and for the first time in our lives (at least to this extent), we are living in oddly repressed conditions, with degrees of fear and concern always casting long and shifting shadows over us. Being less active than normal has seldom been so hard.

During times of difficulty, such as we are all sharing now, I think we tend to desire the basic pleasures of normalcy more than anything else – the little things so often taken for granted because we don’t, at the time, think they can ever really be taken away. Then they are, and we want them back: a visit with a family member, a cup of coffee at a café, a romantic dinner out, a drink downtown with friends, a casual trip to a “non-essential” store…or maybe a day at work around colleagues, an open business, a hug or handshake without hesitation, or a paycheck.

Yet we adapt, temporarily or otherwise, to whatever the occasion requires of us. And as we all do our best to adjust, I’ve noticed a trend on social media over the last week that has provided a much-needed emotional break.

People are posting photos of their favorite paintings. Reviews of their favorite movies. Recommendation lists of their favorite books. Playlists of their favorite songs. Pics of their collections. Details about their hobbies. Collections of their favorite quotes. Small performances and readings. On his website, Brian May of Queen is posting daily “MicroConcertos” and other things from his home – guitar solos, snippets of Queen songs, brief tutorials, daily thoughts, and good, reasoned information on the pandemic – and they are a wonderful, warm comfort.

All of these are passions, both large and small. And sharing them allows us to stay connected to each other by focusing on what we love in the midst of difficulty…which is exactly when such passions really matter the most. It is gratifying to be reminded that art and artistry, in all its many forms, can always, always be counted on to comfort and inspire us…and also bring us together.

For the last week and a half I’ve been teaching my classes online, and I miss seeing my students every day. Much of what made me want to be a teacher is the enjoyment I receive simply by being around people, and it looks as though we won’t be together again in an actual classroom for a long time. But two days ago I started using QuickTime to record mini-lectures and respond to their questions…It seemed far more organic and natural than trying to type everything out. The response was very positive, so I’m now getting into the routine of making daily recordings for them. Again, it’s creating a form of connection.

This led to another idea, also related to the topic above. I thought I’d try reading and recording some of my favorite poems and short stories – pieces by some of my favorite writers that I’ve gone back to time and again over the years – then post them here every few days. It’s something, like the recorded mini-lectures, that I’ve never tried before. Now seems the right time.

I’m starting out with a piece by Alfred Lord Tennyson, called “Nothing Will Die.” David Lynch used a portion of it at the end of The Elephant Man, and ever since I first heard it there, it’s been a favorite. It also seems appropriate.

Wishing good health to all, until the next time. And remember, “Nothing is worth more than this day.” — Goethe

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