A Personal Tribute to Ray Bradbury: thunderstorms, libraries, and kicking the robot

by C.D.

Ray Bradbury,
August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012

[NOTE: I received the news of Ray Bradbury’s death on Wednesday. That afternoon I began writing this tribute. I expected to post it here on Thursday but I underestimated the great personal significance that this author, mentor and friend holds for me. The story of this friendship kept unfolding itself out until it finally finished today. Until now I did not realize how essential his writings had been during one of the most difficult times of my life: my first year of college when I was pursuing jazz piano despite a debilitating hand injury. If you would like, please share your own memories and experiences surrounding the man and his work in the comments below.]

One of my best friends died at 91 last Tuesday.

He said he would live forever and I pray that he will. I always wanted to meet him in person and now it looks like I will have to wait. I was finishing a satisfying brunch of eggs, bacon and coffee with my friend on his back porch when I got the news. His phone went off but he ignored it to pay attention to our conversation (one of his many good qualities). But I urged him to check his phone. “Such a sharp alarm must mean it’s important” I thought, not knowing that it was just his normal ring tone. He looked up from the text message his wife just sent him.

“Ray Bradbury died.”[1]

My stomach took the shape of a heavy, bronze elliptical disk and dropped. I almost heard it clank when it hit my hip bones. It still hasn’t softened back out.

I do not know, but I wonder if Ray knows of our friendship from his current vantage point. I first met him in high school with the chilling comforts of Fahrenheit 451, the sweet, nostalgic sadness of Dandelion Wine, and the terrifying and emboldening confrontation with evil in Something Wicked This Way Comes, as well as a host of other stories.[2] But the maturing of our friendship occured in college when he became both a comforter in time of need and a mentor who guided my vision to see the future with greater clarity and enthusiasm.

My first year of college was very difficult in many respects. I was studying jazz piano with a chronic pain injury in my hands, arms, neck, and shoulders that was becoming more and more debilitating, casting a threatening cloud of doubt over my dreams of becoming a professional musician (the cloud froze into a hard fact by the end of the year). To my embarrassment I was not only less skilled than the other music majors but also not able to physically play the instrument for any significant length of time. In order to deal with the pain I was seeing a physical therapist once a week and every day getting ice from the cafeteria to soak my arms in freezing water.[3]

It was quite a bit frustrating. I recall an episode around 2:00 AM, after a particularly disheartening practice session,[4] wandering around the campus green during a thunderstorm shaking my fist at God.[5] Someone had recently told me that you can have a good yell at a real friend and God is your best friend. It seemed a bit simplistic to boil down the creator of the whole cosmos, the Alpha and the Omega, the One without end into the “best friend guy” who you can pop a cold beer with (and for some reason I imagine he is wearing plaid), but I decided to give it a shot. So I gave God a piece of my mind. After some honest complaining I capped it off (something about shaking fists and the lightning seemed appropriate[6]) by daring him to smite me with lightning.

Lightning flashed. It did not hit me, being a mile away. But it did flash impressively, which was what I was actually asking for. The storm kept rumbling away; no more lightning. This momentarily disturbed the rhythm of my petty tirade: “Okay, that’s not so bad. But let’s be scientific. The odds are pretty high for coincidence. I bet you can’t do it twice.” Lightning flashed again; it looked a little bit nearer. “Anybody can do it twice, but three times…” A huge bolt cracked and shattered across the sky.

And then, gradually or all at once- I cannot recall which, the last bit of air seeped out of my puffed up chest and two things happened in rapid succession. First, I found that I was bored. And second, a great delicious feeling of weariness came over me. I immediately turned and began walking away from the fine arts building where the practice rooms were, pulling behind me my backpack on wheels full of books. The backpack kept time, its plastic wheels clicking between the sidewalk cracks. Compared to the bed and its promise of sleep waiting for me back at the dorm, the meaning of suffering did not seem so pressing anymore.

I had taped up on the wall above my desk collections of what I call “gadfly quotes.” Gadfly quotes prick your conscience, clear your mind, and embolden you to do the things that really matter. There was a whole page devoted to Bradbury quotes. Near the top of the page in bolded capital letters was

LEARNING TO LET GO SHOULD BE LEARNED BEFORE LEARNING TO GET. LIFE SHOULD BE TOUCHED, NOT STRANGLED. YOU’VE GOT TO RELAX, LET IT HAPPEN AT TIMES, AND AT OTHERS MOVE FORWARD WITH IT.

