God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut
"I am of course notoriously hooked on cigarettes. I keep hoping the things will kill me. A fire at one end and a fool at the other."

Most of the time I feel like I was born in the wrong time. I managed to be born in time for AIDS, Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 11th, the war in the Middle East, a president with Alzheimer's, reality television, Geraldo opening Al Capone's vault, the American education system playing limbo with standards, the rise of Jerry Springer, and the arrest of Paul Reubens. Those are just the big injustices. Every day brings some new "Jesus why wasn't I born in Imperial Rome" revelation.

But occasionally something happens that makes me happy to live in this time. One of them was growing up when the Muppets were on the air. The other was actually seeing Kurt Vonnegut.

"As I read the Book of Genesis, God didn't give Adam and Eve a whole planet. He gave them a manageable piece of property, for the sake of discussion let's say 200 acres. I suggest to you Adams and Eves that you set as your goals the putting of some small part of the planet into something like safe and sane and decent order." interview with Rolling Stone

I first read Kurt Vonnegut when I was freshmen in high school. Every one was passing around Cat's Cradle like the girls passed around Go Ask Alice in the seventh grade. I liked it, but it was my senior Satire class that made me really appreciate his work. Harrison Bergeron, with the idea of enforced equality, Epicac, about a computer's unrequited love for a programmer, the optimism of Adam and Who Am I This Time?, and the equation of sex and death in Welcome to the Monkey House. And although Vonnegut was often accused of being a misanthrope, his stories and novels always had a strange optimism about them.

"This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don't think it's a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."-Mother Night

But it wasn't until the first love of my life left me that Vonnegut would have his real impact on me. So much of literature is taken up with the topic of romance and in my newly heartbroken state (and unfortunately during the summer so I had no schoolwork to distract me), I found that almost every book I picked up drove the barb deeper into my heart. Vonnegut's books were the only things I could read. And so, I read every book he had written up until that point save one, Dead Eye Dick. Just so I would have something to look forward to. I read Mother Night, Hocus Pocus, Breakfast of Champions, Slapstick, Slaughter-House Five, Good Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Galapagos, Jailbird, Player Piano, Bluebeard, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, and The Sirens of Titan. Through Vonnegut I became exposed, through entertaining reading, to ideas that I would later encounter with much more sophistication in other books. For example, Mother Night introduced me to theories of personality (we are who we pretend to be-our acts define our character) and the Sirens of Titan exposed me to Deism (the church of God the Apathetic). But whether the exposure to these ideas prepared me to read Frankenstein, Paradise Lost, The New York Trilogy, and dozens of other books is not the most important thing he accomplished that summer. What he did was keep me from losing hope. Without throwing around platitudes or holding out the illusion of justice-somehow he inspired me to be happy to be lucky mud and be kind to the other lumps of lucky mud around me.

"I've worried some about why write books when Presidents and Senators and generals do not read them, and the university experience taught me a very good reason: you catch people before they become generals and Senators and Presidents, and you poison their minds with humanity. Encourage them to make a better world."

After that summer, I would occasionally re-read his stories and novels. I particularly loved the Sirens of Titan. For Salo, the Tralfamadorian whose life was wasted delivering a message to the people of Earth (a single dot), for Unk who discovered that no person is above the need for unconditional love on a barren moon far from home, for the followers of the Church of God the Apathetic. Although I outgrew the book and found too simple and undeveloped for my taste, like old friends I found it comforting to put down Waverly or Magic Mountain and spend an hour lost in that world.

"Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne."

When Grace Paley was scheduled to speak to our class, we didn't expect Vonnegut to show up. Yet there he was, tall and gangly, with his wife. People kept asking me, "Is that him?" "I don't know," I said, "I think he's too tall." I had only seen him on dust covers. But it was him. Vonnegut didn't call attention to himself. He just milled around like the rest of us, finding a seat near the front as his wife introduced Paley. After the interview with Paley, she asked the audience for questions. We were all too inhibited by both of them to ask anything. Finally he raised his hand. "What's a New York broad like you doing in Vermont?" he asked. We all laughed. Paley, not to be outdone as a great personal speaker said, "Because in Vermont they know the real value of recycling. It's not about doing good for the planet. It's an excuse for everyone to get together and talk." I was too shy to say anything to him afterwards. As were we all. I regret that now as he seemed like an approachable guy.

"The worst thing that could possible happen to anybody" she said, "would be not to be used for anything by anybody." The Sirens of Titan

Over the years, I have occasionally read some of his new work-A Man Without a Country and Timequake, but really I was more interested in the work of other satirists-some of them, like George Saunders, have the same strange optimism, others like Huxley and Amis are harsher. But even though I no longer read him, I still thought of him fondly. Somehow I thought he would never die. That he would always be around. Some sort of benevolent uncle who would just perpetually duffer around making inspirational speeches to college students. And so when he died, I was surprised, even though I shouldn't have been.

"As an adolescent, he made my life bearable" Jon Stewart

But I didn't get teary-eyed until I read what the folks over at Metafilter had to say. Mefites were apparently big fans of Vonnegut ( Vonnegut at 82, his interview with an Australian newspaper, and his response to the state of the union address amongst others.) Considering the well established fan-dom over there, the outpouring of comments and emotion was to be expected. Yet I found myself reading the comments and what overwhelmed is me how many people had such a personal connection to him. How many people thanked him for making their lives less miserable, their adolescence more tolerable. And like many of the commenters, I suddenly found my eyes welling up. Because how many writers can say that about themselves. When Stephen King or Jonathan Franzen for dozens of other authors die, do you think there will be this personal grief from readers? Because Vonnegut not only made himself a personal presence in our lives, he did what real writers hope to do-he changed us for the better.

God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, "Sit up!"
"See all I've made," said God, "the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars."
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn't have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn't even get to sit up and look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!
Good night.
I will go to heaven now.
I can hardly wait...

So God Bless You Mr. Vonnegut. We were all much luckier mud to have had your around.


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