Enter the Tauntaun

Following some recent misadventures I’d rather not go into, I find myself with a new addition to my personal fleet, a silver 2006 Jeep Liberty, which, if you don’t know, is a smaller four-door SUV roughly the same size as my old ’89 Bronco II. I got it for a real steal, too — in fact, when I made my counteroffer to the asking price, the dealer asked if I was sure about that amount, if I didn’t maybe want to go even lower. He was that eager to move the thing off his lot. It wasn’t hard to figure out why. While the vehicle is mechanically sound, or at least my dad was able to make it that way with only minimal effort, and the body and paint are in decent shape, the tires were as bald as Patrick Stewart and the interior…

My god, the interior.

I have never seen — or smelled — a vehicle that was such a filthy sty. This Jeep is thirteen years old, right? I have a hunch it’s never been cleaned in all that time. Ever. And judging from the evidence, the previous owner had kids and a dog. There was dog hair everywhere. There were stains on every seat, and on the backs of the front seats, and even on the headliner. Large stains. Brown stains that I really hope were coffee or chocolate and not some other brown substance. How the hell do you get a three-foot-tall stain on the back of the driver’s seat, anyway? I can only surmise that someone’s adorable little shit, er, offspring threw a large soda against mom or dad’s seat, and it never got cleaned up. Nothing ever got cleaned up, from the look of things. And did I mention the smell? It was unbelievable. A heavy, yeasty, organic funk like middle-schoolers’ gym socks, fried onions and spoiled milk. And indeed, I found a crusty white substance under one seat that I believe was spilt milk. I also found pretzels, popcorn, nuts, a whole granola bar (sans wrapper), a toy cellphone, a bunch of those colored glass pebbles that you use in fishtanks or decorative centerpieces, fifty-eight cents in loose coins, and about half-a-can’s worth of crushed Pringles. The map pocket on the driver’s door yielded a number of fossilized french fries. Oh, and there were straw wrappers everywhere. I mean everywhere. The previous owner must’ve just blown them off the straw while the windows were down and let them land where they may. But really, the big problem was the stink.

Look, I get it. I know parenting is hard, and I know that it’s not easy to keep clean when there are little kids and animals around. Accidents happen. Spills happen. And sometimes you can’t immediately take care of them because you’re on the road, in motion, places to be and all. But for hell’s sake, you can’t take ten minutes when you arrive at your destination to sponge things up? Seriously, did this person have no pride? If not pride, how about an instinct for self-preservation? I mean… how could you just sit in that filth day after day without doing something about it? The thought of what this person’s house might look like…

Ugh. Perhaps it’s best not to think about how other people live.

In any event, I spent my four-day Thanksgiving weekend cleaning the shit out of this thing… perhaps literally. I still don’t know what that brown stuff in the cracks of the seats was, and I really don’t want to. In the end, the seats remain badly stained — cheap seat covers from WallyWorld solved that problem — but the smell is thankfully gone and now I have a (hopefully) reliable vehicle to use on snow days instead of my Mustang.

One final thought: I’m not really one of those people who names all my cars, but in this case, an appellation jumped into my head while I was cleaning that so perfect, so fitting, I don’t see how I can not use it. So from this point forward, my new Jeep shall be known as… the tauntaun.

Because it’s a silver snow beast that smells awful on the inside…

 

 

 

 

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Birthday Playlist

My darling Anne has wanted to throw me a birthday party of some kind for years, but given my discomfort with birthdays and with aging in general, I’ve never been enthusiastic about the idea. This year, however, was a different situation. A big landmark like 50 ought to be observed, right? And besides, like I said in the previous entry, the birthday thing has been growing unexpectedly easier the last couple years, so I told her okay, let’s do something.

The result was an open house, which isn’t quite the same thing as full-on party but still serves to get actual living, breathing people into the same space as you instead of them just leaving digital sentiments on Facebook. Anne did a fabulous job of arranging food, decorations and a venue, which coincidentally was in the same building where she and I attended elementary school, and where my grandmother attended high school before that. I quite liked that. It felt…. symmetrical. And it was fun to be in the old place again. I had a lot of flashbacks that night.

