Thursday, February 01, 2007

More on Ray (no, not Nagin!)

Ray Bradbury (mentioned in the post "There will come soft rains") is in his eighties now and still an American legend in fantasy and science fiction. I have a hardcover edition of The Martian Chronicles that he autographed at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference on June 21, 1997. I treasure it, and I treasured the insights he offered at the SWBC. (I see by their website that he is again the keynoter this June.)

I first read the Martian Chronicles when I was about eleven years old. We had a library of sorts at summer camp, basically a handful of old yellowed paperbacks. One rainy afternoon I found a tattered copy of the book there. As I recall, it was literally falling apart and had some pages missing. I read what I could, and at the end of the summer, when I came home, I found a better copy in the public library and read it through. For those who haven't had the privilege, The Martian Chronicles is a collection of short stories Bradbury wrote in the late 1940s - early 1950s. It tells the tale of several expeditions to Mars. The first few end tragically. There are Martians living on Mars (which is why this is fantasy and not science fiction -- even back then scientists were fairly sure Mars couldn't support any kind of sentient life) who thwart those early expeditions. But then, taking a page from American history, the Martians die of some common human childhood disease for which they have no immunity. And so Mars is colonized. But a great world war is brewing at home, and that is the setting for the story that oddly became my favorite in the collection: "There Will Come Soft Rains." It isn't set on Mars at all, but on Earth, after a great atomic war. All the humans have been killed, although there are a few pets running around. But for some strange reason, this house is left standing. In Ray Bradbury's imagined world of roughly 2050, houses are so automated that they do all the housework themselves, including cooking the meals, clearing the table, washing the dishes, etc. And so this house goes on merrily functioning with no human life present. (I guess it had its own generator, as I doubt if the electric utility company would have continued to function after a nuclear war.) The house also reads poetry to the no-longer-existent owner in the evenings, hence the reading of the Sara Teasdale poem. (I wonder if anyone will remember Sara Teasdale in 2050?)

And so Ray Bradbury has been one of my idols since I was quite young. When I learned that he was the keynote speaker each year at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, I was determined to go. And that's how I got to meet him and get his autograph on a copy of one of my favorite books.

When Ray Bradbury talks to writers, he tells of the metaphors that have driven his life and encourages writers to think about their own metaphors. For him, it was the cartoons that were published in newspapers back in the 1930s when he was growing up. Buck Rogers, Tarzan, others. He used to cut the cartoons out of the paper and save them, until his friends made fun of him for such "babyish" behavior, and then he destroyed them -- an action he regrets to this day. When he became famous, he was asked to write the foreword to a book about these classic cartoons, which was a kind of vindication for him. He urges his audience to never let others make them ashamed of their metaphors, for they shape who we are.

The Daily Cattown News is one of my metaphors. As a child, I created a whole world around the lives of my kittens -- mostly the lives I imagined for them, but also their games, their play, their personalities. Today, I envision Cattown as more a state of mind than a place. It's post-Katrina New Orleans, but it's also an interior landscape. Think of it this way: Garrison Keillor has his Lake Wobegon, I have Cattown.

So, welcome to my metaphor. And thank you, Ray Bradbury, for giving me permission to share it with the world.