“The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.”
— Albert Einstein (via reluctantbuddha)
— Albert Einstein (via reluctantbuddha)
My Dear Mother Horakova,
I kiss your hands—Mother of seven sorrows. I am sure you don’t know how often I thought about you, how often I stood in front of you asking your forgiveness, for I know I am guilty of many wrongs toward you. You are a model of sacrifice and patience, with a heart overflowing with goodness. What all came over you, and how little did the sun of happiness shine in your life! You, the embodiment of service, of service to others, in your modesty did not even notice that you were only giving, that you were giving your self along with all that care. You never asked what the others were bringing you. You were a private [i.e., soldier] of love, who only fought for the happiness of others and was not even awarded a medal for bravery. And it was and is so necessary in your life, so that you could again stand on your feet and fight for a better life, not for yourself, but for others.
This is the second time that in my heart I am asking your forgiveness. The first time it was in the fortress casemates of Terezin, almost on the threshold of certain destruction, that I realized that I did not know how to love you enough. And it was not for reasons stemming from you—I was spiritually so poor that I could not perceive that special tone of the keyboard of your character. And yet one could hear it so well. I had my ears closed by pride, jealousy and selfishness. You, dear mother, gave me from the small bundle of your personal happiness the most valuable gem, your only son Bohuslav. And you wanted nothing in return, only a little personal recognition and my permission for you to enjoy and adorn yourself with that gem. And in my young, self-assured pride, in my thoughtless competition of young, easily victorious womanhood, I was so selfish that I did not even want to let you have that little joy which you wanted for yourself. I began to compete where there was no reason to compete, for you did not want to deprive me of Bohuslav’s love And so, during all the twenty-three years of my life with Bohuslav, I somehow remained distant from you, maminko. It is a great shame, and I am telling myself this for the second time, that it took such a great trial from God for that realization, and it was not only a loss for you, it was for me also. Your dear son also suffered because of our distant relationship, for he loved both of us fervently, although each of us differently. His beautiful heart was so rich in goodness and love that I really should have been glad for you to have all he wanted to give you. And just at the time before my arrest, when Father Horak died, I was jealous and unkind to you. I thereby hurt you and Bohuslav. It was very wrong, and I am very much ashamed of myself I was so proud and naively selfish. I felt uncomfortable because when Father Horak was dying, the two of you stayed alone with your sorrow, you did not ask me to be with you. And why should you have called me? Should I not have asked you to let me be with you? Should I not have been with you as a matter of course, just as Bohuslav always was with me when I went through difficult times … without being asked? Maminko, this is my great pain with regard to you and Bohuslav, and I have to confess it to you today, when there must not be forgiveness; your kind soul already has forgiven me… .
In my mind I also have been talking to Father Horak. I was glad that his death came when he was happy and comfortable, while you have to carry a cross to Golgotha. I asked him also to forgive me in his eternal abode, and I recognized that his criticisms of me were partly justified. It is true that he often wronged and hurt me, but it seems that he felt that I have certain traits of character which will cost his son sue much pain and sorrow… . And I reacted to his correct instinct with proud and self-assured rejection, and I became obstinate when he was guilty of a wrong toward me. I needed even more humility, and therefore this test had to come. But it is tragic that you and Bohuslav again have to suffer for my correct comprehension of things. But I know that you can get up again after falling under the weight of the cross. I know that you will be victorious over your Golgotha, for you have the most powerful faith and shield. Maminko, I have it too… . Therefore you perhaps more than anybody else will believe, if I say in do the words of the psalm: And though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me. You have no idea how pleased I was when my legal representative informed me that the pastor of the Protestant Congregation expressed his willingness to accompany me and to strengthen me spiritually in the hours which are awaiting me. The authorities will be asked for their permission, but even if they should not give it, the very fact that he wanted to do so strengthens and comforts me; please give him my deep thanks. I know that you are praying for me and that you prayed especially today. Continue to pray, my prayers are with you. I asked to be at least given the Kralicka Bible and I was promised it. Of course, I don’t know if they have anything like that here. Maminko, in your sorrow in which we both are alone, all of our, my, jealousies have vanished. I think I know how hard it is for you, and because you know what my and ci Bohuslav’s love was like, you know that today my heart suffers no less than yours. And yet we have not lost him. Whether he is alive anywhere, or perhaps dead, in his heart he has not stopped loving both of us, each in a different way-and I am really not jealous any more that he loves both of us. I have one request: spend a lot of time with Janinka. You know how much she loves you, and perhaps you will find your son in her.
My only little girl Jana, God blessed my life as a woman with you. As your father wrote in the poem from a German prison, God gave you to us because he loved us. Apart from your father’s magic, amazing love you were the greatest gift I received from fate. However, Providence planned my life in such a way that I could not give you nearly all that my mind and my heart had prepared for you. The reason was not that I loved you little; I love you just as purely and fervently as other mothers love their children. But I understood that my task here in the world was to do you good … by seeing to it that life becomes better, and that all children can live well. And therefore … we often had to be apart for a long time. It is now already for the second time that Fate has torn us apart. Don’t be frightened and sad because I am not coming back any more. Learn, my child, to look at life early as a serious matter. Life is hard, it does not pamper anybody, and for every time it strokes you it gives you ten blows. Become accustomed to that soon, but don’t let it defeat you. Decide to fight. Have courage and clear goals and you will win over life. Much is still unclear to your young mind, and I don’t have time left to explain to you things you would still like to ask me. One day, when you grow up, you will wonder and wonder, why your mother who loved you and whose greatest gift you were, managed her life so strangely. Perhaps then you will find the right solution to this problem, perhaps a better one than I could give you today myself. Of course, you will only be able to solve it correctly and truthfully by knowing very, very much. Not only from books, but from people; learn from everybody, no matter how unimportant! Go through the world with open eyes, and listen not only to your own pains and interests, but also to the pains, interests and longings of others. Don’t ever think of anything as none of your business. No, everything must interest you, and you should reflect about everything, compare, compose individual phenomena. Man doesn’t live in the world alone; in that there is great happiness, but also a tremendous responsibility. That obligation is first of all in not being and not acting exclusive, but rather merging with the needs and the goals of others. This does not mean to be lost in [the multitude, but it is] to know that I am part of all, and to bring one’s best into that community. If you do that, you will succeed in contributing to the common goals of human society. Be more aware of one principle than I have been: approach everything in life constructively—beware of unnecessary negation—I am not saying all negation, because I believe that one should resist evil. But in order to be a truly positive person in all circumstances, one has to learn how to distinguish real gold from tinsel. It is hard, because tinsel sometimes glitters so dazzlingly. I confess, my child, that often in my life I was dazzled by glitter. And sometimes it even shone so falsely, that one dropped pure gold from one’s hand and reached for, or ran after, false gold. You know that to organize one’s scale of values well means to know not only oneself well, to be firm in the analysis of one’s character, but mainly to know the others, to know as much of the world as possible, its past, present, and future development. Well, in short, to know, to understand. Not to close one’s eats before anything and for no reason-not even to shut out the thoughts and opinions of anybody who stepped on my toes, or even wounded me deeply. Examine, think, criticize, yes, mainly criticize yourself don’t be ashamed to admit a truth you have come to realize, even if you proclaimed the opposite a little while ago; don’t become obstinate about your opinions, but when you come to consider something right, then be so definite that you can fight and die for it. As Wolker said, death is not bad. Just avoid gradual dying which is what happens when one suddenly finds oneself apart from the real life of the others. You have to put down your roots where fate determined for you to live. You have to find your own way. Look for it independently, don’t let anything turn you away from it, not even the memory of your mother and father. If you really love them, you won’t hurt them by seeing them critically—just don’t go on a road which is wrong, dishonest and does not harmonize with life. I have changed my mind many times, rearranged many values, but, what was left as an essential value, without which I cannot imagine my life, is the freedom of my conscience. I would like you, my little girl, to think about whether I was right.
