Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty images
Remembering: Harlan & I
By Chris M. Barkley
“Awareness and Kindness are the only sacred things.”
– Harlan Ellison
On May 14, 2018, Tom Wolfe died.
Most of you reading this know him as the author of The Right Stuff, a nonfiction chronicles of test pilots like Chuck Yeager and those who came after him to become the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts. Astute fans also know he was on the vanguard of “new journalism” of the 1960’s (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and wrote several novels of note (The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full).
There were eulogies, obituaries and tributes galore. There is no doubt in my mind that Tom Wolfe’s literary legacy is well assured.
On May 22, 2018, Philip Roth died.
Mr. Roth had an extraordinary literary life; a winner of the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle awards twice each, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Awards three times. His 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, was given the Sidewise Award for Alternate History In Time in which American hero and Nazi collaborator Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt to become the President in 1940, with dire results. The waves of accolades and praise for Roth and his works came, all well deserved.
And then, on June 28, Harlan Ellison died. And to me, seems as though the entire world just suddenly STOPPED in its tracks to pay tribute to this man, this splendid wordsmith.
It had been a very busy day. I woke up at 3 a.m. to take over the counter meds for the slight rotator cuff tear in my right shoulder (and NO, I will not be back in time for the playoffs, thank you very much for asking!). At 7:20, I was up and listening to NPR’s Morning Edition (which my partner Juli and I have humorously nicknamed “Damage Report”), preparing the morning coffee, chai and a cat food feast for four hungry faces.
I was watching that day’s first World Cup match (Senegal vs Columbia) when I received an urgent call from my neighbor, Lillian. If you were to google a casting call image of a little old lady, ninety-five year old Lillian’s face would likely appear; frail, five foot one, probably ninety pounds soaking wet with the sweetest smile and a New York accent to die for. She adamantly insists on living by herself and manages to do so under the watchful eyes of Juli and I and her numerous in-laws and grandchildren.
“Oh, I hate to bother you,” she said, “but could you come over and have a look at the blinds upstairs? I think they might be broken.”
Well, of course I could. Because that’s what good neighbors do. And besides, I am a former Boy Scout of America and I have been mostly home since I stopped working at the bookstore over a year ago. So while Columbia was busy fending off Senegal, I was measuring her blinds to be replaced because the plastic inner mechanism had finally become so brittle and dry, it gave up the ghost. She fretted about replacing all three sets of shades in the room (because she wanted them to match) but I assured her that when she and her granddaughter returned from Home Depot later in the day, I could easily handle them.
After watching Columbia defeat Senegal 1-nil, it was time to pick up my two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, Lily, from pre-school. As many of you have seen from photographs posted here, she is a lively, smart-for-her years imp of a little girl. When I picked her up and bundled her into the car, she demanded her toys that are usually littered about the back seat, a pair of plastic dinosaurs (a stegosaurus and velociraptor), a tiny albino Bengal tiger and a small waterless coloring board. And once we’re underway, as she is regularly wont to do, she deftly removes her socks and shoes and settles back in her car sear for some serious singing, playing and some occasional comments about my driving abilities.
Thirty minutes later, Lily was protesting being put down for her nap, even though this has been a part of her daily routine for the past year and a half. But she’s more tired than she realizes and is soon fast asleep. And in the meantime, I asked the household’s Alexa to dial up NPR’s Here and Now for the latest news. Now it’s my turn to fret; the border crisis, the upcoming tariffs on foreign trade and the continuing analysis of the Supreme Court decisions and the speculation on who will replace Justice Anthony Kennedy dominate that day’s show.
Lily’s mom Beth came home an hour and a half later. I headed back to the house and had settled into watch the evening match in Kaliningrad between England and Belgium when I get the call from Lillian about her blinds. I went next door immediately. “I don’t want to keep too long,” she said, so she insisted I only replace the broken blind and the rest could wait until tomorrow. It took less than ten minutes and she pronounced the work, “beautiful”.
I had just sat down on my mushroom-shaped chair to check my email when I saw it.
