Archive for the 'LIMITATIONS' Category

Remembering “Cappy” Hurst

July 24th, 2016

(Note:  When I was preparing my brief remarks for the informal memorial service being held on 24 July 2016 for George Cameron Hurst III in the Lawrence residence of his son Ian, I went on the internet to study the speeches of Melania Trump, to see if there’s anything I could borrow, but there’s nothing there, no there there, so I’m left to my own devices.  Here’s the text of what I wrote and shared with Cappy’s family and friends in Lawrence, KS.)

Reading Cappy Hurst’s obituary in the Lawrence Journal-World reminded me of the fact that Cappy and I both arrived at the University of Kansas in the hectic and tumultuous days of 1969. Because Cappy and my good friend Grant Goodman were both Japanologists, Cappy was among the first people I met socially.

He was trim, tanned, athletic, good-looking, the very picture of the Golden Boy from California. If I remember correctly, he also sported a gold tooth which, whenever he smiled, sparkled and twinkled, like the romantic heroes in the Hollywood movies of a bygone era.

Cappy loved the movies, but the movies we talked about were not Hollywood movies. They were, not surprisingly, given his scholarly academic publication on The Armed Martial Arts of Japan, and his own personal achievement as a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, the movies he loved were the Samurai movies of Mifune, directed by Kurosawa, films like Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Sanjuro, Yojimbo, The Hidden Fortress.

Unlike many gathered here today, I did not manage to keep in touch personally with Cappy after he left Lawrence and the University of Kansas in 1995. What news I had of him and his failing health in recent years, came from Grant Goodman. And when Grant himself passed away in April of 2014, I no longer had any news of Cappy, until I saw his unexpected obituary in the local paper on 10 July 2016.

My best memory of Cappy goes back to 1978, when I needed a young child to pose for a poster for my play HOMERICA, which was being presented with great fanfare in the ballroom of the Kansas Union. I asked Cappy if we could borrow his son Ian for the picture, and Cappy not only agreed, he himself accompanied Ian to the photo shoot. I looked at the poster again today, and was startled to see, not Ian, but Cappy staring back at me, reminding me of what the poet William Wordsworth said, that “the child is father of the man.”

HOMERICA Poster

Precisely because I did not see Cappy after 1995, I have no visual image of him in my mind after 1995, of when he was no longer young and vital. The obituary in the paper said he was 75 years old. That can’t be true, because for me he is, in the words of Bob Dylan, forever young:

“May God bless and keep you always; may your wishes all come true.
May you always do for others, and let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars, and climb on every rung.
May you stay forever young, forever young, forever young…
May you stay forever young.“

Images

Remembering Jack Oruch

July 4th, 2013

The initial news from Jim Carothers:
Dear Colleagues:  I regret to inform you of the passing of Emeritus colleague Jack Oruch on June 6 in Ohio.  Jack came to the University in 1963 and retired in 1997.  He was Chair of the Majors Committee, a predecessor of the current Director of Undergraduate Studies position, and also served as Associate Chair.  His teaching often focused on Shakespeare and on the Freshman-Sophomore Honors courses.  Jack is invariably recalled by those who knew him as a kind, gentle, and friendly colleague, and a hard worker for his students and for all of us.  Elaine Oruch would be happy to hear from colleagues and friends, and she says “the written word is beautiful.”
(Elaine Oruch, 586 Pine Grove Place, Gahanna, Ohio 43230)

From Amy Devitt:
What a wonderful colleague Jack was. I am sorry to hear the news and sorry that so many of you did not get the chance to know him.

From Iris Smith Fischer:
Jack was indeed a wonderful colleague and a very fine Associate Chair.

From Richard Hardin:
Jack and I were friends from the start when I came to KU three years after him. We were the only people in Kansas who had read Drayton’s Poly-Okbion. He was then chair of our undergrad honors program and gave our honors students a sense of belonging somewhere in a huge university of 16,000 students, e.g. with the newsletter he called ‘The Weakly Reader.’ I still encounter students from long ago who remember his Shakespeare and Chaucer courses. A sweet guy.