Another value is work. I don’t know which to assign the first place and which the second… . Learn to love work! Any work, but one you have to know really and thoroughly. Then don’t be afraid of any thing, and things will turn out well for you.
And don’t forget about love in your life. I am not only thinking of the red blossom which one day will bloom in your heart, and you, if fate favors you, will find a similar one in the heart of another person with whose road yours will merge. I am thinking of love without which one cannot live happily. And don’t ever crumble love—learn to give it whole and really. And learn to love precisely those who encourage love so little—then you won’t usually make a mistake. My little girl Jana, when you will be choosing for whom your maiden heart shall burn and to whom to really give yourself remember your father.
I don’t know if you will meet with such luck as I, I don’t know if you will meet such a beautiful human being, but choose your ideal close to him. Perhaps you, my little one, have already begun to understand, and now perhaps you understand to the point of pain what we have lost in him. What I find hardest to bear is that I am also guilty of that loss.
Be conscious of the great love and sacrifice Pepik and Veruska are bringing you. You not only have to be grateful to them … you must help them build your common happiness positively, constructively. Always want to give them more for the good they do for you. Then perhaps you will be able to come to terms with their gentle goodness.
I heard from my legal representative that you are doing well in school, and that you want to continue … I was very pleased. But even if you would one day have to leave school and to work for your livelihood, don’t stop learning and studying. If you really want to, you will reach your goal. I would have liked for you to become a medical doctor—you remember that we talked about it. Of course you will decide yourself and circumstances will, too. But if you stand one day in the traditional alma mater and carry home from graduation not only your doctor’s diploma, but also the real ability to bring people relief as a doctor—then, my little girl … your mother will be immensely pleased…But your mother would only be … truly happy, no matter where you stand, whether at the operating table, at the … lathe, at your child’s cradle or at the work table in your household, if you will do your work skillfully, honestly, happily and with your whole being. Then you will be successful in it. Don’t be demanding in life, but have high goals. They are not exclusive of each other, for what I call demanding are those selfish notions and needs. Restrict them yourself. Realize that in view of the disaster and sorrow which happened to you, Vera, Pepicek, grandmother and grandfather … and many others will try to give you what they have and what they cannot afford. You should not only not ask them for it, but learn to be modest. If you become used to it, you will not be unhappy because of material things you don’t have. You don’t know how free one feels if one trains oneself in modesty … how he/she gets a head start over against the feeble and by how much one is safer and stronger. I really tried this out on myself And, if you can thus double your strength, you can set yourself courageous, high goals … Read much, and study languages. You will thereby broaden your life and multiply its content. There was a time in my life when I read voraciously, and then again times when work did not permit me to take a single book in my hand, apart from professional literature. That was a shame. Here in recent months I have been reading a lot, even books which probably would not interest me outside, but it is a big and important task to read everything valuable, or at least much that is. I shall write down for you at the end of this letter what I have read in recent months. I am sure you will think of me when you will be reading it.
And now also something for your body. I am glad that you are engaged in sports. Just do it systematically. I think that there should be rhythmic exercises, and if you have time, also some good, systematic gymnastics. And those quarter hours every morning! Believe me finally that it would save you a lot of annoyance about unfavorable proportions of your waist, if you could really do it. It is also good for the training of your will and perseverance. Also take care of your complexion regularly-I do not mean makeup, God forbid, but healthy daily care. And love your neck and feet as you do your face and lips. A brush has to be your good friend, every day, and not only for your hands and feet; use it on every little bit of your skin. Salicyl alcohol and Fennydin, that is enough for beauty, and then air and sun. But about that you will find better advisors than I am.
Your photograph showed me your new hairdo; it looks good, but isn’t it a shame [to hide] your nice forehead? And that lady in the ball gown! Really, you looked lovely, but your mother’s eye noticed one fault, which may be due to the way you were placed on the photograph—wasn’t the neck opening a little deep for your sixteen years? I am sorry I did not see the photo of your new winter coat. Did you use the muff from your aunt as a fur collar? Don’t primp, but whenever possible, dress carefully and neatly. And don’t wear shoes until they arc run down at the heel! Are you wearing innersoles? And how is your thyroid gland? These questions don’t, of course, require an answer, they are only meant as your mother’s reminders.
In Leipzig in prison I read a book—the letters of Maria Theresa [The Austrian Empress] to her daughter Marie Antoinette. I was very much impressed with how this ruler showed herself to be practical and feminine in her advice to her daughter. It was a German original, and I don’t remember the name of the author. If you ever see that book, remember that I made up my mind at that time that I would also write you such letters about my experiences and advice. Unfortunately I did not get beyond good intentions.
