So It Goes

Just the other day I said that Kurt Vonnegut would say, about the death thing, So it goes, and now he’s gone.

I am one of the doubtless many who counts Vonnegut among my heroes. I saw him speak once, on a panel about the Patriot Act at the New School, and I touched him once, when I ran into him at full speed on 48th Street. I was in Dresden for 24 hours last November, and the whole time I was there I thought about him and the bombing.

For some odd reason I picked up Slaughterhouse-Five and re-read it in one day last week, newly amazed by its sadness and simplicity. How can this book be in the world and war still go on? Have any of those lunatics ever read this book? This book says everything you need to know about war. What heroism, to tell us that there are no heroes in war, only children.

A while ago I started writing letters to my heroes, even the ones I have met and made a fool of myself in front of. The one to Kurt Vonnegut began:

Dear Mr. Vonnegut,

About two and a half years ago I ran into you on 48th street. Literally, I ran into you. I’m almost certain it was you, as you are fairly unmistakeable and I recall vividly the sensation of a pack of cigarettes crinkling in my victim’s shirt pocket as we collided.

I was late for a Fulbright information session at the UN and consequently as soon as I realized that in my collision with one of the great writers of the twentieth century neither of us had been harmed, I took off running once again, only to realize a block later that I had just run into one of the great writers of the twentieth century.

Heaping further flattery upon you I will say that I wish I had stayed and accosted you in the bumbling way that young admirers accost their heroes when they meet them by chance on the street, rather than boarding the elevator of that crumbling monument to ineffectiveness and sitting for several hours in a molded plastic chair to be lectured on just how difficult it might be to obtain U.S. Government funds for the purpose of foreign travel.

Please consider this letter in lieu of an on-the-street fan accostment you might have suffered in October of 2004.

I did not finish my letter. I was going to ask for advice.

The advice I got from Kurt Vonnegut is therefore a little more abstract. It consists of things he wrote, and the cosmic jokes he told and alerted me to.

I liked all the times he said about death, “So it goes.” And I liked when he quoted his son, who said about life, “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” I liked when he called us all fools and babies, and I liked when all the other panelists at the New School were talking about the legalities of the Patriot Act and Vonnegut said, “Well, it’s just as insane as anything else you see on television,” and I liked maybe best of all the part in Slaughterhouse-Five on pages 74 through 75 in which he describes what World War II would look like in reverse.

If we were to play Kurt Vonnegut’s life in reverse he would be alive again, as he was yesterday, and he would blow the smoke back into many cigarettes and all his children would all be babies and then soon enough he would be right there in Dresden to see all those burned bodies brought back to life again, and along the way he’d take all his books away from us and put them back into brain.

I don’t know how to do that but maybe he would have.

What can you say to your hero when he departs this Earth?

I am only a stranger, one of the millions who read the words you wrote, but I think you are a very great man. I am glad you were here on this planet. I am glad we were here at the same time, for a while. I am glad that once we were on 48th Street at the same time. I am glad you had bags under your eyes and curly hair. I, too, have bags under my eyes and curly hair. I want to be like you.

Were you tired? Were you ready?

You made it look so easy. You made me want to try. You made me think. You made me laugh. You made me cry. You taught me things. You took away the pain.

You did good work. We needed you. You helped.

I hope things get better. I fear they’ll get worse. So many awful things happened to you, and you managed to live to tell about them, so we, who did not live through those things, could understand. You used your imagination, made up crazy things that aren’t true, to tell the truth somehow. You pointed out that we are cruel beings and life is a destructive thing, “a horrible thing to do to an animal,” you so cleverly said. I could say you were absurd, that you pointed out the absurdity inherent in every moment of life, I could say complicated things, but you made it simple.

How did you do that?

To end his long and famous poem, Walt Whitman said:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you

Maybe we will meet again, Mr. Vonnegut, on the midtown streets of Tralfamadore. Next time, I would like to shake your hand and say,

Thank you.

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