I met my first Ray Bradbury story in my fifth grade reading class. We were assigned to read a Bradbury story about people who went backward in time to see dinosaurs, and one of them slipped up and stepped where he wasn't supposed to, crushed a prehistoric butterfly, and screwed up the entire future.
The idea of it lodged in my brain like shrapnel from a grenade. And then I had to contend with the concept that such a story could exist and be assigned to be read.
The second time I ran into Bradbury was at a bookstore in a mall in Park Forest, Illinois. 1971. I'd saved enough from my allowance to buy, "R is for Rocket." It was the first book not bought for me by my parents. I remember it the way I remember watching the World Trade Center towers fall. The way I remember my children being born.
Bradbury stories got me typing on my father's manual Smith Corona, page after page of my grammar school attempts to mimic my hero.
On into high school. College. Story after unpublished story.
When I finally sold my first story I was already out of grad school and working full time as an engineer. I was lucky enough to have a literary agent representing me then. When I told Virginia Kidd that my hero was Ray Bradbury, she gave me a stern correction.
As far as she was concerned Bradbury was a hack. Couldn't handle hard science fiction. Wispy stories with no strong backbone. I would have to find a new role model as far as she was concerned.
I stopped talking about Bradbury. I stopped trying to write like him. But his stories coated my brain in a deep crust of rain and space ships, happiness and hopelessness, and warped everything in fun house mirrors.
Recently I bought a couple of his old books I'd read when I was a kid. The talent he brought to the genre is far from subtle. Electronic lions consuming children in their playrooms. Soldiers losing their minds in Venusian rain. Couples lost in Mexican catacombs.
Those stories molded me.
Of course it's always October somewhere. Of course I can't see the dandelions on my neighbor's lawn without imagining the wine cellar.
Art does that to people. Makes them.
Maybe it's good I never met him. I would have had to tell him the story of my life and it would be trite.
All he wanted to do was sell some science fiction stories for a penny a word. He wasn't interested in creating someone.
It's not his fault I am me.
I was having lunch with an old friend who used to work with me when we were both newly minted New Jersey engineers working for the venerable institution, RCA. He is very much an Ayn Rand positivist. I recruited him two years ago to work with me. We had both been senior vice presidents of engineering at various places. Then we both got axed in the economic downturn. I got a job doing something of much less stature than VP of Engineering and I suggested to him that working at something behind a desk and getting paid in horse meat was better than riding a bike all day and concentrating on physical fitness for free.
He agreed. But then his ego got the best of him after two years and he quit and went back to the place that fired him, but at a much more lowly position. Now he takes a lot of abuse.
I said, "How did it come to this?"
He said, "Because we made the choices we made."
"Some of it was bad luck."
"Statistically speaking, half your luck will be bad. Remind yourself that continuous bad luck is just as unlikely as continuous good luck."
I sipped my low-quality diner coffee and said, "Al, do you realize that we have worked our entire lives to wind up here, in this lousy restaurant, with imploded careers, arthritis, high blood pressure, stock market driving us broke, and 15-year old cars that get under twenty miles per gallon? This is what we must have wanted as children, because given we're both powerful guys in charge of our environments and lives, this is what happened."
He nodded at me, wide eyed. Then, after a moment: "That's what I'm saying."
I said, "Holy shit."
"Why the hell did I do this?"
"Not only did you do it, but you knew you were doing it when you were doing it."
When no one is looking Al makes thirty-foot tall LED Christmas Trees with synchronized sound and low-def, ultra bright video resolution. This year he won an award from the city of San Jose for the positive spirit and neighborhood unity his monstrous holiday decoration brought to the city. After the You Tube publicity, people drove from over a hundred miles away to see it.
He said over lunch: "I don't even realize time exists when I'm working on it. I don't need to eat. I do need to sleep to recharge, but when I'm working on the tree, I'm utterly immersed in the work. Nothing hurts. I'm in the flow."
"Joseph Campbell said, 'Follow your bliss.' Then life takes care of itself."
"Yeah, but it's a stupid Christmas light show. I have to work to pay the mortgage."
"You're not supposed to judge."
"Can you make a living building your tesla coils and ghost boxes?"
"Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe if you're just in that channel of creativity you don't need to eat."
"I don't think that works."
"Well then we're missing something."
"It would seem."
My youngest daughter went away to school to become a primate anthropologist. Anthropology as a science is nominally linked to human culture. As far as I can tell when you add the word "primate" it becomes the science of speaking to apes.
For any of that to make sense you have to accept that in the "speaking" part, of "speaking to apes," that it's more than "speaking to dogs," or "speaking to trees." Because their vocal cords don't work like human vocal cords, they can't actually form spoken words in sound. But they can use sign language or like Steven Hawking, they can use pictograms on computerized touch boards to talk.
You have to accept on faith that the apes actually hold up their side of the conversation. And more than parrots, when they speak to you they know they are speaking, and they know you are comprehending, and that your speech back to them is somehow the formulated result of them having spoken to you, and that there is a link between the ideas in their heads and the words they hear.
This is a whole lot of faith and presuming. But all science starts out that way.
I asked my daughter if they could use the chimps in the "Chimp-lab" to translate between chimp-speak and English. Wouldn't that be an amazing breakthrough - sort of a Rosetta Stone between the animal kingdom and internet bloggers?
She said that what apes have to say is pretty much the same thing as what human two-year olds have to say. So to the extent you could ask your toddler to translate between goo-gooing and a 100-word English vocabulary, you could do the same with chimpanzees.
She tells me that to get anywhere in the primate anthropology field you have to get a PhD and that the director of the program, a protege' of Jane Goodall, has offered to be her thesis advisor.
When I speak with her about chimpanzees and their language my daughter is ignited with the energy of the unknown. Her eyes are bright and she speaks quickly and she hoses me with chimp data like a fireman dousing a blaze at an orphanage.
And I know there is no money in this field, and it is also controversial among scientists.
But she is so excited about it.
There is no upside for me to advise her to become like me. Following your dreams into industry provides no certain outcome.
Much better to love your life and your journey, if you can.
Which means that I need to keep working to pay for her motivation to go to school for 10 more years.
That, is the ultimate outcome of my choices.
Not bad, eh?
I have a check in my wallet right now. It's from a publisher. It's for royalties on stories I wrote that were printed.
I showed it to Al at lunch. I said, "Al, do you realize we have literally accomplished everything we ever set out to do in life?"
He said, "Joe, that's nineteen dollars."
"And thirty four cents."
"That's not becoming a writer."
"I always was a writer. This is just getting paid for it."
"Nineteen thirty-four. Joe. Come on."
"Maybe you don't get to say 'how' it comes to you, or how much. But there it is."
"Not very encouraging."
"Maybe if life becomes too easy, it stops being interesting. I remember one of the scariest days of my life is when I got to the south pole and I realized I had achieved my heart's desire and I wasn't about to die any time soon. There was a whole lot of life left."
"That's the New Jersey in you, talking."
"The worst thing for your art is to become comfortable. You need the pain to fill the blankness."
"That sounds like rationalization."
"The New Jerseyans have it right. It's important to be unhappy. That's where the creativity comes from."
"Are you saying we should go back?"
"Too late for that. You can never go back. California is our New Jersey."