DOUG LANE WRITES:
WHAT’S NEW AND STRANGE? (THE BLOG)
WEDNESDAY, JULY 25, 2018
CLEARLY, HARLAN ELLISON IS TO BLAME (A LOVE STORY)
[Author's Note: Know at the outset, this goes on a bit.
Back in 2012, I married my beautiful wife. As part of the hoopla, we did what all good to-be-marrieds in the 21st century do: assembled a website for those attending to provide important dates and times. One of the elements of the site was a recounting of 'Our Story'. We typically tell people we met on-line. If they fish for detail, we'll color in the blank about meeting on the website of an author whose work we both enjoyed. If they want the whole story? They hear the following, more or less.
My wife shared the original 2012 version of what follows on her Facebook account after word reached us Harlan Ellison had died at age 84. Since his death, I've struggled to compose something meaningful by which to remember him. Harlan was a strong proponent of the idea that no one should go down into the dark with too few words, and I think he'd have been humbled, even gobsmacked by the outpouring of stories about him, his humor, his humanity, his kindness, his talent, and his generosity that have emerged in the past month.
But every time I sat to write a remembrance of the writer who started as an idol and came to call me a friend, my words have failed. And every time I've gone into Facebook to his fan page for the past few weeks, there's a banner picture of him looking up from the story he's writing, a moment frozen by photographer Barbara Alper in Boston in 1977, and the look in his eyes says to me, "Have you figured it out yet, kiddo?"
Wanting to craft the right words is the most obvious expression of how large Harlan bulked in my affections. After a dozen misfires, I realized my quintessential Ellison anecdote, the one that best captures his meaning to me with humor, heart, and at least one loud bellow, already existed in a different form. I'd wanted to flesh it out a little more, add a couple of postscripts that shook out after the original was written, and give it a fresh coat of wax, so I have.
You seldom get to choose the form Fate takes. Maybe if you’re a Ghostbuster up against Gozer the Gozerian, it comes up once or twice, but for regular folk? Fate may take the form of an intense weather event, a forced left turn when you wanted to go right, the wrong piece of mail through the slot.
Sometimes, it takes the form of a cranky old Jewish writer.*
My wife Peggy and I were introduced to each other through a mutual interest in author Harlan Ellison. If you've never read his work, he's a dynamite writer – fantasy, SF, mystery, essay, screenplay, comics – he’s written everything except, perhaps, a villanelle. He’s also an absolute stitch as a public speaker.
Peggy doesn't recall whether it was high school or college when she was introduced to Harlan's writing, but she was hooked from the start, and she devoured his work on a routine basis. I suspect if Peggy didn’t know the name growing up, her mom was aware of him; a STAR TREK fan, and as touchy as the subject can be for Harlan, his and STAR TREK’s DNA are entwined. He wrote the best damned episode of the series and flogged fandom to save it, even as the guts of "City on the Edge of Forever" were being pulled and reshaped at Desilu. For better or worse, TREK is how a lot of people first heard of him.
It's how I first discovered him. Between "City on the Edge of Forever" and "Demon With A Glass Hand" for THE OUTER LIMITS, he got on my radar, and cemented a place on my shelf with his review of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE in Starlog #33. But I didn't really catch on to his fiction until the summer of 1980, when I stumbled across a copy of the Avon paperback of THE BEAST THAT SHOUTED 'LOVE' AT THE HEART OF THE WORLD in a garage sale box back in Catskill, NY. I discovered Doc Savage the same day, same box. (I don't believe this was coincidence.) I recognized the name; the Dillon cover grabbed me by the throat, as did the cover blurbs.** It was a hell of a read. Harlan Ellison jumped the reading queue with each new book I tracked down, and quickly became one of the writers who made me want to pick up a pen and tell stories with it.
The Internet blossomed and grew in the nineties, and Peggy and I both found our separate ways to Harlan Ellison’s official website, Ellison Webderland (run by Rick Wyatt, who is a better man than I; he might even be a better man than Gunga Din), and the site’s message board. At its peak, it was the primary online gathering place for fans of Harlan's writing, where you could drop in and talk about books, film, comics, life, whatever common interests you had. It was a great place to discover other creators and their work. It was also the only intersection in the worlds of an upstate New York boy and a southern California girl whose career had displaced her to Alaska, neither of whom would have gone there if not for the author.
Clearly, Harlan Ellison is to blame.
Peggy and I began posting on the Webderland message board within a few days of each other in May 1998. While we each offered up a fair number of entries and recognized each other by nom d’board, we didn't really interact directly - occasional cross-comments on posts, once-in-a-while emails. I remember failing at Finding something for her (she was looking for quality Scottish tablet in the states. It would be quicker to master using a candy thermometer, BTW.) In that same span, we both became acquainted with Harlan in the actual world. Through a charity auction, Peggy won an hour-long phone call with the man. (I'd love to have been a fly on the wall for that, because they're both high verbals with quick wits.) I'd become a familiar face: showing up at gigs on the east coast beginning in 1995 with the gift of a six-pack of Original Ideas that Bernie and I presented him in Alexandria, VA, hanging out with Barney, making a general nuisance of myself. ("Who are we waiting for? Doug? Where's Doug? C'mon DOUG! Let's GO, DOUG! [spying the donut in my hand] Do you know what thing will DO TO YOU, DOUG???" Every time, getting a little louder with my name, because that's how he played.) He got to know me on sight, then started welcoming me along for after-appearance bread-breaking. He came to call me his friend; I expect it’s closer to 'pals', but who am I to argue with Harlan Ellison?
