- Treat your formal clothes like ordinary men treat their casual clothes
- Treat your casual clothes like ordinary men treat their formal clothes
- Treat plain women like ordinary men treat dishy women
- Treat dishy women like ordinary men treat plain women
- Treat tough gals like ordinary men treat princesses
- Treat princesses like ordinary men treat tough gals
- Always carry a clean pocket handkerchief
30 April 2007
29 April 2007
What with bloggers on the right inspired by the Virgina Tech shooting to pound the table about how brave they would have been in that situation, and how it shows that the victims should have been better-armed, I've been stumbling across a lot of gun stuff on the web lately.
One is a comment over at Making Light.
Since I DO know what it is like to face another human being with a gun in my hand, I wrote this.
Unless you have invested the time and money to be well trained in the defensive use of a handgun, don’t carry one.
Given my background I obviously am not an anti-gun crusader. I believe, however, that the decision to carry a weapon in the office or on the street places an enormous responsibility upon the bearer to obtain excellent training, to commit to frequent practice and refresher training, to choose a weapon ideally suited for you and the purpose, and to stare into the mirror and ask yourself if you could really use it—and if you would make its use a truly last resort.
If you shoot and kill someone in the office you are not going to be celebrated as “Annie Oakley” and carried around the Family Law convention on a sedan chair. You are going to go to a private place and vomit until you don’t think you will ever be able to stand up straight again.
Igloowhite at Everything2 has a dazzling little memoir on the subject, I glimpse the elephant, which says some wry and wise things about the unwholesome romance between men and guns.
Men who have been in combat will often say that there is no comparable experience to it in the whole of the world. They say it's like a car accident, that it is totalizing terror, that it is like watching yourself in a movie, that it is like many things. The usual metaphor is the old story of the three blind men and the elephant. One man touches the trunk and says, “It's like a hose.” One man touches the elephant's side and says, “It's like wall with a tapestry.” One man grabs the tail and says, “It's like a rope.” But until you see the whole thing, at once, you'll never know what it really is. This is the reason that men have often called their first combat experience “seeing the elephant.”
Seeing the elephant is some serious shit—as serious as it gets, so let me be right up front with this: I have not seen the elephant. I have glimpsed it, however—and that little peek was enough for me.
And I've got another memoir from a guy who was trampled by the elephant, and reports what a gunshot feels like:
My name is Jesse (online name Danny Bishop). I myself was shot--in the chest--on November 27th, 1994, at point-blank range with a .22" magnum revolver (single-action, convertable--to.22" LR with alternate cylinder). The bullet was likely 40-grain; the type: .224 caliber high velocity (WMR--Winchester Magnum Rimfire, MAxiMag), with a nominal muzzle velocity of 1,550 fps, from a likely 6.5" handgun barrel (applied pressure, point blank: 324 foot pounds per sq. inch). I can tell you--not from watching it happen--but from actually experiencing it, exactly what it was like. First of all, there was the most incredible, shocking impact you could ever imagine--equivalent with having an M-80 (quarter stick of dynmamite) go off in your shirt pocket--and I can tell you, I was sent reeling. It felt like I was thrown back good 2-to-5 feet or more, as my legs gave out on me. There was simultaneously, a feeling like a bomb went off INSIDE of my chest, and that of being jack-hammered through my chest wall--all of this, all at once. Then, everything semed to go into slow motion, as undoubtedly, a large amount of adrenaline was released from my adrenal medulla, causing my central nervous system synaopses to fire faster--like a high-speed camera, producing a slow motion effect. I was later told that the bullet (not surprisingly) ricocheted around in my chest like a pinball, first penetrating my entire chest mass, fracture and bounce off my left scapula, hurle back through my chest again, fracture a rib, and then bounce back through, trace a path around another rib (and puncture the pleural lining of my left lung), next flying straight into my spinal collumn, fracturing my T-9 and T-10 thoracic vertebrae, and transecting my spinal cord (I am now paraplegic). Feeling all of this, all at once, was equivalent roughly, I suppose, was like being shot three times or more, not to mention that waves of paresthesia (tingling) echoed and serged throughout my body. My feeling in my legs was gone, just like that, at the same time I was flying backward--into a chair and a desk. Oddly, at that moment, I was hell-bent on protecting my head. Finally, laying on the ground in that room, only a good 30 seconds or so post-impact, I felt my left lung begin to squeeze, and my breaths were agonizingly painful and teribly short. Every breath was a knife turning in my lung. Then, I began to loose my vision--like white-out erasing my visual field) as I began to go into hypo-volemic shock (low blood volume). I lost my ability to see temporarily, and could not tell what was going on around me. Then I passed out for what was probably thirty minutes. It was a darn miracle that I did not die, as a doctor later told me, the bullet almost 'curved' around my heart, within a centimeter or two of hitting it or a major blooc vessel (it could have easily hit me right in the inferior, or even the superior, veina cava, near the heart muscle, in which case death would have followed in 1-2 minutes or even fewer, and unconsciousness in thirty seconds or less. As to the question: 'Does a person writhe in agony?'