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On a cold, cloudy night, the lines threaded all the way around the Ohio State campus. News that Kurt Vonnegut was speaking at the Ohio Union prompted these "apathetic" heartland college students to start lining up in the early afternoon. About 2,000 got in to the Ohio Union. At least that many more were turned away. It was the biggest crowd for a speaker here since Michael Moore.
In an age dominated by hype and sex, neither Moore nor Vonnegut seems a likely candidate to rock a campus whose biggest news has been the men's and women's basketball teams' joint assault on Big Ten championships.
But maybe there's more going on here than Fox wants us to think.
Vonnegut takes an easy chair across from Prof. Manuel Luis Martinez, a poet and teacher of writing. He grabs Martinez and semi-whispers into his ear (and the mike) "What can I say here?"
Martinez urges candor.
"Well," says Vonnegut, "I just want to say that George W. Bush is the syphilis president."
The students seem to agree.
"The only difference between Bush and Hitler," Vonnegut adds, "is that Hitler was elected."
"You all know, of course, that the election was stolen. Right here."
Off to a flying start, Vonnegut explains that this will be his "last speech for money." He can't remember the first one, but it was on a campus long, long ago, and this will be the end.
The students are hushed with the prospect of the final appearance of America's greatest living novelist. Alongside Mark Twain and Ben Franklin, Will Rogers and Joseph Heller and a very short list of immortal satirists and storytellers, there stands Kurt Vonnegut, author of SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and SIRENS OF TITAN, CAT'S CRADLE and GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER, books these students are studying now, as did their parents, as will their children and grandchildren, with a deeply felt mixture of gratitude and awe.
Nobody tonight seems to think they were in for a detached, scholarly presentation from a disengaged academic genius coasting on his incomparable laurels
"I'm lucky enough to have known a great president, one who really cared about ALL the people, rich and poor. That was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was rich himself, and his class considered him a traitor.
"We have people in this country who are richer than whole countries," he says. "They run everything.
"We have no Democratic Party. It's financed by the same millionaires and billionaires as the Republicans.
"So we have no representatives in Washington. Working people have no leverage whatsoever.
"I'm trying to write a novel about the end of the world. But the world is really ending! It's becoming more and more uninhabitable because of our addiction to oil.
"Bush used that line recently," Vonnegut adds. "I should sue him for plagiarism."
Things have gotten so bad, he says, "people are in revolt again life itself."
Our economy has been making money, but "all the money that should have gone into research and development has gone into executive compensation. If people insist on living as if there's no tomorrow, there really won't be one.
"As the world is ending, I'm always glad to be entertained for a few moments. The best way to do that is with music. You should practice once a night.
"If you want really want to hurt your parents and don't want to be gay, go into the arts," he says.
Then he breaks into song, doing a passable, tender rendition of "Stardust Memories."
By this time this packed hall has grown reverential. The sound system is appropriately tenuous. Straining to hear every word is both an effort and a meditation.
"To hell with the advances in computers," he says after he finishes singing. "YOU are supposed to advance and become, not the computers. Find out what's inside you. And don't kill anybody.
"There are no factories any more. Where are the jobs supposed to come from? There's nothing for people to do anymore. We need to ask the Seminoles: 'what the hell did you do?'' after the tribe's traditional livelihood was taken away.
Answering questions written in by students, he explains the meaning of life. "We should be kind to each other. Be civil. And appreciate the good moments by saying 'If this isn't nice, what is?'
"You're awful cute" he says to someone in the front row. He grins and looks around. "If this isn't nice, what is?
"You're all perfectly safe, by the way. I took off my shoes at the airport. The terrorists hate the smell of feet.
"We are here on Earth to fart around," he explains, and then embarks on a soliloquy about the joys of going to the store to buy an envelope. One talks to the people there, comments on the "silly-looking dog," finds all sorts of adventures along the way.
As for being a midwesterner, he recalls his roots in nearby Indianapolis, a heartland town, the next one west of here. "I'm a fresh water person. When I swim in the ocean, I feel like I'm swimming in chicken soup. Who wants to swim in flavored water?"
A key to great writing, he adds, is to "never use semi-colons. What are they good for? What are you supposed to do with them? You're reading along, and then suddenly, there it is. What does it mean? All semi-colons do is suggest you've been to college."
Make sure, he adds, "that your reader is having a good time. Get to the who, when, where, what right away, so the reader knows what is going on."
As for making money, "war is a very profitable thing for a few people. Jesus used to be so merciful and loving of the poor. But now he's a Republican.
"Our economy today is not capitalism. It's casino-ism. That's all the stock market is about. Gambling.
"Live one day at a time. Say 'if this isn't nice, I don't know what is!'
"You meet saints every where. They can be anywhere. They are people behaving decently in an indecent society.
