Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Tale of Two Artists

Before I begin: Acidic Fiction has published my short story "Coming Home"! It's available for perusing and reading, and I am grateful to Stephen x Davis for accepting it.

I meant to post this the moment I came back from India, but the start of school and the inability to articulate my feelings staggered the post for a month. With that said, I think that I have the words now to express the numbness and grief at losing two great people. 

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 While I was away, my friend Corissa messaged me grave new: Sir Terry Pratchett died. Sir Terry had written dozens of fantasy novels, some tongue in cheek, some somber, and some falling in between humor and tragedy. He had also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and had planned to use physician-assisted suicide when he felt the time was right. On March 12, however, he died of natural causes at home, surrounded by family and his cat. At least three thousand people have since petitioned Death to “reinstate” Sir Terry and have offered Death basketfuls of kittens in exchange for the beloved author. They have left comments on said petition explaining how Sir Terry impacted their lives, and what it meant to have a friendly personification of Death or a character like Sam Vimes.

Two weeks ago, right before we left the States, Dave, a tennis teacher who has been giving lessons to my younger brother, delivered more grave news: songwriter Frank Smith died. He had spent several weeks in the hospital due to pneumonia, while living with paranoid schizophrenia. Frank was a prolific songwriter that detailed science fiction adventures  with bluegrass riffs. Frank lived in Cleveland Georgia, channeling his inner demons into song and creating analogies for paranoia with alien abduction and robotic women far from reach. He would leave song demos on Dave’s answering machine and cheerily refuse to move from his Cleveland home, even though he could get better care in Miami.

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Unlike Sir Terry, Frank didn’t have an international following or a petition written up to bring him back to life, but he had friends in the Southeast and family that appreciated him and his talent. Last Thursday these people came together to honor Frank at the Luna Star Cafe in North Miami. His friends played dozens of songs, some that Dave hadn’t heard, and they remembered Frank’s good nature and stubbornness.  

Death at times becomes incomprehensible to me; that someone I either know personally or whose art I know personally is gone, suddenly vanished from the world. I hope that by writing down my thoughts that I could pay homage to both of these geniuses.

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I first encountered Sir Terry by reading The Tale of Maurice and his Educated Rodents, which was a parody of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”. Intrigued by the balance of humor, wit, and suspense within the story, I started reading. Afterward I looked for more Pratchett novels and found a standard Discworld novel, Night Watch. I started reading the Discworld books out of order, while requesting the ones that were in order. The library didn’t have all of the books, but I read as many as I could and gobbled up the ones that were released the fastest.

Terry Pratchett's humorous tone relied at first on mocking typical fantasy tropes, like the orphan who’s a king in disguise or Fate choosing the unluckiest wizard to be her tool in defeating evil. He often turned the tropes on their head, so that the orphan would remain an actor or a police officer, and mock the idea of playing them straight in an age where many writers took inspiration from Tolkien. Within all the humor, however, was a respect for the established tropes, and knowing the reader’s need for a story to have logic and completion. Sir Terry also commented on social justice and current affairs through his work, explaining to the reader about arbitrage in Making Money and why gold standards do not work; he trusted us to follow along even when the issues were complex. 

Before, I had previously encountered humorous fantasy through Harry Potter and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. For the latter, I was too young to appreciate Douglas Adams's caustic humor, and often I couldn't finish his books out of disgust and confusion. Sir Terry rekindled my belief that a fantasy story could have humor and logic. Wintersmith both made me laugh hard and cry for the titular character, and Hogfather showed compassion for "The Little Matchgirl" that few people would show, to challenge acceptance of tragedy.

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I'm not exactly sure the details about meeting Frank, except that it started with talking with Dave. Dave teaches tennis to my younger brother, encouraging him to run on the court and to put "more spin" into his hits. At some point Dave lent me a CD he had burned, from when he had belonged to a science fiction bluegrass fan. I enjoyed the last song, "Hunting Aliens," for its matter-of-fact tone approach towards the titular activity and tongue-in-cheek lyrics. 

Dave told me that his friend Frank Smith had written it and all the songs on the album, and Frank often wrote songs to express his feelings about the world and about living with paranoid schizophrenia. I mentioned wanting to draw cover art for a CD, and I did draw a watercolor for "Robot Woman". Frank and I talked on the phone once, and he even sang one of his songs on the phone. He had his talent, and he had supporters that wanted to share his music, but he didn't have the widespread success that his contemporaries did. He didn't need it, though he deserved it.

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Before I learned about Frank, I had no idea fantasy was possible in general music. No popular song I know talks about aliens, or about the possibilities of exploring other worlds; our generation mainly has romance, breakup songs, and righteous fury in the mainstream. I didn't think it was possible to combine two worlds, except perhaps as a musical. What's more, I didn't think that people accepted that sort of music. But people did, the ones who understood.

I never met Frank in person, but his music touched me. Like with Sir Terry he taught me that something previously thought impossible was highly possible. He also taught me that people respond to the fantastic woven into bluegrass, and that genius can be hidden right under your nose. 

May these two great men rest in peace, and find further adventures in far-off places beyond our reach. And may people care about them and remember them for an eternity. RIP Sir Terry and Frank.
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