Janinko, please take good care of Grandfather Kral and Grandmother Horakova. Their old hearts now need the most consolation. Visit them often and let them tell you about your father’s and mother’s youth, so that you can preserve it in your mind for your children. In that way an individual becomes immortal, and we shall continue in you and in the others of your blood.
And one more thing—music. I believe that you will show your gratitude to Grandfather Horak for the piano which he gave you by practicing honestly, and that you will succeed in what Pepik wants so much, in accompanying him when he plays the violin or the viola. Please, do him that favor. I know that it would mean a lot to him, and it would be beautiful. And when you can play well together, play me the aria fromMartha :6 “My rose, you bloom alone there on the hillside,” and then: “Sleep my little prince” by Mozart, and then your father’s [favorite] largo: ” Under your window” by Chopin. You will play it for me, won’t you? I shall always be listening to you.
Just one more thing: Choose your friends carefully. Among other things one is also very much determined by the people with whom one associates. Therefore choose very carefully. Be careful in every-thing and listen to the opinions of others about your girlfriends without being told. I shall never forget your charming letter (today I can tell you) which you once in the evening pinned to my pillow, to apologize when I caught you for the first time at the gate in the company of a girl and a boy. You explained to me at that time why it is necessary to have a gang. Have your gang, little girl, but of good and clean young people. And compete with each other in everything good. Only please don’t confuse young people’s springtime infatuation with real love. Do you understand me? If you don’t, aunt Vera will help you explain what I meant. And so, my only young daughter, little girl Jana, new life, my hope, my future forgiveness, live! Grasp life with both hands! Until my last breath I shall pray for your happiness, my dear child!
I kiss your hair, eyes and mouth, I stroke you and hold you in my arms (I really held you so little.) I shall always be with you. I am concluding by copying from memory the poem which your father composed for you in jail in 1940.
My dearest husband,
Until the 27th of September of last year, all of the almost 26 year’s that we loved each other this verse of your poem counted for us. Then things changed so suddenly and tragically. I am writing to you as I am to all the others and I don’t even know if you arc alive, and if it is even possible for you to read these words… . That is the greatest pain of my heart, that … I don’t have any news about you, not even sad ones, and perhaps only a few hours of my life remain. It is the first time in the long years of our life together that I face the test which fate assigned to me without you. I am so alone. and I do not understand anything about this tragedy. Perhaps it will become clear to me when our souls meet again. I only know and feel one thing: that with your great love it is not possible that you left me. But however that may be, my dear I want to tell you: I already wrote you one letter on the threshold between life and death—in 1944 after the verdict of the Volksgericht in Dresden. I am happy that I do not have to revoke any of it, not a word. On the contrary, the happiness of our great, enchanted love has become more solid when we met again after our return from jail … You were the greatest love of my life—through you I have encountered so many heights of human feeling, crystalline like a jewel, that this unusual, uncommon earthly love between two people could not end in an ordinary way. You know it, I don’t need to tell you about it. Do you remember that quiet evening last August, on a Saturday, when the two of us sat together in the kitchen, when the rain was murmuring in the leaves of the trees in the garden of our apartment? We were drinking tea, I was talking to you and you were listening? … I was confessing something to you from my heart. It seems that I, such a tough person, started to cry. You were silent, you kissed me and only looked at me. I told you that I know that I often sin against the goodness of your heart, I told you what you have meant to me, I asked you to forgive me if I neglected you because of my other interests. I spoke to you about strength, and about my genuine love for you. Was the discussion of that night which ended with you putting me gently on the bed, was that discussion perhaps a fateful anticipation of this letter which will never reach you? It seems to me that that is so. And therefore, even if you should not read these lines, I am certain that you know what I want to say to you. You know: I was your lover more than your wife, for a wife I lacked the necessary feeling for the exclusiveness of her tasks. I had my wings spread, and you did not keep me from flying even at the expense of your personal happiness. I had in you a perfect husband and pal who never indiscreetly pushed his way into the depth of my soul. You were so self-controlled in everything, you always stood above situations when the two of us were concerned. You are the only person in the world of whom I could believe that he understands me. I would like to be convinced that I can count on you to understand me even today. But I do not understand one thing: Why did you leave our child? In my question there is no reproach, my dear, it is only astonishment about something incomprehensible. I am all yours, as you know me, I remained faithful to our love, to you and to myself If I leave before you do, it is only to wait for you patiently. Our love will even overcome the physical change, and it is a consolation to me that I shall always be able to be close to you spiritually. When the last hour comes, I won’t be without you, you will stand next to me in the words of your poems which I shall be saying to myself… . [There follows a long poem which is a confession of love to her. She ends her letter to him:] I kiss you, my husband, I press your hands, pal. If you are alive, I wish you a long and happy life. Solve your life’s problems so as to be able to live fully … Your M.
[At 2.30 in the morning of June 27, 1950, the day Milada was executed, she wrote once more to all her loved ones, ending with the words:]
and you my wandering, dear, only, beautiful husband! I feel that you are standing before me. Now we hold hands once more, firmly. The birds are waking up, it is becoming light. I go with my head held high. One also has to know how to lose. That is no disgrace. An enemy also does not lose honor if he is truthful and honorable. One falls in battle; what is life other than struggle? Be well. I am yours, only yours, Milada.
[Her final letter, written to her family just before her execution:]
Don’t feel sorry for me! I lived a beautiful life. I accept my punishment with resignation and submit to it humbly. My conscience is clear and I hope and believe and pray that I shall also pass the test of the highest court, of God.
"Do not despise your inner world. That is the first and most general piece of advice I would offer… Our society is very outward-looking, very taken up with the latest new object, the latest piece of gossip, the latest opportunity for self-assertion and status. But we all begin our lives as helpless babies, dependent on others for comfort, food, and survival itself. And even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve. As we grow, we all develop a wide range of emotions responding to this predicament: fear that bad things will happen and that we will be powerless to ward them off; love for those who help and support us; grief when a loved one is lost; hope for good things in the future; anger when someone else damages something we care about. Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions, and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them. Perhaps males, in our society, are especially likely to be ashamed of being incomplete and dependent, because a dominant image of masculinity tells them that they should be self-sufficient and dominant. So people flee from their inner world of feeling, and from articulate mastery of their own emotional experiences. The current psychological literature on the life of boys in America indicates that a large proportion of boys are quite unable to talk about how they feel and how others feel — because they have learned to be ashamed of feelings and needs, and to push them underground. But that means that they don’t know how to deal with their own emotions, or to communicate them to others. When they are frightened, they don’t know how to say it, or even to become fully aware of it. Often they turn their own fear into aggression. Often, too, this lack of a rich inner life catapults them into depression in later life. We are all going to encounter illness, loss, and aging, and we’re not well prepared for these inevitable events by a culture that directs us to think of externals only, and to measure ourselves in terms of our possessions of externals.