I also saw a lot of friends, some of whom I haven’t managed to get together with in a very long. My evil twin and fellow Blasphemous Bastard, Dr. Robert, even flew out from Pennsylvania to spend the weekend with me, a sincerely touching gesture for which I can’t thank him enough.

Although Anne handled all the real work of putting the thing together, I wanted to make a contribution as well, something that would put my personal stamp on the proceedings that our guests could point to and say to themselves, “Yep, that’s Jason all right.” So I curated a slideshow of photographs from throughout my life to run on some digital picture-frame displays, as well as a playlist of favorite music.

The photos were the easy part; it turns out that I have a lot of favorite music.

After a first pass through my iTunes library, I was shocked to see that the list I’d assembled would take approximately three days to get through. So I started trimming, trying to whittle the whole thing down to only the bare essentials. The second version was just under two days in length. At that point, I decided to screw it and just put the damn thing on shuffle play and call it good.

In the end, I needn’t have bothered. I don’t think anyone paid the slightest attention to the music. Which is fine. It was better that people enjoyed the company and the conversation. But you know… I did go to the effort of building the damn thing, and I think a real thematic tone emerges when you look at it: a bit wistful, definitely nostalgic, but also hopeful and even determined. I’d kind of like it to have some kind of life beyond the couple hours it played at the event. So, for the sake of posterity, I now present my 50th B-day playlist for any who might be interested. Just click the highlighted text. It’s in PDF format, and be warned that it’s very long… but maybe you can use it to build your own playlist of songs that remind you of me, or you can just shake your head at my appalling lack of taste or something… but at least it’s out there in the world now…

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Ruminations on Fifty

I was barely into my teens the first time I saw Blade Runner. It was on a rented VHS videocassette, probably eight months or a year after the film’s initial release, so that would’ve been some time in 1983. And I would’ve been 13 years old. The movie has a very specific time setting — November 2019 — and I remember being taken by the idea that I would likely live to see that future, as incredibly far off as it seemed then in the early years of the Awesome ’80s. I once did the math on the back of an envelope to figure out how old I would be when that future arrived, and the answer — 50! — was as fantastical to my 13-year-old self as flying cars, off-world colonies, and genetically engineered replicants.

Well.

Here we are, only six weeks away from November 2019, that once-distant future imagined in the now-ancient past, and today, as hard as it is for me to believe, is my 50th birthday.

Fifty. Five-Oh. Five decades. Half a century. You can’t see this, but I’m sitting here shaking my head in wonder.

My friends and Loyal Readers (assuming any of you are still out there!) know that I struggle with birthdays, and with aging in general. Of course you know that, I write about it nearly every year. The thing is, when this time of year rolls around, it’s very difficult for me not to dwell on what I have to show for the time I’ve spent on this planet… or rather, what I don’t have to show for it. I don’t have children, I don’t own my own home — hell, I’ve never even moved out of the home I grew up in! — and while I do have this thing that can be called a career, I didn’t choose it so much as I slipped on a metaphorical banana peel and fell ass-backwards into it. It works well enough for me, but I can’t help help thinking something else would work better if only I could imagine what.

And I haven’t written any of those novels I used to talk about. That one really hurts.

Bottom line: When I look at pretty much any of the factors that are considered to be markers of success in our late-stage capitalistic society, I haven’t amounted to much. And yeah, that bothers me, as much as I try to shrug it off.

That said, however, the last few birthdays have seemed easier, and I’m surprised to find that I’m pretty sanguine about this one in particular, even though it’s a big landmark. Maybe it’s true what they say about giving less of a damn as you get older. But I think I was also comforted this year by some wisdom I received from an unexpected source, a young lady I’m coming to think of as my work-daughter  (as opposed to a work-spouse… yeah, I’m definitely getting older!). We were chewing the fat a few weeks back, and I mentioned my angst over not having done much with my life, and she responded, “Maybe not, but you’ve seen a hell of a lot.” I asked her what she meant, and she said that I’m always talking about all the things I’ve seen, from concerts to movies to different places to just “the good old days,” and she thinks my stories are cool. As I returned to my desk, I started thinking that she’s right… I have seen a lot of things in my time. (And here we circle back to Blade Runner and its replicant anti-hero Roy Batty: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… “)

Not all of those things have been good, of course. The first big headline events I remember being aware of were the death of Elvis Presley and the Jonestown Massacre, when cult-leader Jim Jones coerced hundreds of people to drink poisoned grape punch or else just had them shot. Then there was the Iran hostage crisis. The AIDS epidemic. The Challenger disaster. The terrorist bombing of a 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The Exxon Valdez. The loss of another space shuttle, Columbia. The nightmare of 9/11 and all the disillusioning, disheartening stuff that followed it.

