Tag Archives: Kurt Vonnegut

A Dozen Paths To the End of the World

The-End-of-the-world-as-we-know-itThe number of apocalyptic movies, books, and news items out there led me to consider possibilities not yet fully explored. Too lazy to actually write them, however, I made it only as far as these twelve stand-alone sentences.

1. One of the more comfortable citizens first made an object stone by claiming it, but, by noon the next day, the entire town was solid.

2. Naturally, the last duel had no spectators.

3. Everyone started piling bicycles at the city limits and soon they’d walled themselves in with their only remaining means of escape.

4. For the longest time, the kind-hearted lived in enclaves, but jealousy outside assured they wouldn’t be left alone.

5. Someone else might have known the footprints he followed were his own, yet he noticed only when, too tired to continue, he sat down and examined them closely.

6. Their hairstyles grew so elaborate their necks lacked the strength to lift them.

7. Each bridge began on one shore and ended at its apex, just when building further threatened falling in the river.

8. They could have company, the letter said, if they learned to bake bread that filled the air with enticing smells, but their sort of baking was a gift they wouldn’t give up.

9. No one considered you could do nothing so long that nothing could be done.

10. In the courtyard’s strange echoes, birds seemed to speak in human voices, and soon neighbors, then strangers, stopped working to gather and listen.

11. Had not everyone been whimpering, someone would have quipped the world ended with a bang after all.

12. He sat south of the jetty near shops long looted and empty to watch the sun rise, expecting, any day now, it wouldn’t.

Leave a comment

Filed under Allegory, Ambition, America, Brave New World, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Grief, History, Jeremiads, Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut, Laments, Meditations, Metaphor, Misanthropy, Modern Life, Parables, Parody, Play, Satire, Science Fiction, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Time, Worry

On Accident: 12 Thoughts

220px-Aristotle_Altemps_Inv85751.

The more empty your day, the more you fill it with thought experiments. Canvassing the plausible, improbable, and impossible passes time, stimulates the brain. You can’t know everything—everyone knows that—and something unnoticed always hides in all that’s plain. In idle moments, you may be happy to discover what you haven’t considered before, and, besides, dreaming a world where nothing can be new or unanticipated is nightmarish.

But, in life, less so.

2.

One of the English teachers at my school devised a course called “Happily Ever After” featuring literature that ends positively. It can’t have been easy to teach the class or, for that matter, to choose texts. Mistakes compel attention and explanation. Good fortune, a gift, begs acknowledgement, acceptance, and little more.

Some years ago, I taught a similar course called “The Comic View.” My purpose was to examine the way comedy works, its motivations and its mechanisms and its perspective and its effect. I got nowhere. Most conversations began by nodding at what was funny or fortunate—the class agreed to pursue at least that line of questioning—yet, the moment discussion turned to why we laughed or what it might say about us, the students sighed. They might be interested, I told myself, if only I could  get them started, but no cajoling worked long. No one wanted relief to end.

“Here,” they seemed to say, “see, something good happened. Let’s not ask why.”

3.

I read an essay where the author described a bird dropping from several stories, then—as if the bird bounced on hard air—it leapt back into flight. It flew back to the roof where it started and fell again. Again and again. I would like to see that bird, or to see any animal defy its gifts. Some secret waits there. If a true test can have no witnesses, then success and failure, whatever the terms mean, must happen in solitude. The bird caught itself in time, but that can’t always be the case.

Birds must fall. If the rest of the animal kingdom resembles us, it must resemble us in mishap. Our lapses crush steel and glass. They sacrifice our limbs to machines. They wipe our lives, and other lives, away. We watch these moments in the past and, recalling them imperfectly, can’t guess causes exactly… including what’s meant, not meant, and in-between.

4.

Bumper stickers recognize shit happens, but no bumper sticker will ever attain the length required to explain why.

5.

A new upscale market in our neighborhood teems with friendly helpers in natty black T-shirts. When I visit, I try to come up with some missing item. “Do you have kamut puffs?” I ask, or “I’m looking for pickled brussel sprouts…” or “I notice you don’t have any ESBs, do all your beers have IBUs above 45?”

Where do my interactions go? Do they drop them in the box for crazy and misguided requests or take them as a challenge to anticipate the unanticipated? What if I visited the market daily without explaining why—how long before they’d acknowledge the finitude of their collection, the absolute certainty they’ve missed something?

