Kurt Vonnegut, author of about a million books including one of my all-time favorites, Slaughterhouse-Five, has died. So it goes.
I wish I could say that I had actually met the man and known him well, but I didn't. However, I did get to dance the hokey-pokey with him once. But we'll get to that. And of course he has inspired and impacted me in ways that he will never know about. Or maybe he does. Who knows?
My first exposure to his work came sometime around the eighth grade, when one of my teachers – Mr. Grier, probably, who was exactly the sort of teacher that I believe Vonnegut would have approved of – gave my English class a pamphlet that Vonnegut had written for International Paper, titled "How To Write With Style."
It's funny that anyone would ever ask Vonnegut about how to write with "style," because while he most definitely had a voice and a perspective all his own, he did not write with the sort of elegance that one associates with greatness. He was aware of this; as he said in that essay, "I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench." So it goes.
Whether it was his intention or not, in that piece Vonnegut also gave voice to what would turn out to be my Secret of Life. To this day, I have another quote from that pamphlet in my mind at all times, and on the wall of my cube, where I can see it every time I turn around, in case I need a reminder about what is really important:
"I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have?"
Shakespeare said "To thine own self be true," and he meant it; so did Vonnegut. He wrote about what he knew and what he saw and what he loved and what he hated, a world and a life filtered through Indianapolis, a World War, the firebombing of Dresden, book bannings and book burnings, depression, two wives, seven children, and 69 years of smoking Pall Malls. So it goes.
All of these helped to create a body of work and a humanist sensibility that have profoundly affected me in ways even I am not fully prepared to deal with. Obviously I loved very much that in Vonnegut I had found someone who was older and more experienced than me, who also agreed with me on matters of some import. He was something of a socialist, and a member of the ACLU. So am I, in part because from reading Vonnegut's books I learned that it was OK, encouraged even, to question authority and trust no one, including yourself.
Vonnegut also gave me some of favorite lines to quote when things get out of control, weird, or downright stupid, including but not limited to "Welcome to the Monkey House." Of course, most of the people that I deal with have no idea what I really mean by that, because they've never read the story, but I strongly suspect that Vonnegut himself had some of the same problems from time to time. So it goes.
And none of this really explains why I'm walking around in a weird kind of funk today, mourning his passing. It's because I keep remembering a moment, from May of 1994, when I was a sophomore in college. Vonnegut was the commencement speaker at Syracuse that year, and I was on some committee, and I ended up at the graduation dinner-dance. Where I joined Vonnegut in doing the hokey-pokey.
If there's a heaven, and Vonnegut believes in it, that's where he is right now, no doubt. Smoking his Pall Malls and being unstuck in time and shooting the shit with Kilgore Trout and laying naked with Montana Wildhack and being his rumpled old Indianapolis self and doing the hokey-pokey.
Hopefully he'll save a spot on his dance card for me, someday. So it goes.