Tag: obituaries

The Curse of Instantaneous Gratification

In yesterday’s Washington Post, I read the obituary of Junior Mance, a jazz pianist who died on January 17 at the age of 92. I’d never heard of Mance, but his obituary was interesting (as obituaries often are) and it occurred to me that I could sample some of his music. I searched for Junior Mance on Apple Music, found a collection of his work, and spent the morning listening to, and really enjoying his music.

This isn’t the first time an obituary has turned me on to something interesting. I’ve discovered and read books because of obituaries and gone down many a Google rabbit hole because of obituaries.

Something occurred to me later in the day when I was thinking about Mance’s music and how much I enjoyed it. Suppose it was 1977 instead of 2021 when I read this obituary and suppose Mance lived out his 92 years and was a jazz musician for seven decades, as I learned he was. Reading the obit, and the descriptions of Mance’s music made me wonder at what his music might be like, then seek it out to hear for myself. It was a cold, gloomy, and damp all day long, and with ice clinging to the cars throughout the day. Would I, on a similar day in 1977, trudge out in the cold, icy rain, to a nearby record store in the hopes of finding one of his records so that I could bring it home and listen to it?

Media of all kinds is so ubiquitously today, available at a click, that I sometimes forget things weren’t always this way. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is convenient and enlightening to read about a musician and be able to hear what you were reading about seconds later. I take it for granted that when I come across an interesting book in the New York Times Review of Books that I can have said book in my hands in mere seconds. To this end, my patience for delay, is extremely limited. In 1977 I don’t think this would be the case. I would likely have scratched down Junior Mance’s name in a notebook, on a list somewhere, so that I could investigate further at some later date. I would have thought nothing of the delay because it wasn’t really a delay the way I think of it today. A passage I read in another article yesterday, “Making the Nation” by Glenn Adamson in Smithsonian summarizes this well:

Yes, we seem to live our lives on permanent fast forward these days, with boundless opportunities for immediate gratification and distraction. Information and resources are more accessible than ever before.

Then there’s the curse of instantaneous gratification: how it can interrupt the flow of a narrative. If I am watching a movie and am curious about an actor, I will pull out my phone and look them up. I will either pause the movie or stop paying attention while doing my search. Either way, I break the spell of the narrative. This happens when reading a book, or article. Often something I read leads to me look up more while I’m still reading about it. I pause reading to do this and break the flow of that narrative. This happens during conversation, when debating a point. Someone (sometimes me) inevitably pulls out a phone to Google the point in question. The flow of the conversation is thus disturbed.

The result is that I virtually never make it through a movie, TV show, chapter, or article without some kind of interruption. My need-to-know, and to know now (because I can) overrides my desire for that uninterrupted flow of the narrative. I wish it wasn’t this way, and part of me wishes that I could unlearn this behavior and go back to a less interrupt-driven lifestyle.

There is a tenuous balance that slightly favors my ability to get information quickly, and the Junior Mance obituary illustrates why. If I did not have instant access to Mance’s music, I probably wouldn’t have pursued it, and I would have missed out on something special. Interruptions, and the breaks in the narrative flow they cause is the curse of instantaneous gratification. 

R.I.P. James Gunn

I learned this morning that science fiction Grandmaster James Gunn has died at age 97. His novel, The Listeners, set the standard for first contact stories. He created and ran the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in Lawrence, Kansas. His Road to Science Fiction anthologies offer an eclectic range of stories that chart the history of the genre, in U.S. and around the world. And unlike most science fiction grandmasters, I had a personal connection with Jim, and he had a direct influence on my writing career.

In the summer of 2008, I had sold 2 stories. I learned that James Gunn was running an online version of his famous science fiction writing workshop. Outside of creative writing classes I took in college, I’d never done any kind of writing class or workshop, but I knew of Jim’s reputation, and decided to give this one a try. The course lasted 6 weeks, I think, and a group of writers would meet virtually, to learn, discuss, write, and critique stories, with Jim as our leader and instructor.

At the end of the course, Jim gave high praise to a story I’d written for the course, and suggested I send it to Analog. Analog was the top magazine in the field for hard science fiction, at the time, and had been around longest. It was legendary in my mind, and the hardest possible market to break into. I’d sent a dozen stories or more to Analog in the past, always resulting in brief, form letter rejection slips.

