When we talk about community, we can not avoid talking about influence. Communities of practice, communities of faith, communities of family, communities of thought - all exchange influence. Influence has many negative connotations, but has many positive ones as well.
When I think of the African quote "It takes a village to raise a child," I think about my nephews and about young Spencer Thompson who are quite blessed to have cohesive villages in which to grow and mature.
Villages, provide a gentle influence and usually a social framework that people usually benefit from, rebel against and then later adopt an outright grudging appreciation for. It seems there's also a difference between people who are your influences and people who raise you. Where raising is done by people who give you both an ethical bedrock and boulders of massive epiphany.
And I look back and wonder who, precisely, raised me? Who went beyond influence to providing both life lessons and a wealth of a-ha moments? Who helped me realize my successes and interpret my failures?
To list my influences would take days or months. To do them justice in describing their impacts would take years.
But I'm going to give a shot at listing who raised me because Kurt Vonnegut passed away last night and he's one of those people.
One quick caveat: I am intentionally leaving out five guys I grew up with because my relationship with them seems intrinsically different. When I figure out why, I'll write about that too.
So, let's explore this a bit:
Irma and Emmet - My paternal grandparents were so Nebraskan they were specifically named to fit the bill. I spent a lot of time with them in the late 60s and early 70s. I would travel out to Scottsbluff, Nebraska (which is quite a hike from Omaha) and we would either spend the summer there or out in the mountains of Wyoming. You really couldn't describe my grandparents any other way than decent.
I have always had a temper that I won in the genetic lottery from my mother's side of the family. I've also often tried to mellow those explosions with memories of my grandfather - whom I have no recollection of ever exploding. My grandmother was a meddler, and I also have a bit of that.
But more than anything, I've found my grandparents to have left this earth with good will. And somehow, even as a little kid, that had an impact on me. Even when I was a self-destructive crazed teenager - I always tried to be a nice self-destructive crazed teenager.
My Parents - I have written about this before, but grew up on a remarkably stable family ship that sailed on a sea of economic uncertainty. While Reagan was telling us "Trust but Verify" we were learning that first hand. For several years we were severely impacted by people who overpromised and under delivered, who honestly didn't know their own limitations, who were lied to in other parts of the business chain, people who were seriously petty, and a few genuine assholes.
Through all of this, my parents did their best to make the best of what we had when we had it. It's easy for everyone in the family to Monday Morning Quarterback what happened between 1975 and 1985 - but it's also immaterial. We didn't lick our wounds then, there's no reason to do so now.
What came out of that was a strong family connection that persists today, a respect for life's unexpected drama, a drive to succeed, and a commitment to make sure that home is healthy.
Kurt Vonnegut - What the hell is Kurt Vonnegut doing here? He'd be the first to ask.
I first read Slaughterhouse Five when I was 13 years old. There is a scene where Billy Pilgrim is in Dresden right after the firebombing. The Nazis have brought out his POW squad to help clean up after the massacre. Of course, Dresden is in ruins. The POWs are warned not to loot the city and any looting will be met with immediate execution.
The Nazis were not in a good mood.
One of Billy's friends, finds - in the midst of all that destruction - a single porcelain figurine. Intact and beautiful. Out of all the destruction, beauty persists.
He picks it up and presents it as a gift to the Nazi officer in charge of his detail. The Nazi takes it, tells him he's a looter, and has him shot.
It was a scene so poignant and so powerful it penetrated even my sheltered Nebraskan 13 year old brain.
I have read almost everything that Kurt Vonnegut has written. Probably 95%. I have a whole shelf of his works. There was sort of a hand - off from Emmet and Irma to Vonnegut. My grandfather passed away in 1975 and by the time I was 14, my Grandmother was too old to deal with either me or my pubescent moodiness.
Kurt Vonnegut's books took me to weird places with bizarre characters that most people can't see past. But underneath that superficial layer lay a respect for his characters and their situations that was unique. I can list other writers who have healthy respect for their characters (Richard Russo, Orson Scott Card, Dostoyevsky) but never like Vonnegut.
As his books progressed along with him through time they became longer and more calm. His characters were always very flawed, loaded with regrets, and almost always found acceptance, forgiveness or redemption - not because everyone loves a happy ending - but because that's just how life is. You can either forgive or be bitter.
