Posts Tagged ‘Robert A. Heinlein’

Prolog.

It was a dark and stormy day. Robert A. Heinlein, a man who could pour words onto a page as easy as turning a bucket upside-down, was stumped. He had a book to write, he had nothing in his head, and the cat was distracting him. It prowled the perimeter of the room, crying and poking under and around everything.

Rain splattered the windows. Heinlein’s wife, Ginny, entered this gloomy scene.

“What’s the matter with that damn cat?” the writer demanded.

Ginny calmly observed the cat and the weather and replied, “He’s looking for a door into summer.”

Heinlein jumped off the couch, sprinted to his typewriter, and pounded out a novel called The Door Into Summer.

It’s possible that my wife has said something like this to me, but either I wasn’t listening or I thought I knew better.

Act 1.

It was a hot and bright Massachusetts day. My 14-year-old nephew Jared and I were deep underground, studying the debris field that is my parents’ basement. What did we find? My door into summer:

1 The bats
With reproduction signatures burned into the wood from Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Bench, Rocky Colavito, and (in Magic Marker) my brother.

Not shown because it was back in Portland, the bat I did the most damage with, my Ernie Banks “Powerized”:

2c My turn at bat
Put me in, coach, I’m ready to bark!

I ran upstairs with those bats and into daylight and started swinging. I guarantee you that if any baseball scout had seen me at that moment (or in 1971) he or she would’ve written me off as no prospect. I reluctantly pulled myself away from all this time-traveling and took Jared for a drive and a man-to-man talk.

Act 2.

For those of you who’ve read my previous dispatches from Massachusetts and who believe that my mother and father live in a wonderland of happy memories, here’s a little treasure I tripped over in the basement:

3 Toxic
As the platoon sergeant said in
Aliens: “Whatever happened here, I think we missed it.”

Act 3.

One night the microwave and the toaster oven went on strike. My brother-in-law Rick (a good man to have on tap) and I went in search of the fuse box, which has lurked quietly in the basement for decades.

4 Fuse box
This electrical showcase keeps the lights on, the water hot, and the Red Sox lukewarm.

The only fuse boxes I’m familiar with use circuit breakers with switches. Not this one. I thought, Hmm, glass fuses. Do they still make glass fuses? Where could I get one at this hour? Then I thought, Why am I thinking these thoughts? Whose house is this, anyway? A quick search turned up boxes of spare fuses that Dad had socked away when he and Mom bought the house in 1957.

5 1957 glass fuses
Our basement is just like the Smithsonian, with fewer lights and more mold.

Rick screwed in the 60-year-old replacement fuse and lo, Mom’s dinner from Meals on Wheels was soon hot and on the table and subject to the inspection of the cat.

Act 4.

Dad said, “I have to do something about my father’s books.”

My father’s father, my Grandpa Sam, died in 1974. Dad, because he was grieving, and because he’s a child of the Depression who must save everything, boxed up and brought home all of Grandpa’s books: his siddurim (daily prayer books), services for the High Holidays, Haggadahs for Passover, commentaries on the Torah, and Jewish cookbooks and cartoon books and a collection of photos from the Yiddish theater with funny captions.

6 Moyel
“Did somebody call for a
moyel?” Your clue: circumcision.

What to do with the unholy books was easy. I threw them in the recycling. What to do with the holy books was not. You can’t throw them in the recycling or the trash and you sure can’t stuff ’em in people’s socks for Christmas. The only thing you can do with these guys is bury them in a Jewish cemetery.

On each trip home, I aim for another small victory. It was my turn at bat.

Down in the basement again with a head lamp and a Geiger counter, I tracked the books to two columns of boxes against a wall. When I opened the boxes, I discovered that other objects had found homes with the Jew stuff. For example, the Time-Life series Outlaws of the Old West. Wooden spools without thread. The hull of my model of the battleship Massachusetts.

Next, I worked my connections. Though I haven’t lived in this community since Lizzie Borden failed her conflict-resolution class, I still knew one person at the temple. This lady quickly made the arrangements and the next morning I surrendered the books to a cheerful, bare-chested Elf who was mowing the cemetery lawn with a tractor. I suspect I’ve met this creature before, probably in Lothlórien.

The books I delivered will someday cushion the bed of a grave, which I think is a poetic end.

The Jewish cemetery rests on a hill overlooking a Catholic cemetery. I’m sure the Jews who reside there, many of whom grew up in the era of Father Coughlin, enjoy looking down on the Catholics. I wandered around in the sunshine and said hello to the people I once knew. At least this time I wasn’t the one who was underground.

Epilog.

The only advice I can give you for dealing with very old, failing parents is to share whatever joy you find and never lose your sense of humor. Also, watch where you step in all that clutter. Something might be waiting for you.

