« March 2007 | Main | May 2007 »

April 11, 2007

On the Death of Kurt Vonnegut



Writer Kurt Vonnegut died today. He was 94 years old.

I read a number of his novels while in high school, being told he was a “classic.” I remember reading him with mild amusement, and in the twenty five years since I have rarely thought of his books again. I remember over the past decade reading a newspaper article or two where in an interview Vonnegut decried the entire 20th and coming 21st century world as having no good to it. “Go ahead and die already then if you have outlived your time and hate it!” was my response at the time. It reminded me of Robinson Jeffers decrying WWII as a fight between nothing but villains and his hoping that all humans would kill themselves off so nature could start anew – a sort of misanthropic intellectualism taken to an extreme. As long ago as 1991 Vonnegut in his “Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage,” claimed that he “finally stopped laughing at his own agony and that of those around him. He denounced life on this planet as a crock. He died.”

Actually, Vonnegut lived in a sort of intellectual paralysis for 16 more years, and then he died. All are corrupt; all are villains -- wipe out the race and start again. It is a form of escapism endemic to the elderly and disillusioned. It is also lazy and simplistic thinking. When looking the world fully in the face becomes too painful, one looks away and washes one’s hands of it. Another old man, British playwright Harold Pinter, back in 1985 similarly whined, "There's no point, it's hopeless. That's my view. I believe there's no chance of the world coming to other than a very grisly end in twenty-five years at the outside." When it gets to that point, go ahead and die already! That is my attitude towards Harold Pinter and his sort.

And so I feel similarly towards Vonnegut, the man.

But what about as an artist? Vonnegut’s death prompts me to think back about his books and his literary output. An obituary in the local newspaper claimed that his novellas appealed to Baby Boomers who appreciated the themes that challenged authority and institutions. Supposedly no long-haired student radical trying to appear cool in 1970 would find himself far from his dog-eared copy of Cat’s Cradle. “A writer of his time among the Vietnam War and Watergate and the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s,” an obituary writer claimed.

Perhaps. But I wonder if generations who do care less than we do about mid-20th century preoccupations will also love his books and consider them classics. Will History judge Vonnegut to be “canonical,” or not? Nathaniel Hawthorne, Leo Tolstoy, Stendahl, Victor Hugo, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, George Orwell, William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust … Kurt Vonnegut?

Upon reflection, this is my opinion: Vonnegut is overrated.

Vonnegut is a minor writer -- a period-piece author. One reads Vonnegut to understand America in 1970, not humanity at all times. His current popularity is a result of academia and publishing houses being controlled by the large numbers of Baby Boomers and the concerns of the Boomers, and as they fade off the scene so will Vonnegut’s popularity and inclusion on reading lists.


April 06, 2007

Worries of a New Father

Father and daughter three weeks into their relationship.


I look down at my daughter and search for signs of what will be.

Right now to Julia the whole world is contained in a feeding or in trying to digest food or conciliate sleep. She is only 23 days old. People say Julia already resembles me, that she has my mouth, etc, but she just looks like a baby to me. Her traits and demeanor seem like those of any other baby, as far as I can see: eat, sleep, cry - repeat over and over again. But surely some marks of her character and future life are within her from birth. People ask me if she is fussy or tranquil. She likes to feed at my wife's breast and sleep, and beyond that I lack evidence. Only time will reveal more about Julia and her story.

But I am intensely curious as to the deeper nature of my daughter. What will she be like? Before Maria and I know it our parenting roles will be less about attending to hunger cries, changing soiled diapers, and feeding every two and a half hours. We will begin to talk with, and then to teach, our daughter about our family and the larger world. Julia will turn two, then five, and then seven years of age. Will Julia be contumacious? Docile? Rebellious? Obedient? Nervous and conscientious, like her mother? Or more laid back, like her father? Will she be blustery and good at sports (as I wish)? Or will she be quiet and into music (as my wife wishes)? I am most curious, to put it mildly. I sit impatiently with the unalterable fact that I need wait for time to unveil its tale.