From Dick Eversole:
The night before I learned of his death, I had a pleasing and vivid dream of Jack as a young man.  He was smiling and happy and dressed ready to teach.  It felt like a gift.  He was indeed a sweet guy and I was very close to him.  As others have said, he was always generous with his time and affection–a good friend.

From Vic Contoski:
I remember Jack’s kindness.  Whenever I would take my wife Dzidka up to the Mayo Clinic, he always called the night before to wish us well.  What a privilege to know him!

From Paul Stephen Lim:
I’m still trying to process the news of Jack’s demise. The first thing I thought of, actually, was a line from Shakespeare’s RICHARD II, which I first read when I took an undergraduate Shakespeare class from Jack in 1969: “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings…”
As many others have already noted, Jack was the sweetest, the gentlest, the kindest person it was ever our fortune to meet and call our friend. During the early years of English Alternative Theatre (EAT) in 1989-1992, before I acquired my own truck, I relied primarily on Jack’s truck to help us transport our sets, furniture, props, costumes.  Not only did Jack provide the trusty truck, but he also drove, and helped to carry things with the rest of the crew! Those were the days, when all our backs were still strong and capable of bearing burdensome loads. Jack’s departure from our midst is a burden we will continue to bear gladly for as long as memory is still with us.

From Mary Davidson:
I wrote to Elaine by snail-mail….Contoski’s and your posts were moving. Oruch and Hardin were among the most honest and generous administrators the Department ever had.

 

Remembering Mike Cherniss

July 3rd, 2013

Mike Cherniss had a wry sense of humor, and he probably had the last laugh when he died on April Fools’ Day (2013) after a long and difficult illness.  At the remembrance party held recently at the home he shared with spouse and partner Jane Garrett, many wonderful stories about Mike were shared by his friends and colleagues from the English department at the University of Kansas, where he was one of two senior medievalists.  Although I did take a Chaucer seminar from Mike in the early 1970s, what we talked about outside of class was mostly about pop culture and the movies.  Mike was from Los Angeles, a graduate from North Hollywood High and U.C. Berkeley, so it’s no surprise that he loved the movies.  I’ll repeat here the same story that I told the group gathered at the remembrance party.

When I first arrived at the University of Kansas as an undergraduate in Spring of 1969, I was dismayed to learn that the five movie theaters and one drive-in in Lawrence only showed the usual Hollywood fare, that there were no foreign films in sight.  Fortunately, I knew some students who were involved with Student Union Activities at the Kansas Union, which had a good offering of movies for students nearly every night of the week.  I asked Katherine Giele, a wonderful lady who ran Student Union Activities at that time, if I could have one night a week for foreign films.  She readily agreed, and so it came to pass that, every Tuesday night during the fall semester in 1969, I was able to show 16mm prints of my favorite foreign films at Dyche Auditorium on campus, adjacent to the Natural History Museum.

Even though the admission charge was only 75 cents, we never had much of a crowd at any of these foreign movies.  The same twelve people would show up for the films, week after week.  Among the apostles were Mike Cherniss and Jane Van Meter, a local legend whom many called “The Blue Lady” because she always wore the same blue dress, blue bonnet, blue shoes, and always carried the same blue purse.  She had been married to a famous Shakespeare scholar; had lived in Paris in the 1930s, worked at “Shakespeare and Company,” Sylvia Beach’s famous bookstore, a favorite gathering place for writers and artists.  Rumor had it that Jane still had in her possession letters from Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson and James Joyce.  But, sadly, in the 1960s, after he had been teaching at the University of Kansas for a number of years, the famous Shakespeare scholar divorced Jane and married someone younger.  And so “The Blue Lady” fell on hard times.  When she showed up on Tuesday nights for the foreign films, she would fish inside her blue purse, and count out the pennies, slowly, painstakingly, one by one, all 75 of them.  One night, Mike Cherniss, who was standing behind her, exclaimed impatiently, “Oh, for God’s sake!”  He pulled out a dollar from his wallet, gave it to me and said, “Jane is my guest tonight, and you can keep the change.”