Right above an announcement about breaking news event about a mass shooting at a newspaper in Annapolis, there was an email from Variety with the headline: “Harlan Ellison, Sci-Fi Writer Who Contributed to ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Babylon 5,’ Dies at 84.”
My heart shuddered.
The world fell away.
I took my glasses off and openly wept.
It had finally happened and for several minutes I tried to take it in and comprehend what I had just read.
He was gone.
I had contemplated calling Harlan on his birthday in May but demurred, first because I truly did not know the state of his health and did not want to bother him unduly. I discarded the idea completely when I heard that his good friend, fellow author and editor, Gardner Dozois, had died earlier in the day. There was no way Harlan nor could his lovely wife Susan entertain the idea of a call from me. It felt like a terrible idea. So, I let it go I have no regrets.
I noodled around online looking for more information but after a while, I became fatigued with grief. I went to lie down on the bed and did so until my sweetheart and partner Juli came home from work. She had heard the news, too. She had never met him but she knew only knew of him by his reputation and stories that she had read about him over the years. Her opinion of Harlan was quite neutral but she also knew how deeply I felt about him. “What do you want to do?,” she asked in a soft, knowing voice.
It was Thursday, which was trivia night at one of our favorite brew houses, The Casual Pint. I asked myself, what would Harlan and Susan do? They would probably say that life was the living and that moping around wasn’t going to do the dead or you any good.
So I chose to get off my ass. “Let’s go,” I said.
On the way down the highway, we received a text from Juli’s son-in-law, Tim; he wanted to go out that evening with our granddaughter Lily but couldn’t because Beth accidentally took his car keys with her to work. Since we both knew he loved craft beers, we called him, changed course and picked them up.
We arrived at The Casual Pint just in time; our team leader, a retired insurance adjuster named Ed, had already submitted our usual team name, “Mr. Peabody’s Way Back Machine.” Tater tots, cider, beer and brats were ordered and the game was on.
There are six rounds of general knowledge questions, with each question separated by a soundtrack of cheesy rock and pop songs that lasted around three to four minutes. Cheating with smart phones was not allowed.
We were playing against an overwhelmingly millennial crowd. Between Juli, Tim, Ed and I, we kicked their little tushes back to grade school with 93 total points, thirty more than our nearest opponent, “Mr. Peabody’s Way Forward Machine.” Our prizes were $25 in gift cards shared among us, a brand new FC Cincinnati t-shirt for me and two tickets to the Saturday game with the Ottawa Fury, which we gave away to a couple who just moved to Cincinnati from Washington state just days earlier.
That felt good. And I felt alive, well and connected to the world once more.
My first encounter with Harlan Ellison’s work began in the summer of 1971. That was when my geeky new friend, Michaele, came home from college. I was heavily in to comics and loaned her some essential issues from my DC and Marvel collection. She, in turn, gave me a hardcover book club edition of the World’s Best Science Fiction 1970, edited by Terry Carr and Donald Wollheim. It was (and still is) filled with fine stories by Richard Wilson (“A Man Spekith”) Fritz Lieber (“Ship of Shadows”), Ursula K. Le Guin (“Nine Lives”), Robert Silverberg (“After the Myths Went Home”), Norman Spinrad (“The Big Flash”), James Tiptree, Jr. (“Your Haploid Heart”), Suzette Haden Elgin (“For the Sake of Grace”) and Larry Niven (“Death by Ecstasy”), among others.
But as I perused the table of contents, my eye was drawn to a singularly titled story, “A Boy and His Dog” by one Harlan Ellison, a writer I had never heard of before. Out of all the titled stories, for some unknown reason, I chose the story with the simplest, least ornate title.
Curious, I began to read. And damn, I was richly rewarded.
There may be some of you reading this have never had the pleasure of reading Harlan’s Nebula Award winning novella. I have no intention of recapping the plot of this well-known story. From its deceptively benign beginnings to its jaw dropping ending, I will only state that I was not the same person who began reading that story. And I must say, before I read “A Boy and His Dog”, my fourteen-year-old brain could not contemplate the possibility of sex being written in a prose style that could be interesting, arousing or heart-rending in ANY way.