 

My early reading career in science fiction taught me that technology was going to revolutionize how we would work for a living. Nevermind offices and assembly lines and Dr. Kildare. In the future, working for a living would involve saving the galaxy from marauding alien species who were somehow metaphors for everything that already terrified us. Wow! Plus look at all that futuristic sex those guys wrote about. So what if most of them had never actually had sex?

This was heady stuff for a young teenager suffering in the middle of Boredom, USA, but one thing those old books and stories didn’t much venture into was what technology was going to do to the ways in which we play. (Let’s leave, for example, Robert A. Heinlein’s theories on sex out of this.)

In my case, all this tech has given me a new way to play with art. Thanks to the magic of Animoto, I present to you my latest video! Please watch it, it’s just 1:10 and I don’t want to pressure you but this may be my last chance to be famous. Why are you being so mean?

I am not what you’d call a traditional artist. Perspective is something I expect from an editorial in The New York Times. Colors? Special D explains it all for me. Awhile back, she found the Farnsworth-Munsell 100 HueColor Vision Test and loved it so much she took it twice. I took it once and it was torture.

But thanks to Animoto, I can stamp my heart out, upload my masterworks, and go head-to-head with funny cat videos! Welcome to the future. (Welcome to my blog, random person from Latvia who stopped by earlier today. Sorry, I don’t know how to say WTF in your language.) The authors I was reading in the days before I discovered girls right here on Earth had no idea what the future would really be like.

Next time: We will get the lead out.

Random Pick of the Day
Dum Dum Girls, Too True (2014)
Why wasn’t this album released in 1985? It combines the pop-music lyricism and self-absorption of Tears For Fears with the dark, otherworldly guitars of The Dream Syndicate. Give me more of that.

Bonus: On their previous record, Only in Dreams (2011), they pretend to be The Pretenders!

Random Pan of the Day
Beyoncé, Dangerously in Love (2003)
The woman can obviously sing, but why won’t they let her? On Dangerously in Love, Beyoncé is surrounded by back-up singers galore plus famous guest stars including Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, and the somnolent Luther Vandross, who must’ve been channeling Perry Como. I kept waiting for her to floor it, but except for the thunderous opening cut, “Crazy in Love” (her first trip to the top of the charts), she mostly plays it safe.

Beyoncé can definitely croon, and “Be With You” is fun with its echo of the Shuggie Otis/Brothers Johnson disco classic, “Strawberry Letter 23.” But I wanted some action. The closing track, “Daddy,” is Beyoncé’s heartfelt appreciation of her father. I’m glad they have such a loving relationship, but to an outsider this lullaby is a good time to get up and see what the boys in the back room are having. Prince would’ve turned this song inside-out. Hey, remember Prince? I haven’t forgotten. I’m about ready to tee up on his fourth album, Controversy.

 

[Note: You’ll find the extended party remix of this post at The Nervous Breakdown. -Yours truly, RDMS]

There have been many crucial years in the forward lurch of humanity but I’d like to have a few words with you today about one of the biggest: 1971. For those of you who might argue for a showier year with zeroes in it or repeating decimals let me remind you that in 1971 Led Zeppelin released “Stairway to Heaven.”

I could stop right there and send you all home early, but 1971 was also the year that I learned how to drive. This knowledge was of considerable help to me in dealing with females of my species. But the point I am at last coming around to is this: In 1971, in my summer school English class, my favorite teacher suggested a way to read more books: Keep a list.

Roland had been keeping his own list of the books he’d read since the 1940s, and I’d like to think that the teacher who started Roland down this path had a list that stretched back to the 1920s, and that there was a teacher before him and one before him and so on and thenceforth until we’re back watching Gutenberg knock out his first bible.

Just when you thought no one could have this much fun
This year my list of all the books I’ve read celebrates its 40th anniversary, which will be duly recognized here at the Bureau with cake and ice cream. This milestone seems like the appropriate time to review some highlights from my reading history and see if we can learn what makes fiction worth staying up for till 2am. Fortunately, in the perpetual battle to decide who are the all-time greats in the heady world of novel-writing we have two useful yardsticks to work with:
1)      Music
2)      Sex

Applying these measures to my list uncovers questions that have long stumped the experts, so don’t expect any answers here. For example, why was it that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who chronicled the Jazz Age, never chronicled jazz? How did John O’Hara (Butterfield 8, Appointment in Samara) sneak all that illicit sex past the censors of his era? Why do Franz Kafka’s characters invariably play the accordion?

How many writers are on my list, you ask?
I’m not about to answer this question. I don’t know the answer to this question. I was planning on another 40 years of reading before I added it all up. (And if you think I’ve gone over the top with this particular hobby, I refer you to the gentleman behind What I Have Read Since 1974.)

Rest assured I am not about to embark on a survey of the entire list, primarily because I’d have to explain my early infatuation with Andre Norton. For the purpose of this review I am restricting myself to the writers I loved so much that I’ve read more books by them than anyone else.