--No, I personally did not WRITHE in agony, like I had been lit on fire, but I was instantly thrown into the most excruciating, truly agonizing experience of pain I have ever known--and I have had chronic spinal pain ever since, being on prescriptions such as morphine sulfate, Dilaudid (hydromorphone HCl) and levorphanol tartrate. The reason I was not WRITHING in agony is I was knocked into a state of indescribable shock, and was incapable of much, if any movement. However, after waking up thirty minutes or so after passing out, I managed to sit up, despite my paralysis, and I still remember--even though my pain had deminished somewhat at that point, due... undoubtedly, to endorphin release--the feeling of warm blood pouring down my shirt, and adding tot he pool of blood underneath me, the veinous flow coming directly from the now hot, burning wound on, and in, my chest. I laid there for about four more hours before someone found me--I could barely whisper, much less yell, due to my 16% or so lung capacity, and as it turns out, nearly two liters... the amount of fluid in a large soda pop bottle, on my left lung... like a refridgerator crushing the left side of my chest--and by the time the paramedics got there, I was in utter shock. I was also beginning to hurt so badly again that no words can describe it. It was horrible. Hospitalization was no picnic either, let me tell you. Even after draining off the fluid once with a chest tube--a rubber catheter inserted through your ribs, into the pleural lining of your lung, they gave me what is known as positive-pressure respiratory treatment, and the inflation of my lung popped a blood vessel and caused additional pleurasy, and another 'hemothorax'. Originally, I also had air trapped in my chest--a pneumothorax, which they had to releave with a cannula. That hurt too! After two additional chest tubes and having to bear down to force the reddish.-brown fluid out of my chest cavity and into a collector, I finally regained around 98% lung capacity, amazingly, and then--one month after arriving at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in the Bay Area, California, I began Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation. I had to learn to deal with having little control over my bowels, having to learn how to do a 'bowel program' with suppositories, and the fact that I had no feeling in my groin--meaning no future physical sexual feelings, and no ability to masturbate--and still having a huge sex drive... how do you like that?--I had almost no way to relieve tension, escept exciesize, for endorphin release, and taking my pain meds. What made it worse was, before I was shot, at age 16, I had never had sex, and never had a girlfriend, eventhough I can say honestly I am, and have long been, a very attractive man. And even though I have had half a dozen girlfriends now, ten years later, dating was no fun... having to explain my limitations. In October of 2003 however, I had one of the happiest days of my life, howver, when I married my wife, Jennifer. My dad was my best man. However, even being married, and having a willing sexual partner, I find myself doing almost all of the pleasing, and I suppose I will never know what it is like to be inside a woman--to actually FEEL it at all--or orgasm therein. Any of you out there who have had there experience, count yourselves as lucky. Unless there's sex in there Hereafter--and I hope there is... with my wife, I'm talking, right now--I suppose I will never know what sex is like. You have no idea how angry that makes me, and how much pent up sexual frustratipn a guy has after a decade of no orgasmic release. Hey, that may sound shallow, but TRY IT SOME TIME. It's funny, though. So many people, when finding out I was shot in the chest, ask the same question. "Did it... hurt?" Um, yeah, it was the most agonizing thing I ever experience, and could ever imagine experiencing, and so I can definately say, 'It wasn't like a massage.' But hey, I understand what fascination people have with pain and extreme injury. After all, before I was shot, watching action movies, I wondered what it was like. Some people have imediate endorphine releases and never have such pain symptomatology. I remember lying in bed, in the hospital, with this bloddy patch over theupper, left quadrant of my chest, thinking, "Wow. Was I really shot? Am I really shot??" it's hard to believe, when it happens to you. And assuming, if you will, that there's an Afterlife, I bet people, being delivered the news that they are dead, think/say to themselves, "Wow. Am I really dead? Dead?" Anyway, I won't bore you any further. I'll just leave you with, "Being shot--does it... hurt?" Yes, sir-ee, my friend. It most certainly... does. So now you know, like I have... for ten years. : )
That harrowing account is almost two-thirds of the way down the page.
