Bad Uncle, Good Uncle

by poputonian

Regulars here know that I've quoted Kurt Vonnegut more than once in the past. Last evening came the sad news:

Kurt Vonnegut, the Indianapolis-born literary giant behind seminal 20th-century novels "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "Breakfast of Champions," died Wednesday evening at age 84.

Vonnegut, who often marveled that he had lived so long despite his lifelong smoking habit, had suffered brain injuries after a fall at his Manhattan home weeks ago, said his wife, photographer Jill Krementz.

"He's the closest thing we've had to Voltaire," Tom Wolfe, whose first book had a blurb from Vonnegut, told Bloomberg News Service. "It's a sad day for the literary world."

Vonnegut had been scheduled to speak in Indianapolis on April 27 as part of the ongoing "Year of Vonnegut" celebration honoring his life and work. Vonnegut's son Mark planned to give the 2007 McFadden Memorial Lecture written by his father.

The author's writing was distinctive for its combination of the satirical and the fantastical, and leavened by a black humor that looked disdainfully upon humankind's capacity for destruction.

"I will say anything to be funny, often in the most horrible situations," Vonnegut, whose watery, heavy-lidded eyes and unruly hair made him seem to be in existential pain, once told a gathering of psychiatrists.

The most popular post featuring Vonnegut that I had written was Blown Circuits: An Autopsy Of The PPs. In that one the master ranted on about the psychopathic personalities now running America.

Labor Day Thoughts borrowed quotes where Vonnegut discussed Socialism and Christianity, and the Sermon on the Mount. That one drew out some nice commentary by Hullabaloo's best.

In Cortez The Killer, I clipped Vonnegut's thoughts about music but left out something important that he'd said:

No Matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.

If I should die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:


I'm going on sabbatical now and wanted to wish the best to all the Hullabaloovians. I close with an excerpt from Vonnegut's book A Man Without A Country. This piece was recommended by a commenter to the Blown Circuits post linked above.

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren. And many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess. But it has always been a mess. There have never been any "Good Old Days," there have just been days. And as I say to my grandchildren, "Don't look at me, I just got here."

There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity -- the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam, whatever. Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth. Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, "Today I am a woman. Today I am a man. The end."

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, "You're a man now." So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a man can't be a man unless he'd gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."