"I'm going to sue the cigarette companies because they haven't killed me," he says. His son lived out his dream to be a pilot and has spent his career flying for Continental. Now they've "screwed up his pension."
The greatest peace, Vonnegut wraps up, "comes from the knowledge that I have enough. Joe Heller told me that.
"I began writing because I found myself possessed. I looked at what I wrote and I said 'How the hell did I do that?'
"We may all be possessed. I hope so."
He accepts the students' standing ovation with characteristic dignity and grace. Not a few tears flow from young people with the wisdom to appreciate what they are seeing. "If this isn't nice, we don't know what is."
Not long ago we spoke on the phone. I asked Kurt how he was. "Too fucking old," he replied.
Maybe so. But the mind and soul are still there, powerful and penetrating as ever. Just as they'll ever be in his books and stories and the precious records of his wonderful talks.
Thankfully, Kurt Vonnegut is still possessed by the genius of seeing and describing the world as only Kurt Vonnegut can.
He is still sharp and clear, full of love and life and light. May he be with us yet for a long long time to come.
Harvey Wasserman read CAT'S CRADLE, SIRENS OF TITAN and SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE in college, sought Boku-Maru, and has never been the same.
"What is flirtatiousness but an argument that life must go on and on and on?" - Jailbird p.24
"I still believe that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool." - Jailbird p.14
"This is my principal objection to life, I think: It is too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes." - Deadeye Dick p.6
"My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, and is embarrassed. But my meat just keeps right on doing bad, dumb things." - Bluebeard p.246
"What is literature but an insider's newsletter about affairs relating to molecules, of no importance to anything in the Universe but a few molecules who have the disease called 'thought'." - Bluebeard p.188
"Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?" - Bluebeard p.168
"Belief is nearly the whole of the Universe, whether based on truth or not." - Bluebeard p.144
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (George Santayana)
"I've got news for Mr. Santayana: we're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive." - Bluebeard p.91
"Time is liquid. One moment is no more important than any other and all moments quickly run away." - Bluebeard p.82
"Mere opinions, in fact, were as likely to govern people's actions as hard evidence, and were subject to sudden reversals as hard evidence could never be. So the Galapagos Islands could be hell in one moment and heaven in the next, and Julius Caesar could be a statesman in one moment and a butcher in the next, and Ecuadorian paper money could be traded for food, shelter, and clothing in one moment and line the bottom of a birdcage in the next, and the universe could be created by God Almighty in one moment and by a big explosion in the next--and on and on." - Galapagos
"Bergeron's epitaph for the planet, I remember, which he said should be carved in big letters in a wall of the Grand Canyon for the flying-saucer people to find, was this:
WE COULD HAVE SAVED IT BUT WE WERE TOO DOGGONE CHEAP
Only he didn't say 'doggone.'" - Hocus Pocus
"Me and Mike, ve vork in mine,
Holy shit, ve have good time.
Vunce a veek ve get our pay,
Holy shit, no vork next day." - Slaughterhouse-Five
"Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder 'why, why, why?'
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand." - Cat's Cradle"
We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.""If you really want to hurt your parents and you don't have nerve enough to be homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.""We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." - Mother Night
"History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.""Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous." - Slapstick
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
"The two prime movers in the Universe are Time and Luck."
"Roses are red and ready for plucking You're sixteen and ready for high school." - Breakfast of Champions
"I think William Shakespeare was the wisest human being I ever heard of. To be perfectly frank, though, that's not saying much. We are impossibly conceited animals, and actually dumb as heck. Ask any teacher. You don't even have to ask a teacher. Ask anybody. Dogs and cats are smarter than we are." - Hocus Pocus
"Pretend to be good always, and even God will be fooled."- God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
"We're not too young for love, just too young for about everything there is that goes with love.""Ideas or the lack of them can cause disease." - Breakfast of Champions
"Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery." - Breakfast of Champions
"There is no order in the world around us, we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead. It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done. - Breakfast of Champions
"Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty-three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules -- and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress." - Sirens of Titan
"Sometimes I think it is a great mistake to have matter that can think and feel. It complains so. By the same token, though, I suppose that boulders and mountains and moons could be accused of being a little too phlegmatic." - Sirens of Titan
"It is always pitiful when any human being falls into a condition hardly more respectable than that of an animal. How much more pitiful it is when the person who falls has had all the advantages!"- Sirens of Titan
"Son--they say there isn't any royalty in this country, but do you want me to tell you how to be king of the United States of America? Just fall through the hole in a privy and come out smelling like a rose."- Sirens of Titan
"The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart." - Sirens of Titan
"There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia." - Sirens of Titan
"Take Care of the People, and God Almighty Will Take Care of Himself."- Sirens of Titan
"Puny man can do nothing at all to help or please God Almighty, and Luck is not the hand of God." - Sirens of Titan"
A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved." - Sirens of Titan
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