28 April 2007
I Don't Think You Quite Grasp This Manliness Business
Electric guy to himself: Where's my gloves?
Grip guy: Gloves? I don't use gloves. I use my bare hands like a man! Only pussies use gloves. Are you a pussy? Be a man, ya pussy.
Electric guy: But then my skin will get all dry and crack and stuff.
Grip guy: Duh, well, yeah. That's why you have to moisturize.
--Movie set of I Am Legend
Overheard by: Another electric guy
27 April 2007
Sounds reasonable, but it would leave us all less safe.
Background checks are based on the dangerous myth that we can somehow pick terrorists out of a crowd if we could identify everyone. Unfortunately, there isn’t any terrorist profile that prescreening can uncover. Timothy McVeigh could probably have gotten one of these cards. So could have Eric Rudolph, the pipe bomber at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. There isn’t even a good list of known terrorists to check people against; the government list used by the airlines has been the butt of jokes for years.
And have we forgotten how prevalent identity theft is these days? If you think having a criminal impersonating you to your bank is bad, wait until they start impersonating you to the Transportation Security Administration.
The truth is that whenever you create two paths through security—a high-security path and a low-security path—you have to assume that the bad guys will find a way to exploit the low-security path. It may be counterintuitive, but we are all safer if the people chosen for more thorough screening are truly random and not based on an error-filled database or a cursory background check.
I think of Clear as a $100 service that tells terrorists if the F.B.I. is on to them or not. Why in the world would we provide terrorists with this ability?
26 April 2007
You may have heard that the Supreme Court just upheld the Federal abortion ban law passed in '03. The law prohibits abortions in the second trimester, even when necessary to protect the health of the mother.
The blogger behind Disgusted Beyond Belief has seen what the implications of this law would have been for his wife.
Nothing is stopping the bleeding. There seems to be nothing they can do. They talk about trying some drugs, but then they decide things are going too fast to give time to let them work. So that leaves only surgery as a possibility. Surgery means hosing her out. It means killing the baby. So obviously, we look into other options. Only now, my wife is so out of it, from blood loss, from the painkillers, that the doctor said she is no longer able to legally consent. Now I'm handed a clipboard. On it is consent to basically give my wife an abortion and kill our future child. And it is all on me, my decision, mine alone. Something I never thought I'd ever face, ever have to deal with. Made worse by being a decision of either kill the baby or potentially watch both my wife and the baby die. The doctors did not say at this point that it was absolutely necessary. Maybe more blood could be transfused in. Maybe she wasn't dilated—they hadn't figured it out yet. Still too much blood. So then there I was, facing the sort of choice that you usually see only in hypotheticals in ethics and philosophy classes. Only it was real. It was my wife. And I didn't have exactly a lot of time to think about it. It was just me and the clipboard. An empty line there, marked for my signature. My wife bleeding right next to me. The ultrasound of my baby, and its heartbeat, fresh in my mind from minutes before. I cannot begin to describe how I felt at that moment. One cannot know until you are in it. I won't even try. I hope I never feel that way again.
The next woman in this situation will die unless the doctors break the law, which could put them in jail. I know doctors who will take the risk, but they shouldn't have to.
DBB reports that the thought that he would have been spared the pain of this awful decision does not comfort him. Imagine that. Instead, he's angry that the US Federal government thinks it should be making these decisions for women ... and for him.
In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, I am joining with hundreds of thousands of people all across America who are standing together to declare that America won't stand for abortion bans that threaten women's health.
I believe that a woman's personal medical decisions should be made by her, in ways consistent with her own values and in consultation with her doctor and family. And I am deeply offended by politicians acting to take these intensely private decisions out of women's hands.
My message to politicians seeking to capitalize on the Supreme Court's reckless decision is clear and simple: We won't let you get away with it.
Now's a good time to throw them a little money, too.
No problem. Scientific American has your back.
You want extra credit? Spend a little time with Bell's Inequality, to warm up for the news that the sequel version, Legett's Inequality, has been tested experimentally and it turns out that the universe is not only non-local, it is definitely observer-dependent.
