When I was a teenager, I had two avenues of escape that were displayed on the walls of my bedroom.
On the wall next to my bed was one of those huge posters that was a blow-up of a black and white photo. It was a pensive portrait of John Coltrane used on the album cover for one of the master musician’s most marvelous and legendary recordings: A Love Supreme.
On the opposite wall was a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. I remember an old hardback copy of The Amateur Naturalist’s Handbook, some little field guides to reptiles and amphibians, and several books by the remarkable anthropologist, essayist, and philosopher, Loren Eisely. But most of the books filling the shelves were dog-eared used paperbacks and of these they were mostly science fiction novels.
Jazz and science fiction -those were my two refuges from boredom, the stultifying boredom of growing up in a dull, flat, central Indiana town.
Doodling was a pastime which flourished in my high school class notebooks. I’d even tried painting a bit, but neither drawing or painting was a “Medicine for Melancholy,” (which was the name of a collection of stories by science fiction author Ray Bradbury published in 1959).
Now I know better about that boredom. It’s not really that small towns in central Indiana are boring. The cause of the boredom was my own constricted heart/mind. The cause of the constriction was and is common in both teens and adults: self-loathing.
My creative efforts began with elation, but ended in disappointment. They all came up short in my estimation due to that oppressive self-criticism -Ajahn Sucitto calls it the “Inner Tyrant.”
Listening to jazz or getting lost in a sci-fi novel, I felt transported and free from the constriction I projected on my home town (which, in fairness, did have it’s own constrictions, to be sure: racism, sexism, narrow-minded viewpoints, and ignorance were all in good supply.)
The English teacher for my senior year of high school was a most exacting and dour woman who seemed from my viewpoint, to be ancient and bitterly narrow in her views. She assigned the class a book report. The book was to be chosen from a list of solid classics, all worthy I am sure, but I rebelled.
I chose to do a report on a science fiction book by Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles.
The book was published in 1950 and the stories were written in the 40’s. They were loosely connected and worked both as an anthology and a novel. They dealt with human emigration to the red planet and the displacement of the aboriginal inhabitants. They dealt with racism and other narrow-minded viewpoints to which we humans are prone.
By the time I wrote the report, 1966, the book was already considered a classic. It contributed greatly to Bradbury’s reputation as an author which had been elevated over most of the writers in the sci-fi genre.
I knew the English teacher would not be please with my choice. Because I loved SF I was determined to demonstrate the book’s worth. I was a slacker in high school who got mostly “A’s” and “B’s” because the bar was set pretty low. But I worked energetically on the report and was shocked when I got my paper back with a “D.”
I wasn’t the only one. I think everybody in the class got dumped on. Many papers were labeled “plagiarized,” possibly because parts had been clumsily paraphrased from encyclopedias or Cliff Notes, which was probably par for the course when writing book reports.
The teacher didn’t charge me with plagiarism, but she scolded me for my choice of book. “Escape literature” was what she called it, signaling it as unworthy of serious respect.
That stung. Especially because although she was narrow-minded in damning the book, the “escape” aspect hit home. I knew I preferred these novels to what I considered reality.
The next year, while I was in college, I heard some news about my former English teacher. She had killed herself. She had closed up her little garage, opened her car windows, sat in the car with the engine idling and died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
My first thought, after the shock, was that maybe a bit of “escape literature” would have helped her cope. That was a response from a lingering petty bitterness that lacked compassion.
As I think about this I seem to remember hearing that she was alone, that her husband and a much-loved son had predeceased her. I don’t know if this is true or a story I constructed, my own sort of “speculative fiction” (which, by the way, is another name for science fiction that authors and critics have suggested in order to escape the “stigma” of the genre.)
I do remember with certainty that in that last year in high school, she required everyone in the class to memorize a soliloquy from Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Next time: More comic and more on science fiction.