Soon thereafter, I discovered that this remarkable writer had written some very memorable stories; “’Repent, Harlequin,’ Said the Tick-Tock Man”, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”, “Delusion For a Dragon Slayer” , “Paingod” and “The Beast That Shouted Love at The Heart of the World.”
If I were to compare Harlan to a baseball pitcher, I couldn’t do it, it would have to be at least a minimum of THREE; the fastball of the Cleveland Indians’ Bob Feller (of whom I have no doubt Harlan followed as a kid), the self-assured goofiness of journeyman knuckleballer Jim Bouton and the determination, cunning, intelligence, sheer skill and intimidation factor of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bob Gibson, who would throw at your eye teeth if you tried to dig in at the plate.
The day after Harlan Ellison died, I saw a Facebook post in which the writer (whom I am protecting from the wrath of the internet by not naming), praised him as a writer but then turned around and stated that due to his manic behavior and explosive personality, his collective works were probably the product of a “idiot savant”.
Oh, HELL NO!
These were the works of a restless and assertive man, always striving to be better, do better and most importantly, DEMAND better of himself, his friends and acquaintances and the world at large. And if this worldview did not coincide with your interests, you were going to have problems with Harlan Ellison. And he had problems with a lot of people.
Harlan and I were born at the opposite ends of Ohio; him in Cleveland in 1934 and me in Cincinnati twenty-two years later. And although each city has a long, adversarial history of sniping at each other, I never got a negative vibe from him about that. In fact, Harlan spent many a summer in the 1950’s attending Midwestcon, a relaxacon (a non-programmed convention) based in the Cincinnati area.
This convention, coincidently, is also where, in the summer of 1976, I discovered fandom (a full account, 13,000 plus word account of which was previous published in File 770 in 1997) but Harlan had long since stopped attending.
I found out that Harlan drew from his boyhood memories and experiences from glancing at a map of Ohio the other day. He grew up in the small town of Painsville (oh, the irony), which is approximately thirty miles northeast of Cleveland.
Now (unfolding the map), starting from Painsville, follow Ohio State Route 2 southeast twenty-six miles to the southwest, where it merges with I-90, past Euclid…Do you see it?
Bratenahl. That happens to be the last name of Harlan’s reporter protagonist in his richly vivid screenplay adaption of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. A coincidence, you say? Not a chance!
And there, to the south, running right through US 422, is Solon. I’m pretty sure he used that town’s name somewhere in his corpus of works. Are there more little gems out there waiting to be discovered by literary detectives and scholars decades from now? Most assuredly, I think.
Reading Harlan Ellison was one thing. Encountering Harlan Ellison in person was like stepping through a portal into an alternate, whirlwind dimension…
One of the people I met and befriended at that first Midwestcon was now Professor Emeritus Joseph Patrouch of the University of Dayton. He was also instrumental in bringing Harlan to town in November of 1977 for an event on campus. Not only did Joe send me an invitation, I also got to tag along to have dinner with him beforehand at a nearby restaurant.
Much of that evening has become a hazy blur over the years but I do remember him being very friendly and gracious to me when I was formally introduced to him (I saw him previously in May at Kwintus Kublius, a sf convention in Nashville) and the dinner was punctuated with stories and laughter.
The event itself was electrifying; a reading from a story he had just completed, punctuated by some searing commentary about America, the evils of contemporary television, some rather pointed statements about abysmal state of students and youth culture he was encountering during the lecture tour and the somewhat tenuous state of the world at that moment.
Harlan spoke loudly, forcibly and most importantly, with an enormous amount of vigor and passion. Anyone who has ever witnessed his lectures, signings or public performances knows EXACTLY WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. To anyone who was receptive, his speeches, observations and pronouncements left you in turns, angry, sad, amused, shocked and overwhelmed. And informed, always informed. (Well, at least to his point of view; merely agreeing with him was, in my estimation, lazy thinking.” Don’t believe me”, he would always say, “find out for yourself and forge your own, informed opinions.”) .
Harlan’s enthusiasm was infectious. If anyone in that audience that night had an inkling of becoming a writer, they were certainly given a powerful impetus to do so that evening. At least, I hope they did. I know that is was true for me.
