Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

It’s a rare thing to meet, let alone have a conversation with your childhood hero. I was lucky enough to have that experience on numerous occasions. Outside my parents, a few teachers, and a couple mentors – people who I interacted with on a daily basis – Ray Douglas Bradbury influenced me as much as anyone. Ray died Tuesday, June 5, 2012, in Los Angeles.

The San Francisco Chronicle has an outstanding obituary, which I won’t try to top. But I wanted to share a few of my own memories of the man.

Like so many others, I discovered Bradbury’s work when I was in high school. I became an immediate fan for life. (Luckily, none of my teachers assigned his books, thereby sparing me the horror of having to analyze all the wonder and joy out of them.) Soon I was buying all the Bradbury books I could, and regularly borrowing out-of-print ones from my local library. Then I discovered his more recent first-editions were still affordable, launching a book-collecting addiction that I’ve never been able to shake.

I attended my first Bradbury lecture and book signing at the Costa Mesa Public Library sometime around 1989. I brought a couple books for him to sign, but I also brought a watercolor portrait I’d painted of him, using photos from the L.A. Times as reference. Years later, he mentioned to me that the painting was up on the wall of his office at his desert home. That news was one of the greatest honors I've ever received.

Over time, I attended enough of his lectures that I could have done my own “Ray Bradbury Tonight!” performances, the way Hal Holbrook channels Mark Twain. Not only did his words and philosophy stick with me, but (in retrospect) I was also learning how a good public speaker operates. I suppose most public speakers discover the same tricks eventually. I learned them by watching Ray Bradbury.

While I came to know his style of lecturing pretty well, you never knew what response you'd get from him when talking one-on-one. There was almost always passion behind his words. Although he'd fully embraced Southern California as his home, he never adopted the typical "laid-back" attitude. I remember his strong disappointment with his old friend (L.A. mayor) Tom Bradley for his lack of leadership in the face of the Rodney King verdict. He wasn't just irritated by it -- he was sad and nearly sputtering with disbelief. 

When "virtual reality" was coming to the fore, I remember asking Ray (who'd been the first to dream up the concept in "The Veldt,") what he thought about that technology not just coming to pass, but also being used to develop a computer game based on his Martian Chronicles. "That's fine," he said. "But they'd better get it right, or I'll track them down and kick 'em in the balls!"

Ray, of course, would do no such thing. His demeanor was more like Santa Claus than an internationally celebrated author.

As one of the very first sci-fi fanboys himself, Ray was more than gracious about corresponding and taking time to talk with fans of his work. I don't think it was an "ego thing." I think he genuinely loved people, and author/book events were a great opportunity for him to meet and greet thousands of them.

Ray's connections to Orange County were many -- so many, in fact, that he wrote a lengthy introduction to  a book of Orange County photos published by the Chicago Review Press in 1988. He was a regular visitor here, often coming down at no charge to lend support to various Friends of the Library groups and to visit with friends. He also set a number of his stories here, including "The Man in the Rorschach Shirt," which was set on an OCTA bus cruising down PCH in Newport Beach.

In fact, my favorite moment with Ray came at an event in his honor held at Muldoon's Pub in Newport Beach. Whoever put the event together clearly wanted to have a world-famous author to show off at what turned out to be a local "society" function. But once the accolades were doled out and the magazine photos taken, the socialites all turned to each other to schmooze. Ray was left sitting pretty much by himself, and I sat down next to him. He seemed happy to have the company. There was no competition for his time, and we sat and talked about writing and about the future.

What particularly sticks in my head was discussing his short story "The Toynbee Convector," which he admitted held his solution to avoiding all the dystopian futures he'd warned us about in books like "Fahrenheit 451." The underlying message of "The Toynbee Convector?" Optimism for a great future is the key ingredient that makes it possible for people to build a great future.

I suppose it sounds simple, but framed in his poetic prose, it seems the perfect answer to the politicians and pundits who tell us to lower our expectations and simply accept that things can't be better than they were. The optimism and can-do spirit that put men the moon brought us a technological revolution that even now continues to expand exponentially. Compare that to our national attitude today. (Or, to continue the metaphor, compare it to the manned space program today.) The world needs a few Toynbee Convectors right now. And Lord knows it needs more Ray Bradburys.