“An old man passed me on the street today;
I thought I knew him but I couldn’t say.
I stopped to think if I could place his frame.
When he tipped his hat I knew his name. Hello old friend,
It’s really good to see you once again.”
Those are lyrics from an Eric Clapton song, Hello Old Friend, that began to rumble in my head yesterday as I was strolling along my own garden path in Suan Rod Fai Park in Bangkok, Thailand in the year 2022. Fresh air, nature, and no distractions – the cell phone was turned off. It wasn’t quite Walden Pond, yet it was a welcome respite from the perfunctory chores, work, and habits I left behind.
What happened next was interesting. Creative thoughts entered my consciousness. A visit from my muse – an old friend of sorts. This blog is like another old friend to me. A friend I haven’t spent a lot of time with since March of 2020. It got me thinking about writing and reading, and a little bit less about arithmetic.
I am pondering whether it is now easier or harder to read in the Covid era? At first blush you would think it would be the former. Reading books, particularly novels, tends to be a socially distanced activity, so what better time to beef up the reading schedule? Read here now, to paraphrase Ram Dass.
My favorite 20th Century American novelist is Kurt Vonnegut – by far. Vonnegut made reading literature fun for me. As John Irving said, “It’s not easy being easy to read.” It seems like just a few years ago, but is more likely 6 or 7, when I re-read Slaughterhouse-Five. It was great when I first read it around 1971 and great still. Vonnegut has his share of critics. What successful author doesn’t? Not deep, some say. Surely Vonnegut was plenty deep enough for a California High School kid who was keen to join the “question authority” movement.
So the thought was, return home and write a blog piece on writing and reading and favorite authors. Good intentions and all that. Instead, I chose to watch the 2021 documentary, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. All 2 hours and 7 minutes of it. Bravo. If you are a Vonnegut fan or a fan of reading or writing, I recommend that you do the same. Unless, of course, your first response to that suggestion is, “Okay, Boomer.” Then you might want to give it a pass.
The documentary was forty years in the making. First pitched by Robert B. Weide in 1982 in a letter to Vonnegut. Kurt took his time in replying to the then and still ardent fan. Weide is best known, now, for his work on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but in 1982 he had exactly one production credit to his name, a PBS documentary on the Marx Brothers. (Note to self: check it out.) The end product is as much a story about a 2 1/2 decades-long friendship as it is about the life, legacy and craft of one of America’s most beloved 20th Century authors.
My minor complaint with the documentary is that Weide not only interjects himself more than would seem necessary but essentially becomes the co-star as well as the co-director. The construction is disjointed by design with a theme being that past, present, and future comingle. Billy Pilgrim would no doubt approve. As Vonnegut states during the documentary, “My books are mosaics of jokes,” he tells us, “about serious things.” So it seems is Weide’s documentary, with equal parts of comedy and tragedy being recorded. It turns out the likable author was not always likable to those nearest and dearest to him. After Kurt’s beloved sister, Alice, died a mere two days after her husband was tragically killed in a 1958 commuter train accident outside of New York City, Kurt took in his four nephews into his Cape Cod home, where they were joined by Kurt’s own family, including first wife, Jane. The reflections by his seven children, both positive and negative, make for some of the best parts of the documentary.
When well deserved fame and fortune finally arrived for Kurt, other fortunes changed for him also. There is plenty of expected talk about WWII and Dresden, which left Kurt with an inappropriate laugh among other things. It is what occurs in his life from the late 1940s on, until his breakout novel, Slaughterhouse-Five arrives on the scene in 1969 that I enjoyed most.
There is a quote in the documentary that got me thinking again about my stroll in the park and the age of Covid that we all find ourselves living in in early 2022. Vonnegut says, “This day is as real as any we’re going to live, and yet we have an idea that we’re headed for other days, and better days.”
Kurt Vonnegut was my kind of philosopher when I was seventeen-years old and I still enjoy hearing his philosophy on life some fifty years later. He died almost fifteen years ago. The Pall Mall’s never killed him; it was our common enemy, time the conqueror, that got him in the end.
Thanks for the books and the memories, Kurt. It was really good to see you once again.