I woke up this morning with the song “What a Wonderful World” playing in my mind. It was no bland cover version either; the version in my head was the original recording sung by Louis Armstrong and made popular in the United States after Robin Williams’ DJ character played it in the film Good Morning, Vietnam. This is one of my all-time favorite songs, and it was such a relief to wake up to it rather than one of the present-time stark realities of existence staring me in the face.
Life has been a struggle lately for several reasons. We’ll put aside the personal problems concerning careers, health, family, and love life that each one of us deal with, and instead focus only on shared difficulties. There is the global pandemic, of course, which has upended all of our lives, caused many to lose their jobs and their homes, forced people to isolate from others, and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Here in Seattle there is the wildfire smoke that has made our city air the most toxic in the world. I am forced to stay in our apartment with the doors and windows closed and forgo my daily long walks lest I breathe in tiny particulates that would invade my lungs and bloodstream. The air in our apartment has become humid and stale. There was also the recent water crisis in our entire apartment complex of more than a dozen buildings. Without warning the water went off due to a broken pipe, and it stayed off for about twenty hours before they managed to fix it. In the meantime, all the management could suggest was to go to the supermarket and buy water to drink and to flush our toilet with. Of course we couldn’t suspend our bodily functions, but the flushes during those twenty hours were inordinately expensive.
What are we to make of this series of disasters one after the other? How can I possibly wake up in the morning with “What a Wonderful World” running through my head? The answer came to me as I was preparing and drinking my morning coffee. That wonderful world is still there right under the surface. The pandemic will pass; we’ll find a vaccine and conquer it, as we have other decimating diseases in the past. The wildfire smoke will dissipate and go away and we’ll see blue skies and the colors of things again. The water crisis is already resolved, and we can once again flush our toilets properly and take showers. It is a wonderful world, truly. Remember that when you feel oppressed by circumstances. The wonderful world is still here, and if for whatever reason you are unable to enjoy it now, you will be able to enjoy it again soon.
But I have more to say about under-the-surface wonders. Sometimes in recent years I have felt somewhat frustrated and stifled by my limiting circumstances, and it helps me during those times to recall what a long, rich, and exciting life I have had. Last night I watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first of the Star Trek feature films. It’s probably the worst film in the Star Trek franchise, not because the special effects are laughable by today’s standards, but because there’s nothing much to the story. A lot of it consists of crewmembers staring at extended shots of colorful abstractions. There is very little action.
Despite the shortcomings of the movie, I had a great time watching it. Why? Because it reminded me of old friends who shared my enthusiasm for Star Trek and other science fiction when I was much younger. I had just turned twenty when I attended the 1973 Clarion West writing workshop. Besides the professional teachers (Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Peter Beagle, Terry Carr, and James Sallis), I had the opportunity to meet my fellow students, other fledgling writers with whom I could converse enthusiastically about writing and science fiction and similar subjects.
Two of the students I became closest to were Russell Bates and Paul Bond. Russell was a full-blooded Kiowa Native American. He had already been taken on as an understudy on the Star Trek team, and he would go on to win the Star Trek animated series an Emmy for his script “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth.” He was at Clarion West to hone his short story writing skills. He and I would later collaborate on a script outline for a then-popular TV show, although it never saw production.
Paul Bond was a tall, frail, soft-spoken young man. He had already had major heart surgery and had a huge scar running down the middle of his chest. Like me, he had no writing credits when he attended Clarion West, but soon afterwards he was able to make his first story sale to a new slick magazine called Vertex. When I moved to Los Angeles to try to become a scriptwriter, Paul was my closest friend there.
Russell died a few years ago. He is mainly known for that Star Trek episode, but when I ran a search for his name, I found out that the Miami International Science Fiction Film Festival has created the Russell Bates Indigenous Peoples Screenwriters Award.
Paul died a few decades ago. His health was never very good. When I ran a search for him online, I could find a few references to the story he sold to Vertex (it had been reprinted in a collection edited by Isaac Asimov) but otherwise he had disappeared from the internet.
While I was watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I kept thinking of these two friends and the interests and fun we had shared, and I realized that underneath our present experiences there is a vast storehouse of memories, incomparable riches of times gone by that we can call on when we need reassurance or a rekindling of hope.
So keep this in mind as you navigate these difficult times: beyond the circumstances through which you now struggle there are blue skies and beautiful landscapes, and beneath your present situation, trying as it may be, there are memories of good friends and marvelous days gone by. And if you get a chance, watch a video of Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.” That’s sure to pick you up.