Saturday, June 9, 2012

Remembering Ray Bradbury

I met Ray Bradbury three times.

The first was in 1977 at the college where I was a student. He was the special speaker in an English Department sponsored event and my wife and I were there. Most of us were delighted when Bradbury started to swear eloquently as he called us to pursue our dreams and not be squashed by the machinery of respectability. The fun was enhanced by the withering of the faculty who, as teachers at a conservative Christian college, would normally not tolerate such language. I went up to chat with him afterward, probably saying the kind of ridiculous things that people like me say to famous authors.

The other two times were in my home town of Upland, California. He must have had some connections there because he served once as the marshall of our little town parade, and then returned to sign books at our tiny bookstore, comfortingly known as The Bookworm.

I took my older daughter to one of those book signing events when she was in junior high school. He chatted with us, then signed her book, intentionally spelling her name incorrectly. Then he crossed out his error, spelled her name the right way, and handed it to her with a grin on his face.

“There,” he said. “Now it’ll be worth more when I’m dead.”

But when I think about it, I met Ray many times in my life. Every time I read one of his stories, whether when I was ten years old or now, fifty years later, I have heard his voice narrating life and wonder in the poetic ways that were uniquely his. I hear his voice in my head when I write my own tales, shouting, “No, no no! Too sterile, too organized. Find your heart, you idiot! There’s a poet in you somewhere!”

Bradbury revealed both real-time accuracy and prophetic insight in his work. He anticipated the imprisoning of the imagination in giant TV screens (Fahrenheit 451) and mesmerizing video games (The Martian Chronicles). He even offered the occasional critique of popular religion, as in this brief quotation, spoken by the character Faber, from Fahrenheit 451. The main character, Montag, has just given Faber a book, an item that is now forbidden in this future world:

“It’s been a long time. I’m not a religious man. But it’s been a long time.” Faber turned the pages, stopping here and there to read. “It’s as good as I remember. Lord, how they’ve changed it in our ‘parlors’ these days. Christ is one of the ‘family’ now. I often wonder if God recognizes His own son the way we’ve dressed him up, or is it dressed him down? He’s a regular peppermint stick now, all sugar-crystal and saccharine when he isn’t making veiled references to certain commercial products that every worshipper absolutely needs.”

The book, of course, was a Bible.

I am going to return to my Bradbury books. Some are seasonal: Something Wicked This Way Comes should be read in the Fall. Dandelion Wine is for the Summer. Fahrenheit 451 could be reserved for Winter, as the roaring fires from burning books warm the chilled evenings. Death is a Lonely Business is a good one for the Spring, when Venice Beach is drifting slowly toward Summer.

Some of my Bradbury books have disappeared. I’ve given some to my grandsons who, unlike their mothers before them, have taken up the mantle of Bradbury studies. I think I’ll systematically replace my old paperbacks, and find good old hardcovers that attract dust and smell like nutmeg and old coffee. I’ll not put any on my Kindle, if that’s even possible. I don’t think Ray would go for that.

In Memory of Ray Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Going Crazy about New York

When I recently heard about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to ban the sale of sugared soft drinks of more than 16 ounces in certain venues, I was irritated that something so ridiculous as regulating soda intake could not only waste people’s time and energy, but also require the rest of us to talk about the subject as though it deserved being talked about in the first place. I was convinced that the world had, indeed, gone insane.

However, I then heard a psychologist on the radio talk about the other side of things. He pointed out that the world of marketing tends to continually reset the standard of normalcy for consumers. At one time, an 8-ounce glass bottle of soda would have been considered a reasonable serving. Today, 32-ounces in a large, plastic, refillable cup is the baseline for consumption. If a small plate of food at one time satisfied human hunger and provided sufficient nutrition, food marketers then reset the standard to a plate twice the size with more fat, salt, and MSG. We consumers tend to accept those new standards without question.

It occurs to me that we often find ourselves living between two external forces. On one side is the formation that we experience through marketing. We are told that we need soda, chips, electronics, luxury cars, etc., and we allow our standards to be set for us, often without reflection, critique, or resistance. On the other side is legislation that seeks to limit the seemingly boundless power of marketing by requiring the printing of nutrition facts, hidden costs, estimated gas mileage, or limits on purchasing (as in the New York proposal). We live between those forces and let them have their way with us.

Do we really have no choice here? Must we succumb to the siren song of marketing over here, and then trust that legislation will save us from ourselves over there? Please, say it ain’t so, Joe.

For we who, in particular, are interested in the possibility that our lives might actually be formed by the ongoing life of God, can we not learn some new disciplines of critique and reflection? If we are told that we must drink this drink, or watch this show, or drive that car, or eat certain foods in certain volumes, can we not stop and reflect on the potential effects on both our inward and outward lives, and then act in ways that resist the promises of marketing and then render the machinery of consumer legislation unnecessary? If people had resisted the intake of massive amounts of sugary soda, then Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal would have been irrelevant and probably never offered in the first place.

We are not batteries that fuel a giant profit-making machine. We are humans, made in the image of God, called to care for and participate in the world that God loves and intends for his good. That includes caring for ourselves.