Mass shootings have become virtually commonplace.

I’ve seen nine U.S. presidents in my lifetime. One of them was impeached, one of them narrowly avoided it by resigning, and we’ll see what happens with the current one. There have been four out-and-out wars (by my reckoning) and more small-scale
“actions” than I can remember. Lots of economic ups and downs in that time too, though fortunately not a full-scale Depression 2.0 (not yet, anyhow).

I’ve seen all kinds of social mores and paradigms evolve, reverse themselves, or completely vanish in the last 50 years. I was an impressionable child during the free-loving, post-sexual-revolution years of the ’70s and I’ve long held something of a grudge that AIDS and a social backlash came along right about the time I was coming of age myself. I feel like I missed the party by that much. On the positive side, though, same-sex marriage is a thing now and, generally speaking, seems to be more and more accepted, despite the forces that are trying to push people of all descriptions back into their closets. Marijuana is becoming legal in more and more places, and practically everybody I know over a certain age is using CBD products to deal with their aches and pains. Meanwhile, cigarette smoking has gone from near-ubiquitous to barely tolerated, and probably soon to disappear entirely.

And then there’s technology. Good lord, the technology. Sometimes my childhood seems like it was in the 19th century, not the 20th. I remember when computers were something you only saw in science fiction movies, and then they were always the size of refrigerators, with spinning tape reels behind glass doors. The idea that it’s only a few decades later and we’re all walking around with one in our pockets, smaller in many cases than a paperback book, is truly boggling.

Home video — which didn’t even exist when I was young — has gone from video cassettes to DVD to BluRay to streaming. My earliest TV was a 17-inch black-and-white “portable” with a finicky vertical hold and rabbit ears. Our “big screen” during much of my childhood was a color set housed in an enormous solid wood cabinet, and you changed channels by walking across the room and turning a physical knob.

Music: from vinyl LPs to cassettes and 8-tracks to MP3s, Napster, iTunes, Spotify, and now, improbably, vinyl LPs again.

Fashion: I’ve lived long enough to see the fashions of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s all make comebacks.

Cars were enormous when I was a kid. My first one, a 1970 T-Bird, was approximately the size of a supertanker. They’ve become smaller, then somewhat bigger again. Sedans are fading away in favor of SUVs and minivans. Driverless vehicles are on the horizon (I’m not thrilled about that one).

I watched as our civilization survived the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, Y2K, the Mayan calendar “end of time” in 2012, and any number of near-misses by asteroids.

When I was a kid, we had nine planets in our solar system and knew of no others anywhere else. Today, Pluto has been downgraded to not-a-planet and we’ve spotted hundreds of exoplanets orbiting other stars.

But that’s all big, societal-level things. On a more personal note, I’ve seen the farm town I grew up in become a suburb, and Utah itself change from a somewhat isolated outpost of civilization — I always related with Luke Skywalker’s lament that Tatooine was the point farthest from the bright center of the universe — to a well-known and even desirable place to be.

I’ve seen Big Ben and the tomb of Sir Richard Francis Burton and swans lazily gliding along the river behind the colleges of Cambridge, England. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam and the Hollywood sign and the great cathedral of Cologne, Germany. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and a house shaped like a shoe. The lights of Las Vegas. Gettysburg. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Mustang Ranch. The Lincoln Memorial. At the Smithsonian Institution, I’ve seen Julia Child’s kitchen, Kermit the Frog, Archie Bunker’s chair, Lincoln’s blood-stained top hat, and the star-spangled banner itself. In the British Museum in London, I saw the Rosetta Stone and the body of a man from the Iron Age. I’ve seen Hadrian’s Wall and Glen Coe, Loch Ness and Culloden, the Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies. I’ve seen buffalo and alligators in the wild.

