When I was in kindergarten I was forbidden a special treat other kids took for granted: Dubble Bubble.
I wanted bubble gum so badly but there wasn’t any in my house and I wasn’t likely to get any by begging at the store the way I saw other kids do..
So shopping with my grandmother, I spotted a small basket filled with bright yellow wrapped balls of sugary pink chewy goodness.
Part of me knew they weren’t “free” but I was five and I had hope. Out snuck my small hand. Into my pocket went the gum.
My grandmother with her all-seeing eyes spotted it immediately.
“What’s in your pocket?”
“Nuh-nuthing.” Great — just add lying to stealing — said my conscience.
“Show me.” She put her hand out and gestured. Gimme the contraband.
“I — I — uh… I…”
My conscience spoke. Just give her the gum you big dummy. So I handed it to her.
“You took that gum,” my grandmother said in her iciest voice.
“It was in the basket,” I peeped.
“Come with me,” she said, grasping my small chubby wrist firmly. Her watch band pressed uncomfortably against my palm as she strode purposefully toward the back of the store. I wasn’t sure where we were headed but I knew it was nowhere good. Her heels clacked on the cold and grimy linoleum floor.
We were headed for the manager’s office.
When we got there, the manager knew his part well.
“Young lady, I’m afraid I’m going to have to call the police,” he said. “Stealing is a crime.”
I think I repeated my pathetic excuse that the gum was in the basket and I thought it was free.
“They will take you to jail,” my grandmother hissed. She was at least a billion times scarier than the chubby manager with his pink nose and shiny bald pate.
My grandmother took the gum out of her purse and put it into my unwilling sweaty little hand.
“What do you say to him?” she commanded.
“I — I’m sorry,” I said timidly. I put the gum on his paper-filled desk. “I’m sorry I took the gum. It was wrong.”
I knew if I started to cry it would be a hundred times worse so I bit my lip and looked at the manager. His eyes were kindly. I think they were hazel or light brown.
“Young lady, that is the right thing to do,” he said.
My grandmother’s hand came down on my shoulder and squeezed like a vice.
“You can call the police now,” I said. “I confess.”
He burst out laughing.
I can’t even remember all the chores I had to do and the penance I had to make for that piece of penny bubble gum.
I don’t think I needed lots of additional lessons in “Don’t steal” but if one was needed, I’m just like the guy who learned everything he needed to know in kindergarten. I loved my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Geiger. Of course my grandmother reminded me on the daily that Mrs. Geiger would be so disappointed to hear that I had stolen a piece of bubble gum.
I didn’t stop hearing about the Great Bubble Gum Caper for years. My grandmother even mentioned it way up in her 80s. She loved to tell the story to strangers.
I learned not only this basic lesson which appears in The Bible, the Qu’ran, the Torah, Buddhism, and traditional African religions, but also “always tell the truth,” and “always consider others first” and “Don’t get a big head — no matter how good you think you are, there’s always someone better.”
These silly little lessons I was raised with. So silly. Smart people don’t believe in them.
If you count “smart” “people” as neoliberals, neoconservatives, billionaires and those who aspire to be just like them …
This has not been a good week for the neoliberal centrist Democrats. Many progressive candidates, from Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to Emily Sirota to Ben Jealous, won their primary races.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement yesterday. One of our favorite elite neoliberal authors (a real quality commenter) tweeted:
Twenty years ago, I had had enough hearing people screech how Ronald Reagan wanted to take away my right to control my own body so therefore vote for whomever the person who was yelling at me ordered me to vote for.
Oh by the way, somebody we all love just got busted along with almost 700 others protesting the incarceration of immigrant families on Capitol Hill.
As I was writing this, my phone told me that a man I have loved since I got to know him many years ago has died. A real progressive— Harlan Ellison. My heart is heavy and aching. Harlan did have a life well-lived. The world is by far a better place because Harlan was in it and I think — I think it will go the right way. If you do not know who I am talking about this is who it is. I just heard from friends that he had been writing a much-loved (and vilified of course — it was Harlan) column for Variety (which I don’t often read — wonder why not?).
But we were talking about character. And that was the basis for my relationship with Harlan. He only hurt me one time and I’m certain he didn’t mean to. He demanded I go get somebody for him like I was his servant. And that somebody he wanted me to bring to him is someone I don’t like or respect. I didn’t want to ‘get into it’ with him so I never said a thing. I think I have let it go because the things I didn’t like about that person were basically the neoliberal hypocritical package. Status-oriented, domineering, no faithfulness to work, loving of praise, big swelled head, only caring about externals, enjoyed being fawned-over …
None ways I consciously choose to live or things I value any longer. Back then I just knew I didn’t care for those things and didn’t like that person because of how I had observed them acting. I didn’t associate this with a huge problem that needed to be reduced in our world while other, better things came to the fore.
