Copyright, 2021 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
For years I’ve suffered from a sense of thwarted nostalgia or yearning melancholy. I’ve struggled putting into words exactly what I’ve been experiencing, this unshakeable conviction that I exist outside of time, not belonging to the present day, out of synch with the rest of the world.
The other day I came across a book titled Endangered Words (Simon Hertnon, Skyhorse Publishing) and while paging through it happened upon an entry for saudade.
Never heard of such an animal and when I checked the accompanying definition, the hair on the back of my neck rose with an audible crackle:
Of Portuguese origin, saudade refers to “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness”. (A.F.G. Bell)
Silver-skinned rocketships and routine journeys to and from Mars, the outer planets.
A “golden age” of friendly, singing cowboys, camaraderie around the campfire, the home ranch across the next ridge.
I think that’s essentially why I became a writer: from an early age I could see reality wasn’t panning out the way I liked, so it was up to me to create my own private universe.
Come visit me sometime.
Just open one of my books or short stories and say “Hello”…
As a tool of communication, it can’t be beat. It’s far-reaching, ubiquitous and interactive. A couple of posts ago I mentioned an obscure kids’ TV program from the late 1960’s called “Robot Boy”. My little essay was a nostalgia piece and the last thing I expected was that it would provoke a flurry of notes from folks who shared my warm (if vague) memories of the show.
And then I received a communication from Wes Chambliss, whose step-father used to work at the Yorkton TV station where “Robot Boy” was filmed. Mr. Chambliss inherited a box of reels, Super 8mm footage his father shot…and included in those many feet of celluloid is a few snippets filmed on the set of “Robot Boy”! Mr. Chambliss also confirmed that the original tapes were indeed lost, alas, so those fragments are all that remain of “Robot Boy”.
Wes has graciously allowed me to share that footage with you…augmented with an audio clip from the show’s intro.
It’s a thrill to re-introduce Robot Boy to the world after a 40 year absence. Long live Robot Boy!
Each episode was six or eight minutes long—it was really just filler so you never knew what time it would run. Anywhere from 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning until the “Star Trek” theme music cut in at 10:00 sharp. It’s possible the show was produced out of the nearest TV station, which was in Yorkton, about seventy miles away (the only channel that came in clear). “Robot Boy” had that really home made look, the production values pretty shabby. But I didn’t care. I was an avid fan. Hated it when I missed an episode, just about inconsolable for the rest of the weekend. Yeah, even then I was a bit of a diva.
The premise was stupefyingly simple: Robot Boy (really just a cheap, windup toy) is insatiably curious and one day wanders away from the safety of the toy box to seek adventure in the great, wide world. But unfortunately he soon gets lost and embroiled in various unfamiliar situations, trying to logically decipher what’s happening with his tiny robot brain. Some of the conclusions he reaches are hilarious, way off the mark. He’s totally naive when it comes to things that go on in real life.
There are shots of Robot Boy shuffling slowly down the sidewalk, going about 50 feet an hour, gigantic human shoes stepping over him, nearly knocking him into the gutter, legs moving past in the background, everyone oblivious to the lost little robot creeping through their midst.
My favorite episodes, the two I have the clearest memories of: Robot Boy is menaced by a ferocious dog…but interprets its behavior as a warning and thanks it profusely while the dog strains to reach the tin figure, just an inch or two out of reach. And there’s the episode where Robot Boy gets accidentally locked in a supermarket overnight and wanders up and down the aisles, admiring all the “exhibits” in the “museum”.
I Googled “Robot Boy” and found a few bloggers who reference the show. There’s even a loose association of people who post on forums, swapping old news and rumors. The main problem is there were only ten or twelve episodes of “Robot Boy” that were ever aired and no copies in any form seem to exist. Which gives even more weight to my conjecture that the show was locally produced. Maybe at one time it was even shot on videotape. But those tapes are long gone or erased and reused. There are still photos, grainy, not entirely convincing, their provenance unclear. Forum members are divided, the rhetoric sometimes heated. People are touchy when it comes to nostalgia. Some have gone to all the effort of building scale models of Robot Boy, their attention to detail bordering on the obsessive.