I’ve seen ditch banks burning in the springtime and alfalfa swaying in the June breeze. I’ve seen wide-open spaces and the enormous skies that tower above them. Two-lane roads and superhighways and turnpikes. I’ve seen a stash of dirty magazines hidden in a barn for the neighborhood kids to find long before anyone even imagined the Internet.

And I saw the Twin Towers before the bastards knocked ’em down.

Getting back to the subject of my birthday, I’d be lying if I said I’m not bothered by the physical signs of advancing decrepitude or by the idea that I now have more years behind me than ahead (referring to Blade Runner again, the scene where Batty confronts his creator: “I want more life… fucker.”) But when I look over this list, and I think of all the things I could add to it if I didn’t fear I was already straining your patience, I feel pretty good. All of that is more than enough to do my own version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” So Work-Daughter was right. I do have quite a lot to show for 50 years after all.

Not to get too sappy as I’m winding this up, but maybe I shouldn’t have been thinking about Blade Runner in connection to this day. Maybe a better choice would have been the movie I’m going to see this afternoon, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the tagline of which is “The human adventure is just beginning.” That feels uncharacteristically optimistic for me… but to my surprise, it is the way I’m feeling. And isn’t that weird?

 

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Friday Evening Videos: “Think I’m in Love”

Eddie Money died this morning at the not-very-old age of 70. Variety has the most comprehensive obituary I’ve found, if you’d like to know more about him… and I confess, I really didn’t know much.

The truth is, I’ve always sort of taken Eddie for granted. I’ve never owned an album of his, and the one time I saw him live — back around 2000 or thereabouts, along with Styx and REO Speedwagon in one of the first “triple threat” shows I attended — I dismissed him as the worst act of the evening. Looking back, I feel bad about being so snotty.

See, the thing about Eddie Money that I didn’t credit him for 20 years ago is that he was a journeyman entertainer. Not a virtuoso, not a genius, not really at home in the pantheon of flashy, strutting rock-and-roll gods… he was just a hardworking guy from New York who was easy to picture in his former career as a police officer. Dedicated to the job, out there every damn day without fanfare, like somebody in one of those golden-lighted all-American Ford commercials, doing the work to keep the country moving. I appreciate that sort of thing a lot more now than I did when I was younger.

He started logging hit singles in the ’70s, and it’s been startling today while reading the various tributes to him to realize just how many hits he had, and how many of them I’ve liked over the years. I remember singing “Take Me Home Tonight,” his 1986 song with Ronnie Spector of The Ronnettes, during after-school rehearsals for the one and only play I appeared in, and feeling pretty damn superior because I knew who Ronnie Spector was while my fellow castmates thought she was only a backup singer. However, my favorite Money song is from a couple years earlier. “Think I’m in Love” was the first single from Eddie’s 1982 album No Control, and it slams my personal sweetspot hard: guitar heavy; a catchy, propulsive sound; a certain sense of drama but an overall upbeat tone… this is the kind of song that makes me want to put the car windows down and drive faster than I ought to. The song went to 16 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the video was a staple of MTV’s early playlists.

It is also kind of batshit insane. Which of course all the best early videos were.

Rest in peace, Eddie Money. I’m going to crank this up now and fill the crisp, early fall air with some good rock and roll…

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Friday Evening Videos (Labor Day Weekend Edition): “These Dreams”

Anne and I kicked off the long holiday weekend Friday night with one of those “triple-threat” concerts that have become so common in recent years, at least for the old, er, that is, ahem, the classic acts that I enjoy. The line-up was Heart, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and Elle King, a newer performer whose sassy, sexy, won’t-take-any-bullshit-from-a-man attitude fit right in with the other two acts.

We’ve seen Heart paired with Joan Jett before, only a few years ago — the other “threat” that time was Cheap Trick — but my impression is that last night’s performance for both acts was much, much better. In the case of Heart, that possibly could be due to Ann and Nancy Wilson’s reconciliation following a nasty family dispute. Or perhaps they were better acclimated to the altitude this time around (a lot of performers struggle in Salt Lake’s thinner — and let’s be honest, dirtier — air). Or maybe we just had better seats that gave us a more even sound mix. Whatever the reason, this 2019 show promises to be one that will stand out in my mind, and there was one moment in particular that I think will stay with me.

