Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut is in Heaven

If there is one thing I wish you all have the opportunity todo it is to meet your idol, or at the very least see them and hear them speakin person. I'm not talking about this week's musical "phenomenon" orlast week's winner of the big game. Those people are here one day and gone thenext, only to live forever as the answer to a trivia question or in the back pagesof an out of date record book. I'm also not talking about your loved ones, yourspouse, partner, or friends. True, they can and often are heroes in your life,but you interact with them every day, you are on familiar terms,you need and expect their support.

No, I'm talking about that one person outside of your circlethat may have influenced you deep inside, that made you think about things youhadn't before, that may have shown what was bad and what was good with theworld, that may have lifted up an ideal of something you wanted to aspire to.It may have been a teacher, a coach, an author, an artist, or, yes, I can thinkof a few, a musician. Whomever they may be knowing about them and what they didfilled you with such respect and awe that you said to yourself, "I want todo that. I want to be like them."

Last summer my son, Shaun, had the opportunity to see,listen to, and even meet for a few brief moments his idol, the author TerryPratchett.It was at NADWCON 2011 and it was great fun. I've written about it earlier in this blog. I won't do it again here. Just know I will never forget Shaun's face during that weekend.

I never got to meet Kurt Vonnegut but I did hear him speak. He came to the UW campus in 2003. The lecture was free and Union Theater was filled to capacity that night. My wife, Laurie, expressed some curiosity and came along. We found seats in the balcony in the middle of hundreds of college students. I found this encouraging that not only did they know him but were reading him as well. It was in college I first discovered him as well. It was wonderful to see that same appeal in the students around us.

It was noisy in the balcony. You might have thought we were waiting to see a rock star rather than an author. Then the lights dimmed and everyone got very quiet. I held my breath, and Kurt Vonnegut walked out on stage. There he was, a man, an author, who had spoken to me through his work for over 30 years. He did exist. He was real.

He walked to the edge of the stage, looked out over the audience, and said, "Wisconsin. Huh? I thought there'd be more blondes." And he smiled.

With that single comment he won over everyone in the house that night, devotees and skeptics, even my wife. We were in for an unforgettable evening. I still have the program from that night.

In looking for pictures for this post I stumble across something magnificent. It was an article Mr Vonnegut (what do you call your hero? I can't call him just Kurt) wrote for In These Times the day after he gave that speech in Madison. It contains a partial transcript of what he said the night we saw him. Reading it over I can picture so clearly again. It is here:

Amazing luck to find that today. Or was it luck?

Five years ago today he passed away. It bothered me a great deal then, and still does. Your heroes aren't supposed to die, they aren't supposed to be mortal just like me, they are above that. I miss his writing, his voice, his understanding, his anger. I believe reading his work, fiction and non-fiction, has made me a better writer and perhaps a better person.

In his talk in Madison he explained what it meant to be a Humanist and told us the funniest joke he knows.
"I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that functionless capacity. We Humanists try to behave well without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.
We had a memorial services for Isaac a few years back, and at one point I said, ''Isaac is up in Heaven now.'' It was the funniest thing I could have said to a group of Humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, ''Kurt is up in Heaven now.'' That’s my favorite joke."
 Kurt Vonnegut is in Heaven. It's selfish but I wish he was still here.

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