Fade in, Fall of 2007. Peggy and I only met face-to-face because she had extra vacation and decided to tour up the East Coast and visit some of the people she’d been interacting with for a decade on the board. I wound up meeting her because she stayed with another Webderlander, our friend Keith (who lived not far from me in Northern Virginia, but who I’d only met a few years before, at an Ellison gig in Cleveland.) She and I became friends over the course of a day touring around DC. Peggy was married at the time and then living in Houston. I was living in Virginia, going to grad school at Georgetown, and engaged in my own romantic pursuits (or retreats, depending on the week.)
In April 2008, Harlan headed back to I-CON, the science fiction convention put on at SUNY Stony Brook on Long Island, which for many years was a biennial appearance for him. By then, Peggy was getting divorced and I was hip-deep in grad school while working full time. But I'd been trucking to I-CON for a decade for Harlan's appearances, and this one was no different. When Peggy decided she was attending, I offered to chauffeur her to and from the con (and to the home of one of her Italian uncles for supper while she was in town) to save her the hassle of a rental car and the Long Island Expressway. And because I was her wheelman, when Harlan decided to get dinner at a diner after his Friday night appearance and invited some of the usual suspects along, Peggy came with me. Dinner was a typical Ellison convention affair: big group, long table, side conversations that often fell off when Harlan shared a story or singled someone out for attention. At one point during the meal, Harlan came down the table to where we were and stole some of Peggy's french fries. After dinner, I drove back to the hotel where several of us were staying and crashed like a big dog because it had been a long day.
Next day - Saturday - my friend Jacquie dropped in on the con. I've known Jacquie since college. She, little Jacky, Bernie and I have been friends since SUNY Binghamton in 1986, where we bonded over STAR TREK; and Jacquie lives on Long Island and usually came out for Harlan at I-CON. Harlan had a speaking appearance in one of the Stony Brook lecture halls Saturday morning, so we were all on-hand. Afterwards, he signed books upstairs, where the second floor walkways encircle an open-air atrium.
At that point, I'd been in a bunch of Harlan's signing queues and could build a domino line of books he'd defaced for me, but I hadn't seen Jacquie in a while, so I skip the signing so she and I can catch up. We’re meandering on the second floor, comparing notes on the news of the world, when suddenly from the far side of the atrium, the Voice of Doom BELLOWS at me.
"LANE! LANE, YOU DICKLESS WONDER! GET OVER HERE!"
I look at Harlan, who’s still at his signing table, with the long queue of people now gazing across the open-air atrium to see who he’s emasculating at thirty yards. I turn back to Jacquie, say, "I need to take this,” and toodle over to the table.
In hindsight, one could say this was Harlan's own demonstration of the axiom of that great American philosopher, Tony Isabella: "Hell hath no fury like that of the uninvolved." What had happened was this: Peggy reached the table with her books to be signed and thanked Harlan for letting her come to the diner the night before, and Harlan thought what *I'd* done was flaunt my association with him to Peggy in order to score with her. When Peggy told Harlan we hadn't slept together, he thought I hadn’t closed the deal, foolishly squandering my "Hey baby, I can get you behind the velvet rope" card (my words, not his) and ‘summoned’ me.***
Despite the public shaming, Peggy and I had fun getting to know each other that weekend, and decided when her divorce was final we’d try dating long distance. Three months later, we had our first date. In the spirit of long-distance relationships, it was in Chicago. I ultimately finished my grad program and relocated to Houston in 2010, and we were married in 2012.
We're crazy stupid happy together, but the truth is irrefutable: had Harlan Ellison done something else with his life – had he become a plumber or a bricklayer or a lounge singer – we would't have been caught in the gravity well of his words, and we would't have been set on the collision course that resulted in there even BEING a Doug & Peggy. Without Harlan Ellison, the man/the myth/the writer, we wouldn’t be spending the rest of our lives together.
Clearly, Harlan Ellison is to thank.
Addendum the First:
MadCon in Madison, Wisconsin in 2010 - the "Last Big Con" at which Harlan was going to appear, and then wasn't, and then did - was about a month before I moved in with Peggy. Between the long-standing injury to her back and her closing on the house we were moving into, she wasn't sure she was going to make it. In the end, she hopped on a plane. We met up in Madison the Friday the con opened, checked into the Ramada, went downstairs, and chanced upon Harlan walking towards us on the hotel's main concourse. He saw me, smiled, and went into his Old Jewish Man schtick. "Doug! My old friend!" He gave me a hug. Then he looked at Peggy - the first time he'd seen her since I-CON three years earlier - and said (still in character), "And you! So good to see you again! And you're together!"