25 April 2007
Seriously, is Cheney trying to make himself into a cartoon supervillian?Now the Poor Man's stock-in-trade is making the horrors of the Bush administration funny. And the Veep's travel arrangements are, in fact, kind of horrifying if you think about them. But they are also funny, all by themselves.
24 April 2007
Commercial artist and award-winning jazz bandleader. His day job is drummer for the Rolling Stones.
There's Michael Moorcock. There's a legend told about him, not quite factual.
Moorcock is most famous for writing the Eternal Champion series of fantasy / science fiction novels and stories, most notably the hugely popular ones about Elric, the spooky albino warrior with his spooky magic sword Stormbringer.
In the 1960s Moorcock was publishing New Worlds magazine, which lost money every issue. But guys like Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, and J. G. Ballard were busily reïnventing science fiction in its pages. Mr Moorcock didn't want to change the magazine and he didn't want to let it to go under. So every so often, the magazine would go broke and Moorcock would retreat into a room with a typewriter, a ream of paper, and a lot of amphetamines. Three days later he would emerge with enough Elric to keep the magazine afloat for a while longer.
Then there's my man Steven Soderbergh.
His avocation is directing gutsy, experimental, flawed, ideosyncratic films like Kafka, Bubble, Full Frontal, and The Limey. (OK, The Limey isn't flawed, it's perfect.) Or my favourite example, spending a fifty million bucks of other people's money to do a remake of Russian master filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's long, slow, brilliant philosophical science fiction film Solaris.
And then, when he runs out of money for these things, he just rounds up a bushel basket of the biggest stars in Hollywood and cranks out another one of these.
23 April 2007
20 April 2007
Like a lot of restless Americans, I was charmed by Senator John McCain during the 2000 primaries. A friend of mine described a journalist who was covering the campaign saying that McCain just fell under a spell there for a while, and started telling the truth ... and discovered that he liked it. So there he was, talking frankly about campaign finance—and for a while there, it seemed like he was genuinely reconsidering from first principles the policy questions that journalists were asking him. I remember a weird interview where a reporter asked him a hypothetical question about his daughter wanting an abortion, and he admitted that had just never occurred to him before, and he needed to think about it.
So I confess: I registered Republican for the one and only time in my life, so I could vote for him in the California primary. I wasn't sure that I wanted him to be President, but I wanted to find out what he would turn into because maybe, just maybe, the drug of truth would get him past his reflexive conservatism and turn him into something else. Something new. Maybe a Republican I could at least respect. Maybe a Republican I wouldn't mind seeing win. Maybe even a Republican I would vote for.
Well, maybe not.
The honeymoon didn't last. By the time the 2000 election had come around, he had reverted to form. And since then he's compromised everything there was to like about him, turned into a tool for the worst aspects of the Republican party, and gone past even that to become one of the most dangerous war hawks in American politics.
I've been meaning for quite a while to do a long post full of resources unpacking all of that, pointing to lefty bloggers who have been watching him closely, because I know that some folks are still imprinted on the McCain of Summer 2000. But I find that now I don't have to, because in less than a minute of video he demonstrates why he deserves neither power, nor a platform to speak from, nor even respect.
19 April 2007
I think that Hilzoy's long essay Liberating Iraq has made me categorically more pacifist than I was before I read it.
This is another one of those posts where I'm giving you a long quote, but do so in hopes of whetting readers' appetites to go read the whole thing. The essay is a marvel.
Back in 1983, I sat in on a conference on women and social change. There were fascinating people from all over the world, women who had been doing extraordinary things in their own countries, and who had gathered together to talk it through; and I got to be a fly on the wall.
During this conference, there was a recurring disagreement about the role of violence in fighting deeply unjust regimes. On one side were the women from India, who argued against the use of violence, generally on Gandhian grounds. On the other were many of the women who lived under deeply unjust regimes; I recall, in particular, the South Africans arguing that however laudable nonviolence might be, their situation was sufficiently desperate that they could not afford the luxury of waiting for nonviolence to work.
It seemed to me that at the heart of this disagreement was this one fact: that the women from India were from a country that had already achieved independence, and were living with the problems that came afterwards, whereas the women from South Africa were trying to achieve that self-government in the first place. The South Africans seemed to think that the women from India had forgotten what it was like to be subjugated. We need to win our freedom as quickly as possible, they seemed to say. We realize that it would be preferable to win that freedom in the best possible way. If we could win it just as quickly through non-violent means, we would surely do so. But you would not ask us to wait if you really understood what it is like to live in slavery.
By contrast, many of the arguments made by the Indians turned on the effects that achieving self-government through violence had on one's own people.
So one thing I thought that the Indian women saw was this:
Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.
And another was this: liberation is not just a matter of removing an oppressive government. It can seem that way when you live under tyranny. Nothing is more comprehensible than people living in apartheid South Africa, or under Saddam, thinking: if only that government were removed from power, things would be better. They would have to be. After all, how could they possibly be worse?
Unfortunately, there are almost always ways in which things could be worse.
Hilzoy says this in support of criticizing the naïvité of disillusioned Iraq war hawk Peter Beinart.
I admire Peter Beinart's willingness to think about what he got wrong, and why. But while I think that he's right to say that we can't be the country the Iraqis and South Africans wanted us to be—a country wise enough to liberate other countries by force—there's another mistake lurking in the train of thought he describes. Namely:
It's not just that we aren't the country Beinart wanted to think we were; it's that war is not the instrument he thought it was.
Just so. There are cases where war really is the best option available. But those cases are precious few, and when they come, you are already in deep deep trouble.
Update: Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex makes a similar point in In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization, on the way to countering Arthur Chu, a progressive who doubts that we need to speak in good faith in response to conservatives.
A liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel. And yet when liberals enter quarrels, they always win. Isn’t that interesting?
Arthur thinks that liberals who voluntarily relinquish any form of fighting back are just ignoring perfectly effective weapons. I’ll provide the quote:In a war, a real war, a war for survival, you use all the weapons in your arsenal because you assume the enemy will use all the weapons in theirs. Because you understand that it IS a war… Any energy spent mentally debating how, in a perfect world run by a Lawful Neutral Cosmic Arbiter that will never exist, we could settle wars without bullets is energy you could better spend down at the range improving your marksmanship … I am amazed that the “rationalist community” finds it to still be so opaque.
Let me name some other people who mysteriously managed to miss this perfectly obvious point.
The early Christian Church had the slogan “resist not evil” (Matthew 5:39), and indeed, their idea of Burning The Fucking System To The Ground was to go unprotestingly to martyrdom while publicly forgiving their executioners. They were up against the Roman Empire, possibly the most effective military machine in history, ruled by some of the cruelest men who have ever lived. By Arthur’s reckoning, this should have been the biggest smackdown in the entire history of smackdowns.
And it kind of was. Just not the way most people expected.
Mahatma Gandhi said “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” Another guy who fought one of the largest empires ever to exist and won resoundingly. And he was pretty insistent on truth too: “Non-violence and truth are inseparable and presuppose one another.”
Also skilled at missing the obvious: Martin Luther King. Desmond Tutu. Aung San Suu Kyi. Nelson Mandela was smart and effective at the beginning of his career, but fell into a pattern of missing the obvious when he was older. Maybe it was Alzheimers.
Of course, there are counterexamples. Jews who nonviolently resisted the Nazis didn’t have a very good track record. You need a certain pre-existing level of civilization for liberalism to be a good idea, and a certain pre-existing level of liberalism for supercharged liberalism where you don’t spread malicious lies and harass other people to be a good idea. You need to have pre-existing community norms in place before trying to summon mysterious beneficial equilibria.
So perhaps I am being too harsh on Arthur, to contrast him with Aung San Suu Kyi and her ilk. After all, all Aung San Suu Kyi had to do was fight the Burmese junta, a cabal of incredibly brutal military dictators who killed several thousand people, tortured anyone who protested against them, and sent eight hundred thousand people they just didn’t like to forced labor camps. Arthur has to deal with people who aren’t as feminist as he is. Clearly this requires much stronger measures!
Alexander quotes Gandhi, but omits the part of that quotation which echoes Hilzoy:
I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.
I find P.D.Q. Bach delightfully baffling because I cannot put my finger on how, exactly, music can make you laugh. But it does, and in fact the more you know about music, especially “classical” music, the funnier he is.
Anyway, I'm thinking about P.D.Q. today because I've discovered Igudesman & Joo, who are also classical music comedians. Check out the videos on their website, they're funny as hell.
