SynCon 88 – Conviction – Program book: Jeanne Robinson

transcription by Anna Hepworth and Elaine Walker. Mix of American and Australian spellings as per original text.

Jeanne Robinson

In the panegyric which you have just read (did you know that if you sprinkle panegyric on cigarettes and smoke them, you can get high?), John Varley expresses the hope that someone else has been assigned to write a bio blurb for Jeanne Robinson. You’ve read his work: you know what a wildly optimistic guy he is. In the case, his optimism is justified.

I got the job.

Now, this could be dangerous. If your friend does a bio blurb on you that is shot through with insults, libels, satires, lampoons, malicious falsehoods, scurrilous and unproven charges, and unkind distortions of things he swore he wouldn’t tell a soul, and you have to follow this laugh riot in the Program Book, you are sort of obliged to continue the established motif with more satire – in this case, with a few thousand words of Rodney Dangerfield, “Take my wife…please!” schtick.

And if you do this, you are dumber than a bag of hammers.

Happily, the situation does not arise…since Varley (a basically humorless and unimaginative man, really) chose to play it straight and confined himself to a dry recital of the documented facts of my life. So I’m off the hook.

By which I do not mean to imply that my wife has no sense of humour. Friendships too unstable to withstand an occasional bit of what I call ‘love-insult’ do not last for thirteen years. The insuperable problem is that the fine art of lampooning consists of exaggerating, to comic effect, the foibles and less-than-ideal attributes of the subject.

And Jeanne has none.

(And I don’t know about you, Jack, but I ain’t sleeping alone tonight.)

So I’m artistically relieved to know that all I have to do is follow Varley’s lead and do a simple, factual bio. And personally relieved, because I find, to my mild surprise, that I would actually rather talk about my wife that tell jokes. You have stumbled, P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith said of his Eve, upon one of my favourite subjects. I am blessed with one of the better marriages in the nine-planet area, and I know it. All of what follows is straight. Okay? (And if I should feel an irresistible impulse to get silly along the way – a tendency you may not have been aware I have since I’m so careful to keep it out of my fiction – I’ll put it in parentheses to avoid confusion.) Here goes: On the day that she was born, the angels got together, and decided to create a dream come true ..

Okay, seriously:

She was born Jeanne Marie Rubbicco (her ancestors used to own the Rubicon River, until, in one of the earliest known genetic experiments, Caesar crossed it with an army, producing a wet army, which so sharply lowered the property value thereabouts that the family moved and disguised its name) in Boston, Massachusetts (a small hamlet near Providence, Rhode Island) in a year which was highly thought of at the time. Her Italian paternal grandfather, Papa Joe, went up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt; her Portuguese maternal grandfather, Captain Frank, presently owns a large part of the fish business in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Her father, Peter, urgently wanted a son, so God sent him five daughters, of which Jeanne is the second.

She made her television debut, as a singer, in 1955 (the record has since been lowered: Michael Jackson debuted in nineteen flat), accompanying her elder sister, Kathleen, a piano prodigy, who later soloed with the Boston Symphony at thirteen. Kathy has since run orchestras for Dinoe Warwick, Liza Minelli, Sammy Davis Jr, and others; did the music for the 1986 Emmy Awards broadcast; and is one of the best songwriters you never heard. The two girls did a sister-act through most of their childhood, and I’m as sorry I missed it as I’m glad to have been present for many round-the-living-room-piano reprises at the ancestral hall of Clan Rubbicco in later years. The five sisters singing in harmony is something to have heard …

Indeed, it was her singing that first brought Jeanne to my attention. When I moved to the hippie-strewn woods of Nova Scotia in the early 70s, we met for the first time in a sort of gingerbread shack full of hippies and ‘lit’ by a single kerosene lamp; I didn’t get a good look at her. Then I took out my guitar and began improvising a blues in E and scatting a vocal.

And the harmony came out of the darkness.

We did about forty choruses together, and produced utter silence that is better than any applause. At this point, my intentions were clear: I knew I wanted to get to know her better.

That night, when I got home, I made discreet inquiries of my hosts (read: ‘pumped them shamelessly’). I made sure she was invited to their next party, and there, finally, saw her in a decent light. At this point, my intentions were strictly dishonourable: I knew that I wanted to sleep with her, soon and often.

I learned that she was a Modern dancer, and that her company was going to be performing nearby. I attended, and saw her danced for the first time in a school gym in Digby, Nova Scotia. Halfway through her solo my plans altered. I now knew I must marry her or die in the attempt. I went backstage at the half, stuck my face about two inches away from hers, and smiled a smile whose marks are still on my face. And she frowned …

“What exactly do you want out of me?” she demanded. “Cut to the chase: you want a quick hop in the sack, you want to get married, what?”

