Ray Bradbury

(Cross posted from NPR’s Monkey See blog)

 

Heinlein, Asimov and Bradbury; they were the tripod (invasive, moving, with lasers) on which my science fiction education was built in the 1970s. This was somewhat self-selected, because once you — or I — grew out of Danny Dunn and Journey to the Mushroom Planet and Tom Swift, Jr., they were the inevitable destinations, the planets with the heaviest gravity wells in the sci-fi solar system.

Heinlein was story, adventure, politics, action. My favorite of his was Glory Road, an unabashed tribute to swords and swashbuckling on foreign planets in the vein of John Carter, but I was also freaked out by the parasitical brain worms of thePuppet Masters, confused but intrigued by the patriotic, slightly fascist future state of Starship Troopers, bemused and confused and excited by the weird sexual politics of Stranger In A Strange Land and Time Enough for Love.

Asimov was ideas, millions of them, based on physics, psychology, speculation: what if a civilization had never seen the stars? (“Nightfall.”)What if social science became so popular it could predict the future? (Foundation.) What if Asimov could actually write as well as he could think?

And Bradbury was people. Kids in a long-gone Midwestern town (based on a town not far from where I write), firemen who reluctantly burned books, and of course astronauts, travelers, people who went to other planets only to find themselves. That is, in fact, the ending of my favorite Ray Bradbury story, “The Million Year Picnic,” the last story in The Martian Chronicles. A family from Earth arrives on Mars, after a nuclear war has wiped out life here. The Dad offers the kids a chance to see Martians; the story ends as the family looks into a canal, seeing their own reflection in the water, and the Dad says [something like]: “There they are. Now we are the Martians.”

Bradbury’s message was that of Buckaroo Banzai: Where ever you go, there you are. His characters were not Heinlein’s steely-eyed adventurers and enlightened beings, or Asimov’s two-dimensional mouthpieces. He wrote about real people in far away places and times, and with him it was always easiest to see how these strange books with rockets on the covers weren’t really about anything but us, all of us, staring at our reflections in very strange places.

I never encountered Heinlein, who died in 1988, but I met Isaac Asimov at the World Science Fiction convention in 1980 — he was garrulous and loud and liked to French-kiss young women he had just met — and I got to talk to Bradbury, when my high school English teacher arranged to get him on the phone to talk to us. (I realize now how generous this was of him.) I remember trying to be clever and embarrassing myself with my enthusiasm and my eagerness to show him how much I knew and loved his books; and how gracious he was, and forgiving, in response.

Now they are all gone. Now young people who are now as I was then are growing up with JK Rowling and Neil Gaiman and others (most of whom, I’m sure, I don’t know about, as I have moved on to adultish things) and someday — far away may that day be! — when these children grow up, they will read the obits of those men and women and feel as sad and bereft as I do now. Because it is these writers who mapped where to find — to pay tribute to another lost icon of my childhood — where the wild things truly are. The wild things are right here, and they have been all along.

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The Constitution

I’m happy to announce that next week, I’ll begin shooting a four part documentary for PBS called (provisionally) “The Constitution,” in collaboration with director Stephen Ives and his production company, Insignia Films.

Stephen came to me a few years ago with an idea to do a series on the Constitution as a living document; that is, as it affects people here and now, in terms of civil liberties, government powers, and individual lives. Stephen knew he didn’t want to do a “typical PBS doc” — ie, David McCullough intoning narration as the camera pans over 18th century engravings of Founding Fathers. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

So he approached me to be the on camera host and narrator, and we’ve developed a plan for a show that will have me cris-crossing the country, talking to people both famous and obscure whose lives have been profoundly affected by Constitutional issues.

The Constitution has been invoked a lot in public life of late, sometimes, to my mind, tendentiously and inaccurately. (It is not true, for example, that if the Constitution does not explicitly name a function of government, then that function of government is unconstitutional.) The Constitution was, and is, an imperfect document, and its strength lies in the ongoing arguments about its meaning, as much as what’s in the original text. I’m looking forward to digging into this stuff with Steve and his talented crew.

And also, getting to ride a motorcycle.

The above link goes to a short “teaser trailer” that we did here at Navy Pier in Chicago for a recent convention of PBS programmers. Look for the real thing on PBS in 2013.