The Wilson sisters had just led a lovely sing-along version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” and from there Nancy launched into an acoustic take on “These Dreams,” from the self-titled 1985 album that was my introduction to this band. It was just her and her guitar, the drummer gently shaking a maraca, and Ann — ostensibly the band’s lead singer — occasionally chiming in for the chorus or a counterpoint. This song has always had a wistful quality, of course, but this performance tapped into… something… the end of a summer that feels like it never really got started, my impending landmark birthday, the generally dismal state of the world today and the always uncertain future… something. A balmy breeze was floating across the audience, finally bringing some relief after a sweltering day. I could smell sweat and the crisp, slightly floral scent of beer and a much fainter whiff of acrid marijuana smoke. And right around the line “White skin in linen/Perfume on my wrist” — an image that has always been strongly evocative for me — I felt my eyes growing wet. Yes, kids, I was actually getting weepy during a live performance of a 33-year-old power ballad. And I’ll be damned if I can tell you why. Obviously it was hitting some button within me… perhaps something long buried since the time when I was a brooding would-be Romantic who fancied myself some sort of tragic James Dean figure. Or perhaps the emotion was coming from a place that’s only accessible to a man on the edge of 50 who still feels the restlessness of his younger self but is far less able to do anything about it. Maybe it was simply a heartfelt rendition of a pretty song that’s always been a favorite of mine.

Whatever was going on, it seemed as if I felt a click throughout my body just at that moment, and my vision darkened ever so briefly the way it does when I’m looking through a viewfinder as the shutter cycles. I think that moment has maybe become a snapshot in my memory that I’ll someday be able to pull out of a mental shoebox and peer at through layers of grain and sepia, and I’ll recall everything that was happening just then: the tears, the breeze, the beer-and-pot smell, Nancy’s high but somewhat gravely voice singing that line about perfume on her wrist. The moment was quite simply magical. The kind of magic I used to feel in my room late at night, crackling up from the grooves of some old record I’d just discovered… the magic of stumbling across an unexplored world and knowing that I was going to make it my own. A kind of magic I rarely experience any more.

Not a bad way to wind up a summer that never really got started on the cusp of my 50th birthday.

Here’s the video for “These Dreams.” It’s a lot of 1980s excess and nonsense, I’m afraid. Big hair and big pretensions. But I love the song anyhow. If you’ve been waiting for the trivia, this was the third single from the aforementioned album Heart, and the first number-one hit for the band, which had released its first album 10 years before. The song was written by Martin Page (who you may remember for his own hit single “In the House of Stone and Light“) and Elton John’s frequent collaborator Bernie Taupin. “These Dreams” peaked on March 22, 1986, and was later re-released in 1988. I was a junior in high school the first time around, and a college freshman the second…

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Fifty Years Since that One Small Step

“In these eights days of the Apollo 11 mission, the world was witness to not only the triumph of technology, but to the strength of Man’s resolve and the persistence of his imagination. Through all times, the moon has endured out there, pale and distant, determining the tides and tugging at the heart, a symbol, a beacon, a goal. Now, Man has prevailed. He’s landed on the moon; he’s stabbed into its crust; he’s stolen some of its soil to bring back in a tiny treasure ship to perhaps unlock some of its secrets.

“The date’s now indelible. It’s going to be remembered as long as Man survives—July 20,1969—the day a man reached and walked on the moon. The least of us is improved by the things done by the best of us. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are the best of us, and they’ve led us further and higher than we ever imagined we were likely to go.”

–Walter Cronkite, the legendary television journalist,
at the conclusion of his live broadcast coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing

Today’s date is indelible. At least for those of us who care. My fear is that, these days, those of us who care are a distinct minority, a niche fandom like Trekkies or model train enthusiasts, just a bunch of aging white guys who indulge their inner 12-year-olds with a basement room in which they display their collections and imagine a world different than the way it is. If this day were a national holiday, as I’ve proposed before, maybe it would be different. Maybe people would remember and get excited and talk about the meaning of it all, and even become a little misty-eyed, as I do myself. But then… maybe not. Maybe a national holiday honoring the Apollo astronauts — and by extension all explorers, in my vision — would become just one more day for car dealers to hold a sale, and for families to grill some hot dogs without a second thought as to why they have this day off.