In his 1980 non-fiction tome on horror Danse Macabre, Stephen King invited Harlan to describe his work in his own words. He said, “My work is foursquare for chaos. I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping the soup boiling. Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous; I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket. My stories go out from here and raise hell. From time to time some denigrator or critic with umbrage will say of my work, ‘He only wrote that to shock.’ I smile and nod. Precisely.”
Over the years, I have tried to emulate his code of ethics; if you see something wrong, speak up, help if you can help, do not suffer fools gladly, never settle for the mediocre in yourself or anything you do, don’t be a slave to what’s fashionable, do vote in elections and, if you accept help, pay it forward to the next person.
To be sure, Harlan didn’t always follow his own sage advice; I have read and heard about his infamous temper, which sometimes got the better of him with his dealings with fans, television and film executives, fellow authors, editors, publishers and just plain folks. I have never truly felt his wrath mostly because I closely listened and learned. Over the first few years that I knew him, I learned that there were certain odious subjects and red zones that I was never going to broach with him; his previous marriages, Richard Nixon, Star Wars (the films or the missile defense “scheme”), Gene Roddenberry and The Last Dangerous Visions.
By now you have either heard of, read or re-lived some of the more infamous true incidents; the dead gopher, the slugging of tv producer Adrian Samish, the testy encounter with Frank Sinatra, being dismissed from the Walt Disney studio after less than a day on the lot, the Starlost debacle, the I, Robot debacle, what the pseudonym “Cordwainer Bird” really means when he uses it, the bricks that were mailed to a publisher (intentionally sent with postage due, mind you), the physical assault on author Charles Platt at the 1985 Nebula Awards banquet, forcing James Cameron to admit that some of the story material in the making of the Terminator films were actually Harlan’s and the successful settlement of a lawsuit against AOL for infringement and the illegal distribution of his works online by its users.
And then there was the 2006 incident with Connie Willis at the Worldcon, which I’ll delve into that a little further along.
Over the past forty-one years, I had the privilege of experiencing a parade of encounters with Harlan Ellison.
In early May of 1977, I was sitting in the audience of Harlan’s Guest of Honor speech at the aforementioned sf convention in Nashville. He read his soon to be published (and future Hugo Award winning short story), “Jeffty Is Five” and soon after, was regaling us with stories about running away with the circus in his youth and the entertainment of that era, that included the last vestiges of the vaudeville era and minstrel shows. Several in the audience called out for him to sing a song and he was about to do so when his eyes swept to room and came resting directly on me, the only African-American person in the room. He stopped, raised his hand and said, “No. Sorry folks, I can’t do that. We have a gentleman in the audience who might object.” And everyone then expectantly turned to me. I, in turn, said, “Hey, well, you know…”
And Harlan smiled and put an end any thought of doing a THAT kind of song and that was the end of it. And I was grateful, then and now, that he had taken the time to notice me and took time to take my feelings into account.
The very next year Harlan was the GoH of the Iguanacon, the 36th Worldcon that was held in Phoenix, Arizona. This was my second Worldcon and the journey by air was the furthest I had ever been from my home by myself. I remember that stepping from the Hyatt Regency entrance onto the street was like entering a blast furnace. The convention center was several hundred yards away across an open plaza and there were several times that I was sure quite sure the gym shoes would melt from the walk on the pavement.
Parked just outside the hotel there was a huge mobile home Harlan had rented for the occasion. He was ensconced there as a protest against the Arizona state legislature for not passing the Equal Rights Amendment (which, as of July 2018, the Republican majority in both houses were still actively blocking).
At one point during the proceedings, wandered into the hotel lobby where Harlan was sitting in a transparent tent, writing a story for everyone to see. As I sat down to watch this spectacle, unfold, I found myself sitting next to and becoming acquainted with one of Harlan’s close friends, author Norman Spinrad. It was an unforgettable experience.