The results of my studies surprised me, as music and sex in literature appear to be mutually exclusive, unlike in real life, where it’s been my observation that music often makes sex appear. In literature the one seems to drive out the other, except in those sorry cases where they both evaporate. An incisive examination of the five writers at the head of the class will show you what I mean.

My most read writer of all time: C.S. Forester
C. S. Forester was the creator of Captain Horatio Hornblower, The African Queen, and various other historical novels where something explodes, usually after being struck by a cannon ball. Capt. Hornblower could navigate a sloop through a monsoon with nothing more than a circus tent nailed to a broomstick and everyone on half rations and a spoonful of rum, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of music. He was tone deaf. Tone deafness is a terrible affliction that makes every song sound like Boney M’s “Rasputin.” This condition was not shared by Hornblower’s crew, who enjoyed a rousing hornpipe on their way into battle, just as I do on my way into a meeting.

With Forester’s musical credentials looking a bit thin you might hope instead for plenty of sex, but if you are I am withholding your rum. Hornblower and his girlfriend Lady Barbara are not my idea of a liaison dangereuse. The only sex scene I remember in the Forester books I’ve read appears in The African Queen, when Rosie and Mr. Allnut make love in a malarial swamp on a suicidal mission to torpedo a German gunboat. Only the most skilled writer can concoct an erotic scenario of such proportions.

While having sex, Rosie’s breasts grow bigger. I’d like to have a word with Forester about this.

2nd: Robert A. Heinlein
There’s no hiding it. Robert A. Heinlein’s books are a musical wasteland. I can confirm that there is a bad poet in “The Green Hills of Earth” who writes a syrupy little ballad called “The Green Hills of Earth” and then sings it. He is immediately killed by a blast of radiation from the Academy of American Poets.

However, when Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land he released his inner pornographer from the puritanical confinement of pulp fiction. From then on Heinlein’s books are fairly well swollen with sexual activity, and though most of it is only hinted at or happens off-stage or on the other side of the airlock I’m convinced that Bob blazed the trail for three other writers on my list: Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint), Nicholson Baker (The Fermata), and Judy Blume (Forever).

3rd: Marge Piercy
Now we’re talking adult themes and situations. Marge Piercy wrote several novels set in the 1960s counterculture; the first three, Dance the Eagle to Sleep, Going Down Fast, and Small Changes, were written while the counterculture was happening. These books are packed with hungrily copulating hippies, but her characters are not motivated, captivated, or levitated by music. There is, however, a bad poet who writes a clichéd little ballad about New Jersey and then sings it. It lacks the punch of “The Green Hills of Earth.”

Piercy deserves applause and a government grant for her sex scenes, and Small Changes is so good on every page that it zaps me right back to Boston in 1973. But I must reluctantly mark her down for missing or ignoring the Summer of Love, the flowering of soul, Woodstock, Let It Be, Sticky Fingers, and the birth of funk and metal. (The absence of country rock works for me.)

4th: John Updike
I find it difficult to assess John Updike with the objectivity for which Run-DMSteve is famous, as Uppy is the only writer who ever died and left a hole in my heart. However, we can safely conclude that Mr. Updike is not shy about sex. The first Rabbit book (1960) prominently featured a sex act that’s so common today they have rooms set aside for it at airports but back then could’ve gotten him lynched in your more conservative precincts. If you’re looking for angst-ridden WASPs tangling in the wrong bedrooms, Updike’s the writer for you.

But while his style is musical, his characters are not. They rarely even turn on the radio, though I remember one story where the grownups at a suburban house party put The Beatles on the turntable and danced in their socks. This is charming but this is not a rave.

Rounding out the fabulous 5: Isaac Asimov
I started this list when I was a teenager so you can stop laughing right now. Hands up – how many of you couple the word “sex” with the word “Asimov”? Well that’s just disgusting. Yes I know who you are.

Asimov’s book of dirty limericks doesn’t count because I never read it. Let’s take a gander instead at the original Foundation trilogy. I loved those books just as much as the next teenage boy, but upon reflection I have to ask: Where did those trillions of babies come from? Zappos? And what did they listen to, besides the narrator?

We don’t read Asimov for music and sex, we read him for rockets and robots.

Mission: Impossible?
The harmonious blending of music and sex within the pages of one novel is an elusive goal but I’m here to tell you it can be done.  Exhibits A and B: Roddy Doyle (The Commitments) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity). My more astute readers are probably wondering why I’m only mentioning them here at the end. There is a reason for this and it’s a simple one: I haven’t read them. I have however seen the movies and I even took Special D to a dance where the band from The Commitments played (“Do ye drink then? If ye don’t yer no good!”). Once I’ve finally bagged these two I’ll be able to determine if they are two of the best books ever written, not counting anything by Andre Norton.

Loyal Run-DMSteve readers are welcome to chime in with their own lists of music-and-sex books. Here at the Bureau we could always use some reading suggestions for the next 40 years!