What is the remedy of these ills? A kind of self-love that does not shrink from the needy and incomplete parts of the self, but accepts those with interest and curiosity, and tries to develop a language with which to talk about needs and feelings. Storytelling plays a big role in the process of development. As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves. As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories — in literature, film, visual art, music — that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world. So my second piece of advice, closely related to the first, is: Read a lot of stories, listen to a lot of music, and think about what the stories you encounter mean for your own life and lives of those you love. In that way, you will not be alone with an empty self; you will have a newly rich life with yourself, and enhanced possibilities of real communication with others.”
"It would take a denial of all cultural tradition for a woman to produce even a true ‘female’ art. For a woman who participates in (male) culture must achieve and be rated by standards of a tradition she had no part in making - and certainly there is no room in that tradition for a female view, even if shecould discover what it was. In those cases where a woman, tired of losing at a male game, has attempted to participate in culture in a female way, she has been put down and misunderstood, named by the (male) cultural establishment ‘Lady Artist’, ie: trivial, inferior. And even where it must be (grudgingly) admitted she is ‘good’, it is fashionable - a cheap way to indicate one’s own ‘seriousness’ and refinement of taste- to insinuate that she is good but irrelevant.” — Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex
I struggle with being a queer hapa in academia and media creator outside of it (i guess my writing and visibility is activism in and of itself) and I still get a lot of questions about how to be a “good feminist” or whatever, a “good ally” to such and such, and how to you know, apply feminist ideology to actual real life. Here are some great tips from a book I just read, Feminism for real: Deconstructing the academic industrial complex of feminism. The whole point of the book is to have an accessible, but progressive discussion about the pitfalls (and good things) about academia in terms of feminist politics and indigenous peoples and it was a quick and easy read. I thought the tips would be super helpful.
Please buy the book!! It’s very good.
Tips for respecting children’s spaces, competence, and general existence from a preschool teacher:
You’ve probably already read this or have at least been urged to read it, but this New Yorker piece by Roger Angell about growing old is lovely, moving, and insightful. Set aside 15 minutes of your day to read it; it’s worth it.
"Most of the people my age is dead. You could look it up" was the…
"Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.
Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.
I’m ninety-three, and I’m feeling great. Well, pretty great, unless I’ve forgotten to take a couple of Tylenols in the past four or five hours, in which case I’ve begun to feel some jagged little pains shooting down my left forearm and into the base of the thumb. Shingles, in 1996, with resultant nerve damage.
Like many men and women my age, I get around with a couple of arterial stents that keep my heart chunking. I also sport a minute plastic seashell that clamps shut a congenital hole in my heart, discovered in my early eighties. The surgeon at Mass General who fixed up this PFO (a patent foramen ovale—I love to say it) was a Mexican-born character actor in beads and clogs, and a fervent admirer of Derek Jeter. Counting this procedure and the stents, plus a passing balloon angioplasty and two or three false alarms, I’ve become sort of a table potato, unalarmed by the X-ray cameras swooping eerily about just above my naked body in a darkened and icy operating room; there’s also a little TV screen up there that presents my heart as a pendant ragbag attached to tacky ribbons of veins and arteries. But never mind. Nowadays, I pop a pink beta-blocker and a white statin at breakfast, along with several lesser pills, and head off to my human-wreckage gym, and it’s been a couple of years since the last showing.
My left knee is thicker but shakier than my right. I messed it up playing football, eons ago, but can’t remember what went wrong there more recently. I had a date to have the joint replaced by a famous knee man (he’s listed in the Metropolitan Opera program as a major supporter) but changed course at the last moment, opting elsewhere for injections of synthetic frog hair or rooster combs or something, which magically took away the pain. I walk around with a cane now when outdoors—“Stop brandishing!” I hear my wife, Carol, admonishing—which gives me a nice little edge when hailing cabs.
The lower-middle sector of my spine twists and jogs like a Connecticut county road, thanks to a herniated disk seven or eight years ago. This has cost me two or three inches of height, transforming me from Gary Cooper to Geppetto. After days spent groaning on the floor, I received a blessed epidural, ending the ordeal. “You can sit up now,” the doctor said, whisking off his shower cap. “Listen, do you know who Dominic Chianese is?”
“Isn’t that Uncle Junior?” I said, confused. “You know—from ‘The Sopranos’?”
“Yes,” he said. “He and I play in a mandolin quartet every Wednesday night at the Hotel Edison. Do you think you could help us get a listing in the front of The New Yorker?”
I’ve endured a few knocks but missed worse. I know how lucky I am, and secretly tap wood, greet the day, and grab a sneaky pleasure from my survival at long odds. The pains and insults are bearable. My conversation may be full of holes and pauses, but I’ve learned to dispatch a private Apache scout ahead into the next sentence, the one coming up, to see if there are any vacant names or verbs in the landscape up there. If he sends back a warning, I’ll pause meaningfully, duh, until something else comes to mind.
On the other hand, I’ve not yet forgotten Keats or Dick Cheney or what’s waiting for me at the dry cleaner’s today. As of right now, I’m not Christopher Hitchens or Tony Judt or Nora Ephron; I’m not dead and not yet mindless in a reliable upstate facility. Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don’t linger there. It shouldn’t surprise me if at this time next week I’m surrounded by family, gathered on short notice—they’re sad and shocked but also a little pissed off to be here—to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now. It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. “How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!” they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little balloon over their heads reads, “Holy shit—he’s still vertical!”