And then there’s that bit about “as long as Man survives” (forgive the outdated sexist usage in reference to the whole human species; it was 1969, after all). There are those who believe we humans don’t have much time left, that climate change and the bees dying and the oceans filling up with plastic will snuff out our collective flame by the end of the 21st century, if not a lot sooner. I’ll confess that on my more depressive days, I worry about that too, and I feel an absolutely crushing sense of futility. It’s on those days, more than any other, that I wish people would think about the Apollo program. That they would remember what human beings managed to do, and that they did it in a ridiculously short period of time, going from almost no idea of how to put people into space to putting them on another world in just slightly over one decade. Humanity can accomplish immense, glorious things if we put our minds to it. If we work together. If we restrain and channel our destructive impulses toward better, nobler, common goals, for the good of everyone and not just for the shareholders. Human beings built the pyramids, not aliens. And human beings did go to the moon, using technology that wasn’t much more sophisticated than stone knives and bearskins (to borrow a famous line from an old episode of Star Trek). The conspiracy theorists and the casual doubters who think it was all fake… these people infuriate me. Not because they’re scoffing at something I’ve always been fascinated by and excited about, although that is plenty irksome. But because they’re disparaging the one truth I firmly believe about our miserable little ape selves: that we can achieve greatness. That we can solve the big problems. The thing is, though, we need to believe that we can do it. We need to have the optimism that there is a way and that we can find it. And we need to be willing to spend the damn money.

Will humanity solve — or at least adapt to — the multiple environmental crises that seem to be looming higher and higher over our heads? I don’t know. I really don’t. Will we someday return to the moon? I don’t know that either, although it seems more likely right now than it has for many years. Honestly, I don’t even know anymore whether we should go back there, or if we should devote our efforts to Mars or to asteroid mining or to figuring out how to build O’Neill colonies in deep space. All I know is that we shouldn’t give up on the big things. On the hard things. That’s the real meaning of Apollo 11, the message we should take away from those fuzzy old black-and-white images of Neil and Buzz shuffling and hopping through the dust of another world. The lesson that we ought to be pounding into every school kid’s head every single day: the triumph of technology … the strength of Man’s resolve and the persistence of his imagination…

We need that spirit right now. Now more than ever.  I hope we can summon it soon.

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I’m Going to Have to Live Forever

I’ve lately been revisiting Larry Niven’s Ringworld, a science fiction novel I first read back in high school, or perhaps even middle school. My understanding at the time was that it was considered one of the great classics of the genre, but now, thirty-some years later, I rarely encounter any mention of it. That baffles me, a bit, but I suppose it speaks to the impermanence of everything, including prestige. That’s an idea that’s been very hard for me to accept even as it’s become more and more obvious to me. When I was younger, I naively believed that so many of the things I loved were timeless and would never go out of fashion or become irrelevant to the generations that would follow mine. I believed it as much as I believed the sun would come up tomorrow. Well, time has proven me wrong; in the past 30 years, just about every bit of art or media I ever loved has been remade, deconstructed, found lacking, or just plain forgotten. Even tangible things like cars no longer carry the same importance to young people that they did to my generation, and certainly to our parents. But that’s probably a full post in itself, and I’m here to talk about Ringworld.

It’s been interesting to discover what I remember and don’t remember about this book. For example, I very clearly recalled the opening scene, in which our protagonist, Louis Wu, tries to prolong his 200th birthday by using teleportation to jump around the globe, keeping one hour ahead of midnight for as long as possible. I remembered the alien race known as “puppeteers,” something like two-headed ostriches whose entire species are congenital cowards who are obsessed with absolute safety. I also remembered that the puppeteers moved their entire homeworld and several supporting satellites through space, rather than building spaceships, and that their idea of a weapon is something called a “tasp,” which stimulates the pleasure center of the target’s brain to render them passive and harmless, essentially an orgasm gun.