But there is no writer more emblematic and visionary of these issues and the progressive mind than Harlan Ellison. Some in the sci-fi community may recall a controversy that arose after Harlan was accused of sexually harassing other award-winning author Connie Willis while both were serving as emcees at a Hugo Awards ceremony at the World Science Fiction Convention.
My memory said this was the 2006 Denver WorldCon and sure enough Dr. Google tells me I was right: it was. Neither of these folks involved in the incident were exactly “young” at the time and as to me? I was sleeping through the event having been up ‘partying’ the night before. So I didn’t witness the horror that was Harlan grabbing Connie’s breast and sexually harassing her.
Harlan said that he was telling a joke, acting like a baby, and miming being an infant for purposes of humor. It was probably a dumb joke — as I said — I was present at the overall event but slept through the award ceremony where the incident occurred.
I defended Harlan against the extreme outrage that ensued via online forums because I knew something 99.9% of those screaming about his vile harassment didn’t know.
Harlan was not only not a sexual harasser or rapist so far as I knew, to me he was head and shoulders above the majority of men I’d known. He did something very few other men had ever done: he treated me like an equal. He treated me like an equal as a writer. He didn’t talk to my boobs, nor did he grab them. He talked to me like I was a person.
Most who know me now know that I have publically disclosed how I was raped by Brian Stonehill, named chair of literature at Pomona “Harvard of the West” College when I was 21 years old. Mr. Stonehill is now deceased but I did file a police report at the time and I did go to my Dean and the Dean at Pomona College as well, before dropping charges because I earned about $700 a month and had no way of paying for a lawyer. I knew from the cops that the rapist was going to say I wanted “rough sex” such as being burned with cigarettes, choked, and bitten. At the time I didn’t have the guts to go through that in court.
After, when I declined admission to literary graduate programs (Iowa, Irvine) and lost my opportunities for a Rhodes Scholarship and Watson Fellowship because of the rape, I instead chose to go to the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ workshop at MSU in 1984 on a scholarship. I saw sci fi writing, the stories I loved, as something pure and innocent. Not like “literature” and “the Academy” which I now saw as something evil. I remembered Ray Bradbury speaking at our local library. His goodness. Sweetness. I had never sought help or even processed what happened to me.
Harlan spent time with me. He talked with me. Desperate, in tears, I asked him a question no young writer should ever ask an older writer or mentor. “Do I have what it takes to make it?” I asked.
I was tied in a million knots. I hated him. I loved him. I reviled him. I worshipped him. Someday I wished, I wanted to write like him — so free — anything he liked. But most of me didn’t care. I didn’t feel quite here, quite human. I saw myself as worthless. Harlan was such an important man, such a great writer (and I felt that — such a fine writer).
His large dark eyes flickered when I asked that. He was a kind man. A kind, good man.
“Damnit,” he said. “Yes. Of course. Yes.”
I burst into tears.
But he knew there was something else wrong. He kept picking at me.
Finally I told him why I was so on edge, why I did all the things he had already lectured me were bad for me (drinking, smoking). He had yelled at me for being married to “Gorgo” (Mike Casil) at such a young age — he felt I didn’t know what I was doing.
So I trusted him. I told him what had happened to me. After that long ago time (14–15 months?) I had only told Mike.
“You have to go for help,” he said. He explained that he meant counseling and professional support. He said every single thing that is appropriate to say to a rape survivor after the trauma.
He said, “I am ordering you to go to a rape crisis center the minute you get home.”
I did. To this day, I credit him with saving my life.
He talked to me about the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). About so many other things he so strongly believed in. He talked about marching in the Civil Rights era. He talked about getting beaten up, about the people who wanted to hurt a Jewish guy for standing up for another race.
Harlan Ellison no more sexually harassed Connie Willis than Bernard Sanders raped any of the online neolib trolls who wanted to accuse Bernie to sweep him into the #MeToo bin of creepy guys who are history. Harlan Ellison Sexual Harasser is like Bernie Sanders Has a $600 Coat!!!
Exactly like that.
He was fearless. He had the gift.
