So It Goes
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Roses are red and ready for plucking
You're sixteen and ready for high school.
~Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007)
*** Disclaimer: This post has little to do with brands, markets or media but it does have to do with culture. And I want to be damn sure it’s known that Unbound Edition doesn’t miss the passing of a genius without at least an observation or two. ***
Today makes me miss high school. Really, it makes me miss school in general. I miss a day where I could skip out and spend time delving into a good book. Today, I’d choose a Vonnegut. Because I’m sad he’s gone, and I miss him.
I remember our introduction. Mr. Moore, my high school English teacher, gave me “Slaughterhouse Five.” I loved it. I read it in two days. I just connected with it. Vonnegut became one of the first writers I liked. He didn’t seem afraid or restricted. He just said it.
I look at him now as partly responsible for my English degree.
From “Slaughterhouse,” it was onto “Cat’s Cradle” and then, my personal favorite, “Breakfast of Champions.” That book changed me. I had never before realized the utter freedom a writer has. And every writer should never, ever be afraid to use that freedom.
I mean, what’s not to like about a book with such astute observations by one Mr. Dwayne Hoover as, “It's all life until your dead.” And a doodle of what an asshole looks like up close. Genius! I don’t know what it means about me that I connected the most with that book. Perhaps my days are numbered. Perhaps it’s just because I found out Philboyd created Kilgore Trout. Who knows?
However, in that book, Vonnegut, through Trout, changed the way I think about life. There is a scene between a cab driver and Trout, and they are discussing suicide. The cab driver says to Trout, “I can't tell if you're serious or not.”
Trout replies, “I won't know myself until I find out whether
is serious or not. It's
, I know, and it can hurt a lot. That doesn't necessarily mean it's
I remember staring at that exchange a long time. It was both highlighted and underlined. That was the way Vonnegut always did it. Slip something great in there, and it’s so short you could almost miss it. Knowing what I know now, that Vonnegut worked in advertising and public relations, I’m pretty sure I know where he stands on life’s seriousness.
Vonnegut represented persistence of will and how, with a little bit of luck, you can accomplish your dreams. He almost wasn’t a writer, but then he caught a break and got the chance to teach at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He took that job, and we all benefited. But mostly, for me, he exemplified the joy of being a smartass. Yeah,
as Dinitia Smith says, he encouraged kindness
, but he loved being a smartass too. Pushing people’s buttons and testing limits.
He inspired me to push my thoughts to the limits. Consider everything. “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center.” He was nothing if not honest.
And it was his scathing honesty that made you laugh. It was your only option left. The truth could both frustrate and exhaust you, and as he said, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion . . . . I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” He always could make you smile, even in melancholy times. Remembering him helps me smile in my sadness now.
He seemed to see the world as I and so many others did, and he could creatively put it into words. He used those words to give his advice for everything. And it always seemed to involve a wink and a smile. Tongue always in cheek.
Upon graduating from college, I remember being told, “It’s time to be mature now” by a professor. That depressed the hell out of me. Vonnegut, of course, had a response: “Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter could be said to remedy anything.”
Getting out into the working world introduced me to many who were very proud of themselves (read: obnoxious assholes). Again, Vonnegut: “Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn't mean we deserve to conquer the universe.” Whenever you meet someone who is a bit overly fond of himself, just think of that quote. It’ll help you tune the annoyance out.
He even commented on why we speak. “People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order so they'll have good voice boxes in case there's ever anything really meaningful to say.”
And he had plenty to say, whether it be on science, religion or even politics. “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” I haven’t experienced that yet, but I can only imagine what some people in their 40s and 50s must be thinking right now. We know what Vonnegut thought: “The only difference between Bush and Hitler is that Hitler was elected.” Brutal. And somehow, it makes you smile because you know he’s just trying to goad people.
He once said, “I'd rather have written 'Cheers' than anything I've written.” Well, my friend, cheers to you. The universe, “a big place, perhaps the biggest,” took a true credit to humanity from us yesterday. So it goes.