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Walter Reed

A statue in the lobby of Building 10, Walter Reed Bethesda

This all started in Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, OR, last Sunday. I saw a book on a sale rack, called “The Good Soldiers” by David Finkel. It was about the Iraq war. I like reading books on war; partially because I’m a guy, and partially because my birth cohort was never asked or expected to fight in one, and I’ve always wondered how I would do. (Answer: really, really, badly.)

Two days later, I put the book down, amazed, moved and devastated, and called up NPR to see if they could get me into Walter Reed Hospital to pay a visit to the service members there.

I swear to you: I didn’t intend to write or talk about this in public. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who starts talking about the Wounded Warriors with the subtext of how wonderful I am for going to see them. But as will be evident, talking and writing about what I saw became very quickly both important for them and necessary for my own mental health. I’ll explain more after the jump.

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On Dying Young

Andrew Breitbart died yesterday, and half the people who knew who he was mourned publicly and sincerely, and other the half tried to hold their tongues.  Some failed.

I was one of the latter group, and failed a little.  I follow this stuff for a living, and knew who Breitbart was, and watched his work with some amusement, some dismay, and some anger. He was responsible for wrecking or hurting a lot of reputations and careers, some of whom might have deserved it, some of whom absolutely did not.  He often lied about people, and accused others of lying without basis.  It doesn’t seem right to me, even on the occasion of his sudden death, to ignore this. Certainly, the death of a public figure never caused Breitbart to restrain himself from criticism.

One of the things that puzzled me about all the reaction was how often Breitbart was called a conservative or a “conservative warrior.”  He was many things, but calling him a “conservative” is arguable. By his own admission, he wasn’t that interested in policy, or even politics, in the sense of governance.  He was interested in the battle, in the fight between His Team and Their Team, and he was utterly devoted to advancing His Team’s cause, and running up the score, which seemed to be counted by scalps.  Ethics, morality, or even, really politics as detached from personality seemed to have nothing much to do with it. Is there anybody in the world who imagines, for example, that he would have said or done anything about Anthony Weiner’s weiner if Weiner had an (R) after his name?  Calling him a committed conservative, to me, makes as much sense as calling Lawrence Taylor a committed Giant.  He was a very, very effective fighter for his side, and most of the people who mourn him on that side (excepting those who knew him personally) seem mostly to be mourning his departure from the battlefield. Who will take it to the enemy now?

Other people have opined about his legacy and his role in coarsening our debate better than I can.  One of the things that bugs me is that the political battlefield has now extended into every arena, so that everything is fodder for fighting — my father in law, a staunch conservative, refused to use Heinz Ketchup during the 2004 election season. Once politics is interfering with your condiments, its no longer recognizable as politics. Breitbart was one of the many who made a nice living in the manufacture of brand new forms of brickbats.

And, of course, it’s frightening that anyone who dares stick their neck out into the public sphere now must needs expect to pay a harsh price, extracted by Breitbart’s role models, heirs and imitators.  I personally try — believe it or not — to treat people decently, even the people I’m making fun of, so that we never cross the line from satire to cruelty. When I die, I don’t want half the people who knew who I was wondering if it would be polite to say what they’re really thinking.

Speaking of which, I happened to spend an hour today talking to Jennyfer Gleason,  the widow of G. Chris Gleason, who collapsed and died just a few hundred yards short of the Philadelphia Marathon finish line, minutes before I finished the race myself. I saw him lying there, being treated by the EMTs who could not resuscitate him.  Like Breitbart, he died too young (Gleason was 40), like Breitbart, he had a wife and young children (who were waiting for him just on the other side of the finish line —  Jennyfer told me this part of the story and I started to weep.)   Gleason — to my knowledge — never attacked anyone publicly, never got involved in politics, never denounced anyone, and never was featured on cable news by bookers who know that denunciations make good TV.  He did touch a lot of people’s lives, though, as evidenced here.  If you’re going to think about the tragedy of a husband and father dying young, spare a thought for Chris Gleason.

 

 

 

 

 

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Announcement

Happy, and a little nervous, to let you all know that I’ve signed a contract with Simon and Schuster to write a book for them about running, based (in part) on my columns for Runner’s World, and also on other various adventures and experiences I’ve had in my personal running boom.

