The Ludicrous Notion of Patriotism or, Kurt Vonnegut Revisited

There was a guy in our unit who had given away all his possessions in a show of solidarity with workers of the world everywhere. The reason for this was because he was not a communist so much as he was a lunatic.

It’s been brought to my attention that I should post more often on my web site. They say independent authors should use blogs to drum up business. Honestly, I thought often about pulling the plug. Yet, here I am. I won’t even guess when I last posted. There’s good reason for that. Actually, several of them. I used to tell people: everything happens for a reason.

In December 2019 I went into a hospital to have some stents put in since I had been suffering chronic chest pain. There were supposed to be three put in, but the third one didn’t go well. That’s doublespeak for my having a widow-making heart attack right on the operating table. Well, it would have been a widow maker had I not been where I was. The reason that happened was because one artery collapsed. This is doublespeak for it became so clotted it quit working. I ended up with two stents, some new medicine which makes even shaving treacherous should I happen to nick myself, and, joy of joys, one of the medications for blood pressure actually triggered a mild case of plaque psoriasis. As it was explained to me by the medical professionals involved: it’s a small price to pay for the alternative. So, if I understand them correctly, the reason I have developed plaque psoriasis for the first time in my life is because of the medicines I take to keep me alive? Everything happens for a reason.

A few months later, the Coronavirus pandemic began. Beginning in late March 2020, I joined scores of other adjunct professors who ended up teaching online. Like everyone else across the country, I learned to keep myself occupied at home when I wasn’t working or traversing the infectious perils of the local supermarket. In June of this year I started reading Kurt Vonnegut novels in the order they were published. There was a reason for this. One of the schools where I used to teach had a different opinion than mine about academic integrity. Our parting left me with more free time than I was used to having.

Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, is a sci-fi tale that concerns itself, in part, with people being replaced by machines in the workplace. It read like so many sci-fi novels of its time. It is my least favorite of Vonnegut’s novels. Technically, the novel is rendered well enough. For me, it read like a Heinlein novel with not as much sassy, sexist, smarmy dialogue.

My intention here is not to review every single Vonnegut novel. Though I will say that in no particular order, for a variety of  reasons, the author’s books that resonated most so far are Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and The Sirens of Titan.

I should probably mention that my first exposure to Kurt Vonnegut’s work came when my father mentioned that I should read him. That was probably when I was in high school. I didn’t get to any of Vonnegut’s work until the mid-1980s when I stopped into an airport bookstore and purchased a paperback copy of Palm Sunday. The reason I didn’t heed my father’s suggestion was because that was what teenage boys were expected to do. Anyway, Palm Sunday served as a good introduction for me to Vonnegut’s writing. I was nineteen years old, still in my first year of a three-year enlistment in the army. It was the only one the army ever offered for that odd length of time. The reason for this, as it was explained decades later to me by my former company commander, was that the option I had chosen—a program they called COHORT which stood for Cohesion, Operational Readiness, Training—turned out to be a disaster. He even directed me to a study done by the army. The study said the COHORT program was supposed to build morale since soldiers went to basic training together and served at their regular unit as one group. The study also echoed my old company commander’s assessment. The reason for this was because he pretty much memorized the study chapter and verse.

The year I had purchased that copy of Palm Sunday I was a long way off from my ETS (End of Time in Service) date, and wrestling with my father’s recent death, a budding love-hate relationship with alcohol, and an insatiable appetite for books of any sort that called into question the ludicrous notion of patriotism.

The post library at Fort Campbell was equivalent to a decent community library. There I was able to take out books like Howl from Allen Ginsberg and The Communist Manifesto. One day on a lunch break I got a dressing down from a junior officer when he saw me reading The Communist Manifesto, one of those mooks raised on fairy tales of Old Glory and Patriotism. It was also the 1980s. The Soviet Union was still very much on everyone’s mind. There was a guy in our unit who had given away all his possessions in a show of solidarity with workers of the world everywhere. The reason for this was because he was not a communist so much as he was a lunatic.

I don’t like to dwell too long on my army days, though I do sometimes write about it. The reason for not thinking about those years ad nauseum is because I had a life after uniform. Some guys I know like to live in the past, telling stories of glory days. Not me. The reason for this was because I didn’t very much like those years. Enough digression. Let’s move on.

