Tag Archives: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Prelude to a Storm

For two days before the arrival of the hurricane called Sandy, it was unusually gray and overcast. Dense cloud cover, thick heaps (cumulus) resembling dryer lint, so much so that they made us land dwellers feel like the central portion of a sandwich. There was pressure in those log-jammed clouds, enough to have a physical presence rather than the usual visual one. Sometimes you could smell the salt in the air – and the ocean is 50 miles east of where I am standing. I couldn’t help but think of Ray Bradbury’s  “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and also “The Wizard of Oz.”

Extreme weather can be exhilarating, in an adrenaline-pumping way. And it can be deadly. I remember seeing the tornado that destroyed Xenia, Ohio, in 1974, from a safe distance of about 50 miles. It crossed the horizon and looked to be about three inches high from my vantage point – but it was awesome at that size, swirling like a disturbed and desperate hornets‘ nest.

In June, 2010, I was driving across Ohio and through lower Michigan and witnessed several tornadoes crossing my path – eight were confirmed in the area. From my perspective, in a car, the sky went black in a diagonal line and I was pelted with hail. Pulling off the interstate was the only option. And there were moments, sitting in the flimsy metal car, when I saw distant trees almost double over. I can’t help but wonder about the other fellow creatures caught in the storm, the ones without weather channels.

The day hurricane Sandy was supposed to put its evil eye on our region, I felt an  urgency to rake leaves that had already fallen, before the rainfall. The wind was getting stronger, and there were pauses I was forced to take just to wait for the swirling to subside. I looked over, during one of these pauses, at my front porch and there was a squirrel lying flat on its stomach, legs out like a flying squirrel. His eyes were open and seemed to be watching me. Since my tendency is to speak to all animals, I explained that I wouldn’t bother him, I would not be cleaning off the porch just yet, and that he could rest there as long as he needed. I went on with my work.

About an hour or so later, after having worked my way around the other side of the corner, I revisited the porch. The squirrel had not moved. I spoke again, “Are you okay?” It wasn’t that I expected a reply, I just thought that, given normal circumstances, squirrels do not sit still and they do not stick around to listen to what you have to say. Oh, dear. I went into the house to seek out another opinion. My partner looked at the squirrel, unmoving, and noticed that he was not breathing.

A squirrel died on my porch that day, right before the hurricane hit. He was plump, rotund really, perfectly healthy looking, an unharmed animal who either fell out of one of my trees – but wait, he wouldn’t have fallen flat on his belly in a posture like I have seen squirrels assume while resting – or perhaps, he wasn’t feeling well and had a heart attack right there. Or, maybe, the impending storm caused untold stress that sent him over the edge. I felt incredibly sad. And I started to think about how you never see dead squirrels anywhere except on roadways. It was so puzzling that I looked it up on the Internet – why one never sees dead squirrels anywhere. Apparently, the reason is that they are eaten fairly quickly by other animals who find them before we do.

In addition to my sadness, I felt somehow honored that he chose my porch as his final resting place. Let me explain. When I moved into this hard-surfaced city neighborhood, I don’t recall that there were any squirrels within sight. I cut away concrete and planted street trees and, one day, the squirrels started to appear. Looking out our second floor window, there is a lovely horizontal limb that was a favorite spot for many generations of squirrels; bringing nuts or crusts of pizza up onto the branch and snacking, then lying prostrate on the branch for a quick squirrel nap. So I had seen them sleep.

I am happy to have provided habitat for these amazing and amusing creatures, since all around us their habitats are being obliterated. The fact that this chubby (perhaps it was the pizza) squirrel lived his life here, found placeness here and died – the long squirrel nap – here on my porch, makes me glimpse the circle of life and of nature, in the throes of a terrible storm. Maybe he felt safe on my porch, safe enough to die there. I never expected this to happen, and it had never happened before, but I come away feeling that, despite the sadness of this event, and aside from it being a portent of the looming storm, in the universe of the unexplained and the inexplicable, this fellow creature had come home to roost.

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Ray of Hope

Of all the many deservedly laudatory obituaries for writer Ray Bradbury, who died last week at age 91, few if any really “got” what it is he did, and did better than any of his contemporaries, among whom there were no equals.

Most of the tributes took their cue from the one from the Associated Press, which began: “Ray Bradbury anticipated iPods, interactive television, electronic surveillance and live, sensational news media events, including televised police pursuits — and not necessarily as good things.” All true, but incomplete, and missing the point. Bradbury was only tangentially a futurist – indeed, as a Slate blog entry wondered, “Did Ray Bradbury Even Write Science Fiction? If Not, What Was It?” Unlike, say, Arthur C. Clarke, or even the Aldous Huxley of “Brave New World,” who invented futures for either scientific, sociopolitical or social-commentary purposes, tomorrow for Bradbury was only a convenient construct to talk about the past and present, and a way to get his stories printed in (and to make some needed money from) the sci-fi pulp magazines. But he was never really a “time” guy.

Character interested him more. The science-fiction world was not rich with characters beyond the 2-D, simply motivated figures needed to push the plot along, plot was king. Many of Bradbury’s characters were more rounded, more interior, more humanly motivated than what you found in other pulp stories, in which heroes and monsters operated on the principle that action is character, that what a person did was the key to understanding what he was. But, while he was among the best in writing character-driven genre fiction, Bradbury was not primarily a “character” guy.

What Ray Bradbury wrote about better than any other sci-fi or fantasy writer, and as well as any kind of writer, was place. In most sci-fi, place was just a backdrop: a rocket ship, an asteroid, a Swiftian society – simply a spot for the plot-motivator to act and react in. But, for Bradbury, place was central. Montag might be memorable in “Fahrenheit 451,” and the writer’s alter ego, Douglas Spaulding, is indelible as the wide-eyed innocent in so many ruminations and spins, but it is the creation and re-creation of the worlds, the towns, the rooms that they moved in that are the height of the lasting art of Ray Bradbury. The dusty, crumbling ghost-town that was once the home of a great civilization and is now the repository of its wraiths and predators in “The Martian Chronicles.” The dark carnival and firefly-illuminated summer nights of sinister giddiness of “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” The holographic living room with real fangs in “The Veldt.” Even the crawly, animated, narrative and doom-prophesying skin of “The Illustrated Man.” Ray Bradbury made places come alive on paper, and put people in them who belonged there, and the combination drew us to them and made us belong there, too. He spun loci of placeness, which we empathetically recognized as something, someplace that lived inside us. They were not outer worlds, but inner, built with materials of the past.

And of all the places that, for me, are linked to Ray Bradbury is one, a special one, mine alone: a table in the restaurant of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, in 1972, where Ray Bradbury generously, amazingly, took two hours out of his life to sit across from me, stake me to a burger, and talk to and encourage this young and eager writer who was in awe of the man he was still stunned to be dining with. I am not sure that I can remember a word of that meeting, but it was as influential as any I have ever experienced. I always wanted to be a writer; he made me pursue it, for he saw being a writer as a mission, a privilege, the best thing that one could do with his life. For his personal kindness, for his exemplary work, for the dreams he spun widely and individually, the place I will always associate with Ray Bradbury is my heart.

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