Let’s move on. A smooth fox terrier of ours named Harry was full of surprises. Wildly sociable, like others of his breed, he grew a fraction more reserved in maturity, and learned to cultivate a separate wagging acquaintance with each fresh visitor or old pal he came upon in the living room. If friends had come for dinner, he’d arise from an evening nap and leisurely tour the table in imitation of a three-star headwaiter: Everything O.K. here? Is there anything we could bring you? How was the crème brûlée? Terriers aren’t water dogs, but Harry enjoyed kayaking in Maine, sitting like a figurehead between my knees for an hour or more and scoping out the passing cormorant or yachtsman. Back in the city, he established his personality and dashing good looks on the neighborhood to the extent that a local artist executed a striking head-on portrait in pointillist oils, based on a snapshot of him she’d sneaked in Central Park. Harry took his leave (another surprise) on a June afternoon three years ago, a few days after his eighth birthday. Alone in our fifth-floor apartment, as was usual during working hours, he became unhinged by a noisy thunderstorm and went out a front window left a quarter open on a muggy day. I knew him well and could summon up his feelings during the brief moments of that leap: the welcome coolness of rain on his muzzle and shoulders, the excitement of air and space around his outstretched body.
Here in my tenth decade, I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news. Living long means enough already. When Harry died, Carol and I couldn’t stop weeping; we sat in the bathroom with his retrieved body on a mat between us, the light-brown patches on his back and the near-black of his ears still darkened by the rain, and passed a Kleenex box back and forth between us. Not all the tears were for him. Two months earlier, a beautiful daughter of mine, my oldest child, had ended her life, and the oceanic force and mystery of that event had not left full space for tears. Now we could cry without reserve, weep together for Harry and Callie and ourselves. Harry cut us loose.
A few notes about age is my aim here, but a little more about loss is inevitable. “Most of the people my age is dead. You could look it up” was the way Casey Stengel put it. He was seventy-five at the time, and contemporary social scientists might prefer Casey’s line delivered at eighty-five now, for accuracy, but the point remains. We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. It’s no wonder we’re a bit bent. The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming. The dead have departed, but gestures and glances and tones of voice of theirs, even scraps of clothing—that pale-yellow Saks scarf—reappear unexpectedly, along with accompanying touches of sweetness or irritation.
Our dead are almost beyond counting and we want to herd them along, pen them up somewhere in order to keep them straight. I like to think of mine as fellow-voyagers crowded aboard the Île de France (the idea is swiped from “Outward Bound”). Here’s my father, still handsome in his tuxedo, lighting a Lucky Strike. There’s Ted Smith, about to name-drop his Gloucester home town again. Here comes Slim Aarons. Here’s Esther Mae Counts, from fourth grade: hi, Esther Mae. There’s Gardner—with Cecille Shawn, for some reason. Here’s Ted Yates. Anna Hamburger. Colba F. Gucker, better known as Chief. Bob Ascheim. Victor Pritchett—and Dorothy. Henry Allen. Bart Giamatti. My elder old-maid cousin Jean Webster and her unexpected, late-arriving Brit husband, Capel Hanbury. Kitty Stableford. Dan Quisenberry. Nancy Field. Freddy Alexandre. I look around for others and at times can almost produce someone at will. Callie returns, via a phone call. “Dad?” It’s her, all right, her voice affectionately rising at the end—“Da-ad?”—but sounding a bit impatient this time. She’s in a hurry. And now Harold Eads. Toni Robin. Dick Salmon, his face bright red with laughter. Edith Oliver. Sue Dawson. Herb Mitgang. Coop. Tudie. Elwood Carter.
These names are best kept in mind rather than boxed and put away somewhere. Old letters are engrossing but feel historic in numbers, photo albums delightful but with a glum after-kick like a chocolate caramel. Home movies are killers: Zeke, a long-gone Lab, alive again, rushing from right to left with a tennis ball in his mouth; my sister Nancy, stunning at seventeen, smoking a lipstick-stained cigarette aboard Astrid, with the breeze stirring her tied-up brown hair; my mother laughing and ducking out of the picture again, waving her hands in front of her face in embarrassment—she’s about thirty-five. Me sitting cross-legged under a Ping-Pong table, at eleven. Take us away.
My list of names is banal but astounding, and it’s barely a fraction, the ones that slip into view in the first minute or two. Anyone over sixty knows this; my list is only longer. I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting. Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?
What I’ve come to count on is the white-coated attendant of memory, silently here again to deliver dabs from the laboratory dish of me. In the days before Carol died, twenty months ago, she lay semiconscious in bed at home, alternating periods of faint or imperceptible breathing with deep, shuddering catch-up breaths. Then, in a delicate gesture, she would run the pointed tip of her tongue lightly around the upper curve of her teeth. She repeated this pattern again and again. I’ve forgotten, perhaps mercifully, much of what happened in that last week and the weeks after, but this recurs.
Carol is around still, but less reliably. For almost a year, I would wake up from another late-afternoon mini-nap in the same living-room chair, and, in the instants before clarity, would sense her sitting in her own chair, just opposite. Not a ghost but a presence, alive as before and in the same instant gone again. This happened often, and I almost came to count on it, knowing that it wouldn’t last. Then it stopped.
People my age and younger friends as well seem able to recall entire tapestries of childhood, and swatches from their children’s early lives as well: conversations, exact meals, birthday parties, illnesses, picnics, vacation B. and B.s, trips to the ballet, the time when . . . I can’t do this and it eats at me, but then, without announcement or connection, something turns up. I am walking on Ludlow Lane, in Snedens, with my two young daughters, years ago on a summer morning. I’m in my late thirties; they’re about nine and six, and I’m complaining about the steep little stretch of road between us and our house, just up the hill. Maybe I’m getting old, I offer. Then I say that one day I’ll be really old and they’ll have to hold me up. I imitate an old man mumbling nonsense and start to walk with wobbly legs. Callie and Alice scream with laughter and hold me up, one on each side. When I stop, they ask for more, and we do this over and over.
I’m leaving out a lot, I see. My work— I’m still working, or sort of. Reading. The collapsing, grossly insistent world. Stuff I get excited about or depressed about all the time. Dailiness—but how can I explain this one? Perhaps with a blog recently posted on Facebook by a woman I know who lives in Australia. “Good Lord, we’ve run out of nutmeg!” it began. “How in the world did that ever happen?” Dozens of days are like that with me lately.