Bradbury accompanied me that year. Three times a day I entered the cafeteria building with two purposes: (1) eat, and (2) try to ignore the twenty-some-odd TVs mounted on the walls above the tables. These were constantly blaring MTV-U music videos at the students in perpetual reruns of angsty indie bands and sexy hip-hop symbols. I assume the university thought this made them hip. I just found it obnoxious, as well as disconcertingly similar to the wall-to-wall TV parlors of Fahrenheit 451.

…who has ever torn himself from the claw that encloses you when you drop a seed in a TV parlour? It grows you any shape it wishes! It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is the truth. Books can be beaten down with reason. But with all my knowledge and scepticism, I have never been able to argue with a one-hundred-piece symphony orchestra, full colour, three dimensions, and I being in and part of those incredible parlours.

Faber was there in Bradbury’s grim but never despairing lyric drawl, assuring me that yes the world has gone more than a little bit crazy.

And in the craziness of the frantic energy displayed in the classrooms, the atriums, and especially the green, our grassy shrine to free expression, as people of every different imaginable view and ideology clamored for your assent (which promptly became a check in a checkbox before hurrying to the next person), the first time the lonely fireman Montag meets the young Clarisse took on a new and more enduring meaning for me.

Why is it,” he said, one time, at the subway entrance, “I feel I’ve known you so many years?”

“Because I like you,” she said, “and I don’t want anything from you.

And then, of course, the laziness that every music major has to face down every day. Practice, by its nature, has no end built into it. If you lose sight of the love of beauty that spurred you to keep practicing your instrument in the first place your productivity will peter out and in the end you will discover your spirit has as well. There are several ways of losing sight, and Ray’s common sense was there to counter each one when I slipped.

LOSING SIGHT 101 / With RB’s Reply

1. Doubt your own abilities and let this transform into an ugly fear that these weaknesses will be discovered.

You’re afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people’s faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.

2. Worry about something that is beyond your control. Then stop working on things that are in your control.

I have two rules in life – to hell with it, whatever it is, and get your work done.

3. Be lazy. Pretend you will get good at something by waiting for it to “happen.”[7]

I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true — hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice. If you don’t love something, then don’t do it.


The final point is the most important. Love is essential to the real doing of anything. Otherwise you just go through motions like a robot, doing your part to prove the modern skeptics that we are only matter in motion.

During my second semester I allowed my spirit to go to sleep while the rest of me just kept plodding on, practicing, attending classes, vaguely worrying, and researching such fascinating abstractions as the “cosmopolitan system of global governance that disburses political authority through a multi-layered system as proposed by philosopher Thomas Pogge.”[8] I think it may have been while I was wandering through the library looking for books for that paper that the real deepening of my friendship with Bradbury occurred.

I have already mentioned the ways in which he accompanied me throughout the year but the difference between those events and the moment in the library I am recalling now is the difference that exists between approaching a friend for encouragement and having that same friend drop by unexpectedly when you are in the doldrums, pull you out of the door, and show you that the sun has kept shining all along.

It was not just a problem of letting life breathe a bit, worrying less, or getting my work done. It was a problem of the soul. In order to love something or someone or, if you think about it, anything at all you must first be amazed by it. You must wonder and allow all the questions and mystery and apparent impossibilities swirl around in one lovely, beautiful mess. I had stopped looking at the world in that way. Heck- who cares about “the world”? I know I don’t and, as far as my own capacities are concerned, couldn’t if I wanted to.[9] I had stopped looking at the possibilities in my own life in that way.

Whatever it was- a cynical fatalism, a passivity in the face of my circumstances, or maybe a bit of courage I had allowed to slip away bit by bit each day- I was already half robot. Looking back I do not think I mean “robot” metaphorically. It was what was actually happening. The growing frustrations I saw in myself I regarded as rust inhibiting a machine rather than the real truth that my soul was pleading for the light of wonder so that it could see again. Well, to my good fortune I found myself in the Bradbury section of the library that day and I quickly discovered that I had much more important things to do than solve humanity’s global problems.

I began to travel. I went to Los Angeles and saw Gomez in the wonderful ice cream suit. I went to the Mesozoic jungle with a time traveling agency that gave hunters the chance to shoot a dinosaur (as long as you don’t touch anything else and ruin the future). I rocketed up to Venus where, to the delight of young Margot, the sun is about to come out after seven years of rain. I was there in the old lighthouse with Johnny and McDunn when an ancient leviathan, the last of the living sea monsters, rose up from the deepest depths of the ocean, mistaking the wail of the foghorn for the cry of another of its kind. As he mournfully sank back into the water his loneliness filled the pages, my dorm room, and my self. It was not a false kind of sadness. It was true and its truthfulness gave me a strange feeling of hope.

