Bad Advice From Kurt Vonnegut

Readers of this blog (and friends) will know my mother as the person whose ideas about parenting included reading booze-drenched modernist classics to me when I was eleven. So, it will not come as a surprise to anyone that when I was a few years older than that, she dropped me off at a Kurt Vonnegut reading while she went to a lecture in another part of town. I was a big Vonnegut fan at the time and thrilled to be seeing him.

I’d spent an entire summer lying on the couch with the headphones on reading his books. Though I had not survived the bombing of Dresden, I felt that, like Billy Pilgrim, I’d become “unstuck in time.” When Jehovah’s Witnesses came to our door to discuss damnation I would tell them that I was a “Bokonist” the religion practiced by the characters in Cat’s Cradle. And it goes without saying that Kilgore Trout’s “career” as a washed up homeless science fiction writer was one to which I very seriously aspired.

But the biggest influence Vonnegut exacted over me was at this reading, where he told the students in the audience they didn’t need to go to school and could just as well drop out.

It was fantastic! I felt like a boulder had been pushed off the hole I was buried in, and light was streaming down upon me. I was so excited I could actually feel the hair on my neck stand up. It was so simple. I didn’t have to go to school, I could just walk away. I’d been entertaining the thought since kindergarten, but Kurt Vonnegut was the first adult I’d heard emphatically state that school was entirely unrelated to success. And he was obviously more successful than anyone I knew. My stupid parents, who grew up poor, seemed to think school was the reason our family had things like food and a house and a car. But really they should have been thinking about how school made them boring automatons who had to dress up for work, not famous writers like Kurt Vonnegut who could obviously wear whatever the hell he wanted and never comb his hair or shave.

“Now I really wish I’d gone to that talk with you,” my mother said yesterday when I asked if she remembered it. “But really, why the hell would you have listened to any of that?”

Good question. I am certain that I was constitutionally incapable of going to school. And I am also certain that the kind of reading I did as a kid created a specific kind of mental model that made me prone to dropping out. Vonnegut was just in the right place at the right time to solidify my plan.

My mother went on to describe Vonnegut as a “wild-eyed guy with a scruffy mustache,” and then pointed out a number of suspect role models I’d had since childhood, the majority of them fictional, including: Oscar from the Odd Couple, Eliot Vereker, Jake Barnes, and one unfortunate autumn, the very real Hunter S. Thompson and Jean Paul Sartre which allowed me to combine the concept of “existence preceding essence” with some pretty anti-social behavior.

Notice something about these idols? Not a lady in the mix.
And it seems no coincidence that the lives of men in these eras had more than a little in common with the lives of children. A kind of freedom that leaves unseen others to pick up and provide care and progeny. They were not such far-fetched imaginary peers for a middle schooler.

While Kurt was freeing me from the prison of academia, my mother was at an Adrienne Rich lecture. While I was planning my escape from education and middle class culture, my mother was working her ass off to get the degree she’d missed because she was raising three kids and supporting the idealistic career of her husband. While I was fighting every second to remain a genderless brain on a stick, my mother was living as a smart, uneducated woman in a small conservative place with few opportunities.

It didn’t take a genius to see that growing up to be a real woman in the real world might be worse than growing up to be Kilgore Trout.

It was just as I quit high school and was living on my own that my mother gave me Joan Didion to read. Specifically an essay about Haight Ashbury. About how the convergence of political events and ideologies, lifestyle, and aspirational living caused a generation to neglect their children; caused their children to be precocious, lost, at risk for various kinds of violence, accidents, and failures. And caused women to conceive of themselves as liberated while giving up their most basic freedoms.

“You will really like this,” she said simply. “It made me think of you.”

My mother has not always been there for me. As a woman coming of age when she did, she was not always there for herself. But without fail she gathered the literary angels that helped me think and write and live.

“Damn right, toots,” she said when I thanked her. “I knew what I was doing.”