The working title is “Running Long” (I’m already open to suggestions on how to improve it; one friend, who does not like to run, suggets, “Will This Never End?”) and here’s the first paragraph from my proposal:

 

This is a book about running, by a runner. Not a champion sprinter or Olympic marathoner, but one bobbing head and pair of churning legs among the millions.  This will not be a book about “what I think about while running.” This is a book that explains what I think about running, how this massively popular sport, pastime, obsession and discipline appeals to those of us who pursue it.  It will be a book that a marathoner can give to a husband or wife who just doesn’t understand “why you go and punish yourself like that,” and a book that will help those who do it understand that they are not alone. It will be filled with stories from lifetimes of running, ones I’ve experienced and ones I gathered. It will partly a How-To book – you can’t run as many miles as I have without learning something about how to do it – but it will also be a “Why To” book.  Much as Milton wrote “Paradise Lost” to justify God’s ways to man, this book wil justify runner’s ways to the sedentary. We’re not crazy; we just smell that way. 

 

One of my favorite books I’ve read in the past few years was “Matterhorn,” an autobiographical novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes, which may be — must be — the most realistic, vivid, terrifying description of what it was like to actually fight in that war ever written. And I’ve read many stories of how people who fought in the war, and haven’t been able to explain or express what happened to them there, have given that book to their relatives or friends who had wanted to understand.

And — knowing that it is an insanely inappropriate to compare combat to a hobby of the affluent — I wanted to do the same thing for runners. Before you scoff, be aware I apologized for this ridiculous notion to Karl Marlantes himself, and he laughed and gave his blessing. And I’m lucky enough to be working with Jofie Ferrari-Adler, the editor at Simon and Schuster who helped Karl get his book into print.

So: if all goes well, look for it in your bookshops by mid 2013, and wish me luck. You can also follow my labors, comments, etc and contact me via the Twitter feed I use to talk about running: @peterruns

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Happy Birthday to the Grand Rabbi of Westfield, NJ

I'm better looking.

People often react with a little bit of surprise when I tell them my older brother is a rabbi. They know I’m Jewish — I kind of lead with that — but I’m pointedly irreligious (as I once told a convention of rabbis, I’m an agnostic, which is an atheist who’s afraid God will be annoyed if He finds out) and while my peer group growing up all went to religious school and got bar-mitzvahed, etc, actually, you know, going all the way to ordination seems a bit de trop.  As an old Jewish joke probably has it, “A Rabbi? What kind of job is that for a Jewish boy?”

And yet: Doug was drawn to the pulpit, called, I think, not so much by a divine inspiration but as a call to service. His version of Judaism, which I’ve been privileged to experience at his congregations in Connecticut, Chicago, and now Westfield NJ, is far different from the dutiful, drab, and humorless rituals I endured at our shul growing up. Then, it was all about Rules, Duty, Decorum: a whole bunch of Requirements which existed, it seemed, to provide whole new arenas for  me to disappoint my elders. Doug’s version is joyful, expansive, celebratory, bright, and most of all, welcoming. You can read about his approach in great detail in David Hay’s memoir of his late-life bar-mitzvah, “Today I Am A Boy,” and David is only one of the many people who’ve approached me over the years to tell them about their experience with Rabbi Doug, the wise teacher and leader who helped them, taught them, comforted them, married their children, buried their parents, and yes, amused them — sometimes (I shudder to repeat this) even more than I do.

It’s a little odd for me — I mean, this is my brother.  I grew up with him. He tormented me, I tormented him back (one of the greatest triumphs of my youth involved a car seat and a half eaten apple.)  It’s strange to be among people who think of him with such gratitude, affection and respect. They talk about their Rabbi, and I think to myself, “You mean Dougie?” But who am I to argue, and so now I join them in admiration for a man who — whether or not there is a God to know or care — spends his days doing God’s work.

Today is his 50th Birthday. Please send him your birthday wishes in the comments, and once we have enough, I’ll send them on to him.

 

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Happy New Year

I am a terrible blogger — even with a new site! — but one thing I’ve managed to do is keep up a semi-tradition of New Year’s thanks to all of you for keeping me busy.