I made mine out of cardboard boxes I found in the garage. I was seven years old and the ugly duckling of the family…but when I slipped inside my cardboard costume I became Robot Boy. My other life forgotten, my human existence shed like an itchy, constricting skin suit, too tight in the crotch. The boxes smelled of apples and old newspapers. I hung my arms out holes I cut in the sides. Hands instead of pincers and an aluminum pie plate taped to the front, the dial sketched in with black marker.
I kept it in the basement, away from prying eyes. In a cubbyhole by the furnace, where my sisters would never look. My alter ego and guardian angel. Big and blocky and comforting. Made of indestructible metal. Powered by atomic cells. An obedient, loyal friend, willing to endure anything for me, even long hours in the dark. I loved him and he loved me. We understood each other. And when “Robot Boy” was canceled, I grieved and felt a genuine sense of loss and betrayal. I went down and I kicked the hell out out those boxes, kicked them to pieces. They never showed re-runs and I wouldn’t have watched them anyway. Robot Boy was dead to me. That part of my life was over…
This is blog posting #150 and, well, I wanted to make it something special.
I trust you enjoyed this trip down memory lane.
Feel free to share your thoughts, on “Robot Boy” or other relevant matters. Here’s hoping for a great year ahead in 2011 for one and all.
I’m relieved to discover that this habit isn’t necessarily a manifestation of mental illness, nor is it unique in the world of the arts. I’ve read enough biographies and articles on authors to know that a good number of them have well-developed fantasy lives and often immerse themselves in their self-created environments, sometimes to the detriment of real world relationships and obligations. I think of writers like Ray Bradbury, P.G Wodehouse and and H.P. Lovecraft. For prolonged periods of time they take up residence in fictional universes, describing their journeys with such detail and depth that they seem almost like parallel existences, places we could visit if we took one wrong turn on a dark street or wandered off the path, into the endless forest.
I’ve devoted nearly four years of my life to conceiving, researching, writing and editing my novel So Dark the Night. Working on it every day, day in and day out, month after month after month. Frequently I’m in my office from 8:00 in the morning ’til 9:00 at night, coming out only to use the bathroom or gobble down a few quick bites of food. So fully inhabiting the city and environs where my two main characters ply their trade that at times it’s hard for me to fully re-emerge and engage with family and friends. Some days it’s absolutely spooky. I open up the door of my office and expect to see…what? The city of Ilium, home of my detective duo, a dilapidated former industrial center, hugging the shores of Lake Erie, long past its prime, presently in the midst of an accelerated decline. The dockland the repository for rusting hulks, bristling with abandoned gantries and infrastructure. The factories that once employed thousands now empty husks, ringed by concertina wire, patrolled by private security goons. The ground laced with heavy metals and toxins, poisoned for ten thousand years.
I see it so clearly in my mind’s eye.
Dunno about the other fellows but I confess to a preference for my imagined worlds, personal playgrounds where my my mind can roam, unfettered by the demands of mundane reality. When I shut the door to my office, everything on the other side ceases to exist. The phone is unplugged, the doorbell is ignored, nothing is allowed to break the spell. Music is the first step–sometimes an hour of howling metal or spacey, ambient stuff or track after track of Dylan. Depends on how I’m feeling.
–and then all at once I find myself sitting at my desk, pen in hand. I don’t remember how I got there or when I started writing. That’s the truth. So when I say “spell”, I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass. I can’t tell you how many thousands of words I’ve put to paper that have no clear origin; I looked down and there they were. And the process is as mysterious now as it was a quarter century ago. That’s the fucked up part. I’m no closer to understanding what it takes to create a successful work of prose or verse, even a single, melodic sentence, than I was when I first dared imagine myself a writer.
That’s why I take such offense at workshops and creative writing classes. You can teach someone basic grammar but you can’t help them create music with a few strokes of a pen. Sorry. Nor can you impart to your students the ability to absorb the pain and prolonged physical, mental and spiritual exertion the writing life demands from its (usually) unhappy acolytes. Basic compositional skills are empirical; a good ear for dialogue isn’t.