Still, Jim was telling me to submit, so I did. And to my surprised, I didn’t get a brief form letter rejection slip, but a lengthy note from Dr. Stan Schmidt, longtime editor of Analog, passing on the story, but providing valuable feedback. I was thrilled, and immediately set to work, putting to use what I learned in Jim’s workshop–and taking advantage of the friends I’d made in the workshop to critique what I’d written–writing another story. I submitted it to Analog and once again, received a lengthy rejection slip from Stan that could almost be read as an acceptance if you held it up at just the right angle.

I kept plugging away, encouraged by the rejections. In the summer of 2010 I’d written a story called “Take One for the Road” which I submitted to Analog. It was out for longer than usual, and as the 60-day mark approached, I grew increasingly anxious. My son was a little over a year old, and I was downstairs with him when I saw an email in my inbox from Stan Schmidt. He was taking my story! I had sold a story to Analog. I jumped up and screamed so loud, that my son, frightened, burst into tears. The story appeared in the June 2011 issue of the magazine.

After that, I began selling stories more rapidly to a variety of magazines. I also started selling nonfiction pieces. Over time, I not only sold a couple of stories to Analog, but was also asked to write 2 editorials for the magazine.

To this day, I credit Jim Gunn and his workshop for the adjustments they introduced to my writing that led to this breakthrough. I was delighted to tell him (and my classmates) about that first sale to Analog, and he was cheerful and supportive in his return.

In 2013, at the World Science Fiction convention in San Antonio, Texas, I finally got to meet Jim in person, and made a point of thanking him, and letting him know that it was him, and his workshop that got me past the final hurdle and taught me to learn of to tell a good, print-worthy science fiction story. I am forever grateful to Jim, grateful that I was able to attend his virtual workshop, grateful for his support, and especially, for being able to meet him in person and thank him for all he had done for me. I will always think of myself as a Young Gunn.

Rest In Peace, Jim.

R.I.P. Carl Reiner

I learned this afternoon that Carl Reiner died yesterday at age 98. I read several Reiner’s books over the years, including I Remember Me and I Just Remembered. The Dick Van Dyke Show, which Reiner created, was one of my favorite TV shows, despite its originally airing a decade before I was born. The episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee featuring Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks is one of my favorites.

Rest in peace, Carl Reiner.

R.I.P. Jim Bouton

I read in the Washington Post this morning that Jim Bouton had died at age 80. He pitched for the Yankees in the 1960s, but was perhaps most famous for his groundbreaking book, Ball Four. It is a fantastic look inside baseball in the late 1960s. If you are a fan of the game and haven’t read the book, you should. I think it is #3 on Sport Illustrated list of best sports books of all time.

My kids knew of Jim Bouton as well. As I took them to camp this morning, I mentioned that he had died. The Little Miss said, “Who is Jim Bouton?” and the Little Man replied almost at once. “He’s the inventor of Big League Chew.”

In an eerie coincidence, last night, I was reading For the Love of the Game, Bud Selig’s new memoir about his life in baseball, and there was some mention of Bouton and his book. Then I saw his name and face in the paper this morning.

Ray Bradbury: The Rocket Man (1920-2012)

The science fiction world, and much of the world at large is weeping today because we lost a giant. I can’t recall when I first heard the name “Ray Bradbury” but in my limited memory, it seems as if I was born with the name, that there was never a time I didn’t know who he was. I’m sure I read some of his stories when I was a kid, checking a book out of the public library, or coming across a story in one of my reading books for school. But the first time I decided to read Bradbury as an adult, with the appreciation of a science fiction fan was in October 1996. I read Something Wicked This Way Comes and I felt like suddenly, my eyes were open. The adventures of Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway kept me breathless. I think I read the book in a single, remarkable sitting, virtually memorizing parts of it as I went. (Whenever someone mentions October, regardless of the context, wild horses can’t keep me from quoting, “First of all it was October, a rare month for boys,” often to strange looks.) Something Wicked This Way Comes became and remains one of my all-time favorite books.