I used to think sitting quietly sometimes, “Well you have big guns, Amy. Big guns. Like Harlan. You can write like rolling thunder. No limits. Take no prisoners.”
I could even do a few things Harlan couldn’t. Write in meter and rhyme on command. Wrote dozens of nonfiction books. Wrote novels.
A sore topic, one not brought up. The last time I talked to him was about Borges.
He was a short fiction writer and one of the greatest ever. Maybe he was an American Chekov.
I can see him smile.
But above all, Harlan was a progressive. He was a poor boy, not a rich one. He always suspected rich people. A poor boy from Ohio with dreams the size of the universe.
He dreamed this algorithm that is strangling us all. AM is real. AM is here. AM’s the one who silences progressive voices. AM busted Susan Sarandon in DC today. AM angered the Annapolis shooter.
AM makes people think blue checks are important.
AM ruins our dinners.
AM sends messages to our phones. AM told me Harlan had died.
If you don’t know what I am talking about, AM is the massive supercomputer that has destroyed the world and is holding a tiny group of postapocalyptic survivors captive in his hellish cyberbowels to torture them in “I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream.” This is a link to a free copy of the story online and Harlan would kill me for doing that.
But I am in a different place to him. I understand that we must not connect our writing to money purposely in any way because of how money harms the work. There was no other, fiercer advocate for writers earning a living wage than Harlan Ellison.
He is gone now so it is more important that his words live than money.
I just read that Harlan sued James Cameron for intellectual theft (unsuccessfully). Harlan received a settlement from AOL for the service’s facilitation of online literary piracy. I cannot even begin to describe the fierceness with which Harlan fought in court and with his weapons (words) for money for writers. That’s what all these legal battles were: he saw online services and real people as thieves. He knew his ideas had value and that others wanted it. He did this because he knew Poe died face down in the gutter. He knew Oscar Wilde died branded as a gay man, humiliated, estranged from his family, and penniless. He knew that Faulkner’s novels were out of print for a decade before he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He knew that even though Dickens died a rich man, Emily Dickinson was paid a grand total of $10 during her lifetime for her work.
So like John Graziano said a while back: we all work for a murderous neoliberal billionaire capitalist.
No matter how much the megabillionaire capitalist thinks his all-powerful algorithms enrich him by $250 million each and every day, he in fact: works for AM.
The massive capitalist thinks he’s an important individual and AM works for him but he is really Nimdok.
“I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” is to this day one of the only works of fine short fiction I have ever read with a strong African-American female protagonist. Ellen. I can’t get that published today. Harlan got that published in 1967. Harlan didn’t speak ill of Ellen in that story. Ted, the narrator, did. It’s Ted’s twisted voice revealing the deep misogyny that persists today.
When I got in so much trouble for stealing that piece of Dubble Bubble, Harlan wrote and published “I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream”.
I realize by seeing Harlan’s birth date that my friend misled me regarding his age all these years though I knew how he hated getting older, how badly it made him feel.
Harlan could not stand losing his mojo. And he had it. The first time I saw him he was wearing a black moto jacket with the Flying Tigers logo embroidered on the back. “Over the Hump to Burma!” it declared. The tiger head looked like the Tiger Balm Tiger. Mike Casil had the mellow tiger on his arm.
Like shards of a broken mirror piece by piece our lives are
a series of moments
which we may piece together and perhaps
make a coherent whole.
AM the giant sentient supercomputer AM created from a combination of Yank, Chinese, and Russian supercomputers fighting WW3, is consumed by hatred, torturing the tiny band of surviving humans living in his bowels for hundreds of years.
It’s like the Matrix but it was written 50 years ago. And it’s as fresh today as it was then.
Ted, the narrator, manages to kill Ellen and the other three hapless human victims. But AM keeps Ted alive. And what AM does to Ted is the source of the story’s title: Ted has no mouth but he must scream.
So we’re all like Ted right about now and this hellscape Harlan just escaped from is just like the Belly of AM.
There’s only one way out and it’s not Ted’s way (murder) or Ellen’s way (mercy killing).
We dream ourselves out just the way Harlan dreamt us in.
Harlan told me I was like Dickens’ Agnes Wickfield, “a bright star, ever pointing upward.”
I don’t know. Alls I know is I can dream other-wise. And so can you.
Don’t take it from me. Take it from another star-crossed dreamer.
We are all of us in the gutter. But some of us are looking at the stars.
We got to keep our selves out of AM’s belly. We got to keep believing and dreaming what is good and true and real. When we stop: that way lies madness and death.