More to come tomorrow — including excerpts from a posthumously delivered commencement speech that I rank right up there with David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College Speech. Damn, dude could deliver lines. (Vonnegut, I mean — but obviously DFW, too.)
I won’t steal anyone’s thunder by quoting the entire thing (it’s rather long), but a few good chunks wouldn’t go amiss…
Kurt Vonnegut at Clowes Hall, Indianapolis, April 27, 2007
Listen, I studied Anthropology at the University of Chicago after the Second World War, the last one we ever won. And the physical anthropologists, who had studied human skulls going back thousands of years, said we were only supposed to live for thirty-five years or so because that’s how long our teeth lasted without modern dentistry. Weren’t those the good old days? Thirty-five years and we were out of here! Talk about intelligent design! Now all the Baby Boomers who can afford dentistry and health insurance—poor bastards—are going to live to be a hundred. Maybe we should outlaw dentistry. And maybe doctors should quit curing pneumonia, which used to be called “the old people’s friend.”
And there is certainly nothing new about a tragically and ferociously divided United States of America. And especially here in my native state of Indiana. When I was a kid here, this state had within its borders the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan and the site of the last lynching of an African-American citizen north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Marion, I think. But it also had and still has in Terre Haute, which now boasts a state-of-the-art lethal injection facility, the birthplace and home of the labor leader Eugene Debs. He lived from 1855 to 1926 and led a nation-wide strike against the railroads. He went to prison for a while because he opposed our entry into World War I. And he ran for president several times on the Socialist Party ticket, saying things like this: “While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. And while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Debs pretty much stole that from Jesus Christ, but it is so hard to be original. Tell me about it.
But seriously, my fellow Hoosiers, there’s good news and bad news tonight. This is the best of times and the worst of times. So what else is new? The bad news is that the Martians have landed in Manhattan and have checked in at the Waldorf Astoria. The good news is that they only eat homeless people of all colors, and they pee gasoline.
Am I religious? I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves Our Lady of Perpetual Consternation. We are as celibate as fifty percent of the heterosexual Roman Catholic clergy. Actually, and when I hold up my right hand like this, it means I’m not kidding, that I give my word of honor that what I’m about to say is true. So actually, I am Honorary President of the American Humanists Society, having succeeded the late great science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, in that utterly functionless capacity. We humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectations 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 don’t fear death, and neither should you. You know what Socrates said about death, in Greek of course? “Death is just one more night.”
Does this old poop have any advice for young people in times of such awful trouble? Well, I’m sure you know that our country is the only so-called advanced nation that still has a death penalty and torture chambers. I mean, why screw around? But listen, if anyone here should wind up on a gurney in a lethal injection facility, maybe the one in Terre Haute, here is what your last words should be: “This will certainly teach me a lesson.” If Jesus were alive today, we would kill him with lethal injection. I call that progress. We would have to kill him for the same reason he was killed the first time: His ideas are just too liberal.
My advice to writers just starting out? Don’t use semi-colons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, representing exactly nothing. All they do is suggest you might have gone to college.
And I think maybe we might be wise to stop bad-mouthing Communism so much. Not because we think it’s a bad idea but because our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are now in hock up to their eyeballs to the communist Chinese! And the Chinese communists also have a big and superbly equipped army, something we don’t have. We’re too cheap! We just want to nuke everybody.
You want to know something the great French writer Jean-Paul Sartre said one time? He said it in French of course: “Hell is other people.” He refused to accept a Nobel Prize. I could never be that rude. I was raised right by our African-American cook, whose name was Ida Young. During the Great Depression, African-American citizens were heard to say this, along with a lot of other stuff of course: “Things are so bad, white folks got to raise their own kids.”
The very best thing in life you can be is a teacher, provided you are in love with what you teach and that your classes consist of eighteen students or fewer. Classes of eighteen students or fewer are a family, and feel and act like one.
I consider anybody who borrows a book instead of buying it, or lends one, a twerp. When I was a student at Shortridge High School a million years ago, a twerp was defined as a guy who put a set of false teeth up his rear end and bit the buttons off the backseats of taxi cabs. But I hasten to say, should some impressionable young person here today, at loose ends or from a dysfunctional family, resolve to take a shot at being a real twerp tomorrow, that there are no longer buttons on the backseats of taxi cabs. Times change.
I asked Mark a while back what life was all about since I didn’t have a clue. He said, “Dad, we’re here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” Whatever it is. Whatever it is! Not bad. That one could be a keeper. And how should we behave during this apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another certainly, but we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog if you don’t already have one. I myself just got a dog. It’s a new cross-breed. It’s half French poodle and half Chinese shitzu. It’s a “shit poo.” And I thank you for your attention. And I am outta here.