Thursday, April 12, 2007

And So It Goes

I don't usually write on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but today is a special occasion. One of my heroes died yesterday.

I've found that, sometimes, knowing the right artist can unlock doors. Years ago, I was travelling to a wedding with a couple of gay gentlemen, Ken and Darius. They were nice enough, but had some of the standard defensive nervousness around straight men, and the ride started off a little uncomfortably. We tried to find a conversational topic to which we could all contribute, but we were very different people; I was a graduate student in English, Ken worked for Bell Atlantic, and Darius...well, Darius JUST LOVED TO DANCE. However, I had recently spent a semester researching John Waters, and knew quite a bit about the self-described "Pope of Trash." When I mentioned the magic name, the discomfort evaporated and we spent the rest of the trip merrily discussing the wonders of Waters and the joys of queer literature. By the end of the road, they were talking about making me an honorary member of the rainbow mafia. I still see them from time to time.

Kurt Vonnegut had a similar effect on engineers. As "a teacher at a major mid-Atlantic technological university," to use the parlance of Penthouse Forum, I often find myself trying to communicate with science-related professionals. While some of these people are just like you and me, many of them exist in a semi-autistic world of code, jargon, and self-imposed isolation. I've discovered, however, that a surprisingly large number of engineers and scientists have read, and loved, Vonnegut. In some ways, he is the Rosetta stone, the universal translator, that makes communication possible between the world of scientists and the world of writers.

This isn't too surprising; Vonnegut majored in Biochemistry at Cornell University, and his writing often reflects the straighforward, definitional world of science. His characters are minimalistic, and his scene setting is usually rendered in broad strokes, but the ideas that he explores are wide-ranging, intensely topical, and amazingly deep. Like Orwell, he often adopts a journalistic tone, but modifies it with a truly bent sense of humor that forefronts the absurdity of society. If you haven't read him, you should definitely check out Welcome to the Monkey House, Breakfast of Champions, and Sirens of Titan. While you're at it, you might want to take a peek at Slaughterhouse Five, his most famous work.

I met him when I was still in college. A committee that I chaired brought him to speak. I was the only person in the group who actually knew who Vonnegut was, so we spent most of the evening chatting about his books and Jazz. He was surprised that I'd read Philip Jose Farmer's hoax Venus on the Half Shell. In one of Vonnegut's novels, his recurring character Kilgore Trout authored a book with that title. As a joke, Farmer followed Vonnegut's skeletal plotline and wrote the novel, publishing it under Trout's name. Vonnegut loved the story, although he was angry when people accused him of writing the book.

In the course of dinner, I watched as Vonnegut smoked seven unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes while eating a corned beef sandwich. I was surprised that he'd survived into his late sixties, and my amazement deepened as I watched him put away the better part of a pack over the next couple of hours. In all, I calculated that he was smoking between three and four packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day and was putting away enough nicotine to fell a bull elephant. I thanked God that I'd gotten to meet him, as his smoking and cholesterol consumption clearly made him into a ticking time bomb.

I have to laugh. This was in 1990, when he was 67. He lived for another seventeen years, and was finally killed by brain damage that he sustained in a household fall.

He had a good run. All day, I've been getting e-mails from former students who read his books in my classes. I'm sad that he has died, but he's practically the definition of a life well lived.

And, as my students can attest, it would be foolish to say that he's gone.

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  • If you've ever gone into a musty old used bookstore and smelled weed, chances are it was coming from the Vonnegut's down on your lower right- the ones with the dog eared corners and dirty pages...

    And so it goes...

    By Blogger Scott from Oregon, At April 12, 2007 at 1:36 PM  

  • I personally found his performance with Rodney Dangerfield (Back to School) insanely funny. If you don't know - dangerfield has a paper on Vonnegut due so he hires Vonnegut to write it. Needless to say, Dangerfield's paper failed. Hehehehehehe.

    I think it's cool you found a way to relate to Engineers through his writing as well.

    By Blogger Pickled Olives, At April 12, 2007 at 1:53 PM  

  • He has been a favorite of mine since the first time I opened one of his books in HS, and then devoured everything else I could find of his. What an amazing man he was. I have read Venus too; in fact, I think I have a copy. It is odd that he died in such a random way, but shit happens, and so it goes...

    By Blogger Spellbound, At April 12, 2007 at 2:13 PM  

  • Crankster,

    In our little tight blogging circle you are among a half-dozen who have written tributes to Vonnegut.

    My tribute would be gettting stoned this weekend and, for the upteenth time, viewing Slaughterhouse Five. I think that's appropriate.