In 1994 I was in the midst of my first go round working at my dream job as an employee of Joseph Beth Booksellers, one of the best independent retail book outlets in the country. When Harlan’s illustrated version of his 1978 screenplay for Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot was published later that year, I immediately chose it as my staff pick. To further promote the book, I called Harlan and set a time for him to call the store for a phone conference book club. Twenty-five people showed up as Harlan patiently explained his lifelong friendship with Asimov, the genesis of the project and detailed why the script would probably never be put into production.
(Note: The abominable 2004 version starring Will Smith, directed by Alex Proyas and mostly written by Akiva Goldsman over the vigorous objections of the original screenwriter, Jeff Vintar, had NOTHING to do with Asimov’s book. The late film critic Roger Ebert wrote, ”The plot is simple minded and disappointing, and the chase and action scenes are pretty much routine for movies in the sci fi CGI genre.” Ebert was also an ardent sf fan, had read I, Robot and it’s more than likely he knew about Harlan superior screenplay. I tried watching it once on cable and turned it off after ten minutes. One day, I would like to ask Smith, who took an executive producer’s credit, whether or not he read or knew about Harlan’s script with the same name…)
A few days after the event, I got a call from Harlan thanking me again for the opportunity to talk some intelligent fans of his work. He also wanted to ask a favor; could he order a book on dinosaurs that had just been published? Not only did I order it, I gave him a 20% discount and free shipping to boot. Because that’s what friends do for each other.
Friends also help friends get nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2004, I did just that.
I have held a longstanding grudge against the Swedish Academy’s Literature Committee, for not only snubbing American writers like the late Philip Roth and the very much alive Joyce Carol Oates, but brilliant fantasy and sf writers like Jack Vance, Guy Gavriel Kay, Margaret Atwood, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin and…Harlan Ellison.
I was going to send each of the fifteen sitting member of the Literature Committee a copy of the thirty-five year retrospective of The Essential Ellison to get their attention but it proved to be very cost prohibitive and also out of bounds, rules wise.
The rules as it turned out, were very simple:
The right to submit proposals for the award of a Nobel Prize in Literature shall, by statute, be enjoyed by:
||Members of the Swedish Academy and of other academies, institutions and societies which are similar to it in construction and purpose;
||Professors of literature and of linguistics at universities and university colleges;
||Previous Nobel Laureates in Literature;
||Presidents of those societies of authors that are representative of the literary production in their respective countries.
Harlan was not out of the loop; I called him very early in the process and when I told him what I was up to, there was an incredulous cry of “WHHAAAAAAT!” on the other end of the phone. But once he calmed down, he was very much on board to make it happen.
Somewhere in my National Archive-sized rental storage unit, I have a copy of a letter from a professor (whose name, alas, I cannot remember at this moment) who taught at Northern Kentucky University and was a huge fan of Harlan’s. I found him by querying around local writer’s groups and schools for a volunteer to contact the Swedish Academy.
He readily agreed to write an official letter and simultaneously email the Swedish Academy with the nomination. When that was done, I would send out an officially approved press release announcing the nomination to all of the major newspapers
Well, the morning the professor sent word that the email had been sent, I first alerted the gang with a detailed post at Unca’ Harlan’s Art Deco Dining Pavilion with the good news. For a good long while, this website was the only place to contact him or his legions of friends and acquaintances online. I was within minutes of sending out the press release when I received several emails begging me NOT to.
Puzzled, I asked why and several correspondents explained that the Academy frowns upon public displays or announcements about nominations. So sending out that email would have practically ended any consideration of Harlan’s work for a Nobel Prize.
With a heavy heart I called Harlan later in the morning with the news. “I know kiddo, I know,” he said with some sadness in his voice. “But,” I said, “you still have the nomination. You just can’t talk about it.”
He gave a chuckle and thanked me profusely for my efforts. I’d like to imagine that at the very least he called up Robert Silverberg exclaiming, “Hey, GUESS WHAT I HAVE that you don’t?”
I celebrated my 50th birthday at two years later at L.A.con IV, the 64th World Science Fiction Convention. It was memorable in many, many ways. For good and for naught, as it turned out.
