Kurt Vonnegut, Jr
Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007, has been one of my personal heroes since I discovered his work. Sometime in 1974 I was discussing life with a bartender when he asked me if I was familiar with Vonnegut, I was not. He told me about play that was showing and recommended that I see it. The show was Happy Birthday Wanda June by Kurt Vonnegut. I was enthralled. I went to the book store and purchased Player Piano, Mother Night, Siren’s of Titan, etc. etc. etc. My personal library now has quite a few first edition hardcover and other special editions of Vonnegut’s writings.
This is also about the time that I discovered humanism and joined Humanists of Utah. Kurt Vonnegut was the Honorary President of the American Humanist Association at the time. I was actually thrilled when I got my first mail from the AHA, the return address was under the name: Kurt Vonnegut!! My first HoU summer picnic was a potluck luncheon attended by maybe a dozen people. For my food contribution, since the picnic was held on my own birthday, I went to a bakery and bought a birthday cake decorated with the phrase, “Happy Birthday Wanda June.” In the play Wanda June’s role is that of a little girl who was hit and killed by a car the day before her birthday. The cake, which had it’s price discounted because the family did not pick it up, was purchased by one of the actual characters in the play who was returning to his dysfunctional family after may years on Safari Hunts in Africa. A lot of Vonnegut plots can be described as “dysfunctional.”
Sometime in the early 1990s, I was made aware a Kickstarter (fund raiser) to bank roll a biographical film about Vonnegut. I donated with a promise of a DVD and listing my name in the movie credits. Fast forward 40 years or so and that Documentary, Unstuck in Time, has been released to movie theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime. There is no chance that I will get the DVD as I have moved, probably twice, and changed my email address, again probably twice, but my name is in the second-to-last line of the credits! A website for the project also lists my name and has a link “to my website,” which I entered so long ago, as humanistsofutah.org.
“Unstuck in Time” is part of the opening sentence of Slaughterhouse 5, or the Children’s’ Crusade. It is among the boldest and clearest pacifistic arguments ever made. Vonnegut served in Europe during World War II and was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in a hog slaughterhouse outside of Dresden during the Allied Fire Bombing of that city. He spent many weeks pulling dead bodies out of basements after the attack. The subtitle makes the point that most of the soldiers were, and still are, children. The so-called Children’s Crusade of 1212 CE, was a movement of two armies of perhaps 20,000 children. They had no money for transport and many were sold into slavery. Many Vonnegut fans who already know this will also know that the last line of the novel is, “One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?” The documentary features a small animated bluebird, sometimes just a black and white drawing, of a bird that hops around and poo-tee-weets.
I am dedicating this newsletter to the memory of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and filling it with book reviews of his work from our website published over the years. Not all of the reports will fit in this printed newsletter but they are all on our website.
Happy Holidays and Seasons Greetings!
My hope is that this newsletter finds you well, safe, and happy. While we all embark on the end of this current year, this is a time of reflection, celebration, hope and promise for the future. Even though, we are still in the throes of much turmoil with the pandemic, political issues, community issues and personal struggles, there is so much to be hopeful for. There is good news all around us for us to work with, surround ourselves with, plug into and participate with. As humanists, we do not embrace the traditional holiday affairs which are centered around religious ideology. But this season is not exclusive to these beliefs. There are many holidays and celebrations to be had worldwide and personally that are fully encompassed with this time of year. There is a general sense of gratitude, community connectedness, service and love now that is heightened. Find what makes you happy, go toward what calls to you, reach out within your levels of safety and comfort for connection and know that we, in this group, care and are here. This month is our HumanLight celebration. We will be doing it remotely. You will receive emails with the worksheet and friendly reminders. It is a wonderful way to connect and is family friendly. We hope for the time when we can get back to meeting in person again, but we do not know when that will be – so we will be doing more events online and providing awesome content for you all to enjoy.
Happy holidays to you all and the very best wishes from me and the rest of your Board for the ending to 2021.
All of us do holidays in our own special way… we have family and personal traditions when it comes to what we serve at a meal or how we decorate a Christmas tree, or who performs which tasks.
One fascinating insight from history is that holidays are combined and personalized across centuries and cultures as well. For example, for Christians Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus, but it’s name comes from the pagan Ostara. Jesus died during the Jewish festival of Passover, which commemorated the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, which in turn originated as a Spring festival related to the birth of the season’s lambs.
Similarly, Christmas supposedly celebrates Jesus’ birth, though we don’t know when he was born (though historians are quite sure he was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem), though it may have been during the spring. Who was born December 25? Mithras, an originally Persian God as woshipped by the Romans. December 25 is also time to celebrate the time when days lengthen after the winter solstice, when light overcomes the darkness. Sol Invictus. The “unconquered son” was celebrated on December 25 and associated with the Persian God Mithra. And many of our current Christmas traditions come from the Nordic celebration of Yule. See how that works?
Most holidays celebrate the shifting of seasons and the flow of life, especially in temperate climates when summer is bright and hot and winter is dark and cold. Agricultural life has its patterns–birth and planting in the spring, work in the summer, harvest in the fall in preparation for the challenges of winter. Celebrating these milestones help encourage groups to work and especially to cooperate. As a bonus, many of the celebrations are fun! Unless you are dinner.
What does this have to do with Humanism? We don’t tend to believe in Santa or even Jesus Christ, but our disbelief in traditional mythology need to diminish our appreciation for the holiday season. This month I want to celebrate HumanLight with you, while also encouraging you to develop your own holidays and rituals.
HumanLight is a made up holiday made up later than the other made up holidays. The New Jersey Humanists founded the holiday in 2001, and it was adopted by the American Humanist Association in 2004. HumanLight celebrates Humanist values such as reason, compassion, and hope. In honor of the theme of light in darkness, our HumanLight focus is going to be Grief, Gratitude, and Growth.
We need to honor each of these to process our feelings and show up to life in healthy ways. We are often tempted to take shortcuts and avoid pain and challenge, but we know we can’t. One invitation from Covid-19 is that has shown us many truths. Many of these truths are unpleasant, such as the actual views of our family members, but Covid has also highlighted the power of science, the preciousness of relationships, and the fragility of the status quo. Covid has shown us both darkness and light, and both the limits and power of humanity.
This December 9th, we will gather together, apart, to grieve what we have lost and regret, to express gratitude for all we have, and to both celebrate and set intention for present and future growth.
—Chaplain Jared Anderson
What is a Humanist?
Do you know what a humanist is?
My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorable as we can with any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. My father and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can with only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity which is our community.
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 sait at one point, “Isaac is up in heaven now.” It was the funniest think 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 hop you will say, “Kurt is up in heaven now.” That’s my favorite joke.
How do humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all humanists do, “If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?”
A Man without a Country
I am a little surprised at the selection of Vonnegut’s work that has been reviewed in our newsletter over the years. It leaves out most his most famous and well read novels:
Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Mother Night, Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, Deadeye Dick, Galapagos, and Bluebeard.
Here is a list of linked articles (click to be taken to the review on our website)
The printed version of this newsletter included a review of Jailbird which is linked above