But there was one passage early on in the book that truly startled me. It’s brief, only a single paragraph, and I had no memory of it. Not a line, not a word, has stayed with me over the years, at least not in my conscious memory. But the meaning of this paragraph is so close to my thinking and to things I’ve actually said over the years, that I wonder if maybe it did stick in my unconscious all those years ago. Maybe it’s been lurking there for three decades, influencing my feelings. Or maybe it’s just coincidental, and it stands out to me now because it mirrors a thought and a feeling that I long ago came to of my own accord. The endless mystery of literature, I suppose… does it influence us or does it resonate with us because it strikes a chord that already exists?

Anyhow, here’s the passage that I’ve been mulling over for several days:

Long ago, Louis Wu had stood at the void edge of Mount Lookitthat. The Long Fall River, on that world, ends in the tallest waterfall in known space. Louis’s eyes had followed it down as far as they could penetrate the void mist. The featureless white of the void itself had grasped at his mind, and Louis Wu, half hypnotized, had sworn to live forever. How else could he see all there was to see?

How many times have I thought that there simply isn’t enough time in a scant human lifespan to do and see everything there is to do and see? That’s the fundamental appeal to me of stories about immortal beings, like Highlander or Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles… the ability to see and do and be many different things. My bucket list is as long as my leg, travel destinations primarily, places and things I want to see… and the list only seems to get longer over time, not shorter, in spite of my not-inconsiderable efforts to check items off. I’ll be 50 years old in only two months… not yet old, there’s still time, but I’m considerably down the road. Far enough to see that the road is limited. And how am I going to be able to see all there is to see when the end of the road is just down there a-ways?

Heavy thoughts from an old science fiction novel on a hot summer afternoon…

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Friday Evening Videos: “Magic”

Last Friday was the official first day of summer, but it didn’t really feel like it, since temperatures here in the SLC were only in the 60s. By contrast, this afternoon is breezy and in the low 90s, with a completely empty steel-blue sky, so I think it’s safe to say now that we’ve arrived in summertime. Which means I’ve been thinking about summer-themed songs.

“Magic” isn’t strictly about summertime — it’s by The Cars, which means the lyrics are utterly opaque and could be about anything — but it does mention summer in the opening lines, and I always associate this song with hot days, cheap plastic sunglasses, sleeveless shirts, hanging at the mall, and dragging State in my old Galaxie. Released on May 7, 1984, just as I was finishing my freshman year of high school, the song failed to crack the top 10 — it only rose as high as 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart — but it was seemingly ubiquitous all through the season that followed, and it’s always been a favorite of mine. (I much prefer it over the next single from the Heartbeat City album, “Drive,” and especially over the single that came after that, “Hello Again.” That’s the one with the nonsensical babbling thing in the middle. Not really a bad song, but weird. Just… weird.)

The Cars were an interesting band. They emerged from the same East Coast post-punk scene that also birthed Blondie and the New York Dolls, so they’re often categorized as New Wave. Certainly, the band looked more like Wavers than rockers, especially lead singer Ric Ocasek, whose oversized jackets draped on a too-thin frame and goofily awkward movements were about as far from rock-and-roll swagger as you could get. But The Cars’ musical style included enough crunchy guitar sounds — very evident on “Magic,” for example — that they weren’t out of place on hard-rock stations, while their pop sensibilities and knack for catchy hooks welcomed them into the top-40 format as well. In short, The Cars were chameleons who transcended rigid genre categories. Pretty much everyone I knew back in the day liked The Cars. I still do.

So here’s a little something to listen to as you step out into this balmy summertime evening. Hope you find some magic there…

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Heinlein on Whether It Could Happen Here

As for … the idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible. I hope that it is not probable. But there is a latent deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture; it is rooted in our history and it has broken out many times in the past.

“It is with us now; there has been a sharp rise in strongly evangelical sects in this country in recent years, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-libertarian.

“It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or Holy-Rollerism; indeed it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.

“Nevertheless this business of legislating religious beliefs into law has never been more than sporadically successful in this country — Sunday closing laws here and there, birth control legislation in spots, the Prohibition experiment, temporary enclaves of theocracy such as Voliva’s Zion, Smith’s Nauvoo, and a few others. The country is split up into such a variety of faiths and sects that a degree of uneasy tolerance now exists from expedient compromise; the minorities constitute a majority of opposition against each other.