Intimates and my family—mine not very near me now but always on call, always with me. My children Alice and John Henry and my daughter-in-law Alice—yes, another one—and my granddaughters Laura and Lily and Clara, who together and separately were as steely and resplendent as a company of Marines on the day we buried Carol. And on other days and in other ways as well. Laura, for example, who will appear almost overnight, on demand, to drive me and my dog and my stuff five hundred miles Down East, then does it again, backward, later in the summer. Hours of talk and sleep (mine, not hers) and renewal—the abandoned mills at Lawrence, Mass., Cat Mousam Road, the Narramissic River still there—plus a couple of nights together, with the summer candles again.
Friends in great numbers now, taking me to dinner or cooking in for me. (One afternoon, I found a freshly roasted chicken sitting outside my front door; two hours later, another one appeared in the same spot.) Friends inviting me to the opera, or to Fairway on Sunday morning, or to dine with their kids at the East Side Deli, or to a wedding at the Rockbound Chapel, or bringing in ice cream to share at my place while we catch another Yankees game. They saved my life. In the first summer after Carol had gone, a man I’d known slightly and pleasantly for decades listened while I talked about my changed routines and my doctors and dog walkers and the magazine. I paused for a moment, and he said, “Plus you have us.”
Another message—also brief, also breathtaking—came on an earlier afternoon at my longtime therapist’s, at a time when I felt I’d lost almost everything. “I don’t know how I’m going to get through this,” I said at last.
A silence, then: “Neither do I. But you will.”
I am a world-class complainer but find palpable joy arriving with my evening Dewar’s, from Robinson Cano between pitches, from the first pages once again of “Appointment in Samarra” or the last lines of the Elizabeth Bishop poem called “Poem.” From the briefest strains of Handel or Roy Orbison, or Dennis Brain playing the early bars of his stunning Mozart horn concertos. (This Angel recording may have been one of the first things Carol and I acquired just after our marriage, and I hear it playing on a sunny Saturday morning in our Ninety-fourth Street walkup.) Also the recalled faces and then the names of Jean Dixon or Roscoe Karns or Porter Hall or Brad Dourif in another Netflix rerun. Chloë Sevigny in “Trees Lounge.” Gail Collins on a good day. Family ice-skating up near Harlem in the nineteen-eighties, with the Park employees, high on youth or weed, looping past us backward to show their smiles.
Recent and not so recent surveys (including the six-decades-long Grant Study of the lives of some nineteen-forties Harvard graduates) confirm that a majority of us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness. Put me on that list. Our children are adults now and mostly gone off, and let’s hope full of their own lives. We’ve outgrown our ambitions. If our wives or husbands are still with us, we sense a trickle of contentment flowing from the reliable springs of routine, affection in long silences, calm within the light boredom of well-worn friends, retold stories, and mossy opinions. Also the distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise outside our night windows.
We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.
I’ve been asking myself why I don’t think about my approaching visitor, death. He was often on my mind thirty or forty years ago, I believe, though more of a stranger. Death terrified me then, because I had so many engagements. The enforced opposite—no dinner dates or coming attractions, no urgent business, no fun, no calls, no errands, no returned words or touches—left a blank that I could not light or furnish: a condition I recognized from childhood bad dreams and sudden awakenings. Well, not yet, not soon, or probably not, I would console myself, and that welcome but then tediously repeated postponement felt in time less like a threat than like a family obligation—tea with Aunt Molly in Montclair, someday soon but not now. Death, meanwhile, was constantly onstage or changing costume for his next engagement—as Bergman’s thick-faced chess player; as the medieval night-rider in a hoodie; as Woody Allen’s awkward visitor half-falling into the room as he enters through the window; as W. C. Fields’s man in the bright nightgown—and in my mind had gone from spectre to a waiting second-level celebrity on the Letterman show. Or almost. Some people I knew seemed to have lost all fear when dying and awaited the end with a certain impatience. “I’m tired of lying here,” said one. “Why is this taking so long?” asked another. Death will get it on with me eventually, and stay much too long, and though I’m in no hurry about the meeting, I feel I know him almost too well by now.
A weariness about death exists in me and in us all in another way, as well, though we scarcely notice it. We have become tireless voyeurs of death: he is on the morning news and the evening news and on the breaking, middle-of–the-day news as well—not the celebrity death, I mean, but the everyone-else death. A roadside-accident figure, covered with a sheet. A dead family, removed from a ramshackle faraway building pocked and torn by bullets. The transportation dead. The dead in floods and hurricanes and tsunamis, in numbers called “tolls.” The military dead, presented in silence on your home screen, looking youthful and well combed. The enemy war dead or rediscovered war dead, in higher figures. Appalling and dulling totals not just from this year’s war but from the ones before that, and the ones way back that some of us still around may have also attended. All the dead from wars and natural events and school shootings and street crimes and domestic crimes that each of us has once again escaped and felt terrible about and plans to go and leave wreaths or paper flowers at the site of. There’s never anything new about death, to be sure, except its improved publicity. At second hand, we have become death’s expert witnesses; we know more about death than morticians, feel as much at home with it as those poor bygone schlunks trying to survive a continent-ravaging, low-digit-century epidemic. Death sucks but, enh—click the channel.
I get along. Now and then it comes to me that I appear to have more energy and hope than some of my coevals, but I take no credit for this. I don’t belong to a book club or a bridge club; I’m not taking up Mandarin or practicing the viola. In a sporadic effort to keep my brain from moldering, I’ve begun to memorize shorter poems—by Auden, Donne, Ogden Nash, and more—which I recite to myself some nights while walking my dog, Harry’s successor fox terrier, Andy. I’ve also become a blogger, and enjoy the ease and freedom of the form: it’s a bit like making a paper airplane and then watching it take wing below your window. But shouldn’t I have something more scholarly or complex than this put away by now—late paragraphs of accomplishments, good works, some weightier op cits? I’m afraid not. The thoughts of age are short, short thoughts. I don’t read Scripture and cling to no life precepts, except perhaps to Walter Cronkite’s rules for old men, which he did not deliver over the air: Never trust a fart. Never pass up a drink. Never ignore an erection.
I count on jokes, even jokes about death.
Teacher: Good morning, class. This is the first day of school and we’re going to introduce ourselves. I’ll call on you, one by one, and you can tell us your name and maybe what your dad or your mom does for a living. You, please, over at this end.
Small Boy: My name is Irving and my dad is a mechanic.
Teacher: A mechanic! Thank you, Irving. Next?
Small Girl: My name is Emma and my mom is a lawyer.
Teacher: How nice for you, Emma! Next?