Writing is hard work, as hard as digging ditches or mining coal. That is, if you’re doing it right. Putting words down on paper, that’s nothing. Arranging them so that the exact right one is in the exact right place…that is a feat of engineering on par with any building, bridge or monument from the present day to ancient epochs.
When I’m working, my focus is absolute, like a laser beam. Nothing else matters except that page in front of me. I am there and nowhere else. I see my characters’ faces, breathe the same air. A camera swooping and dipping, discreetly recording the scene that’s unfolding. At such moments, it is temporal reality that seems entirely unconvincing and implausible.
Perhaps that’s why writers sometimes behave like such buffoons in the real world. We’ve forgotten social conventions and have no idea what constitutes appropriate behavior and language back on Earth Prime. I think of someone like Wodehouse, who cheerfully admitted to preferring the worlds he created to the real thing. Maybe that’s why he was gulled into those wartime radio broadcasts from occupied Paris for which he was so vilified. To his mind, they were harmless trifles…but to his countrymen across the channel, teetering on the brink of apocalypse, each syllable was treason.
Fantasy can beguile too.
Lovecraft was reclusive, a man who evinced little interest in worldly affairs, steeping himself in history and lore. More comfortable conversing in lengthy correspondences than face to face. His “mythos” an attempt to impose order on a civilization he felt far removed from. His attitudes, frankly, reactionary, which explained his fascination with the past and his fear of the things that might lurk just beyond his safe threshold, the darkness that yawned…
His writing is fevered, a cascade of obscure or archaic words, all in a vain (and overblown) attempt to describe the indescribable, put features and traits to things beyond human ken. The Lovecraftian universe is, even this non-fan must confess, a thrillingly imagined one, seemingly consistent and lavishly illustrated. For a considerable portion of his short life he resided in strange climes and, within the limits of his talent, did his best to describe the bleak and blasted vistas he saw there.
And then we have Bradbury…Raymond, the child-man. For Ray, the view from his window is pristine and richly coloured: small town Illinois, circa 1924. Memories of the cataclysm of war fading, a renewed sense of optimism surging through America, the first forebodings that an isolationist republic might have bigger, more ambitious aspirations on the world scene. An era of silent movies and loud jalopies; traveling circuses and lonely leviathans. White picket fences, dandelion wine and well-attended churches. In a second story bedroom, a child lies beneath clean, flannel blankets, blinking in the early Saturday morning light, listening to birdsong. In thirty years, this same child, grown tall and ramrod straight, will mount a silver rocket and blast off for the red sands of Mars…
Ray is all about nostalgia, a sense of what could/should have been. His ability to re-imagine a past that never was rivals that of Walt Disney–and I think it fair to say both are obsessed with bygone eras and far-flung futures and care not a whit for the present day. You gotta believe Ray has a rich fantasy life and I’d kill to be able to walk into one of his dreams.
Ray Bradbury’s stories are reflections of the man…just as Lovecraft’s tales reveal a twisted, inner psyche and Wodehouse’s lengthy canon a yearning for a well-ordered paradigm where the worst thing that can happen to a person is an accidental betrothal.
And as for me…hmmm. I think there’s a similar desire to impose some kind of cohesion or logic to a world I regard with more than a little cynicism and disapprobation. In the early part of my career, I wrote almost exclusively about characters who were somehow disenfranchised, powerless, marginalized. I approached those tales from the point of view of victims and that says something about my childhood and formative years. The fears that besieged and threatened to overwhelm me.
But in the past five years or so I’ve noticed that my characters have gotten tougher, taking control over their lives, no longer cowering in the face of their oppressors. And I think that change was accompanied by a great deal of healing as well as a better balance in my brain chemistry. At 46, except for the inevitable bad days (no one can avoid them), I’m feeling pretty good. Well enough that I can talk candidly about my secret places in a radio play like “The First Room“. No longer having to avert my eyes, try to think of anything but. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still as neurotic and nutty as ever, it’s just that I’ve come to terms with my inner loon.