I met up with Harlan and Susan in the Green Room just before his first panel of the day. I came in part to present him with a signed and framed copy of the professor’s Nobel Prize nomination. Susan accidentally spilled some coffee on me and Harlan was mortified even though there wasn’t too much damage done to my pants or leg. As he graciously signed a few books I brought with me, actor Robert Picardo came by to see them. I stepped aside, said farewell and went about my assigned duties in the Press Office.
I met UK author Paul Cornell and gave him an embarrassingly long hug for writing this Hugo nominated Doctor Who episode, “Father’s Day”. The dealer’s room and art show were enormous. There was a marvelous dinner at a Bucca di Beppo’s , a franchise I had never heard up until then of and seemed to me to be solely dedicated to killing off its customer base several thousand calories at time.
At the Business Meeting, Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden and I shook hands as the members voted to split the Best Editor award in two; a Long Form category for the editor of at least four novel-length works and a Short Form category for the editor of at least four anthologies, collections or issues of magazines. (This turned out well for Patrick; he won the first Long Form award a year later at Nippon 2007 and received a wondrous award that featured the traditional Hugo rocket, Mt. Fuji and Ultraman!)
Then there was the Hugo Awards Ceremony on Saturday night. As a staff member of the Press Office, my primary job that evening was wrangle the group 30 or so journalists covering the event. I had them seated in several rows in an area just to the left of the stage. No more than forty feet away from the elevated stage.
I remember that the ceremony was going very well. Connie Willis was the Mistress of Ceremonies. When it was time for the Best Short Story to be awarded, Harlan came ambling on stage to present it.. Mind you, his appearance was not much of a surprise because the short story was his favorite medium to work in and the award has near and dear to his heart.
What happened next…
When I watched a You Tube video of the incident for this tribute was painful and took a great deal of effort because having seen it live and in person once was quite enough for me. It felt surreal. Harlan comes out. They start a humorous exchange and then Harlan puts the head of the microphone, foam and all INTO HIS MOUTH and goes into a weird “babyman” shtick, babbling and well, then, see for yourself:
As I was sitting there, I my mouth gaped open and I said to myself, did I just see what I just saw? There were some audible gasps from around me but, as you can see, it happened so quickly and as you saw Connie Willis left the stage without further incident and Harlan went on to present the award.
Needless to say, things got crazy. Harlan was roundly pilloried and condemned. Everyone had an opinion. A day after the convention closed, I had not read nor heard anything from either party about the “incident”. Then, on the following Tuesday, the following query was posted on the Unca Harlan’s Art Deco Dining Pavilion:
Anne Batik, Aberdeen, UK – Tuesday, August 29 2006 7:43:46
WorldCon awards ceremony
For the record: I’ve met Mr. Ellison, had a conversation with him, and liked him. I found him intensely funny. I respect his work –a lot– the man is a great writer.
But grabbing Connie Willis’s breast is NOT ok, and people being upset over it is perfectly legit, not just “a bunch of fen in a snit.” Grabbing any woman’s breast, uninvited, much less a professional author of equal stature, in public, just because he wanted to I guess — is **NOT OK**. He really ought to issue Ms. Willis an apology. Period. He has no excuse. That is not how you treat women and not how you treat a colleague.
The man I met ten years ago had more class than that, even though he enjoyed being abrasive. What the heck happened?
Harlan responded a few hours later:
- – Tuesday, August 29 2006 12:19:50
REPLY TO LYNNE BATIK:
Would you believe that, having left the Hugo ceremonies immediately after my part in it, while it was still in progress … and having left the hall entirely … yet having been around later that night for Kieth Kato’s traditional chili party … and having taken off next morning for return home … and not having the internet facility to open “journalfen” (or whatever it is), I was unaware of any problem proceeding from my intendedly-childlike grabbing of Connie Willis’s left breast, as she was exhorting me to behave.
Nonetheless, despite my only becoming aware of this brouhaha right this moment (12 noon LA time, Tuesday the 29th), three days after the digital spasm that seems to be in uproar …YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!!!
iT IS UNCONSCIONABLE FOR A MAN TO GRAB A WOMAN’S BREAST WITHOUT HER EXPLICIT PERMISSION. To do otherwise is to go ‘way over the line in terms of invasion of someone’s personal space. It is crude behavior at best, and actionable behavior at worst. When George W> Bush massaged the back of the neck of that female foreign dignitary, we were all justly appalled. For me to grab Connie’s breast is in excusable, indefensible, gauche, and properly offensive to any observers or those who heard of it later.