I stared at her, still smiling. I knew she had recently had a marriage go sour on her; I’d known it the moment I heard her sing that blues. She had had enough lies and evasions in her life; how could I lie to an artist of her calibre?

With the cunning of a panther. “I just want to get to know you better,” I said sincerely, and, after a campaign that would have impressed Lao-Tzu, I married her the following summer. Life began to make sense…

There came a day when we were stranded in the United States. We had imprudently run out of cash while visiting the Old Country. I had to sell a story at once. When you’re in a hurry, you write about what you know, to save research. I thought, what the hell do I know? Well, I know a dancer, the best I’ve ever seen, and she’s taught me about dance. Ah, but how do I sell the resulting story to ANALOG? Simple: put the dance in orbit. I began a story called “Stardance”, and mentioned it to Jeanne over dinner. Her ears grew points.

The next day I worked (read: stared at blank paper until beads of blood appeared on my forehead), I became aware of a presence over my shoulder. I was superstitious about letting anyone, even my beloved, see work in progress … but, after all, this was my technical expert, and she was being quiet. I forced myself to ignore her, and scribbled a few pages .. “That’s the wrong word,” she said, bringing me out of the fog. “A dancer would use different terminology.”

I frowned, thanked he, made the change. Onward a few more paragraphs.. “No, Modern doesn’t use that, that’s a ballet step.”

I thanked her even more elaborately and made the change she suggested. Another few pages went by …”Shara would never do that,” she said. “She’s not like that.”

I stared at her. “Pull up a chair!” I said finally.

And, when the smoke cleared, the innate, nonverbal – but most articulate – story-telling talent which has infused every dance she’s ever choreographed had brought me my second Hugo and my only Nebula, and one each for hear, and, ultimately, produced one of my favourite novels.

Subsequently, she choreographed a dance called “Higher Ground”, about the internal evolution she had undergone in order to invent the principles of zero-gravity dance for STARDANCE. She performed the piece in the Grand ballroom of the Sheraton Boston at NOREASCON II, the 38th worldcon – and drew a ten-minute standing ovation from over a thousand fen.

When it was over, she was accosted by Ben Bova (then editor of OMNI); he browbeat her into applying to NASA for a seat on the Space Shuttle, to dance in zero gravity. Her application is still in NASA’s files, and every so often a journalise runs across it and calls her up. But we have not had any real hope that she will get to go since “Challenger” lifted … No matter. Zero-gee dance will come some day – perhaps our daughter, Terri, will get to try it – and Jeanne’s place in history as its creator is secure.

Regrettably, you will not have the opportunity to see her dance at CONVICTION, for she has retired from performing a few years ago. In partial compensation, I offer you the eternal attribute which has endeared her to fandom across the globe: her steadfast refusal to give a Guest of Honour Speech. We will sing together for you, if someone has found me a decent guitar, and, if you stand near her, with especially rotten posture, she will probably Alexander you. (She is a teacher of Alexander Technique, which might best be described as the owner’s manual that should have come with your spine.) And, if you have any useful suggestions for the STARDANCE sequel we’ve been pondering for a while now, or are interested in discussing the many wonderful similarities and unfortunate dissimilarities between Modern dance and modern Sf, she’ll be glad to talk to you.

I find that I’m out of space, and I haven’t even told you about her acting, or her term as a member of the Board of Directors of Dance In Canada Association, or her many arts grants, or her five years in the Augean stables as founder, director and choreographer of Nova Dance Theàtre, a professional Modern dance company so supernaturally good that it took the Canada Council of the Arts five years to kill it, or the instructive genius with which she persuaded me to move to Vancouver, or even my classic anecdote about the time, early in our relationship, when she got off a train in Grand Central Station in New York, pregnant as hell and loaded with gear, to be met by me with the happy news that one of my lungs had just now collapsed. (A moment later, so did I. She got me to a hospital, saving my life.)

That’s all right. Look me up sometime during the con: I’ll boast about Jeanne as long as you keep pouring the Foster’s …

For now, I’ll say only that, despite the frequent temptations a con can put in a writer’s way, I have never had any trouble remembering these words from a Larry Niven story: “He had never been seriously tempted to be unfaithful to his wife. He knew that she was too good for him, and he lived in fear that she might find this out.”

How many other women would put up with a husband who works until 4am and sleeps until noon every day?


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *