Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Remembering Kurt Vonnegut's Commencement Address to the 2004 Lehigh University Class

I was going to republish this a little less than a week ago, on May 24th, because it was on May 24, 2004, that I finally got to see one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut.

It was easy to remember this year, because for whatever the reason, I have kind of been on a Kurt Vonnegut kick lately, rereading 'Cat's Cradle,' and now rereading 'Mother Night.'

Not sure if I mentioned this here before or not, but Vonnegut helped me to get into writing. Stephen King, who I got into in 1997, probably was the first author that made me really want to be a writer, but it was when I got into Kurt Vonnegut's writing a few years later, in the aftermath of September 11th and a world at war once again, that I finally not only believed that I could be a writer, but actually began to do the heavy lifting and wrote.

And so, to honor his memory, as well as to recall one of the most pleasant days in my memory (at least as an adult), it seemed like a good idea to republish this:

Ten-Year Anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut's Commencement Address to the 2004 Lehigh University Class published on May 24, 2014:

Yes, I remember the day well. May 24, 2004.

It is amazing, even staggering, to think that this was ten whole years ago. Frankly, it feels like it could have been one year ago, tops, if even that. Those times, and those events, feel so very recent. But I look at the calendar, and it does not lie. As old as it makes me feel, it has indeed been a full decade, and I sound like an old man, talking about how quickly the time goes by.

At around that time, Kurt Vonnegut was probably my favorite author of all. I had gotten into him a few years before, not long after September 11th, and around the time when WMD's and the possibility of an invasion of Iraq, as well as the suspension of civil liberties with the so-called PATRIOT Act and the debate over how much we can get away with before it is legally considered torture dominated the news.

And I read Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-5", an anti-war novel that spoke about time travel, and touched on some other subjects, too. It spoke to me in a way that few novels have before or since, and I began to follow Vonnegut. Suddenly, I was ordering more of his books, and devouring them (most of his books are quick reads). There were online articles that I pursued and read, and before long, I was beginning to be a collector of all things Vonnegut, completely taken by the world of his writings. In a world that seemed to be losing it's way and making less and less sense, Vonnegut's rather weird and wild world, ironically, served almost as an anchor. There seemed to be just a sense of decency about him, reflected in his writings, that felt right in a world that seemed outwardly polite and healthy, but inside, seemed rude, self-centered, and very, very sick to the core.

It would be fair to say that I was quickly becoming a huge Vonnegut fan, and as an aspiring writer, he was one of the few writers that truly inspired me to begin writing on my own. In fact, I might go as far as saying that while other writers made me feel like I could write (most notably Stephen King), it was actually while I was reading Vonnegut all of the time that I truly did begin to write, and believing versus doing makes a world of difference.

There were other authors, and books, that I really enjoyed at that point, and many more that I have grown more acquainted with and gotten to enjoy since. But the two big ones (for me) were Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut. Both had some incredible ideas, for which they are deservedly very well known. The actual writing of Stephen King, the way that he describes characters in particular, breathes life into them, and I aspired to be able to do that myself. As for Kurt Vonnegut, I admired his ideas (and enjoyed the weirdness of them, as well), but was most appreciative of the way that he was able to bring ideas of morality, of simple right and wrong in the midst of a complicated world into his books and stories really spoke to me. That through it all, we just need reminders of the simple ideas of decency, that was something that perhaps society, or even the world culture that has come to dominate this world de facto, is something that Vonnegut was always able to convey, no matter what it was that he was writing about.

But there was one thing: I had never seen the man, and he was well over eighty years old. I knew a couple of people who had seen him, and one of them told me I had better hurry up and see him, because he was no spring chicken.

I kept looking and looking, searching online for Vonnegut appearances. But there was rarely anything to be found. More frustratingly, when there was, it had just happened.

There were times that I came close. Particularly, his play "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" began to play in New York City, and I went to go see that. Vonnegut had made an appearance at the show's opening, and answered some questions from the audience. But when I went, some days later, he was nowhere to be seen.

But finally, I found out that he was scheduled to be the commencement speaker for the graduation ceremonies at Lehigh University in 2004. I did some research, and found that this event was scheduled to be held at the outdoor stadium, weather permitting, and that it did not require a ticket. You could just show up.

So, I did.

It was a beautiful day, perhaps the first really warm and sunny day of the year. Before the day was out, I would have gotten a sunburn, and there was a little bit of worrying, admittedly, about what I would say if anyone asked me at work the next day why it was that I had a sunburn the day after calling out sick.

But that is neither here nor there.

I wanted to make sure to arrive there good and early, and so we left quite early (this was with my then wife), and got there early enough. No problems there. We found a halfway decent place to sit at the stadium, fairly close to the field. And I got my video recorder out, because I intended to record all of Vonnegut's speech, if I could.

First, the graduates all lined up, with the special guests, including Kurt Vonnegut, coming just before them.

His speech was not that long, and I was able to get all of it. It was not really the most original speech, amounting to mostly a compilation of some of his written works and words of the past.

Vonnegut started off by claiming that he had uncovered a conspiracy during his brief visit to Lehigh, and claiming that the admissions office allowed only beautiful women to attend. Then, he talked a bit about the previous time that he had spoken at a Lehigh Commencement, back in 1970, when "another unpopular war", started by the martyred President Kennedy, was then being fought in Vietnam, with Nixon as President. He then mentioned the shootings at Kent State University around that time, when four students were killed, and the police not punished, as it was claimed that they had acted in self-defense.

This served as a segue for him to talk about some of the darker chapters of American history, including slavery, inequality of the majority of the population (women), with women only getting the vote a few years before he was born.

Going back to his previous appearance at a Lehigh Commencement, he mentioned that most of the kids graduating had not even been born yet at that time, and how they were about to get "kicked out" of Lehigh, comparing the years of study here for the students as "the Garden of Eden."

He then mentioned that American could and should have been a utopia, instead of a place where it costs an arm and a leg to get a higher education, like the one the young graduates had received at Lehigh. Now, they were leaving "this Garden of Eden", and many of them would be burdened with huge debt, so much, Vonnegut claimed, that he could buy a Hummer with that kind of money and "speed up global warming".

Then, he mentioned that he was sorry that this country did not have a health care system that provided affordable, universal coverage, "like Sweden and Canada", where, he said, "it works much better."

He then applauded institutions of higher learning, and said that these were good to "make war not on terrorism, but on ignorance, sickness, and environmental degradation."

Vonnegut mentioned Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite, and then, perhaps to assuage his guilt, set up the Nobel Peace Prize, with a prize of one million dollars. That amount, Vonnegut claimed, is "chump change", at least by the standards of the highest paid athletes, CEO's and Wall Street executives. It would make a huge difference in the lives of any graduate  in attendance on that day, but it would not pay the salary of a defenseman on either the Eagles or the Steelers for even one season.

For anyone interested in really irritating their parents, he said, the "least you can do is go into the arts."

"As you leave this Garden of Eden," Vonnegut requested of the audience, "please sing and dance on your way the hell out of here!"

Vonnegut then told the graduates, and those family members attending, that the older you get, the more you begin to ask yourself what this thing life is all about. He mentioned what his son had told him in response, when he had placed this question to him:

"Father, we're here to see each other get through this thing, whatever the hell it is."

So, he advised everyone to write that down, so that they could put it in their computers and then forget it.

He then wondered if he would get away with what he was about to say next, and declared that human beings need extended families as much as they need food and minerals, and talked a bit about how there are no extended families anymore, "with the exception of the Bushes and the Navajo."

That was the root of all arguments, he claimed. When it seemed that a husband and wife were arguing about money or the future for the kids, what they were actually telling each other is: "You are not enough people."

Vonnegut then mentioned his uncle Albert, who once remarked that human beings hardly ever noticed when they were happy. So, he had taken to saying, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

He requested that everyone remember that, and take note when they are having a good time, even repeating these words that his uncle used to say.

And then he made one other request, asking for a show of hands to anyone who had, at some point, had a teacher that had made them feel "happier to be alive, prouder to be alive, then you had previously believed possible?"

He then asked everyone who had such a teacher to turn to the person next to them, and mention the name of that teacher.

Kurt Vonnegut concluded his Lehigh Commencement Keynote Speaker address with these words:

"If this isn't nice, I don't know what is. Thank you for your attention. Take care of yourselves, you hear?"

He received his honorary degree (not his first from Lehigh University) a little later on.

Admittedly, it was a strange way of seeing Vonnegut for the first time, since this was a graduation ceremony for college students, and not really what most people would categorize as a public event. I did not know anybody graduating on that day, although no one seemed to notice.

Still, it was great to finally see him in person!

Afterward, we stopped briefly at Lehigh, driving around the campus, then a bit through the town of Bethelehem. It was perhaps noon time, and after a bit of a visit, we decided to head back, and to Wawayanda State Park in New Jersey, where we could enjoy the beautiful weather. I had taken some Vonnegut books with me to read, obviously, and remember being happy, sitting by the babbling stream, and just relaxing, reading Vonnegut. You can't get a much better late spring day than that!

That day ranked with some of the other memorable days in terms of seeing someone that I had long wanted to see. I would perhaps compare it to the first time that I saw Stephen King, or Jimmy Carter. Or, perhaps, some of my favorite bands, like Pearl Jam, Ringo Starr, or Paul McCartney, or the first concert of my own choosing that I went to, seeing Metallica and Guns N' Roses. It felt great!

