Peak Experiences

This past weekend was Archon 39. Our local science fiction convention.

Donna and I have, with a couple of exceptions over the years, gone to just about all of them since number 6, which was in 1982 at the Chase-Park Plaza hotel.  The guest of honor then was Stephen King, which meant that everything was exaggerated and gave us a seriously distorted set of expectations of what this convention was normally. The guest list that year was a who’s who of authors, who were then the rock stars of the convention scene. We met Joe Haldeman, Robert Bloch, Robin Bailey, George R.R. Martin, and several others. We were, you might say, agog. It was a bit overwhelming and in retrospect it was a peak experience, at least as far as conventions go.

The problem with such things is, you never know that’s what they are until some time afterward, and even then there might be some question as to how peak it was.  So you go into them a bit unprepared to really appreciate them.

Not so this Archon just past.  We knew months in advance that this was going to be a peak experience.  Because Harlan Ellison surprised everyone by agreeing to appear, despite ill health and considerable impairment from a stroke a year ago.  I knew about this immediately because I instigated the whole thing and ended up promising to be his gofer for the weekend.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to do that, Harlan has minions, and they came. But I didn’t know that until they actually arrived, so the month or so leading up to this I found myself getting more and more stressed by the responsibility I felt.

Note I say “felt” rather than “had.”  What my actual responsibilities were compared to what I felt them to be were somewhat mismatched. I found myself at one point asking myself “What the hell is it with you? Calm down!”  Did no good. But everything came off fairly well. Not everything that was intended to happen, did, or at least not in the way planned, but I’d say a good 70% of it worked, and the stress served one positive function other than making me obsessive about details.  I knew this would be a peak experience.

Harlan is in a wheelchair.  He’s partially paralyzed on his right side.  There was some question as to whether or not he ought to have done this, but he would not be denied.  If sheer willpower counts for anything, Harlan has enough to do pretty much what he sets his mind to doing, even in his present condition. Donna and I picked him and Susan up at the airport Thursday night around nine o’clock and took them to the hotel in Collinsville. We sat in the lobby together for a while.  Two of his best friends showed up, Tim and Andrea Richmond, who we now count as friends.

By Friday evening’s opening ceremonies, Harlan’s presence at the con was unmistakable. harlan at opening ceremoniesI wheeled him up on stage after he had spent over an hour signing books.  He’s slower, sure, but the mind is as alert and sharp as ever.  He was pleased to be at the convention and he disarmed everyone.

We who have been involved in SF for any length of time know The Stories.  Harlan can pop off at the drop of a moronic comment and hides have been flayed (metaphorically) and sensibilities challenged.  If I heard it once I heard it fifty time, “He’s so gracious!”  Yes, he is.  He has  a heart of enormous proportions.

He was physically unable to do as much as he clearly wanted to, but under the circumstances what he did do was generous and impressive.

Peak Experience time.  I got to be on a panel with Harlan Ellison.

Let me explain. I grew up reading stories by the giants of the field when most of them were still alive and many still publishing.  For me, the pantheon includes Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Robert Heinlein, C.L.Moore, Alice Sheldon, Joanna Russ, C.J. Cherryh…well, you get the idea.  And Harlan, who wrote like a fey combination of Bradbury and Bester with a touch of Borges stirred in and made everyone react viscerally in ways they did not react to their other favorites.  I recall getting very turned off by Harlan when I was, say 15, and then later coming back and trying his work again only to find that I had missed almost everything important about the stories the first go-round. He was like a tornado whirling through the more deliberative winds of his peers. I’m still not sure I “get” everything that is going on in an Ellison story, but that’s the sign of a work worthy of ongoing consideration.

Of the aforementioned bunch, I shook Asimov’s hand, chatted with Bradbury and Cherryh, never met Bester, Heinlein, Moore, Russ, or Sheldon.  There are a couple of dozen other Greats I’ve had opportunity exchanged words with.  I’ve been on panels with Gene Wolfe, Frederik Pohl, Elizabeth Ann Hull, a number of others. So many are just gone.

I got to be on a panel with Harlan.  The 12-year-old in me was having a field day. This, I thought, is as good as it gets. At least in my list of cool things to do.

After 2010, I never thought I’d see Harlan again.  Certainly not at a convention.  He’d said he was done with them.  Harlan at ArchonWho could blame him? He’s tired. We talk on the phone occasionally.  I like him, but most of the time I don’t quite know what to say to him, other than some variation of Thank You For Being a Powerful Aesthetic Presence In My Life.  Of all the acquaintances I thought I might make in this curious life and profession, his was unexpected.

So when this opportunity came up, by a series of unexpected steps, I was torn.  Certainly his health is problematic and he’s 81.  This probably was not, for a number of reasons, a good idea.  On the other hand, when I reach that point in my life and there’s something I want to do and believe I can do it, I hope there are people who will help me do it. I do rather doubt I’ll see him again.  I don’t know when we’ll be able to get to L.A. anytime remotely soon.  But I did get to spend a good chunk of this weekend with him and it was surprising and rich and bittersweet.