At the time I discovered Vonnegut, I was straying from the Catholic church. The mass of contradiction and hypocrisy I saw in the users of organized religion didn't work for me. But when reading the Bible, I found concepts of value. I began to see that the religions themselves had no real product other than community - but those communities didn't have room for the questions I was asking or my personal sensibilities.
I was still American though, and religion had trademarked concepts like respect and forgiveness. This made me bitter and angry. It seemed like there was no place for those concepts outside of the church.
Reading Vonnegut gave me epiphany after epiphany. Forgiveness isn't external. Respect is a fundamental human need. Bad people exist. Bad people are people. Self-respect can be drained by outside forces. Culture is a product I help create. I am responsible for myself. I am responsible for my culture. Communication is vital. Social Structures naturally corrupt. The results of your actions can be more powerful than your initial action. We are here on earth a short time and beauty is the only reward we get.
So, suffice it to say, I was partially raised by Kurt Vonnegut.
Paul Simon - At six years old, I had a little record-killer recordplayer. It was plastic and huge by today's standards. In 1971 it was considered small. I had three albums. The Limelighters "Meeting Here Tonight", A Kingston Trio LP, and Simon and Garfunkel's "Bookends". Soon, I had every Simon and Garfunkel album. I could sing every song.
I'd end up at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha with my school and be singing "Monkeys stand for honesty, giraffes are insincere and the elephants are kindly but their dummmmmmb."
I also remember lying in my bedroom at night thinking about the songs I was listening to. And ever since then, Paul Simon has been excellent at releasing albums with lines that just nail me. He exposes my fears, points out my weaknesses, and weaves them along with other songs that speak of beauty and human nature. My fears, weaknesses, and the beauty of the world are one.
Lyrics I can quote from an airplane between LA and Seattle:
"seasons change with the scenery, weaving time like a tapestry, won't you stop and remember me?"
"sometimes even music can't substitute for tears"
"when you believe that your are lost love will find you"
"I long to see St. Judy's comet sparkle in your eyes when you awake"
"and what do you think they had hidden away in the cabinet cold of their hearts?"
"maybe these emotions are as near to love as love will ever be…"
"I was wrong and I could be wrong again."
While I was visible punk rocker, you could still find amongst my Dead Kennedys and Gang of Four tapes an offering or two from Paul Simon.
Ann Miner - Have you ever had a successful relationship end? Well, it's possible. I think I'm only mildly overstating (she'll disagree) when I say that about every word you are reading is largely due to Ann Miner, someone I broke up with 16 years ago.
While we have a nice groundwork here for me to be a wonderful human being, I must note that from 1982 to 1985, I was really really angry. I was a bubbling pit of teenage angst. One day my friend Corey yelled at me, "What is your deal? Since grade school you've been the happiest guy I know. Now you're angry all the time? It's pissing me off!" One day my friend Dave noticed I was angry and put on Ackee 1-2-3 by The English Beat which is a song designed to make people in comas smile. I wouldn't smile.
For 30 or so months I was angry. To the point that I forgot how to be anything other than angry.
When I went to college I was still angry and wasn't doing very well. Then Ann came along. Initially she was an abstract concept. "love interest". Suddenly being angry wasn't interesting any more.
I was totally smitten and needed to get straight A's in order to transfer to Michigan State to be with her.
Then we started living together. She taught me how to study. And at that time I really started writing. I was writing for her. I had a zine and published my work and sent it all over the planet. But I was writing for her. Fiction for her, autobiography for her, rants about politics for her.
She'd read it, compliment it, edit it, and give it back. That dynamic, with help and with positive reinforcement, improved my writing, my communication, and my appreciation for what I was capable of.
We had a totally consuming relationship that ended up consuming us before either of us were ready. Sometimes it became quite traumatic. But during that I learned to communicate with another person I cared about, to compromise, that you really don't always get what you want - but often do get what you need, and that people in conflict are … in conflict (handle with care!).
So this piece was (obviously) written because of Vonnegut's passing. I hope that in some way it gives him the respect that he deserves. I could write a literary review - but wanted it more personal than that.
Vonnegut always had an oblique method of storytelling. He'd go left to tell you about right. Shallow to tell you about deep.
I'm telling you about Vonnegut by telling you about me. I am respecting him by respecting others.
I will deeply miss Kurt Vonnegut.
Blogged on Alaska Air Flight 487 from Orange County to Seattle while William sleeps nearby.