I agree wholeheartedly.
I’ve called Connie. Haven’t heard back from her yet. Maybe I never will.
So. What now, folks? It’s not as if I haven’t been a politically incorrect creature in the past. But apparently, Lynne, my 72 years of indefensible, gauche (yet for the most part classy), horrifying, jaw-dropping, sophomoric, sometimes imbecile behavior hasn’t–till now–reached your level of outrage.
I’m glad, at last, to have transcended your expectations. I stand naked and defenseless before your absolutely correct chiding.
With genuine thanks for the post, and celestial affection, I remain, puckishly,
Yr. pal, Harlan
P.S. You have my permission to repost this reply anywhere you choose, on journalfen, at SFWA, on every blog in the universe, and even as graffiti on the Great Wall of China.
- Tuesday, August 29 2006 12:26:56
CONNIE WILLIS’S LEFT BREAST, REDUX
Did I fail to mention, I am 100% guilty as charged, and NO ONE should attempt to cobble up mitigating excuses for my behavior? As with everything else I REALLY DO (as opposed to the bullshit that is gossiped third-hand by dolts), I am responsible for my actions 100% and am prepared to shoulder all consequences, instead of shunting them off to Vice-President ScaryGuy.
Adultly said, Yr. pal, Harlan
– Tuesday, August 29 2006 12:28:31
This may be what killed vaudeville.
- HARLAN ELLISON
– Tuesday, August 29 2006 12:31:1
How’s chances of me playing either the “I’m an old man and my brain is leaking out of my ass” card … or … even better …
“I’m an old Jew and this is just another example of anti-Semitism because all you goyim are pissed that Jews really DO control the whole world.”
I can go either way.
Yr. pal, Harlan
- HARLAN ELLISON
– Tuesday, August 29 2006 12:43:2
ONCE MORE INTO THE BREACH
On a more serious note: if, in fact, Connie (or Courtney, or Cordelia) were/are/might in any way be offended by this latest demonstration of give’n’take jackanapery between Connie and Harlan (now in its longest-run on Broadway), you may all rest assured I will apologize vehemently, will crawl to Colorado through broken glass and steaming embers, and beg her (their) forgiveness. I need no one to prompt me.
Harlan Ellison, a friend of Connie Willis
Connie Willis has never (to my knowledge) ever publicly made a statement about what happened.
You have seen the video. You have read Harlan Ellison’s apology. So much has been said, written and pontificated upon that my opinion won’t mean much of anything in the critical maelstrom that has followed in the wake of Harlan’s passing. I’ve given my testimony. I believe that it just an accident. You can form your own opinions. Harlan would.
A little more than a year later, it was my turn to take a little tour of hell.
My marriage was on the rocks; my then wife moved from Middletown, Ohio where we were living, to Dayton twenty miles away to pursue a degree in medieval history full time. Without her income, I just could not make ends meet on the part-time salary working at the local Sears outlet. Over the preceding year, I started selling my extensive book collection on eBay. As the months went by the bills began accumulate and I sold nearly everything, including all of my signed Ellison editions.
In desperation, I began calling friends in and out of fandom to beg for assistance. When I reached the end of that list, I thought very hard about calling Harlan and Susan for help. I knew they had a done a bit of a philanthropic assistance to others but on the other hand, I hated to impose on them.
One evening, I took a deep breath and I called. Harlan answered. “Hey, howzit going,” he asked enthusiastically.
For the next few minutes, I then laid out my tale woe. When I finished there was a few moments of silence then, he asked, “How much do you need?” I am embarrassed to say I asked for five thousand dollars.
“Oh, I’m sorry, that’s not gonna happen. I can’t help you that far, buddy, I just can’t.” I was crestfallen. He then said, “I will help you as far as I’m able to right now. Will a couple of hundred tide you over?” I pushed down my disappointment and said yes indeed, I would be incredibly grateful for anything right now. Harlan also said, “ I’m going to do you a favor, too; I’m not gonna come after you for a payback, it’s just an open loan. Just pay me back when you can.”