Second Small Boy: My name is Luke and my dad is dead.
Teacher: Oh, Luke, how sad for you. We’re all very sorry about that, aren’t we, class? Luke, do you think you could tell us what Dad did before he died?
Luke (seizes his throat): He went “N’gungghhh! ”
Not bad—I’m told that fourth graders really go for this one. Let’s try another.
A man and his wife tried and tried to have a baby, but without success. Years went by and they went on trying, but no luck. They liked each other, so the work was always a pleasure, but they grew a bit sad along the way. Finally, she got pregnant, was very careful, and gave birth to a beautiful eight-pound-two-ounce baby boy. The couple were beside themselves with happiness. At the hospital that night, she told her husband to stop by the local newspaper and arrange for a birth announcement, to tell all their friends the good news. First thing next morning, she asked if he’d done the errand.
“Yes, I did,” he said, “but I had no idea those little notices in the paper were so expensive.”
“Expensive?” she said. “How much was it?”
“It was eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars. I have the receipt.”
“Eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars!” she cried. “But that’s impossible. You must have made some mistake. Tell me exactly what happened.”
“There was a young lady behind a counter at the paper, who gave me the form to fill out,” he said. “I put in your name and my name and little Teddy’s name and weight, and when we’d be home again and, you know, ready to see friends. I handed it back to her and she counted up the words and said, ‘How many insertions?’ I said twice a week for fourteen years, and she gave me the bill. O.K.?”
I heard this tale more than fifty years ago, when my first wife, Evelyn, and I were invited to tea by a rather elegant older couple who were new to our little Rockland County community. They were in their seventies, at least, and very welcoming, and it was just the four of us. We barely knew them and I was surprised when he turned and asked her to tell us the joke about the couple trying to have a baby. “Oh, no,” she said, “they wouldn’t want to hear that.”
“Oh, come on, dear—they’ll love it,” he said, smiling at her. I groaned inwardly and was preparing a forced smile while she started off shyly, but then, of course, the four of us fell over laughing together.
That night, Evelyn said, “Did you see Keith’s face while Edie was telling that story? Did you see hers? Do you think it’s possible that they’re still—you know, still doing it?”
“Yes, I did—yes, I do,” I said. “I was thinking exactly the same thing. They’re amazing.”
This was news back then, but probably shouldn’t be by now. I remember a passage I came upon years later, in an Op-Ed piece in the Times, written by a man who’d just lost his wife. “We slept naked in the same bed for forty years,” it went. There was also my splendid colleague Bob Bingham, dying in his late fifties, who was asked by a friend what he’d missed or would do differently if given the chance. He thought for an instant, and said, “More venery.”
More venery. More love; more closeness; more sex and romance. Bring it back, no matter what, no matter how old we are. This fervent cry of ours has been certified by Simone de Beauvoir and Alice Munro and Laurence Olivier and any number of remarried or recoupled ancient classmates of ours. Laurence Olivier? I’m thinking of what he says somewhere in an interview: “Inside, we’re all seventeen, with red lips.”
This is a dodgy subject, coming as it does here from a recent widower, and I will risk a further breach of code and add that this was something that Carol and I now and then idly discussed. We didn’t quite see the point of memorial fidelity. In our view, the departed spouse—we always thought it would be me—wouldn’t be around anymore but knew or had known that he or she was loved forever. Please go ahead, then, sweetheart—don’t miss a moment. Carol said this last: “If you haven’t found someone else by a year after I’m gone I’ll come back and haunt you.”
Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming home at night. This is why we throng Match.com and OkCupid in such numbers—but not just for this, surely. Rowing in Eden (in Emily Dickinson’s words: “Rowing in Eden— / Ah—the sea”) isn’t reserved for the lithe and young, the dating or the hooked-up or the just lavishly married, or even for couples in the middle-aged mixed-doubles semifinals, thank God. No personal confession or revelation impends here, but these feelings in old folks are widely treated like a raunchy secret. The invisibility factor—you’ve had your turn—is back at it again. But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces. If it returns, we seize upon it avidly, stunned and altered again.
Nothing is easy at this age, and first meetings for old lovers can be a high-risk venture. Reticence and awkwardness slip into the room. Also happiness. A wealthy old widower I knew married a nurse he met while in the hospital, but had trouble remembering her name afterward. He called her “kid.” An eighty-plus, twice-widowed lady I’d once known found still another love, a frail but vibrant Midwest professor, now close to ninety, and the pair got in two or three happy years together before he died as well. When she called his children and arranged to pick up her things at his house, she found every possession of hers lined up outside the front door.
But to hell with them and with all that, O.K.? Here’s to you, old dears. You got this right, every one of you. Hook, line, and sinker; never mind the why or wherefore; somewhere in the night; love me forever, or at least until next week. For us and for anyone this unsettles, anyone who’s younger and still squirms at the vision of an old couple embracing, I’d offer John Updike’s “Sex or death: you take your pick”—a line that appears (in a slightly different form) in a late story of his, “Playing with Dynamite.”
This is a great question, an excellent insurance-plan choice, I mean. I think it’s in the Affordable Care Act somewhere. Take it from us, who know about the emptiness of loss, and are still cruising along here feeling lucky and not yet entirely alone. ♦”
VONNEGUT: Somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way; a virtuous person is falsely accused of sin; a sinful person is believed to be virtuous; a person faces a challenge bravely, and succeeds or fails; a person lies, a person steals, a person kills, a person commits fornication.
INTERVIEWER: If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.
VONNEGUT: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaningless of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.”
— Kurt Vonnegut (via gatheringbones)
— Bokonon, “Cat’s Cradle” (via fuckyeahkurtvonnegut)
NEW YORK — ‘I’d get up,” mumbles Kurt Vonnegut with curmudgeonly cheer as he greets a lunch companion, “but I’m old.”
At 82, and almost a decade past his self-declared date of retirement, age and futility are the primary tropes of any conversation with Vonnegut these days. When this lunch was arranged, just before he hung up the phone, he cracked, “Give me your number, in case I die.” It makes for good comedy, of course, and precludes any sort of respectful comeback. But Vonnegut is serious, even if he can’t resist the jokes. He speaks repeatedly of having finished his life’s work and of the surprise of being still alive. And death is coming not just to him; in person and in the slim new volume of his collected recent essays entitled A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut pronounces a requiem for the Earth itself, saying the world is going to come to an end sooner or later, but most probably sooner.