When I was a kid, geeky and odd and somewhat chubby,  the life I live now would have seemed utterly impossible in its wonderfulness. More than anything, like a lot of brainy kids lost in books, I dreamed of connections, of having a community. I eventually found various communities, through D&D and theater, most especially, and then college, but now, well, now, to quote Harry Bailey, I’m the richest man in town.  I’ve got a radio show, listened to by millions, and since we do it in front of a live audience every week, I get to meet hundreds of you each time we perform. I’ve got a Twitter feed followed by almost 50,000 interesting and interested folks — and many more have read my book and columns for Runner’s World and other things I offer.  It’s enough to give somebody a big head — why OF COURSE you listen to me, I’m FASCINATING — but one of the things I try to keep in mind is that your attention is a gift. The only truly finite resource we have is time, and I’m grateful, more than these poor words can say, that you choose to spend some of it with me.

I also want to give some public and fervent thanks to the people who work on Wait, Wait… with me: Ian Chillag, Michael Danforth, Eva Wolchover, Emily Ecton, Robert Neuhaus, Lorna White, and our benevolent overlord, Doug Berman. They do most of the work, and I get most of the credit. That’s unfair, but true. (Everybody should subscribe to Ian and Mike’s podcast, “How To Do Everything,” which is arguably funnier than Wait, Wait, which would worry me except I enjoy it too much.)   And of course, much gratitude to the inimitable, unflappable, indestructible, and hopefully immortal Carl Kasell, who has lent me his credibility for 14 years now and still has an undiminished supply.

For an equal number of years, I have been tolerated, coddled, protected (sometimes from myself) and even paid by the good people of NPR, most especially Margaret Low Smith. I hope I haven’t diminished the brand too much.

Torey Malatia and the staff of WBEZ, most especially the inimitable Don Hall, has provided us the warmest professional home we could ask for.

This last year began with JocoCruiseCrazy 1, and I am grateful to that remarkable band of nerds, most especially JoCo himself, as well as Paul and Storm, for welcoming me into their niche. One day on the ship, waiting for a show to begin, Wil Wheaton made a sidelong reference to the “the luck of Teela Brown” and I knew I was home. Thanks as well to all the Sea Monkeys for being kind and fun and appreciative and not at all crazy, except in a good way.

I never thought I’d be in a position to thank my agents — just like winning an Oscar!– but what do you know, I have agents, and they work hard for me, and I’m grateful to Tiffany Ward, Jonathan Swaden, Karl Austen, and  Luke Janklow for their efforts and their patience (especially their patience) and most especially Jessica F Bartolo of Greater Talent Agency, who books my speaking gigs.

“Runner’s World” treats me the way I’ve always secretly wanted to be treated: like an athlete. I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute to their fine magazine, with many thanks to all the editors, David Willey, Sean Downey, Charlie Butler, Jenn Van Allen et al, as well as the many readers who’ve contacted me to express their appreciation, disagreement, anger, or just talk about running.

And of course intense, blubbering thanks to my family, my wife Beth and three daughters Rosie, Gracie, and Willa, who love me and welcome me home when I get back from spending all that time with the rest of you.

There are many others who I’ve spent time with this year, professionally and personally, each of whom have made me feel like I’m part of something larger and more interesting than myself, and I am grateful to all of you; I hope that I managed to let you know that directly and privately so that you know I’m talking about you, right now. Yes, you. You’re great. I’m glad you’re here, and thanks for everything, especially that thing you did for me.

One last time: all of you, who read this and listen and read my tweets are a nerdy boy’s dream come true, and I’m grateful to you. If you see me in 2012, come on up and say hello so I can thank you personally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Geek Immortality

Geek Immortality

It's spelled Carl Kasell, BTW.

Honestly, among certain circles, this is better than a Nobel Prize.

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My Hitch Story

One of the things about Christopher Hitchens is that he got around so much, knew so many people, and made such a vivid impression, that just about everybody is offering a remembrance today. Here’s mine:

In 2007, I was invited to speak at the Amazing Meeting, a conference of skeptics held every year in Las Vegas in honor of James (aka The Amazing) Randi, magician, debunker, and skeptic.  I was delighted to be invited because all  kinds of cool people show up there every year, including Penn and Teller, Adam Savage, Phil “Bad Astronomer” Plait, and of course Hitchens, who seemingly never turned down an invitation to speak, drink, and argue. (As a man who travels a fair bit, I am in awe of how much Hitchens got around.)

