Posts Tagged ‘Paul Edwin Zimmer’

“There’s no gods, and there’s precious few heroes,

But there’s many on the dole in the land of the leal.”

-Brian McNeil

Over the years, I have learned to avoid meeting heroes and role-models. I don’t think it’s fair to project expectations on anybody. Just as importantly, the meeting is almost always disappointing. Either the gap between the expectations and the reality is too great, or, in order to become the sort of person who might be a hero, people have developed a callousness and disregard for others of which I strenuously disapprove.

Fortunately, I’ve never been much prone to hero-worship. Most of the celebrities that popular culture gossips about leave me indifferent, just as the handful I admire – generally, artists of various sorts or free and open source software (FOSS) contributors — would leave the average person indifferent. Besides, being well into middle-age, I’m past the point where I might need heroes as an example.

Occasionally, meeting heroes does turn out well. Linus Torvalds instantly gained my approval when I suddenly realized after fifteen minutes whom I was talking to, and that he had made no attempt to play celebrity. I will always appreciate, too, David Brin’s graciousness when I made a remark about “the days when the Nebula Awards meant something,” and he immediately replied, “I thought that way, too, until I won one.” As for Paul Edwin Zimmer, my rehearsed remark led to a three hour conversation on the floor of a convention hotel and a life-long friendship.

By contrast, Paul’s sister, Marion Zimmer Bradley, disappointed me so badly that, after meeting her, I could never read her books again. I was surprised that, when I talked about the depth she had added to some of her recent publications, she attributed the change entirely to being able to write longer manuscripts. Now, I wonder if she simply wasn’t willing to talk about her work in any detail, but in subsequent meetings, she proved so gruff and abrupt that my disillusionment was beyond repair, even when her extended family assured me that her behavior was “just Marion being Marion.”

Then there was the FOSS celebrity who saw their ego as the center of everything around them. They were undoubtedly sincere in their advocacy, but the way they twisted every conversation around to themselves quickly progressed from mildly amusing to teeth-grindingly annoying. It didn’t help that in their endless quest for personal celebrity, they would often assume an authority nobody had granted them, and claim to speak for the entire project with which we were both involved – especially since I usually had to clean up after them.

Still another FOSS celebrity, whom many respect, proved a borderline personality, hypocritical and full of their own importance that I came to realize that interacting with them would only be a nagging annoyance, and they would be unlikely to succeed in their latest project anyway.

My disillusion in such cases doesn’t come from the fact that people are human. Rather, it comes from the fact that they make no effort to be decent human beings while aspiring to special treatment. Unlike the rest of us, they appear to have missed the lesson most intelligent people learn during their first semester at university – that they are not necessarily the smartest people in a conversation.

I have lost none of the aspirations that usually lead people to hero-worship. But I have become skeptical that anybody deserves to be considered heroic. These days, I cultivate admiration for specific accomplishments, rather than for the people who carry them out, and generally find myself becoming less disillusioned as result.

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The debunking of popular knowledge has always been heady stuff to me. I love knowing that Bonnie Prince Charlie, far from the romantic figure of Scottish tradition, was an alcoholic and illiterate in several languages. Was Richard III not a monster, but, if anything too honorable for his own good? Were some Puritans so far from prudish as to be advocates of free love? Is it possible that, until the last few decades, the First Nations of North America were no more ecologically sensitive than other cultures? Did Neandertals contribute to the modern gene pool? I could get drunk on such knowledge (or its possibility) as easily as on the fumes of the finest brandy. And nowhere does it delight me so much as in the difference between the public persona and private reality of people.

For instance, years ago, when my partner and I were helping to organize a Mythopoeic Conference, Loreena McKennitt slept in our spare room. Conditioned by the ethereal, Celtic Twilight persona of publicity, we expected a shy, quiet woman who only came alive in her music. But between breakfast, and ferrying her to the conference and then to the Mission Folk Festival, we quickly discovered that she was a hard-headed business woman, determined to keep control of her music and career, with a down-to-earth attention to details and a formidable store of daily knowledge.

I am in no way suggesting that she was a hypocrite – she obviously loved what she was doing – but the gap between how everybody thought of her and the way she moved through life was so broad that I had trouble reconciling the two. Still, I couldn’t help smiling with satisfaction as I watched countless fans trying to engage her in conversation about New Age spirituality (about which she obviously knew quite a bit without necessarily believing it or accepting it uncritically). These fans thought they were seeing the real McKennitt when I knew that they were seeing only a controlled aspect of her.

Of course, the same was probably true of me – but I knew that, and the fans didn’t.

The same was true of Paul Edwin Zimmer, a member of the circle of fantasy writers in Berkeley that included his sister Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana Paxson. People who met Paul before his far-too early death in 1997 might have assumed he was a hard drinking, charismatically boisterous party-goer who spent his days in formal Scottish attire and roaring with laughter.

Having stayed over at his communal house once or twice, I realized this was his persona for science fiction conventions – a kind of controlled bursting loose from his ordinary life. Most days – or nights, to be exact – he spent working, dressed in a ragged red kaftan. For days at a time, he might not leave the house. Instead of acting like a student in his first semester in the campus dorms, he lived quietly and studiously, partly because of poverty, but also, I think, out of choice and dedication to his writing.

Yet few of the people who knew him from conventions believed that they knew him only in holiday mode. And, again, I had the satisfaction of knowing a real complexity that ran far deeper than his public appearance.

More recently, I have seen glimpses of the same dichotomy in a person well-known in free and open source software community (I’m deliberately withholding details that might identify them) Ask around, and you’ll be told that they are an assertive, no-nonsense person who has arrived at the pinnacle of their career.

Yet almost immediately, I observed that, while they are intense, they also suffer from at least occasional bouts of self-doubt. Nor does assertiveness always come easy to them – clearly, they have to nerve themselves up for it once they have concluded it necessary. And while they are praised for their success and contributions, in private they have doubts about what they have accomplished and are looking for more satisfying careers.

I admit that I laughed when I observed the first hints of this incongruity — but incongruity, of course, is a key element of humor, and I had to quickly explain why I was laughing to avoid sounding like I was being insulting. Here was a person who was respected on the basis of rumors that were half-truths at best, and gave them no more than limited personal satisfaction.

The only downside to such revelations is that they can leave me wondering if anyone is what they are popularly supposed. Even worse, they make me despair of ever knowing anything or anyone with any degree of accuracy. Yet I am addicted to them all the same. Whenever I discover such dichotomies, I gleefully glom on to them like a limpet, pleased to have another small sliver of truth in my perception of those around me.

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