More practically, how long before they bar me?

6.

The Christian use of “accident” comes from Aristotle (as co-opted by Thomas Aquinas) and describes unessential aspects. The Eucharist is transubstantiated as the body and blood of Christ, Aquinas said, and its existence as bread and wine is accidental. Its essential substance is miraculous even if its earthly nature seems ordinary. The specific food and drink don’t matter.

Aristotle delineates nine traits as accidental: quantity, quality, relation, habitus (state or condition), time, location, situation or position, and passion (how a thing is acted upon).

The first time I encountered his list, I thought, “What’s left?” It seemed to me an exhaustive description of any item’s traits. I never reached reconciling his “accident” with the word’s colloquial meaning as “an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance.”

I’ve tried since. Everything, it seems, is accidental. That is, nothing is at last essential in anything we see or experience. If the essential exists, it’s not defined by any of the traits Aristotle identified. Those traits are perceivable, and the essential, it appears, is not.

The implications of unanticipated events elude understanding. What happens was never meant, wasn’t essential, and didn’t have to be. We just can’t let accidents be. We have to account, explain, make them into more than they may be.

7.

Not to be irreverent, but I wonder if any priest has ever tried Twinkies and Welch’s. If the accident doesn’t matter, any perverse or ordinary thing should do.

8.

The eponymous event of Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake dictates human beings repeat the years 1991 through 2001 with no hope of correcting mistakes they made. They cause and suffer the same accidents. They experience the same joy and the same grief, and their lives run an identical path with only one difference—they know it.

In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the alien Tralfamadorians compare the human perception of time to riding a flatcar, chained down, wearing a helmet that prevents looking left or right, and spying the world exclusively through a six foot long tube. A comic retelling of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the analogy relies on a similar twist—we don’t know. The situation seems, to us, utterly ordinary.

The truth lies somewhere between. Maybe we do know. Perhaps not. In the context of the moment, everything seems accidental, the sum of multitudinous causes and therefore arbitrary. Yet, among the possibilities, is the prospect it’s not so, that we never see the essential necessity of events, their solidity and surity.

9.

Just now I have a headache and think I know why. I’ve had too much coffee this week. By drinking coffee, I’ve prepared to work instead of working. Though I hoped to enhance my wakefulness and concentration for mental labor, I’ve been lost in a cloud of misty connections instead, jangled and diffuse in attention to what I ought to be doing. Off caffeine, I suffer the expected results—I’m not worth a damn.

My explanation, however, is self-serving. Faced with onerous tasks, I’ve found a way to end my responsibility in a way that isn’t altogether unpleasant. Work awaits, but circumstances cooperated to put it aside. I’m only capable of composing this post… which is what I wanted to do in the first place.

The inevitable often seems so sure.

10.

Perhaps you remember the vertigo you felt when you thought for the first time that everything, everything, everything might be part of your imagination. My variation on that moment led me to posit I imagined every limit. If I could only believe a sub-eight second 100 meters were possible, I might run one.

As you may expect, I put the theory to many tests. I ran away from the sun, chasing my shadow, and tried to anticipate overtaking it. My choice was faith, and faith, I trusted, would make my desires real. The results disappointed. Still, sometimes I blame my mind’s limits, its imprisonment in what I’d learned was irrevocable cause and effect. Obliged to fulfill what I’d experienced, I couldn’t conceive what might—really—happen.

11.

Comfort with uncertainty defines the modern mind, or so we like to think. We’re all negatively capable, cognitively dissonant, unsure and happy. If nothing is known, everything is known. We can be pleased with that.

You may also believe deficits and assets reach a rough balance every sundown. You invest in trusting a final summation is impossible and will never come in any case. Certainly, our own end will never come—it’s intolerable to think so. Despite our flirtations with dire consequences, no accident looms. Only some outcomes can occur. Only some thoughts.

Stuck in paradoxes, you let them lie. What’s accidental and incidental and intentional will work itself out according to rules we can’t know. What’s certain and essential is never either. You delight in surprise. You face tragedy if and when it arrives.

12.

Accidents are either terrifying or enticing… and unknowable regardless. What choice do I have except to explain?

