Kurt Vonnegut died last night. It’s an odd notion to me. There are few people I have just pure admiration for an Vonnegut is one. I’ve read most of books and identified with the struggle and perceptions of the characters. Dark? Yes. Social commentary seems to rarely have a delightful sunshine quality to it. Personally, I don’t know that I would be drawn to works that pointed out the glossy finish. Authors such as Vonnegut, cynical and wry, wrote with a philosophical flow that examined the contents behind the varnish.
I was introduced to Vonnegut in the mid-90s via Slaughterhouse-Five. From there I started reading his various works and regularly walked through the Fiction/Literature sections of book stores to see if anything new was on the shelves (a rare occurrence).
It is probably difficult to separate a person from their writings. If you don’t personally know an author, it is probably natural to assume a familiarity via their written words much as you would an actor through their performances, interviews and articles lining the popcorn rags. The assumptions are foolish but I would find it surprising if we all didn’t on some level imagine discussing topics with icons of our day, formulating their responses through what we think we’ve learned about them much like the animitronic models of historic figures.
I have envisioned being asked at some point in my life with who would I most want to be able to have an extended conversation – perhaps over a lingering dinner. Vonnegut is on the list. Much as my brother-in-law laments not having had the opportunity to see Johnny Cash live, I feel a sense of sorrow that I will not have the opportunity to, in person, hear Vonnegut speak.
While in grad school at University at Albany, my office was on second floor of the Earth Sciences building. Bernard Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut’s brother, an atmospheric scientist, had an office on the floor above. I walked by and examined the board in foyer of the building many times looking for the room number of various faculty and most certainly observed the “B. Vonnegut” spelled out in white letters, each slightly misaligned with its companions. It wasn’t until I read Slapstick that I made the connection. In the preface Vonnegut provides a brief autobiography which includes a reference to his brother who works at the university. (Please correct me if I’m wrong. I believe the book is correct but “preface” may not be the accurate location. It’s been years since I’ve read many of the books and lines have blurred over time.)
One of the most distinct memories I have of Dr. Vonnegut was at some point in my last couple years. Albany had established a deal with Yum! (I think) to install a KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell inside the new Student Union. At the time, it was amazing what you could get with $3.00. Albany has its share of gray days. They aren’t all dark and forbodding. Some where more on the silver side: the sun was covered by a thin cloud layer, the day was generally nice but it gave the concrete campus a rather washed look. On one day as I headed across the podium, I passed Dr. Vonnegut returning from the student center with a Taco Bell bag in hand. The image still stands out in my mind: the scene was nearly as gray-toned as possible before becoming colorless all together: the sky had the silver sheen, the campus’ main podium constructed of gray concrete and black-pebbled sides and Dr. Vonnegut, with gray hair and mustache, in a white button-down shirt, well worn, and dark gray slacks. But in his hand was the festive Taco Bell bag. White with teal, gold and pink designs and lettering.
It’s not that the moment is historical or that there is even a good story to tell about it. It’s actually rather bland. I’m not sure that, despite being on a campus where thousands of people occupied only a handful of square acres, anyone else could recall that specific place and moment, which means that the confluence is really only important to me – and at this point I couldn’t even tell you why.
Is this post about technology? Not exactly. But it is definitely about someone who had comments on technology. And they are worth reading. So read them.
I feel a small sense of loss that my visits to the V’s in the Fiction/Literature section will not find anything new – besides the repackaging of past works and the occasional collection of lost papers or correspondances. I feel a deeper sense of loss for the new absence of an insightful critic.
So it goes, Mr. Vonnegut. So it goes.