I went on to read other books by Bradbury. I read Fahrenheit 451, and the dreamy and remarkable Martian Chronicles with its echoes of Sherwood Anderson. I read The Illustrated Man which contains one of only two stories that have ever truly frightened me: “The Veldt.” The book also contains what I to believe just about the most perfect short story ever constructed, “The Rocket Man,” which I re-read just a little while ago. Each time I read it, I worry that it will lose some of its magic, and each time, I am both relieved and surprised that the story seems even more remarkable than before. I read other books. I read From the Dust Returned, which I didn’t like so much, but no one is perfect. I read Let’s All Kill Constance, which I found to be wonderfully strange. I read Dandelion Wine and various story collection. Ray’s stories: each one was amazing in its own way. There was a nostalgia in them, sure, but the words came alive. You felt what he wrote.

As a writer, I’ve tried to emulate the style of many writers I’ve admired, but never Bradbury. I knew I just didn’t have it in me, like a young pitcher who can throw a pretty good fastball, but who knows he’ll never hit 90; knows his ball just doesn’t have “stuff.” Bradbury said he wrote every day. Writing every day for seven or eight decades gives someone plenty of practice, but if I wrote for seven or eight decades, I could not do what Ray Bradbury did.

I learned more about Bradbury over the years. I read Sam Weller’s biography of the man. I read Bradbury’s various essays. I read every recent story collection he put out. It was a bit of a thrill for me to find his name, address and phone number listed in the Science Fiction Writers of American’s member directory when I first joined. But I never wrote to him or called him.

I did meet him, however, once at Dangerous Visions bookshop in Sherman Oaks, California, not far from where I lived.

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R.I.P. Anne McCaffrey

I first saw the news of Anne McCaffrey’s passing last night via a Rob Sawyer tweet and it kind of stunned me. I was never a big reader of Anne McCaffrey‘s, not because I didn’t like her work, but mostly because I hadn’t gotten around to reading the bulk of it. What I have read of her work (in particular, “Weyr Search” in the October 1967 Analog) I enjoyed. I think I was stunned because for me, there are some names in science fiction that have always been around, that I think of as alive and well even if they are long dead, and it is a jolt to the system when you realize that they are finally gone. Anne McCaffrey is one of those names.

When I really started getting into science fiction as something more than just a passing interest, I joined the Science Fiction Book club. I was allowed to choose a certain number of books at the beginning and pay only a few cents for those first half dozen books or so. Among the books I selected was an omnibus edition of the first three Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey and that book still sits proudly on my shelf along with half a dozen other McCaffrey books (some in collaboration with others). She was to have a story, “The Bones Do Lie” appear in the infamous The Last Dangerous Visions, a volume which never ended up appearing. The story ultimately appeared in The Girl Who Heard Dragons.

Anne McCaffrey has been part of science fiction for my entire life and that it is why it is such a jolt that she is gone. I have heard many good stories about her but never had the chance to meet her in person. I wish I had.

RIP: J.D. Salinger

I suppose that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated–until today.  It has been reported that J.D. Salinger has died at his home New Hampshire.  He was 91 years old.

I loved the voice in The Catcher In the Rye.  The book itself is a triumph of American literature.  I also loved Salinger’s cameo appearance in W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe.  Unlike the film Field of Dreams based upon Kinsella’s novel, the hermit "kidnapped"  in the story was none other than J.D. Salinger. 

RIP: Michael Crichton

Buried among the news of Barack Obama presidential victory comes word that Michael Crichton has died.  He was most famous, perhaps, for Jurassic Park.  That book was the only of his books I ever read, and I very much enjoyed it.  I read the book well before the movie was ever made and though I enjoyed the movie, too, I thought the book was much better and it remains fondly in my memory.

Thomas M. Disch

It was reported over the weekend that Thomas M. Disch committed suicide over the holiday weekend. I read only one of his books, Camp Concentration way back in October 2000, while sitting in a jury pool in a Hollywood courthouse. I was never called to server that day. According to my list, I wasn’t that impressed with the book (I gave it 2-stars) but that is probably a reflection of my taste and not Disch’s ability as a writer, which is well-known within the genre as being top-notch.