Leave a comment

Filed under Allegory, Anxiety, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Kurt Vonnegut, Laments, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Parables, Thoughts, Words

Accept a Moment

Here is the commencement address I gave at my school this week with a few changes to avoid real names.  If you are a regular reader here, you may notice some familiar themes (and prose):

Standing here, I’m thinking of the first sentence of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five:

“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

Those of you who have read the book know Billy Pilgrim finds himself transported bodily to his past and future.  He is suddenly serenely drowning in a pool at the Illium, New York YMCA, making love to Montana Wildhack in a zoo on the planet of Tralfamadore, weeping over an injured horse after the allies’ firebombing of Dresden.

Then he’s back again.

My affliction is more metaphoric.  I can’t help seeing this moment through other moments—my own senior year, graduations of students I’ve taught in the last 27 years, classes you’ve been in.

And, because I’m a parent of a senior, I also see other moments—saying goodbye on the first day of pre-school, listening to hurried explanations of “what I learned today” or watching, as every parent does, even when my child didn’t know I was watching at all… and was probably busy ignoring me.

Vonnegut’s surreal approach, it turns out, is real.  We suddenly find ourselves in memories and can’t recall how we arrived there.

As Billy Pilgrim discovers, many of these moments are absurd. Look at us now—this auspicious occasion is more than a little strange.  Were I Billy Pilgrim arriving here, I might wonder… why am I wearing a mu mu?  What is this limp, multi-colored hula hoop around my neck?  Why are you wearing such silly hats?  Those tails are in the wrong place. How come—as I’m speaking to you—you are staring at the back of my head?

Calling this occasion “commencement” is absurd too.  You might be thinking about endings.  No more dozing on the senior couch or discussing the ridiculous test-slash-quiz-slash-quest-slash-assessment-slash-Challenge Assignment you just endured.  No more leaving mystery objects in classmates’ mailboxes, filming a banner, or wondering when someone will suddenly stand up and say “Now shut the barn door, are you saying…” You won’t be slipping into gathering late anymore—next year, no one will know what a “Gathering” is.  Fishbowl will return to being a noun, and you will never, never, never have to explain the school’s schedule again.

Your future classmates will thank you if you don’t.

You may already have moved on.  We are all so unstuck in time, we are always moving on.

One moment I can’t return to is my own high school graduation.  I didn’t go.  My sister was getting married the same weekend five states away.  I could have made it back for the ceremony, but that part of my life seemed done.  I thought, “I’m way too cool for that falderal” and I told myself, “Isn’t it mostly for parents anyway?”

Well, I’m parent now, and I’ve decided that last part…. is true.  We are immeasurably and irrationally proud of you.  We need this moment… so get over it.

The older we get, the more we want to live in moments like this one.  They’re special even if we manufacture them.

For all this ceremony’s absurdities, it’s not absurd to make you pause, look at one another and be immeasurably and irrationally proud of yourselves, to say goodbye to teachers you’re leaving behind, especially the teachers who are leaving us all behind.

Books and movies linger on these moments—just before the bat hits the ball, or the score ignites the crowd, or the crowd realizes what magic it has just witnessed.

We don’t get to do what books and movies do.  We’d like to, but can’t.

Last fall, I went to Peoria with the Cross Country team for the state finals.  The girls and boys teams had dwindled to ten runners and only eight would stand at the start line of the two races.  Everyone received Coach’s words before the start—and, as usual, they were good, rousing words—but I wanted even more.  We could have had a bigger moment.  We should have eyed each other and said, “Look at us.” We should have remembered all the athletes who weren’t there but who pushed the ones remaining to run better than they ever thought possible.  We should have said, “This moment only arrives once.”

But someone was wondering if the computer chip was secured correctly, and someone was sick of being photographed, and someone was worried whether that visit to the port-o-let was ill-timed and someone else wondered if it was too hot or too early or too scary.

Someone wanted it over.

Because that’s how most of us live—with “what’s next?” on our lips.

So, absurd as it is, we’re holding you hostage.  Those silly hats—they’re for pinning you down.  For once, you have no laptops, blackberries, iPods, or other electronica to divert you.

I hope.

Welcome to monotasking—the sort that means drinking in the present, of being spontaneous, free of self-consciousness, without judgment, open to influence.