Now, I should mention that the opportunity to see Vonnegut again did present itself, and I jumped on it! Again, he was no spring chicken.

This one came as an official event, where Kurt Vonnegut would be one of three noted authors in discussion. The other two were Joyce Carol Oates and Jennifer Weiner. It was called "An Evening With Our Favorite Writers", and was held on Saturday, February 4, 2006, the day before Super Bowl Sunday. I remember that, specifically, because for whatever reason, people kept mentioning the Steelers (it was a pro-Steelers fan base there), and a couple of people on stage (not the authors) were showing their black and gold to support their Steelers! At one point, Vonnegut even asked why people in Hartford, Connecticut, would care about the Steelers so much.

Good question.

In any case, this was more of an event, if you will. In college graduations, speakers like Kurt Vonnegut are special guests, but the stars of the show are the graduates themselves, of course. And deservedly so.

But on that evening, clearly, the speakers were the special guests, and the focal point. And Kurt Vonnegut, arguably, was the biggest draw on stage on that day.

It was perhaps appropriate that this event took place in Hartford, since the comparisons to Vonnegut and Mark Twain, who greatly influenced Vonnegut, can easily be made, including the physical resemblance. Both wrote biting commentary, both used humor richly and had wicked senses of humor, and both contributed greatly to American letters.

When I look back on those times, I find it amazing just how quickly I got into Kurt Vonnegut and his writings, and in such a short period of time! It is almost surprising that I never encountered his writings earlier, like during high school, or at least college! Yet, it happened. But once that discovery was there, I was hooked!

It had taken a while to see Vonnegut for the first time, and less than two years later, the opportunity came to see him a second time, and this time, to hear him in actual conversation, which was particularly special. In between those two, Vonnegut would publish the last book of his that would come out while he was still alive. It was called "A Man Without a Country", and on the cover, it featured his playful autograph. That autograph has his self-portrait in profile, with his signature attached. There are autographs you can get from certain writers (and other people of fame), and then there is something like that, which Vonnegut really "created" for you to enjoy! There are subtleties within it that only a real fan of Vonnegut would be aware of. Or one subtlety in particular - the asterisk, which is Vonnegut's drawing of an asshole. His famous sense of humor bleeds through even in something as simple as an autograph.

A little more than a year after that event, Vonnegut fell at his home, and sustained injuries that would prove to be mortal. He died in April of 2007. It would have been interesting to hear his thoughts on some of the events that have happened since, such as the economic collapse of 2008, and the controversy surrounding the "too big to fail" banking institutions that were given huge sums of money in the bailout, designed by then President George W. Bush, and approved by, among others, future President Barack Obama. It would have been interesting to hear his thoughts on Obama, both during the most promising times, during the election season in 2008, as well as the less glamorous reality when he actually occupied the White House. And what about the official end of the war in Iraq, or the coming end in Afghanistan? What might Vonnegut have said about Russia and the Ukraine? About the war in Syria? The genocide in Darfur? We can only wonder what he might specifically have said, although we can probably get a good idea on what his general stance would likely have been. But when you die, you lose your chance to speak on matters that occur afterward, of course.

Since his death, three more books written by Vonnegut have come out. I am reading the last of those three, and will be writing a review of it, hopefully to be published tomorrow. Vonnegut may be gone, but he is certainly not forgotten, and his wisdom and humor remain in his writings, that allow a part of him to continue to be with us still, even though the man himself is not.

"An Evening With Our Favorite Writers" - February 4, 2006 (some links from the conversation that evening):

The Forum Channel

Here is the profile from the program that was given out to those who attended this event:


Vonnegut Clips from the Connecticut Writer's Forum in February of 2006:



Forum Clip: "Kurt Says Writing is a Mystery, Joyce Calls His Bluff"  1:15


Forum Clip: "Vonnegut`s Message to Future Generations: The World is Ending!"  2:37


Forum Clip: "Practicing Any Art Makes Your Soul Grow"  1:41


Forum Clip: "What is the Single Most Beautiful Thing You`ve Ever Seen?"  2:33


Forum Clip: "Kurt and Joyce Have a Great Exchange about Feminism  and  Sexist Pigs"  1:21


Forum Clip: "Serious  and  Funny Answers to: What Keeps You Up at Night?"  2:34


Forum Clip: "Alter Egos and Pseudonyms in Writing"  2:56


Forum Clip: "Kurt Vonnegut: We Are A Disease, Joyce Carol Oates Sees It Differently"  2:12


Forum Clip: "Mark Twain`s Best Books and a Clunker."  1:21


On America' Addiction to Oil:


On War, History, and Women:


Kurt Vonnegut & Joyce Carol Oates on Censorship:


No comments:

Post a Comment