TITLE: Kurt Vonnegut Has Come Unstuck in Time AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: April 12, 2007 8:16 AM DESC: ----- BODY:

Be careful what you pretend to be
because you are what you pretend to be.

Kurt Vonnegut Sometimes, the universe speaks to us and catches us unaware. Yesterday, I attended a workshop, about which I will have more to say later today. Toward the end, I saw a quote that struck me as an expression of this blog's purpose, and almost an unknowing source for the name of this blog:
Learning is about ... connecting teaching and knowing to action.
Connecting knowing to doing. That's what this blog is all about. But long time readers know that "Knowing and Doing" almost wasn't the name of my blog. I considered several alternatives. Back in November 2004, I wrote about some of the alternatives. Most of the serious candidates came from Kurt Vonnegut, my favorite author. Indeed, that post wasn't primarily about the name of my blog but about Vonnegut himself, who was celebrating his 82nd birthday.

Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment.
There is no why.

And then I wake up this morning to find the world atwitter with news of Vonnegut's passing yesterday. I'm not sure that anyone noticed, but Vonnegut died on a notable unbirthday, five months from the day of his birth. I think that Vonnegut would have liked that, as a great cosmic coincidence and as a connection to Lewis Carroll, a writer whose sense of unreality often matched Vonnegut's own. More than most, Kurt was in tune with just how much of what happens in this world is coincidence and happenstance. He wrote in part to encourage us not to put too much stock in our control over a very complex universe.

Busy, busy, busy.

Many people, critics included, considered Vonnegut a pessimist, an unhappy man writing dark humor as a personal therapy. But Vonnegut was not a pessimist. He was at his core one of the world's great optimists, an idealist who believed deeply in the irrepressible goodness of man. He once wrote that "Robin Hood" and the New Testament were the most revolutionary books of all time because they showed us a world in which people loved one another and looked out for the less fortunate. He wrote to remind us that people are lonely and that we have it in our own power to solve our own loneliness and the loneliness of our neighbors -- by loving one another, and building communities in which we all have the support we need to live.

Live by the foma that make you
brave and kind and healthy and happy.

I had the good fortune to see Kurt Vonnegut speak at the Wharton Center in East Lansing when I was a graduate student at Michigan State. I had the greater good fortune to see him speak when he visited UNI in the late 1990s. Then I saw his public talk, but I also sat in on a talk he gave to a foreign language class, on writing and translation. I also was able to sit in on his intimate meeting with the school's English Club, where he sat patiently in a small crowded room and told stories, answered questions, and generally fascinated awestruck fans, whether college students or old fogies like me. I am forever in the debt of the former student who let me know about those side events and made sure that I could be there with the students.

Sometimes the pool-pah
exceeds the power of humans to comment.

On aging, Vonnegut once said, "When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon." But I often think of Vonnegut staring down death and God himself in the form of old Bokonon, the shadow protagonist of his classic Cat's Cradle:
If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.
The blue-white poison was, of course, Ice Nine. These days, that is the name of my rotisserie baseball team. I've used Vonnegut's words as names many times. Back at Ball State, my College Bowl team was named Slaughterhouse Five. (With our alternate, we were five.) Kurt Vonnegut was without question my favorite writer. I spent teenage years reading Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle, Welcome to the Monkey House and Slapstick, The Sirens of Titan and Breakfast of Champions and Player Piano, the wonderfully touching God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and the haunting Mother Night. Later I came to love Jailbird and Galapagos, Deadeye Dick and Hocus Pocus and especially Bluebeard. I reveled in his autobiographical collages, too, Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons, Palm Sunday, Fates Worse Than Death, and Timequake. His works affected me as much or more than those of any of the classic writers feted by university professors and critics. The world is a lesser place today. But I am happy for the words he left us.

Tiger gotta hunt.
Bird gotta fly.
Man gotta sit and wonder why, why, why.

Tiger gotta sleep.
Bird gotta land.
Man gotta tell himself he understand.

If you've never read any Vonnegut, try it sometime. Start with Slaughterhouse Five or Cat's Cradle, both novels, or Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of his short stories. Some of his short stories are simply stellar. If you like Cat's Cradle, check out my tabulation of The Books of Bokonon, which is proof that a grown man can still be smitten with a really good book. And, yes, I still lust after naming my blog The Euphio Question. Rest in peace, Kurt. -----