Robots don’t hope because they cannot feel alone. When the robot begins to conquer the human, the human cannot recognize his own loneliness. That loneliness we all share in the depths of our own unknown turns from a desire for some Other that can fulfill all our deepest needs to a mere tinny emptiness, an echo chamber of our own tired out thoughts. But with Bradbury’s help I rediscovered the one way to kick that robot into the tinheap to rust where he belongs: wonder. [10]

With each fantastic adventure my eyes grew wider and my soul began to see more clearly. But it was not fundamentally due to the fantastic. It was the vibrant humanity of his characters. The characters I met really wanted to live, even, or perhaps especially, the ones who got sad young. My spine tingled. I had been touched by Mr. Electrico’s fifty thousand volt sword, just as a young twelve year old Bradbury had been once.[11] Or as the young autobiographical character of Douglas puts it in Dandelion Wine,

I’m ALIVE. Thinking about it, noticing it, is new. You do things and don’t watch. Then all of a sudden you look and see what you’re doing and it’s the first time, really.

Wonder is borne out of a desire to live, to discover, to keep searching and looking for that Other Thing which is continually calling us to it (as long as we have the upper hand over the robot).

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.

It is a paradox that the search for the all-fulfilling thing cannot guarantee any security, even our own lives. We naturally want to take the small securities and satisfactions and bottle them up.

Dandelion wine. The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered.

The same Douglas who thinks the above at the beginning of Dandelion Wine discovers by the end of the novel that every finite thing, even the summer wine, must come to an end. Late at night in his bed Douglas writes by the light of a jar of fireflies,

SO IF TROLLEYS AND RUNABOUTS AND FRIENDS AND NEAR FRIENDS CAN GO AWAY FOR A WHILE OR GO AWAY FOREVER, OR RUST, OR FALL APART OR DIE, AND IF PEOPLE CAN BE MURDERED, AND IF SOMEONE LIKE GREAT-GRANDMA, WHO WAS GOING TO LIVE FOREVER, CAN DIE…IF ALL OF THIS IS TRUE…THEN…I, DOUGLAS SPAULDING, SOME DAY, MUST…

But the fireflies’ light goes out and Douglas stops writing. He releases the flies into the darkness and tries to go to sleep. Death no matter how we dress it poses a problem to us human beings (not so much to the robots). Bradbury once said that “the problem with death is that it’s so damned permanent.”

Now here I am at a crossroads. I could easily, like in most artist’s obituaries, wrap up with some variation of “well he is gone but he lives on in his works.” And I would be justified in this too since Bradbury himself believed in something of this sort. After being touched by Mr. Electrico’s sword and being commanded to “Live forever!” he began writing every day in order to do just that.

But he also wrote a short story called “The Exiles” in which a rocket mission lands on Mars where the ghosts of Dickens, Poe, Shakespeare and others still live until their last works are burned back on Earth from ignorant censorship. When their last book is burned they finally die once and for all, disappearing into thin air.

The hard fact is that eventually corruption will take away his books just like it took away his life. As much as I hate to imagine it, there will be a day when the last Bradbury book turns to dust and not just due to ignorance but because ultimately the stuff it’s made of- paper or silicon- is finite like the summer wine, like his body which finally gave way on Tuesday, and like our bodies which will do the same. Sure I could say “Bradbury will live on in his works” but there is something unsatisfactory in leaving it at that. It would be like trying to bottle him up as one of those securities. Who doesn’t enjoy a nice 1953 vintage Bradbury? Young, fullbodied and bold with crisp flavors of sanity, bitingly dry one second and deliciously sweet the next, with overtones of nostalgia, and a long, smooth finish of desire.

Maybe we can do that with Bradbury’s words for a time, and we should. But what about Bradbury the person- the human being full of desire, wonder, and wit? My friendship with the man came through the vehicle of his words but his friends who knew him in the flesh know with terrible finality that while his words are still around for now, he- the man, the spirit behind the words- is gone. Death is so damned permanent.

Is he actually gone though, as in annihilated, turned into nothing? Maybe. But only if we really are just robots going through meaningless motions until we eventually break down in a pile of rust and that’s that so deal with it.