A few days later, a personal check for two hundred dollars arrived in the mail. That money did not solve my problems. But here’s what it did do; it put food on my table, gas and oil in the dilapidated wreck I was driving and most importantly hope that I could extract myself from the quagmire I was floundering in.
By the end of 2007, I successfully declared bankruptcy, saved some money and with the help of my daughter Laura and some friends I had made in Middletown, moved back to Cincinnati and into a large, cheap apartment carved out of a nineteenth-century tenement house that was located, ironically enough, in the neighborhood I grew up in as a child.
I survived on a grueling series of temp jobs (including a three-month stint at a Amazon.com warehouse which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy) and extended unemployment benefits from the kindly state of Ohio for four long years until I finally landed back at my old dream job Joseph Beth in the fall of 2011.
During that period I also found Juli, my partner and true love. I persuaded her to move up from her warm and comfortable home in South Carolina to brave somewhat intemperate climate of southwestern Ohio, with only the promise of my undying love for her.
Flash forward to 2015. Juli and I live comfortably in an integrated community on the outskirts of the city. She is working in a very sales lucrative position for Verizon and I am holding the position of periodicals manager in the best bookstore in Cincinnati. My work at the store was recognized by CityBeat, the weekly alternative newspaper and Cincinnati magazine as being the Best Magazine/Newspaper outlet in the tri-state area for past three years.
During those years, Harlan and Susan were always on my mind. There had been a heart attack back in the 90’s and a bout of clinical depression in 2011. Then there was Harlan’s stroke two years later. From most of the reports I had heard, Harlan was still his cantankerous, biting self, still writing and editing works, just a little less so than usual.
So, one summer’s day, I went to my credit union and withdrew two sequentially numbered one hundred dollar bills. I went to the book store and chose a small thank you card with a quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which I thought they might find pithy and wise:
Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.
I signed the card with my best wishes, placed the two crisp bills and mailed it. I never heard back from them and frankly, no response was needed. Because sometimes you pay forward and sometimes you pay it back, gladly.
Over the decades that I have known Harlan Ellison, he has done hundreds, maybe thousands of small favors like mine. His stories, novels, teleplays, essays and deeds have inspired millions of people around the world. I am privileged to be one of them.
The afternoon after Harlan died, I received a call from my neighbor Lillian, who asked me to come by and put up the two matching blinds in her bedroom. It took about fifteen minutes. I also loaded the two good blinds in the car so they could be donated to Goodwill. She clapped her hands in delight when I finished, which is all the reward I would ever want from her.
I did not share my grief over Harlan’s passing with her; I had heard about her own stories of grief, tragedy and death from her in-laws and grandchildren. So I chose not burden her with mine.
Lillian is a subscriber to the New York Times, something else that endears her Juli and I. But there is no railing beside the two steps leading up to her front door. So, soon after we moved in next to her, we took it upon ourselves to make sure the paper was on the top step, leaning against the door. This is not only a courtesy, it also tells us on a daily basis that she is still with us. This was yet another lesson Harlan taught me, try never trouble the people you love unnecessarily, offer them comfort and familiarity instead.
Were Harlan and I ever truly friends? We never spoke of it over the years that we knew each other it but I’d like to think to think so. He was certainly there when I needed him and him for me. Even more so now that all we have left are our memories and his work.
Over breakfast this past week, my partner and true love Juli said it best; “He was a man of great knowledge and talent. To some he was a god, to others he was the devil incarnate. So, I guess, in the end, he was a just a man.”
To me, he was quite a man, whom I knew ever so briefly but who will always matter to me.
“My mantra is this: I am engaged in the noblest, most honorable profession that the human mind has ever conceived. I am a storyteller. That’s what I am. I tell stories. I am a writer. Not a famous writer, not a literary writer, not a blah-blah-blah writer. I’m a writer. That’s all I ever aspired to be and, at core, is all I am. I am a very content man. I have spent my life doing what I wanted to do.”
Harlan Jay Ellison, 1934-2018