Those taking the long view of Vonnegut’s life and work will note that death has always haunted his novels and essays. In his late 40s, even, when he wrote his absurdist masterwork Slaughterhouse-Five, he described himself as, “an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls.” He still smokes unfiltered Pall Malls and is still a proud old fart, but some of his memories are vaguer than they used to be, and he shows little interest in exploring them, anyway.
“I had reasonably hoped to be dead by now. It’s embarrassing to keep on going,” he explains with a faint wheeze, sitting in the back of a nearly empty old-fashioned French restaurant a few blocks from his Upper East Side townhouse. Edith Piaf is on the stereo, warbling La vie en rose. He evinces an almost childlike desire to impress. Lunching with a Canadian, he drops a couple of French words into his speech and, when ordering his meal, asks for, “the saumon.”
In 1997, when he published his last novel, Timequake, Vonnegut announced he would no longer write fiction, in fact had no intention of writing anything for public consumption again. That was the year his beloved brother Bernie, 10 years his senior, died, and the loss left him feeling that, “I don’t have anybody to show off for any more.” The truth is, though, he continued to write. Two years later, he came out with a slim book of whimsical interviews with dead historical figures such as Isaac Asimov, Hitler and Shakespeare, and he has continued to plug away at a novel that will never be finished, entitled If God Were Alive Today. (Idea from the book: If God were alive today, he’d be an atheist.) A few years ago, he also began writing essays for the left-wing Chicago biweekly In These Times, which were compiled into the current book.
“As an actuarial matter, writers of fiction have done their best work by about the time they’re 45, and I guess Tolstoy was an exception, and there have been some others, but anyway, friends of mine who’ve lived this long have customarily written crap. Just to have something to do,” he explains.
Vonnegut wears a grey-green cardigan, tan slacks and white tennis shoes. He has long workman’s hands, with fingers that are thick like dowels. In 1976, he described himself as having “the low-keyed amiability of an old family dog. In general his appearance is tousled: The long curly hair, mustache and sympathetic smile suggest a man at once amused and saddened by the world around him.”
That description still holds true, though Vonnegut’s face is now lined so sharply it could be a maquette for his own monument on Mount Rushmore. Something else: For decades, though he has been known variously as a science-fiction author, an experimental writer of postmodern narrative, and an essayist who has plumbed his own tragedies for material, many have seen him as following in Mark Twain’s plainspoken humanist tradition. He gave his first-born, his only biological son, the name Mark. Now, Vonnegut bears a startling physical resemblance to Twain.
And like Twain, whom he once noted grew bitter toward the end of his life, Vonnegut is also more cynical than he has ever been. A Man Without a Country is shot through with despair for the Earth’s poisoned fate and disappointment in the American body politic. Indeed, he says he considered an alternate title for the collection, The Fifty-First State, to evoke “the state of denial,” which is, he says, America’s natural state.
“I have a huge disappointment about what this country might have been instead of what it’s become,” he says. “You forget there was something great about the Great Depression. The president was Franklin Roosevelt, who cared generally about all of us. And things were getting better — talk about audacity, giving women the power to vote, in 1919. It took a while for even women to adjust to it. Only now are they really getting the feeling of it. And then after the war when the civil-rights movement came in, that was exciting! So there were these huge improvements, where we were becoming what we always imagined ourselves to be. No shit, becoming that!”
But life is a series of cosmic disappointments and absurdities, which Vonnegut knows from first-hand experience. He saw his father’s dreams of becoming a great architect foiled by fate and the Depression. His mother, who suffered from her own depression, killed herself on Mother’s Day in 1944, when he was only 21. Nine months later, as a prisoner of war in Germany, he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, which he later immortalized in Slaughterhouse-Five. His older sister Alice died of cancer at age 41, within 24 hours of her husband being killed in a train crash, leaving Vonnegut and his wife to adopt three of their children. After his son went off to British Columbia during the Vietnam War to start a commune, Mark went crazy and Vonnegut had to retrieve him and place him in an institution (which thankfully cured him). One of his daughters was briefly married to Geraldo Rivera. In the mid-1980s, Vonnegut himself attempted suicide, but failed. Who wouldn’t see the world as a cosmic joke?
Even his own success is tinged with absurdity. “I never thought it was my destiny to be a writer. It just turned out it was the only way I could make a living,” he says. “It was lucky that way, because I have survivor’s syndrome, for a number of reasons. Obviously because of the firebombing of Dresden, but also all the really wonderful writers who’ve crashed and burned.
“I feel like a certain kind of horse’s ass, like somebody born rich. I don’t deserve it, and those who crashed and burned didn’t deserve it, either. So I’m the asshole who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.”
And he can’t stop breaking the bank when he puts pen to paper. A Man Without a Country is on The New York Times extended bestseller list. But he’s not sure its success means much of anything. “Nothing I can say can have any effect, except to say to somebody else, ‘You’re not alone.’ That’s as far as it goes,” he says. “No political effect whatsoever.” I remind him that his readers are clearly numerous and clearly hungry for anything he has to say. “Well, that’s very nice, but it’s politically meaningless. They have to have a majority, for God’s sake.” I tell him that, just because there wasn’t a majority who voted against George W. Bush in the last election doesn’t mean his words didn’t have an effect; it just means they didn’t have enough of an effect.
He pauses for a long time and then shakes his head dismissively. “I’m just the asshole who broke the bank at Monte Carlo,” he replies, leaning back on his stock phrase.
And he’d just as soon have it all end. “I felt as I did when the Second World War ended: ‘Please, I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do, can’t I go home now?’ ” he says.
A truck out on the street honks its horn and Vonnegut looks toward the restaurant’s entrance. His eyes seem to water a little and his voice lowers almost to a whisper. “Where is home? I’ve wondered where home is, and I realized, it’s not Mars or someplace like that, it’s Indianapolis when I was nine years old. I had a brother and a sister, a cat and a dog, and a mother and a father and uncles and aunts. And there’s no way I can get there again.”
Vonnegut finishes his meal, lifts himself from the table and shuffles toward the door. I thank him again for the interview and tell him I hope he has an agreeable afternoon. “I will,” he says, turning back with a grin. “I’m going to sleep.”