I worry about how much Julia will have inherited from her parents - the sins of the past handed down to the next generation. I look at my wife and myself, and I think I can see what Julia will be as she grows up. I worry about Julia becoming overly-sensitive and too afraid of making mistakes - the kind of child that parents don't have the heart to punish because she is already so hard on herself. She would come too close to resembling her parents, and I would not wish that on Julia. Julia has half my genes, half from her mother; but Julia will also make choices and comes of age as her own person, separate from her parents. One part of her DNA is the combination of the genes combined from mother and father, but these genes result in a unique combination which has never before been seen on earth and is dissimilar to mother or father. In the end, she will be her own person.

How much of our adult character's is merely the result of our parent's influences and genetic inheritance? How much of our mature makeup is our choice as free individuals? How much are we the products of our upbringing, family, and culture? How much can we choose to be our own unique selves? Unanswerable questions perhaps.

Never for one moment do I lose sight of the fact that Julia will be her own person and that I will need to give space and respect to her own wishes, that she might find her own way in life. I think a great abuse by many parents is to overwhelm their children with their own egos and to foist their unfulfilled life dreams onto their progeny. Recently I read with horror as one father claimed, "When I was holding her in the delivery room, she was so beautiful. It was just amazing. The first thing I remember saying to her was, 'Nooooo, sweetheart, no boy is ever gonna take you away from Daddy.'" We are given children so that one day we can release them! I take my newborn daughter home from the hospital in the hopes of one day giving her away at the altar. I hope to give her and her groom my full blessing. As a father it is not about "me" but about "her." If a person doesn't feel this way, why did they became a parent?

But where is the line between overwhelming one's daughter with too much support and control, and stranding her in the shoals of a dangerous world with insufficient guidance and supervision. I have personally seen a number of young women out in the world without a firm father figure somewhere looking out for them, and they are badly at risk for victimization. Even if he is a thousand miles away at the time, a young woman is given confidence, protection, and ballast by a loving father's providence. She is safer. She carries his blessing and the knowledge that he is looking out for her, that his daughter deserves the best and is of value. I suspect other men sense that confidence in his daughter, and victimizers choose someone else to victimize. It is almost as if a rapist can sense there is a father somewhere who is going to come gut him with a long knife, should he assault his precious daughter.

But a relationship evolves over time, and trust and understanding accrete in good times and dissipate in bad times. I will hope that Julia always feels free to come tell me anything from her life, that nothing is absolutely forbidden and that a million times over I would prefer to be upset and to know than to remain ignorant and have her be at risk. I see Julia spending her childhood years bicycling around her suburban California neighborhood with friends for hour after hour. Soccer games, piano lessons -- a Christmas ballet performance of "The Nutcracker." Innumerable trips to the book store. Her first day of school and her first computer. Daddy reading stories to his daughter before she goes to sleep. Special evenings out for daddy and daughter only. Daddy teaches daughter how to ride a bicycle. This I hope for Julia as a little girl.

And as opposed to my wife, I am actually looking forward to Julia entering adolescence. I have years and years of experience with adolescents and know well that strange and complex brew which is the teenaged girl. Peer pressure, academic stress, and romantic confusion. Trying on a new personality every other month. Searching and confusion and elation and despair. That is when a daughter needs her daddy more than ever, in my experience. I will be there. The daddy who taught his daughter how to ride a bike will teach her how to drive a car.

But who knows? What do I really know? I could hardly be a more rookie father at this time!

But I do know this: I am pretty much done with reading books on how to become a parent. Here and there I will sample any author that has something of value to say, but my wife and I need to raise our daughter in the solid milieu which is our life together and shared value system. As a father -- perhaps even more so as a father -- I need to be honest to myself. I need to find my own way and obey my own instincts. I need to be honest to a very few core values and principles, and let everything else fall as it might. I will need to make haste slowly. I will have to hold Julia tight but give her her own space. (How will I know what is the right balance?)

Maybe Julia will grow up smoothly and peacefully as a product of the structure and values of her family and parents. Maybe she will grow up rebelling against her family and parents, trying to find her own way. Maybe we will live together without much conflict or strife. Maybe there will be yelling and discord. Maybe it will be a bit of both.

The dialectic makes me anxious. I would much prefer peace and harmony. I cannot hear myself think when people shout.

But I suspect when it comes to family, I might have a whole lot less control than I think. Or will I have much more?

"May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught..."

by William Butler Yeats

ONCE more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory's wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.

Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.
It's certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

In courtesy I'd have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty's very self, has charm made wise,
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there's no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty's horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven's will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

"May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place."