Quick as a whip, Peggy told Harlan she needed to thank him. "After you called him a dickless wonder at I-CON, I felt so bad for him, I just had to pity-fuck him."
It was never easy to stop Harlan in his tracks. Peggy's bluntness did. A grin spread on his face, chased by a paroxysm of laughter. It was always nice to see Harlan's moments of unguarded, unreserved amusement. Everybody talks about Angry Harlan. Their loss. Happy Harlan was a lot of fun. Then Peggy tried to build off her perfect one-liner, to Harlan's disappointment."No! You ruined it! You took it too far!"
Addendum the Second:
Peggy and I set the wedding date for October, 2012. Because Harlan was an inseparable part of 'Our Story', we sent Harlan and Susan an invitation, with a copy of our tale and a note telling him we understood in advance they weren’t going to attend, but it was impossible to NOT invite them. He called when he got the invite to thank us, and appreciated the thought, but yeah, he wasn’t going to be coming. We thanked him, ticked the box on the list, and moved on.
That summer, my father was diagnosed with cancer. It was aggressive and well-along before he knew what he was dealing with. He called us that August to advise he wasn't going to be able to attend my wedding because he wanted to put everything he had into getting well. About three weeks after that call, on September 9, my father died. As devastated as we all were, my sister Michelle won that particularly fucking miserable hand of Texas Hold-em, because he died on her wedding day.
So October arrives and off we go to Florida for our beach wedding, and there's certainly bittersweetness, but there are nods to my dad (for example, the reception had a sundae bar because my old man loved his ice cream), and my mom - who'd long since abandoned traveling - came off the mountainside in the Catskills and rode to Florida in Dave and Michelle's motor home to attend. It was a difficult weekend, but by the morning of the wedding, I was weirdly calm. The most basic lesson of living is that Time doesn't care what time YOU think it is, what's going to happen is going to happen, and all you can do is paddle accordingly.
As I step onto the elevator at the hotel on my way out the door for the ceremony, my phone rings. First thought? Something's going off the rails.
The display reads UNKNOWN NUMBER.
*One* person on Earth comes up UNKNOWN NUMBER on my phone. And sure enough, it's Harlan, and he’s calling to wish me luck on our big day. He asks how I'm doing, if I'm ready, tells me how glad he is that Peggy and I found each other, hopes we have a marvelous day and a fabulous life together. I thanked him and expressed my appreciation, asked if he had any advice (he didn’t), told him I was on my way out the door, thanked him again, and went off to get married. It was a couple-minute blur, not out first call, not our last, and in the parlance of Jack Burton, it was nothing to shake the pillars of heaven.
In the emotional void of my father's still-fresh passing, on the one day a son looks to a father for some sort of wisdom, or good will, or encouragement, Harlan's call was a single, perfect moment of kindness. The fact he put the date on his calendar, and took a couple of minutes to call on the right day, at the right time to offer a small but significant acknowledgement of something important going on in my life is something I will never forget. He didn't need to do it. He did it because he cared enough to do it. Like he did when he called to offer notes on a story of mine he’d read, or when he shared the wisdom gained from his own dealings with editors or publishers - those times he wasn’t HARLAN ELLISON, larger than life, but merely Harlan, who loved a good joke and a smart conversation. With me. With many others. I call him my friend because that's how he treated me, if even in the occasional-event-or-in-town-drop-in kind of way. And to say I miss him is to understate how well he treated me along the trail we cut over a quarter-century, what a mensch he was, and how goddamned still the place I hold him inside feels since he died.
I miss him. I will continue to, because the many, many marks he’s left on my life are indelible. But at the fore is one truth he offered we can all hold to tightly as we mourn, remember, and pay him forward through both his work, and our tales of him shared with those who weren't as lucky as we were to know him:
We are not alone.
[Have I figured it out? Maybe. I just heard him in my head say, “Finally. About goddamned time. Now, stop moping and get back to the actual work.” Can do, Unk. Can do.]
* Don’t take my word for it. Just ask world-famous author Neil Gaiman, from Erik Nelson's Ellison documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth: “You have to accept that you have somebody who is partly one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century . . . and, at the same time, a cranky old Jew.” And who am I to argue with Neil Gaiman?
** It was Harlan himself who roped me in with his back cover blurbs - many years later, he told me he wrote all the cover copy for BEAST, including the blurb for "Santa Claus Vs. S.P.I.D.E.R." that snagged with fish-hook efficiency.
*** Come to find out, there were some behind-the-scenes machinations by Harlan that day: Jacquie told me later (after I first recounted this tale) that sometime after the bellowing incident, Harlan made a point of telling Jacquie in no uncertain terms to stay away from me, because he believed Peggy and I were right for each other. Which was as huge a misread of Jacquie’s and my friendship as what caused him to bellow at me in the first place, but it's hard to fault Harlan for wanting to see us happy.