I think my continuing survival is actually a very positive life lesson. If someone with my childhood, my psychological problems, my genetic history, can manage to make it this far, there’s hope for anyone. My writing saved and redeemed me and if you’re out there, dangling by a thread, there’s something for you too, something to pull you up from the precipice. Trust me.
And not only have I survived, I’ve thrived. Over the years I’ve taken on the roles of husband and father and that has equipped me with better coping skills and patience to deal with the frictions that are inevitable in any close personal relationship, no matter how loving and supportive. Those childhood fears and insecurities crop up in funny places and so does the anger, the rage of a kid who is powerless; a witness, an accomplice, a victim, a pawn of larger, darker forces.
I mentioned the bad days, those intervals where reason and balance seem to flee from me. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to (thank God) and the bouts of fury and despair are no where near as intense. I find myself raging against the small chores and obligations that are part and parcel of daily life, chafe at an off-the-cuff comment, smolder because some small, petty desire has been denied me. Until the feelings pass, I retreat to my office, read, meditate, listen to extremely loud music, waiting for the worst of it to be over.
These fits usually coincide with some “down time” in my writing, any period when I don’t have a big project in front of me. I simply have to be doing something every single day…or my mind begins to turn on me. Most people around me view me as a terrible workaholic, too driven and consumed by my calling; they don’t understand that it’s the writing that keeps my demons at bay. All those long hours I spend in that other place, the worlds I construct from memories, epiphanies and passing impressions. They sustain me, are a crucial article of my faith. Without that outlet…I shudder to think.
I’m not saying mine is necessarily a healthy lifestyle. I’ve read the reports that warn of the health risks of a sedentary existence; I definitely should get outside more, stretch and exercise. Often, when I’m really locked into a project, I forget to eat, barely aware of the passage of time. That can’t be good.
But I also know that because of the way I live my life–on my terms, with few accommodations to outside influences–I’ve managed to spend the last decade or so (for the most part) in a state approaching happiness. Is it a trade-off? I think so.
Without the ability to shut off the world and use my office as a portal to possibility, amazement, redemption and hope I would never have lasted this long. I truly believe my fantasy life is key to my continuing survival. When the stories run out, I’m finished.
I think the other fellows know what I’m talking about. I ponder the life of Ray Bradbury–I know he’s had some health setbacks and that has affected his legendary productivity. But at 90+ years, he’s still telling tall tales, even if someone else has to take dictation and type them up for him. Each day he commutes to that place where his visions dwell. His fortress of solitude. Sitting in a comfortable chair, barely able to see but hardly sightless. His gaze far, far away. In Green River or navigating the Valles Marineris; lost in a funhouse or at the helm of a gleaming rocketship, bound for the stars.
After all, nothing is impossible if we allow ourselves to think with the mind of a child. Experience has not yet affected one so young and no one can convince them that dreams can’t ever come true.
I know, it seems like I’ve had the moon on my mind since the beginning of the year. The whole 40th anniversary thingee really got to me for some reason. Made me ponder how much time has passed and (perhaps) how little time remains.
A busy, creative, exhausting summer and those 4 linked short stories grow ever nearer to completion. Stay tuned, I think this quartet of tales is going to make a definite impression on you.
But I decided to take this past weekend off, rest up, read a couple of books (both on Orson Welles, as it turned out) and build another plastic model.
And, sticking with the moon theme, the model I chose was the Heller Apollo 11 lunar lander. This is a none-too-detailed, cheapish reproduction of the fragile craft that took Neil and Buzz down to the surface of the moon…and back up again (to rendezvous with Michael Collins). Found it on eBay for a small stipend but it took me forever to set aside some time to put the bloody thing together. And I’ve got eight or ten other model kits in the basement, waiting their turn. Everything from an X-Wing fighter to a German zeppelin. Sheesh…
I set up on a table on our back deck–the weather for the past week has been perfect, clear and hot and not much in terms of a breeze. I got myself settled, arranged my parts and glue and paints and commenced work.
There were a few minor annoyances. First of all, none of the instructions were in English. Second, this model is quite small and that means small parts that resist and defy my clumsy, shaky fingers. I had…difficulties. Mainly with the struts. Oooo, those bleepin’ struts. I still break into a sweat when I think of them.