His presentation was terrific, and I particularly remember the All-Speakers Panel at the end, when we all got up on stage, and took questions from the audience.  One panelist — I think it was Scott Dikkers, editor of the Onion, though I may well be wrong — suggested that perhaps it was dumb for the US to be “at war with Islam,” and Hitchens, in just the way a lion notices a limp gazelle stroll in front of it,  responded “Well, Islam is certainly at war with us,” and proceeded to eviscerate the poor man.  As the little boy says in Jurassic Park, “Look at all the blood…:”

But: the prior night, I had had my own Hitchens time. A few of us were given tickets by Penn Jillette to come see his show with Teller, and Hitchens piled into conference attendee’s  Scott Hurst’s BMW (which, graciously, Scott let me drive) and headed over to the Rio. Hitch didn’t really know who I was, but lit up when I mentioned I had gone to college with his old friend Andrew Sullivan. I should also say the sight of my attractive wife seemed to increase his illumination. (Beth’s judgement: “Terrible flirt,” with “terrible” meaning “good.”)

The show was terrific, andI had been told that Penn and Teller always invited their guests back to a special lounge they had behind the theater, just for that purpose, so we should absolutely hang around post show for that invitation.   However, as Hitch, Beth and I walked into the lobby, we saw that Penn and Teller had come out (as is their gracious habit) to greet the entire audience as it left the theater, and Hitch made a mental calculation how long it would take for them to work the crowd, didn’t like the number he arrived at, and said “Come on, let’s go get a drink.”

And so we did, heading to the nearest casino bar. I told him as we walked I had been experimenting with the proper martini recipe, and he told me that he once did an assignment as a Cocktail Taste Tester for one magazine or another, drinking gallons of the stuff, and learned all kinds of interesting points about gin, vermouth, and the relationship thereof. (Not for the first time in this account, I will regret not taking contemporaneous notes.) The bartender turned his attention to me, and I ordered three martinis, as per Hitch’s well-researched perfect recipe, and he cried, “Oh, God no, not for me. I’ll never drink that awful stuff again. I’ll have a Scotch, please, a double.”

So we talked and drank, with my thoughts being drowned out by the inner voice, “OH, BOY, I’M HAVING DRINKS WITH CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS.”  We talked about the Iraq War, then in its fifth disastrous year, and which he famously and aggressively supported. I was not fool enough to argue with him, but I did inquire, gently, as to certain aspects of the war which, perhaps, had not gone as well as he and other supporters had hoped or even predicted. “I will admit it could have been handled better,” he said, which is much as a concession as I had ever heard him make on that topic.  He did say something which stuck with me: “I’m just glad we’re at war with someone.” That’s not quite as callous as it sounds here, without context… what he meant was that he saw militant Islam as a grave threat to Western Civilization, and that he was glad that the West had finally given battle.  One could argue that the “someone” in whose front yard the war happened to be fought wouldn’t share his gladness of its commencement, but again, like I said, I chose not to be that “one,” not then.

Eventually, after much chat (see note about regret re: notes) and drinking and smoking we walked back to the Penn and Teller Theater and of course everyone was gone… we had missed our chance to see the Secret Lounge. By this time it was near 1 in the morning, and the three of us caught a cab together back to our casino. Beth and I headed to our hotel room… Hitch, 16 years my senior, headed off to a party some of the younger conference goers were throwing, where I’m told he danced and drank till dawn.

We talked that night about having him on Wait Wait, but never did it. I’m not sure I regret it… three silly questions does not seem the sort of foolishness he would have suffered gladly, and I’m grateful I got to spend some time with him in his natural element, near a bar, with a drink and a smoke, with diversions and arguments ahead and behind.

 

 

 

 

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Come see me

I’ll be at the Philadelphia Marathon Expo on Saturday,  at the Runner’s World booth, from 3 to 5. I’m running the marathon the next day, so if you’re in Philly and you’re on the course, watch for a desperate bald man running by.

And I’ll be narrating “Peter and the Wolf” with Symphony by the Sea, in Marblehead, MA, on November 26th. Tickets and info are here.

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