The Name of the Voice

Easter Weekend was a good one. I visited my parents for the first time since Christmas, my boys were thrilled by three different Easter Egg hunts and ridiculously full baskets, and I actually ended up feeling more or less rested for the first time in at least four months. (I have Spring Break to thank for that. One of the great things about being a teacher is that you never have to give up your childhood holidays.)

But the cherry on top was The Great Philadelphia Comic Con, a weekend fandom bash held in Oaks, about a dozen miles from the city. Early on Saturday morning I made the 175-mile drive from my parents’ to the Con, then quite contentedly drove back just three hours later.

I’ve never minded driving (or flying) long distances for short events. For years, I’ve done my best to take advantage of rare and special opportunities when they present themselves. In terms of my cultural interests, that includes going to concerts, attending lectures and readings, visiting traveling museum exhibits…you name it. I’m a bit dense in some ways, but I’m also fortunate that I realized, very early on, that you shouldn’t put off or ignore certain things – you simply have to do them, or risk losing the opportunities forever. This is applicable to every aspect of life, both great and small, but here, I’ll focus on things that fall under the categories I listed above.

A few examples:

In 2005, the remaining members of my favorite band, Queen, went on tour for the first time in almost 20 years…but only dates in Europe and the UK had been announced. “Go,” a small but insistent voice in the back of my mind demanded. So I renewed my passport, flew from Pittsburgh to New York, and then from New York to Birmingham, England. Once there, I took a taxi to my hotel, dropped off my stuff, walked over to the arena, waited in line for 11 hours, and ended up in the front row, nine feet away from my musical heroes Brian May and Roger Taylor. It was worth every cent, every mile, and every jetlagged moment.

In 2006, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and John Irving announced a benefit reading at Radio City Music Hall for Doctors Without Borders. “Go,” the voice told me. So I bought a ticket and drove with a friend to New York City. That night, Stephen King read the great pie eating contest scene from Stand by Me (“The Body”), Rowling read from the newly-published Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Irving killed it with a scene from A Prayer for Owen Meany. To the best of my knowledge, Rowling hasn’t given a reading in the States since, and most of Stephen King’s few public appearances are now limited to signings that draw overnight lines—speeches and public readings are as rare as hen’s teeth. But that particular night, there they both were…and there I was, rapt in my plush seat, applauding each of them along with the rest of the crowd.

Then there’s a far more profound example, which involves a small poetry reading in Venice Beach, California, that took place in March 2003. After I learned of it, that same voice in the back of my mind kept saying, first quietly, then louder and with more authority, “Go.” I listened. I went. The poetry reading was by Ray Bradbury, then 82 years old, and the not-quite 24 hours I spent in Los Angeles that first time led to one of the closest and most profound relationships of my life. Because I listened to that voice, not knowing exactly what to expect but hoping for the best, my sporadic correspondence with Ray had a chance to become something deeper – and developed into an instant, constant, resilient friendship that would eventually see him become my mentor, teacher, and “Honorary Papa.” It lasted the rest of his life, and during the next nine years I visited him in Los Angeles 31 more times.

Thinking back, there are so many other examples I could give. Seeing Fred Rogers lecture on the 50th anniversary of PBS. Attending one of David Bowie’s final concerts. Sitting entranced while Seamus Heaney read from his translation of Beowulf. Cheering when the first notes of “Comfortably Numb” kicked in during a Roger Waters performance of The Wall. Witnessing Al Green belt out a one-off, live rendition of “A Change is Gonna Come” that would have made Sam Cooke himself stand up and applaud.

I could go on and on.

No, you should never put things off. You should never say, “That might be nice, but I have to…” You should never say, “They’ll be back next year.” You should never do something you can do any day when you have the choice between that, and something special that might never happen again.

Which leads me back to Easter Weekend and the Great Philadelphia Comic Con, now just a few days in the past.

The reason I wanted to attend is a simple one: I grew up loving the original Star Trek, but over the years forgot how much I loved it. Then, five weeks ago, Leonard Nimoy died, and I remembered. It was that simple. As so often happens, it took a loss to regain something, and I was surprised by just how much his passing—the passing of someone I’d never met, but who had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember—hurt.

Less than a week later, I learned that three of the four surviving members of Star Trek’s “Big Seven”—Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, and George Takei—were going to be at that convention in Philly. The insistent little voice spoke up again, so I went.

Conventions are odd. These days, they’re almost always categorically and undeniably about making money – for the coordinators, the media guests, the vendors… just about everyone but the fans who are paying. If you’re a fan (and when it comes to Star Wars and the original Star Trek, for example, I proudly admit to being one), you’re meeting strangers you know only from their work in oddly artificial and contrived circumstances.

And yet these circumstances can still sometimes be special. I don’t go to many conventions, but when I do, the value comes down to a few seconds to shake hands with and say “thank you” to people whose work inspired my imagination when I was young.

So on Saturday, April 4, I drove to Philadelphia, my original novelization of The Wrath of Khan beside me, and met Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, and George Takei. Seeing them at booths all in a row, together, was somewhat surreal…there they all were. Everyone seemed relaxed and happy. George Takei and his husband, despite the line, took extra time to chat with me about how much they love Pittsburgh. Nichelle Nichols, at 82, was still elegant and beautiful. Walter Koenig, always quiet, smiled, looked over my book carefully, and chose the perfect spot to inscribe it.

And, of course, I told them all “Thank you.” That was the heart of the matter, as far as I’m concerned. Brief moments, but moments of importance, because they happened, because they meant something to me, and because they may not come again.

One of the last times I visited Ray, just months before he passed away, he told me, “Love brought you into my life. That first time you came out, it spoke, you listened. We’re together today because of love…your love for me, and my love for you. It’s all love.” He was right, of course. And, of course, that’s what the voice in the back of my mind is. What it’s always been and always will be. Every single time.

Love.

And what does love beget?

Enthusiasm.

Listen to the one, react with the other.

You’ll never regret it.

“Go.”

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