Yesterday I started Jailbird. And when I say started I mean I’m still reading the introduction that Vonnegut penned. The day before that I finished Breakfast of Champions. I can’t say I am a fan of an author placing himself in his own novel, even if some critics call it ‘experimental.’ Nevertheless, it made an impression on me…again. The reason for this is because, as he does in so many of his other novels, Vonnegut had a lot to say about America; not much, if any of it, is favorable. There’s good reason for that. If you haven’t read Vonnegut’s novels, give them a try. If you did read them, perhaps it’s time to revisit them like I did.

My Precious, or Weird Things about Writers

Writers have weird writing habits; some more strange than others. I read somewhere recently about a dozen or so writers who get up in the morning and write without fail. Then there were the powerhouses like Ray Bradbury who advocated for joy in writing. Others, I am sure, were tormented. We all know their stories. Somewhere, a long time ago, I read about Henry Miller who would not write at night; not anything serious. He preferred to go out and explore places (read: visit whorehouses, no doubt), or just go read in a café somewhere. I wonder what Miller would have made of all the internet cafés and people taking up space in chain coffee joints like Starbucks.

In college, we read Flaubert among others. My professor in that class raved about how Flaubert would agonize all day over a single sentence. I didn’t get it back then, but I do now.

Hemingway would quit for the day just when it was getting good.

Thomas Wolfe was famously reported to have shouted “Ten thousand words!” one day when he hit that benchmark. I was always a fan of Wolfe. But more than Wolfe I admire Henry James; not so much for his portrayal of Americans meeting Europeans or his use of interior monologue and unreliable narrators. What I admire is how he wrote so much in longhand first. Writing with a pen and paper (or pencil if you prefer), lends a different pace to writing, to the process, that typing at a computer cannot.

Some writers leave the comfort (or chaos) of their own homes and go to a writing studios or an office. I never understood this. But then I am not in a position to write full-time for a living so I don’t know if that would work for me or not.

Other writers carve out a niche in their homes; one author I friended on Facebook wrote of how her children had, on some quest that only children understand, invaded the sanctity of that space recently. I suspect there is a story in that day. Perhaps she will remember it and write it down in the future.

I think most writers, to a degree, have a ritual they go through before getting down to business. Kerouac, it’s been pointed out all over the internet, used to write by candlelight. Later, he prayed to God to keep his mind intact. And, speaking of the beats, I remember reading somewhere once that Ginsberg often sat naked at a desk composing poems.

Like famous authors, the writer plying his trade in secret also has his quirks. For instance, I have this pen. It’s my favorite. I bought it eight or so years ago at a Papyrus stationary store of all places. It was a steal at fifteen bucks. My pen is black, thick and fits my hand nicely. I covet that pen. And yes since then I have purchased countless replacement ink refills for it. One time, the cap cracked and I repaired it with some epoxy. It was as good as new.

Recently, I attended an orientation for adjunct professors at a school where I started teaching. It was the usual fair for an English department meeting: endless talk about essay lengths for incoming freshmen, departmental policy that, at least for me, turned into a hypnotic white noise that was broken only by the cackle of some veteran adjuncts who sounded like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth on crack. At one point, a blank sheet of paper was passed around to collect email addresses.

One of the veteran adjuncts leaned across the aisle of desks in a classroom where our meeting took place and asked to borrow my pen. Not just any pen. THE PEN. She must have thought I was a lunatic as I went into my beat-up book bag to find another. I didn’t have one. Begrudgingly, I let her borrow my precious but I never took my eyes off her, fearing she may abscond with my powerful talisman and leave me mojo-less. I got my pen (THE PEN) back, but after the meeting I couldn’t help thinking that its magical powers had somehow been diminished, contaminated by alien hands.

It’s been a busy start to the semester and this weekend is the first time since last week that I’ve been able sit down and write something. With the pen I wrote two new poems. Later tonight, I’ll go back to work on my novel; one I am writing the first draft, you guessed it, by hand. Pray the pen still works for me. Without my sacred Precious, I would be lost.