“Could it be otherwise here? Could any one sect obtain a working majority at the polls and take over the country? Perhaps not — but a combination of a dynamic evangelist, television, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday’s efforts look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck.

“Throw in a Depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negrosim, and a good large dose of anti-“furriners” in general and anti-intellectuals here at home, and the result might be something quite frightening — particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington.”

— Robert A. Heinlein,
“Concerning Stories Never Written” (the afterword to Revolt in 2100)

It is worth noting that Heinlein wrote those words in the 1950s. And also that in his “Future History” cycle of science fiction stories, which includes Revolt in 2100, he pegged the late 20th century and much of the 21st as “The Crazy Years” when America becomes a puritanical theocracy, and spaceflight and other technological and scientific advancement all but ceases.  With today’s Supreme Court decision not to put a stop to partisan gerrymandering, anti-abortion and “freedom of religion” laws springing up all over the place, Mitch McConnell’s heavy-handed and nakedly obvious power plays, and of course a president who has made it plain he’d rather rule as a dictator than govern as an elected official bound by rules and procedure, I fear we are living through the early phase of The Crazy Years right now…

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Being Human

We are sensual beings. We are sexual beings. We are joyous beings, if we let ourselves be. Being gay is just one way to be human. Based on the evidence, LGBTQ+ people are a useful and important part of the human species. [Gay people’s] experience is valuable — not just for ourselves, but because we are a way for others to learn more about what it means to be truly awake and aware and human.

David Gerrold, science-fiction writer, commenting on Pride Month

For the record, I am not gay myself. I’m about as cis-hetero as they come, aside from a teeny little man-crush on Chris Hemsworth. Once upon a time, as shameful as it is to admit this, I probably would’ve qualified as a homophobe. Back in the Awesome ’80s, when I was a painfully insecure teenage boy, I routinely used the word “fag” as an insult and pronounced things as “gay” when I meant “uncool,” the same as all the other insecure teen boys of that era. But here’s the thing: I didn’t actually know any gay people then, at least none that I realized were gay. (Even now, I have a fairly wonky sense of “gaydar.” Often, I just can’t tell until someone does something really gay.) I don’t think I even fully understood what “gay” meant. I was speaking and acting from a place of ignorance.

The first time I was aware of being in a gay man’s company was… uncomfortable. Especially when he remarked how well I filled out a pair of jeans. But you know what? It wasn’t that uncomfortable, and I later realized he wasn’t hitting on me as I’d initially believed, he was just giving me a compliment, and what was so terrible about that? I had to admit to myself that it wasn’t terrible at all; it was flattering. As the years went by, I had more experiences with gay people, and a few trans people as well, and none of those experiences were terrible either. I worked with them, I friended them, I shopped in their stores, and I went to parties at their homes. I became a fan of Armistead Maupin and his very gay Tales of the City books. I saw Brokeback Mountain and Milk and was deeply moved by both. In 2008, Anne and I had an incredible vacation in San Francisco, and you want to know what our favorite neighborhood was? The Castro… the notorious gay neighborhood, the one where we were the exception, the token straight couple. And in 2015, I cheered when gay people finally won the right to marry those they love.

I’m not recounting all of this to make myself look good. I know that I’m no hero. I am, by my own admission, a guy who used to be a bit of a jerk, if never a truly malignant one. But I also know that I’ve become a better person, a better human, because of my interactions with LGBTQ people and a growing understanding of their struggles. (I still have a long way to go on that front, but I am trying.) I’m a bigger, more compassionate person than I used to be, I’m a lot more comfortable with myself, and I find that my world has more colors in it than it used to.

In other words, I am what Mr. Gerrold is talking about in the final sentence of that quote at the top of this post. A quote that resonates strongly with this old Star Trek fan, and not just because Gerrold wrote a popular episode of that show. At its core, Star Trek — true Star Trek, not the watered-down action-oriented product that it’s become — was about the way fear and prejudice disappears when you get to know other people. About human beings evolving beyond their petty, childish fears of “the other.” Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

I believe in that slogan more now than at any other point in my life. It’s a shame there are still so many who don’t.

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