They also, apparently, cribbed a piece of their act from another classical music comedian (who knew this was a genre?), Rainer Hersch, who has an excellent commentary on Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.
18 April 2007
I must say I think the British Army is right. We're all sick of postmodernism, yet we know that there are really only two ways out of it: fundamentalist Islam and communism. I know which side I'm on.
The idea that the British Army is preparing to fight the British middle class does raise the worrying question of who the army is actually for, though. Doesn't the British middle class basically fund the British Army with their taxes? And isn't “the world's middle classes uniting, using access to knowledge, resources and skills to shape transnational processes in their own class interest” pretty much a definition of the normal workings of any republic?
17 April 2007
Bless him, he blames hawks—himself among them—for misjudging just about everything. If there were more like him, I'd be a lot less frightened now.
The stability of these authoritarian and extremist regimes was precisely the problem. A little chaos would only do the region good.
When I think of this chaos argument today I am struck with horror at the stupidity of it. There's no secret about what happens when a state collapses.
There are some now who say that even if the war supporters got a lot of things wrong, so did the opponents, so there you go, that's uncertainty for you. Everyone was wrong, but at least we were on the side of freedom, and they were on Saddam's. But that's just not true. The opponents were right. They said this was extremely risky, they said it might result in countless deaths and instability. They got a lot of details wrong, but that's just the point. For the Iraq invasion to go right, war supporters had to get many predictions right. Opponents knew that if any of those predictions were wrong, the whole thing could fail. So the smart choice was to be cautious.That last is the thing I find most puzzling about our current mediasphere. Why aren't all of the people who advocated for the Iraq war discredited and off the stage?
16 April 2007
I have a friend who's a very serious amateur scholar of ancient civilizations' religions and philosophies. He takes a dim view of Christianity, and figures that if it hadn't come along Pagan thinkers would have come up with universal suffrage and the polio vaccine a thousand years earlier. I keep telling him that universal soteriology leads to a universal conception of the human condition leads to universal human rights, but he ain't buying it.
Ken MacLeod offers another advantage of Christianity while talking about reading old Icelandic sagas as research for an SF novel.
That's what the Icelanders did, by the way. Every so often they'd kill each other and then they'd sue each other. There's one scene where they're about to start killing each other in court, until somebody—obviously an experienced lawyer—points that it's going to be far too expensive, and everyone backs down. About two thirds of the way through the book the whole of Iceland converts to Christianity. It slowly dawns on them that it's OK to forgive people. You don't need to keep up all this vengeance business. Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord. You can just see them thinking, “Christ, what a relief.”
MacLeod also offers some nice stuff about computer games and the War on Adverbs.
15 April 2007
14 April 2007
13 April 2007
Animals were the first things that human beings drew. Not plants. Not landscapes. Not even themselves. But animals. Why?His answer turns out to be a non-answer, that animals are beautiful. But the question remains interesting to contemplate, and the history of drawings of animals that he offers is fascinating.
12 April 2007
Mr Vonnegut's passing has roused me, and I'll try to get back to daily posts. See y'all around.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Like a lot of brainy, vaguely disaffected folks, I read a lot of Mr Vonnegut's writing when I was a teenager. As time went on, I got tired of the self-indulgent clowning that consumed much of novels like Breakfast of Champions, and was disappointed by the Cranky Old Guy rôle he took on late in life.
But Vonnegut did write Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat's Cradle, and either one of those would be more than enough to qualify him as a Great American.
My favourite of his novels was neither of these, but rather his lesser-known little book Mother Night. It's about the moral challenges one faces living in the face of political oppression—which being Vonnegut's work, is a good deal more entertaining than I make it sound. Its lesson is simple, and timely for our current age: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” I'm going to have to track down a copy to reread in honour of his passing.
You might want to check it out, too. It's short, lively, and will make you think, I promise. In the meantime, I just have my father's favourite passage from Slaughterhouse 5:
He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground., to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn't in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.
Cracking good writing, and now we'll never hear any more from him.
Update: Warren Ellis says a few words, Gael Fashingbauer Cooper offers several more, the city of San Francisco remembers, Salon collects some famous folks' remembrances, and Content Love Knowles offers a quote from him appropriate for this moment.
I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, “Isaac is up in heaven now.” It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored.
And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, “Kurt is up in heaven now.” That's my favorite joke.
Kurt is up in Heaven now. So it goes.