Sherron found me some terrific copper-tinted paint that went on thick, allowing me to apply a bit of texture, a convincing impression of the gold foil we see in pictures of the lander, a blaze of colour on the otherwise monotonously grey moon.
Finished the model and thought it needed a little diorama so I made one of some papier mache stuff Sherron had lying around. Spray-painted it while it was still wet, hoping to give a better illusion of the fine lunar regolith.
It’s not perfect but it ain’t half bad.
Have a look…and then sit down and tell me story about a model you built as a kid, a memory you treasure (or rue) to this day.
C’mon, don’t be shy…
I’m a Trekkie.
I realize I just cost myself a lot of cred with my hard core readers, the ones who expect me to be a cynical bastard 24/7. But I can’t help it. If I was ever in the same room as William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy or Nicholas Meyer, I’d probably swoon. Ridiculous. Stupid. But there it is.
I spent all afternoon–that’s right, all afternoon–putting together a model of the starship Enterprise and I’m feeling positively giddy as I look at the end result of my endeavors. Okay, it’s not perfect. It’s been thirty years since I put together a plastic model kit; I took one look at the instructions and howled for my son Liam to come and help me. Liam is a genius at Lego or, really, anything that requires assembly. He put together our barbecue when he was eleven because I went into a stuttering rage and had to be restrained from smashing it into its component atoms. True story.
I have a terrible temper. Murderous. Especially when it comes to recalcitrant objects.
Liam very patiently lent his assistance to assembling the kit. To his credit, he insisted I do all the work, he just supervised to make sure I didn’t end up splashing the fucking thing with gasoline and setting it ablaze.
I screwed up, no question. Supposedly the snap together unit (from Polar Lights) was “Skill Level 2, For Ages 10 to Adult”. Ten? Maybe a ten year old Stephen Hawking. I chose mismatching engine nacelles and my spray paint was too old, my hands shook too much and I didn’t have the right colours so had to mix and match but, y’know, I got the thing together and got to spent three quality hours with my oldest son.
It brought back a lot of memories for me too. From the time I was eight or nine years old, I loved watching “Star Trek”. Every Saturday morning at 11:00 a.m. (after Bugs Bunny), I’d be in front of the TV, ready to watch the latest exploits of the Enterprise crew. And, later, me and my buddy Brent would buy and build the AMT models; his were always so much better than mine (fucker had a lovely touch) but I forgave him. His Klingon battleship was gorgeous (except he kept dropping it and breaking its long neck).
Scan-read William Shatner’s autobiography some weeks ago and was somewhat surprised to learn that he and Nimoy didn’t become friends until long after the series was over. Gene Roddenberry doesn’t fare well in Shatner’s account–in fact, the Great Bird of the Galaxy turns out to be a first class asshole. Sigh.
Ah, well, so Gene wasn’t a nice guy or a good writer or faithful husband…his initial concept of a “wagon train to the stars” was a good one and he was fortunate enough to secure three leads who, despite their disdain for each other, created a rare chemistry on-screen.
Whenever I’m in a bad mood, I crack in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”. It’s by far the best of the series and a terrific movie, by any standards. Lots of action, suspense…and a death scene that makes my eyes sting every time.
Trek‘s message, however crudely delivered, was a positive one, humans using their ingenuity and courage to overcome obstacles, revealing the very best qualities of our species (while not shrinking from portraying the absolute worst). It’s a theme that resonates, not just with kids but with grownup kids too. Human existence need not be nasty, brutish and short. We can aspire to reach the stars and use the enormous mental capacity that we’ve been given to achieve great things.
Shatner was a shit, Nimoy a drunk, Roddenberry…well, no need to speak further ill against the dead.
But what they succeeded in creating, together, transcended all of them and for that we can forgive them their flaws and foibles.
They lived long and they prospered…and by accident or design, succeeded in creating a legendary series that is still relevant, still entertaining (especially if you like camp) and still capable of instilling joy in the heart of a 45 year old man with a bent back, stiff fingers and irritable bowel.
And that’s saying something.