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May 01, 2006

Why do you Exist? - Trap Door Spider Society





Why Do You Exist?
The Night Issac Asimov made me Cry

I often tell this story at the beginning of my talks. Some listeners have asked me write it down. Here it is:

Coke bottle bottom eyeglasses coupled with a gray whispy Fu Manchu beard accented Lester del Rey’s persona. He was wearing Crayola burnt sienna Haband ban rolled polyester slacks and a powder blue permanent press leisure suit jacket. Around his neck was a bolo tie which fastened with a fixture that lit up mysteriously like a window to the cosmos. This package suggested a contemporary version of Tolkien’s wizard Gandolf. When Lester spoke, he blustered.

Lester had been appointed fantasy editor of del Rey Books, a division of Ballantine Books which was a division of Random House, to compliment his wife Judy-Lynn Benjamin del Rey. Judy-Lynn founded the del Rey imprint and was a highly respected science fiction editor turning obscure authors into giants in spite of the fact that she was a little person. It was Judy-Lynn who presented Lester with a box of freshly printed business cards which read, Lester del Rey, Expert. And he was. I was the new Art Director. It was the mid-seventies.



Judy-Lynn and Lester Del Rey
C. 1974
Around the time I was introduced to the Trap Door Spiders

Lester intimidated guests regularly on one of the first all night radio talk shows hosted by Long John Nebel and his wife Candy Jones during the fifties. I would listen on my pocket sized red transistor radio with a tiny ear piece when I should have been doing my algebra homework. Lester was a science fiction writer for more years than I was alive. His first short story was published in Astounding Science Fiction in the mid-thirties. He was a frequent contributor during the Golden Age of Science Fiction. I remember seeing the credits scroll by on Captain Video, the first of television's space odysseys in 1949. Lester del Rey was the science advisor.

A quarter century later, I stood before this great man in awe holding his business card and accepting an invitation to a meeting of the Trap Door Spider’s Society
which served as the basis of Isaac Asimov's fictional group of mystery solvers the Black Widowers. Del Rey himself was the model for the Emmanuel Rubin character. Lester explained that the Spiders were a men’s eating and drinking club made up of thirteen old friends. A significant number, I thought. The Spiders were formed in response to one of his friends being henpecked. The men invented the club to get that man out of the house once a month. I later discovered that the female Trap Door Spider, when it enters its burrow pulls the hatch shut behind it. Meetings were hosted in rotation. The host would select the restaurant, wine, and menu. He also had the privilege of inviting one or two guests whom he thought might be interesting to his colleagues. I was flattered and accepted.

During the next three weeks, while I waited for the event, Lester and Judy Lynn initiated me into a wonderful world of science fiction and fantasy -- a world I abandoned when I was thirteen. Later we would collaborate on hundreds of science fiction paperback covers and the number one world’s best-selling calendar based upon the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and illustrated by Tim and Greg Hildebrandt.

My taxi pulled up in front of an unsuspecting Spanish restaurant on West Seventy-Second Street. A seemingly obsequious uniformed doorman fawned over other guests while judging me for my long hair, beard, bandanna, black T-shirt, love beads, and safari jacket - the uniform of the art director. A more considerate Maitre D’ escorted me to a private dining room lit by a Marie Theresa chandelier. Waiters carried trays of hors d’oervres and drinks served in Baccarat crystal. Del Rey, still dressed in stretch knit, enthusiastically introduced me to the other spiders. “Ian Summers. Issac Asimov. Ian Summers. L. Sprague Ducamp. Ian Summers. Martin Gardner.” Ian Summers met eight other luminaries consisting of more writers, editors and the Director of the Hayden Planetarium. I took a drink. Lester introduced me to another guest. “Ian Summers. Jim Randi. The Amazing Randi.” I took another drink. I met Truman Capote the day before. I met Gore Vidal that very afternoon. But these men were heroes from my childhood. Terror welled up while I wondered what Lester thought might be interesting about me to this august assembly of luminaries.

Upon conclusion of dessert the waiter gracefully removed the china, poured vintage brandy, and lit thirteen black candles now dancing in sterling silver candelabra. The formal proceedings commenced. Amazing and I were toasted. Then Issac Asimov explained it was a Spider’s tradition to interrogate their guests. The great man leaned across the table. Bushy mutton chops illuminated by candle light framed him in his own aura. I wanted to run. I tried to make myself small, a skill developed in junior high school.  Surely he would start with Jim Randi. Asimov locked eyes and boomed, “Ian Summers. Why do you exist?”

I took a gulp of sipping brandy. I was silent. I had not given the question a moment's thought in my first thirty-five years. I filibustered for over thirty minutes fearing another question. I felt unworthy to be in the company of such great men. I remember thinking, “Oh my God. Issac Asimov knows my name.” I judged myself for not having the right answers -- for not being good enough. I vaguely remember presenting my credentials, my accomplishments, my family and work histories. And then Asimov said. "Thank you Ian." I worked hard to hold back tears.

That was not the case in the taxicab. On the ride home I sobbed like a baby. I realized I had spent most of my life as a human doing; not a human being. I did not know the difference. I tried to do exactly what well-meaning caretakers expected. I guessed at what they wanted. I guessed at what normal was and rebelled. I became the son I thought my parents wanted. I failed at becoming the good husband without knowing what that meant. I achieved other people's goals and consequently I was empty. I was fear based. I would do anything to be seen. I had no idea why I existed or who I was. It took another decade to feel comfortable in my skin.

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