An Evening with Kurt Vonnegut
by Anne Saxon-Hersh
It was a delightful evening at the Holy Family Church where Kurt Vonnegut kept a packed auditorium entranced with his humorous musings and engaging talk on the meaning of life. Next to me a fellow held his tattered copy of Cats Cradle, which he had brought to be autographed, but alas, the acclaimed author slipped out of the building as soon as he left the stage, as elusive as stardust, leaving behind only an easel with doodlings as hard evidence.
Yet, this much venerated novelist is not inaccessible. Many times I've seen him walking alone in the neighborhood, sometimes with his small dog. He seems to have captured, at least in part, why we're here. "To fart around."
Vonnegut tells us he is honorary president of the American Humanists Association, successor to Isaac Asimov. He is a learned man with degrees in the sciences. However, his genius lies in language. By combining the two, he manages to poke fun at a great deal of conventional thought that emerges from our irrational thought processes. But he is far from a cynic. Like most scientists, he observes life with wonderment and delights in the mystery of seemingly simple things. What should we revere? "Ordinary people trying to behave decently in an indecent society."
Vonnegut's "intimate talk" as it was billed began with his charging that the high divorce rate can be linked to our loss of the extended family. Nowadays married couples are ultimately disappointed in their partner, he says, because "one person is not enough." In days of yore, you married not one person but an entire family. After all, "what do women really want? --A whole lot of people to talk to."
Then Vonnegut shares with us passages from a commencement address delivered at Rice University in which he tells the graduates that the knowledge they have gained now requires them to be expelled from the Garden of Eden into a crass, inhuman world. That the whopping sums invested in their education may not be returned in their later years if they happen to deviate from a total focus on the bottom line, that there is little correlation in the money a person earns and his contribution to society; a Nobel prize winner is awarded one million dollars, chump change in this day of sports stars, stock options, and golden parachutes.
And so it goes, with dips and arcs and wide circles, Vonnegut ambles though a wide range of topics, weaving a thread that knits us to community, occasionally mentioning Turtle Bay, but mostly reminding us of the importance of being human, an art that begins at home.
Example: Vonnegut still pecks out his stories on a typewriter and sends them to a woman who has long served as his typing service. Now she lives in Woodstock so he mails the pages. This requires a mailing envelope so the writer sets off to purchase one. Jill, his wife and a professional photographer, suggests he buy a box of mailers, but Vonnegut tells us that would take the fun out it. So off he goes, first standing in line to purchase the envelope, then heading off to the post office. ("I love to mail letters...") Along the way, he chats with people, marvels at the Indian merchant with the jewel in her forehead, listens to strange tongues being spoken near the U.N., inquires about people's bandaged feet and bruised eyes, and returns a happy man, having accomplished his mission.
This episode in a nutshell says much about Kurt Vonnegut and Turtle Bay and why it's a lovely place to live. It does not, however, capture his genius. For that, you had to be there.
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