    Btw, I saw Jon Waters give a spoken-word concert in DC a couple of years ago. He's a third stand-up comedian, a third political commentator and a third teller-of-tall-tales. A modern-day Mark Twain, sort of.

    To fit in, I took my homosexual-woman-friend (who is fat) and wore my black leather jacket. We smoked clove cigarettes. Real hepcats.

    By Blogger Matt, At April 12, 2007 at 3:06 PM  

  • Scott-
    I can see the slogan now: "Kurt Vonnegut: perfuming used book stores since 1968."

    Actually, not a bad epitaph!

    I always loved that one, too. And his cameo in Mother Night!

    Regarding the other, I needed something to make it possible for us to conduct communication!

    Actually, it seems like the kind of death he might write...

    To mix things up, you might try checking out Mother Night. I think it's a better movie.

    Regarding the John Waters thing, I am mute with envy. I guess that's what you get for living in the DC/Baltimore area. He called me once, but I made the mistake of going to class that day, so I missed him.

    By Blogger Crankster, At April 12, 2007 at 3:49 PM  

  • Lovely tribute and I'm still awestruck that you met him.

    I felt quite shocked by the news...


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At April 12, 2007 at 4:51 PM  

  • Crankster, can't help but to suggest checking out a hilarious short piece he did for "In these Times," wherein he suggests an entirely novel theory for suing a tobacco company:


    By Anonymous John, At April 12, 2007 at 6:48 PM  

  • My heart hurts.

    I called my dad first thing this morning. I thanked him for having all those dusty Vonnegut's (published by Penguin or Penguin House or something) on the shelves when I was a kid.

    All day long, all I have been saying is:

    "And so it goes"

    By Blogger mist1, At April 13, 2007 at 1:07 AM  

  • Crankster - I believe that speaking with him was the equivalent of getting a guitar lesson from Bob Dylan, or painting with Picasso. I loved the way he used ludicrous comedy and stinging truth to highlight the fundamental absurdity of war, to challenge poverty, question authority (''true terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country''), and as for saving mankind (''we could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap''). Americas Wilde he certainly was, such a dry rapier wit - a great piece of advice he gave to young people was ''If you really want to hurt your parents and you don't have nerve enough to be homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.''
    As for his smoking habit I believe he said it was a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.

    Im with Matt, We should all skin up this weekend and watch slaughterhouse five for the memory of such a fine literary giant.

    By Blogger Judith, At April 13, 2007 at 4:51 AM  

  • I was fortunate to "meet" him at a book signing about ten years ago. It was a decidedly brief interaction, but I cherish it nonetheless.

    I had thought about writing my own tribute to Vonnegut as he has been consistently one of my favorite authors since high school as well, but words were failing me yesterday and I chose to write about ice cream instead. Thanks for sharing your own experiences and memories.

    By Blogger Mrs Pinchloaf, At April 13, 2007 at 8:05 AM  

  • Nice tribute ...and better even because you met him!

    By Blogger Odat, At April 13, 2007 at 11:31 AM  

  • I love that you chose to include the asshole drawing.

    I lost track of Vonnegut a bit in recent years, but boy, did he define things for me in my 20s and 30s.

    A sad day indeed.

    By Blogger Mystic Wing, At April 13, 2007 at 4:09 PM  

  • Puss-
    Funny to be reminded of him this way, isn't it?

    Thanks for the url. And for introducing me to his stuff back in HS.

    I remember scouring used book stores for those little paperbacks!

    In the piece John mentioned above, he claimed that he was planning on suing Brown and Williamson tobacco for the fact that he was still alive after smoking his whole life.

    Mrs. Pinchloaf-
    Somehow, writing about ice cream doesn't seem wholly inappropriate!


    Mystic Wing-
    I tried to find his drawing of a beaver, but this is the best I could do! It's funny, but looking back on his stuff today, I realized how much of my sense of humor, my anarchic wit, and so forth was influenced by him. Not to get melodramatic, but I'd be a very different person if I hadn't stumbled upon him in my teens.

    By Blogger Crankster, At April 13, 2007 at 10:01 PM  

  • My hat's off, Boss.

    By Blogger The CEO, At April 14, 2007 at 12:11 AM  

  • He was one of my gods. When I first read him, he was one of the few adults who seemed real, and hooked up to the greater truths.

    I thought briefly of writing a memorial to him, but decided to brood instead. I'm sure he is enjoying Tralfamidor immensely, and also that he would have loved your tribute.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At April 14, 2007 at 10:00 PM  

  • Hearts-
    A lot of people have mentioned Tralfamidore. All of a sudden, I realize that my particular brand of geekiness isn't as idiosyncratic as I thought!

    By Blogger Crankster, At April 15, 2007 at 9:11 PM  

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