On the other hand, ask any really human being and he will tell you that’s a load of crap. I prefer to take Bradbury at his word. When Bradbury said he would live forever he was serious. The kind of childlike wonder he is so famous for is born out of this desire for something infinite. In fact I would go so far as to say that though his books will eventually crumble into dust, they have always been a sign of this something more enduring beyond themselves: the thing, the what, the desire for that all fulfilling Other in the most ordinary (who will forget that summer in Green Town, Illinois?) and extraordinary (or Mr. Dark’s wicked carnival?) circumstances.

During that first year of college this Other that Bradbury wrote about kicked me out of the door of my own listlessness and reawakened my soul to wonder again at life. Sure life can be hard and often seems unfair. I know it felt that way when the music program discontinued my scholarship and I had to transfer to a different school and give up playing the piano as a result of my chronic pain. And often it seems like the only thing we can do is shake our fists at God. But after running into the Bradbury aisle at the library I was less concerned with shaking my fists at God (and that ridiculous lighting wager which he thankfully did not take me up on) than in opening my eyes to see Him, the Other leading me on to fulfillment, all around me.

Bradbury himself, who hardly ever spoke about his religious beliefs, recently told his biographer and friend Sam Weller, that at times he would take out one of his books late at night and become completely overwhelmed with gratitude.[12]

I sit there and cry because I haven’t done any of this. It’s a God-given thing, and I’m so grateful, so, so grateful. The best description of my career as a writer is, ‘At play in the fields of the Lord.’

After Douglas is arrested by the questions and mystery surrounding death he is wiser, touched by sadness, and more tender. But he does not stop loving, living, or wondering. Our desire for living far outstrips the limitations of death. And such a desire suggests that a corresponding reality actually does exist beyond death. After all, how can we have such an unshakable longing for something that does not exist? That’s absurd! And for this reason I don’t think it’s reasonable to assert (at least with complete certainty) that the only thing left of the Bradbury so many knew and loved are his words on the page, and I would be the last person to deny their preciousness. The infinite Other that those words point to say otherwise. He may have left us but it would be unfair to try to bottle up Bradbury, or any human being, in death. We want too much and we hurt too much for death to have the final word.

The problem with death is that it seems so damned permanent for those of us who haven’t died yet.

I have a real hope to be able to thank Bradbury some day for his important friendship that year. His unabashed dedication to pursuing the wonder in life that permeates all of his stories came at just the right time. That parasitic robot had slowly been corrupting my desire for the infinite until it was in danger of becoming completely sterile. But then Bradbury blustered into my room and said “What the hell are you thinking! You’re a human being so be a human being! Love! Be scared! Ask questions! Wonder! Desire!”

Toward the end of my second semester I sent Ray an email via his publisher. I asked him if I could compose a musical tribute to him made up of my favorite gadfly quotes I had gathered from him over the years.[13] Two days later I began this blog with a post entitled “The Genius of Ray Bradbury” made up of many of those quotes.

Since that time I have tried to thank him by writing. He said that writing first and foremost “reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right.”[14] Every now and then the robot starts winning again and I stop looking for that gift and life becomes dull, people get on my nerves more, and I begin to forget why I love to write. But when that happens I can always rely on Bradbury to light the flame of wonder underneath me again and remind me that if we stop loving intensely, if we stop wanting to live forever, we stop being human.

Goodbye for now, friend.

________________
FOOTNOTES:

[1] Click here to read an obituary about the great American writer, Ray Bradbury. Back

[2] I single out those three in particular because as far as writing novels goes, they are his best. Interestingly I have found that many people who do not enjoy his short stories have thoroughly enjoyed those the three novels. Back

[3] If you want strange glances, let me tell you, walking up to the soda fountain machine with doubled-up plastic grocery bags, standing there for ninety slow seconds as you fill it with ice from the ice dispenser [KER-CLUNK, GRRZZZZ, KER-CLUNK, GRRZZZZ...], repeating the process for a second set of bags, placing both in your rolling backpack, making sure to separate them from Jazz Theory 101 with a sweatshirt, and then calmly rolling the bag away, out the door and onto the sidewalk [CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK] as if this is your ordinary, daily routine (because it is)- that will do it. No chance of failing. Back

[4] “Wait a second- how can you practice if you cannot play?” Very good question. Luckily my teacher had an answer to it and introduced me to visual, auditory, and mental methods of practice. Of course, I had to do physical practice as well and I did as much as I could handle and some more beyond that (hence the bags of ice). Back