Some of you already know that pleasure from reading.  Books offer complete immersion in moments.  The best ones give us precious echoes of our own experience.  They give us more moments that make us feel less alone.  Though the author manufactured them, they tell us what’s true.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau said, “When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence.”

Seniors, if I had a magic wand, I wouldn’t waste it on any accio to material success.  I’d give you pleasure in this moment—and every moment.  I’d give you more reasons to come unstuck in time.  I’d focus on every moment as we have this one.

Our era is skilled at judgment.  People read a page and declare a book “crap” or reject a task as dumb even before undertaking it.  We have judgment as a constant companion, evaluating each moment—and each other—until everything fractures into what it is and how we judge its worth.

Instead of enjoying each other—really being with one another—we text, we face…book.  We hurry onto our next notification or message.

But look at us now. Right now.  Your last homework is to think of a moment you’d like to remember forever… something you couldn’t tweet or text.

Because, more than simply filling your head with stuff, your teachers wanted to create moments to return to…

Because soon you’ll move on…

But before you go, I have one last seemingly random, off-the-subject story that turns out to be quite instructive:

I worked for the University Press in college.  My job was pretty uninteresting—I put books in boxes, sent bills, and did some quite crude accounting—but my boss had placed his faith in me, and that meant a lot. I took the job not because I loved bubble wrap, but because of Professor J. I could mention few subjects he hadn’t read something about, but he didn’t show off his knowledge.  He had a wry smile for undergraduate opinions he’d heard a million times and listened attentively as I rattled on about everything and anything.  I loved our messy basement office and every moment I spent there.

But I got behind.  Professor J was hardly a taskmaster.  He trusted me to keep up with orders and I didn’t always fulfill his trust in timely fashion, so I’d go in on a Saturday or Sunday to complete orders.  I didn’t want my boss to know.

One Sunday in the winter of my senior year, I let myself into the office to work.  My attention was elsewhere—I’d had a tough conversation with my dad the night before, and, on the desk in my apartment were the dates for GREs and LSATs, applications to graduate school, and handouts from the placement office about on-campus interviews.

It had dawned on me that the school was going to make me graduate, and I was upset—upset because I loved school, because being a student felt like the only thing I did well.

As I wrapped books and sealed packages, I began to think about how little I knew about what was outside this place I loved, what was next, who I was.  And I became more emotional, and, perhaps because I was sleep deprived or miffed about getting behind, or maybe because I was visited by the murky spirit of that senior winter, I began to cry.

Not sobbing or weeping or throwing-myself-to-the-floor-and-gnashing-my-teeth crying, but water, a lot of water was leaking from my eyes —we’re 60 % water, after all.  And I was in this state, crying and packing books, mailing my tears to various libraries and bookstores all over the country—and internationally—when I heard the lock of the door turn.

And there was Professor J, arriving to pick something up, clearly not expecting a momentarily leaky undergraduate flinging books. I wiped my eyes quickly, but he saw me, and he stopped.  He looked at me—the most complete eye contact you can imagine—soul to soul—and then came the moment I want to share with you.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” he asked.

I actually don’t like tea much, but I understood, at that instant, that the answer was “yes.”

Seniors, maybe you want to know what we discussed—about the future, about how you know who you are, about how to find the sort of life where it feels okay to leak unexpectedly.  We did talk about those things… but the truth is, I don’t remember any of it.

I remember how sweet the honey in the tea was, how the cup was so warm I dared not keep it in my hands or do more than sip it.  I remember the scent of bergamot and how the chair creaked when I shifted.

Most of all I remember how kind he was, how he let silences lie, how he told me, without telling me, that he’d been where I was and knew how much that odd moment mattered.

Over the last few years, you might have a moment like that to recall, a moment when you realized that, sometimes, we need to stop our restless movement and show gratitude for every moment… including this artificial, manufactured, but very real expression of our love for you.

I hope so. Your parents, your teachers, your friends might be hoping the same—we don’t want time to sweep you away.  It will, but while you are here and we are here, let’s stop and love this pomp and circumstance… before you leave us to find more moments to love.

Thank you for sharing so many nice seconds, minutes, and hours with us, thank you for giving us this event to celebrate, for giving us this NOW, a good reason to come unstuck in time… Godspeed class of 20-10.

2 Comments

Filed under Buddhism, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, Humanities, Kurt Vonnegut, life, Meditations, Memory, Parenting, Recollection, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work