He charmed practically the whole convention, signed a boatload of books, gave of himself until he just couldn’t.  I’m sure he got as good as he gave.  I will confess that I was waiting for someone, anyone, to start anything negative with him. It would not, had I been there, lasted long.  But no one did, everyone seemed so gobsmacked pleased to see him.

We did not take him back to the airport on Sunday. Other, closer friends did that.  He recorded a thankyou and goodbye for closing ceremonies, which was classic Ellison.

I confess, it’s strange.  Coming from a place in life never expecting to ever say a single sentence to him, he has become one of the major influences and associations in my life. All told, I doubt we’ve spent a week’s time together.  But it’s always been memorable. I’m about to wander into mawkishness now, so I’ll wrap it up with two final images and maybe one more line.   harlan 2-1harlan's shoes

So there we have it.

Peak Experience.

I hope he hangs around for many more years, as long as his mind is clear and his imagination active and he feels welcome.  There are a lot of people—a LOT—who are very glad of his presence.

I know I’m glad to know him.

Published by Mark Tiedemann

10 comments on “Peak Experiences”

  1. I’m one of Harlan’s minions? Cool.

    We should get T-shirts printed up for that.

    It was great seeing him at Archon; thank you for whatever part you played in getting him there.

  2. Thanks, Mark. I needed that.

    His is a lambent presence.

    No less amazing than the Man are his minions.

    Warmth to you and yours.

  3. HE does not just rage against the dying of the light, he sends it home gift-wrapped with a rupture. This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you so much for writing this.

  4. Mark was like “Hipshot” in the famous newspaper comic strip RICK O’SHAY —

    Loyal, trustworthy, at my side, intuitive, and incredibly accomodating. Susan and

    I were treated by the Tiedemanns, and all the Archon stalwarts as if we were

    visiting monarchs.. How could one not be knocked to the mat with such imperial

    treatment?!!!! We had a grand — exhausting — time with Mark, Tim, Andrea, Arnie

    & Cathy Fenner, the BritPak … and a plethora of succoring well-wishers.

    Right now, I’m just lying about, recouping my energies.
    Yr. Pal,

  5. Excellent work, sir. I do wish I could have joined you there but travel for business made that a near impossibility for that weekend. Perhaps we will both have an opportunity to see Harlan again if he is able to do one more Con

  6. I’ve been reading Harlan’s work since I was 14, when David Gerrold paraphrased Nietzsche by writing, “If Harlan Ellison didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

    This led me to my local Mid-Continent Public Library, and my first exposure Harlan’s short stories, the retrospective anthology, “Alone Against Tomorrow.” That book blew my suburban, teen-aged mind. And like any endorphin-releasing experience, I immediately craved more. I’ve been mainlining Ellison ever since.

    This year’s Archon was a pilgrimage for me.

    I wanted to meet the person responsible for so much of the best television I’d ever seen, and some of the most eloquent, harrowing, challenging, and provocative fiction and social commentary I’ve read. I needed to meet this Artist who has set the bar so high.

    I needed to shake his hand and say “Thank you” for over four decades of eye-sharpening and soul-toughening.

    The closest I had come was by way of Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall, with whom I’d performed in a forgettable sitcom-like play at the American Heartland Theatre in 1990. I had given them a copy of “Angry Candy” as an opening night gift, and had recommended that they read “Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish” if they read nothing else in the book.

    I didn’t know they were friends of Harlan’s. Six weeks after the show closed, I received a package from Charlie and Mitzi. It contained the copy of “Angry Candy” I had given them.
    My brow furrowed, but then I saw the post-it note attached to the cover, from Charlie and Mitzi, which essentially asked me not to be upset with them, or think them ungrateful, but that I should turn to the last page of the book. There, on the back page, was inscribed:

    “To Paul Burns,
    With undying gratitude for having taught me everything I know.
    Illiterately yours,
    Harlan Ellison.” And he had dated it.

    Until this weekend, that had been my Peak Experience.

    Archon 39 exceeded my expectations. It was an honor to meet him, purchase a rare, signed/numbered hardback copy of “Vic & Blood”, and have him sign my copy of “Mindfields,” which he has often said is his favorite of all his published works. He made sure I knew that as he signed it, and I told him, “I know. That’s why I had to bring this with me, out of all your books in my library.”

    He smiled and shook my hand.

    That would have been more than enough to complete the weekend, but I had the great good fortune to run into him, Susan and his minions in the hotel lobby Saturday night. He asked to have a closer look at my hand-crafted leather drinking vessel, which I dubbed “the Flagon with the Dragon”. After close inspection, he handed it back, saying, “That’s a good piece.” We exchanged pleasantries, talked of upcoming movie releases, and who among the SF pantheon was the “It” writer dujour, and had a delightful visit before HE decided it was time to retire for the evening.

    A weekend of Peak Experiences, indeed.

    Thank you, Mark, for facilitating this encounter, and for your friendship and good company Friday evening at the Artists’ Reception.

    And thank you for all the good reading you’ve given me, as well.

Comments are closed.