[5] While I am being cliché, I am not being metaphorical. It is just what happened. My fist was literally up in the air shaking at God, or at least his storm clouds. Back

[6] I later discovered, after switching to the study of English literature the next year, that I was imitating the Second-Generation Romantics (Byron, Shelley, Keats) idea of the isolated, disillusioned hero questioning the meaning of the universe and searching for his place in it. In particular I think I was imitating Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto the Third, stanzas 96-97:

Sky — Mountains — River — Winds — Lake — Lightnings! ye!
With night, and clouds, and thunder — and a Soul
To make these felt and feeling, well may be
Things that have made me watchful; the far roll
Of your departing voices, is the knoll
Of what in me is sleepless, — if I rest.
But where of ye, O Tempests! is the goal?
Are ye like those within the human breast?
Or do ye find, at length, like eagles, some high nest?

Could I embody and unbosom now
That which is most within me, — could I wreak
My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
Soul — heart — mind — passions — feelings — strong or weak—
All that I would have sought, and all I seek,
Bear, know, feel — and yet breathe — into one word,
And that one word were Lightning, I would speak;
But as it is, I live and die unheard,
With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword. Back

[7] I later discovered this was yet another attitude, although I am unfairly simplifying it here, that we have inherited from the Romantics understanding of poetic inspiration. Back

[8] That clunker of a sentence is an actual excerpt from the thesis statement of a paper I was working on for a philosophy course entitled “Global Justice.” I am not sure if I was much more just for taking it by the end of the semester, but I did spend a lot of time considering the many dilemmas surrounding “who has to die” lifeboat situations. Should I be in one I will fully equipped to perplex all the other members of the lifeboat with comparative ethical analyses (by the time it’s complete somebody will probably have drowned anyway which will simplify the problem). Back

[9] The idea of looking at “the world” or similarly “loving humanity” has never struck me as convincing. We can only look at or love one thing at a time, and for better or for worse that usually ends up being our mother, father, brother, sister, friend, neighbor, grocer, coworker, boss, etc. Don’t you think we’re kidding ourselves when we claim to be able to take on the whole of humanity at once when we can barely deal with the person in front of us adequately? I’m with Saint John. There is only one Person capable of loving the whole kit and caboodle and I suppose it helps if you made it all in the first place: “For God so loved the world…” Back

[10] Although in my experience the Robot is like one of those unkillable terminators. It always comes back for a sequel. So be on your guard. For your safety I have listed below some common assumptions that the human host begins to rely on as reasonable during a robotic takeover:

    1. My body is a machine.
    2. My mind is the computer that runs the machine.
    3. What is rational is only (and not anything else) what can be weighed, measured, and tested in controlled conditions.
    4. Anything falling outside of these parameters (like love and religion) is irrational.
    5. “Wonder” (like “truth” or “goodness” or “beauty”) is a childish word fit for the naïve who haven’t yet realized that life isn’t all it’s chalked up to be, and in the end it all depends on how much in your wallet.

If you find yourself thinking this way stop whatever you are doing (because what could be more important than saving your own humanity?) and read a good story, poem, or the rare essay that you know will kick you out the door into the sunlight of wonder again. I have found that Bradbury, Lewis, Wendell Berry, Ratzinger, Tolkein, Willa Cather, Eliot, O’Connor, Hopkins, and Guissani tend to do it for me consistently. Find what works for you and have them near at hand to immediately fend off the robotic takeover. Back

[11] Click here to read the story about Mr. Electrico, the carnival magician whom Bradbury credits with his birth as a writer. Back

[12] I had not read any thing like this from Bradbury until I came across John Blake’s excellent article for CNN entitled “Sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury on God, ‘monsters and angels‘.” The only other article I have come across that addresses the role of faith in Bradbury’s writings is one by Gregory Wolfe, the editor of IMAGE Journal. His is the only one to directly address the central role that faith plays in writings of this man who described himself as a Zen Buddhist but was constantly returning to the problem of Jesus Christ. After reading it I realized that Wolfe’s article tackled the questions that I can only raise in this reflection. It can be found hereBack

[13] I never got a reply but this did not surprise me. Bradbury did not own a computer. Back

[14] From Zen in the Art of Writing, a handbook of wonder for any aspiring writer. His story about how a young Bradbury overcame his embarrassment for loving the Buck Rogers space comic strips is one of the best (and most important) parts. I don’t want to ruin it for you but if you can’t wait The Guardian has published it online hereBack