But the twelve apostles came only when I showed films by more familiar directors like Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Pasolini, Bergman, Kurosawa; and not for less familiar names like Rene Clement, Mauro Bolognini or Serge Bourguinon.  One particular Tuesday night, when the special treat was a film by Henri Verneuil, the only two people in attendance were Mike Cherniss and “The Blue Lady.”  When it became evident that no one else was going to show up, I turned to Mike and wailed mournfully, “Perhaps I should have scheduled a more familiar name.”  Mike put his arm around me and, with a beatific twinkle in his eye, he  said sonorously, “It’s okay, Paul.  Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”  And so the three of us watched one of my favorite foreign films, Henri Verneuil’s ANY NUMBER CAN WIN.

“The Blue Lady” is long since gone. And now Mike Cherniss, too, is no longer with us.  Perhaps her spirit is back in Paris, and his is hovering over the Hollywood hills.  I am happy that I was able to share my passion for foreign films with them.  In retrospect, I am even happier that Mike Cherniss was able to share his passion for Chaucer with me and countless other students through the years.  Perhaps Mike’s departure on April 1st was premeditated, because it now brings to mind the famous opening line from THE CANTERBURY TALES:  “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote…”

 

28 May 2012: Memorial Day Pups

May 28th, 2012

Imelda and Mykee: My Memorial Day Pups

Some friends and I are spending the afternoon of this Memorial Day watching an opera on DVD, a performance of Leos Janacek’s FROM THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD.  Afterwards, we will go to the backyard to spend a few moments with my two faithful and valiant pups, IMELDA (20 May 1987–13 October 1997) and MYKEE (7 June 1997–9 March 2012).  Hardly a day goes by when I do not think about how they both enriched my life, and today we will drink a toast to their memory.

Remembering Mykee

March 20th, 2012

Mykee, a very special keeshond whom Dr. Tom Liebl had nicknamed “the miracle dog” because of everything she had been through, died in my arms, her eyes weary but wide open, at noon on Friday 9 March 2012. She was 14 years, 9 months and 2 days old.

Mykee had survived extensive surgery (for cancer) and chemo treatments not just once but twice, so I was certain she would also survive the severe edema which started to bloat her hind legs four months ago.  I had been warned about the many possible side effects of edema, but I was not really ready to see her losing her once plush silver and black fur in great big clumps. She too seemed perplexed and saddened by the sight of her own bare skin, shivering with cold and embarrassment every time she went outdoors to do her business. Nonetheless, Dr. Tom Liebl, who had been caring for her ever since she was a puppy, reassured me Mykee was not undergoing any pain or discomfort, that her “quality of life” was still good.  This went on for a couple of months.

But then, on Wednesday, Mykee suddenly stopped eating. When she showed no interest in any of the treats that she normally barked and danced for, ignoring even the crunchy Chinese fortune cookies which she gets only on special occasions, I knew it was the beginning of the end.  Two days later, when she whimpered and gave me the usual signal that she needed to go outside, I did not respond quickly enough, and she left a horrifying trail of blood from the house all the way to the backyard. Afterwards, she refused to come back into the house, perhaps out of guilt about what had just happened, or maybe she simply wanted to savor the sunshine one last time in the yard she had romped in for nearly fifteen years.

She was too weak to protest when I wrapped and scooped her up in her favorite blanket, rushing her to Clinton Parkway Animal Hospital, where Dr. Liebl examined her briefly, and said quietly, “She’s tired.”

It was Dr. Liebl’s way of telling me to let go, that it was time to let go.  Perhaps I had been in deep denial all along, refusing to believe that Mykee had been losing weight, when she had in fact dropped ten pounds in just a couple of weeks. And so, reluctantly, I cradled Mykee in my arms for the last time. She was looking at me with those wondrous eyes of hers, eyes no longer luminous because she was now weary beyond comprehension, when Dr. Liebl solemnly administered the merciful relief that she needed.

And now, twelve days later, I continue to find myself fixating on Mykee’s final moments.  Did she see her whole life flashing by within seconds, the way it’s rumored to happen for us human beings? Do the snapshots in her mind begin with memories of her parents in the puppy farm in Beloit, KS where she was born…followed by images of her being transported to the pet shop in Topeka where I first held her in my arms and fell in love with her spectacular keeshond eyes…then her coming home with me to Lawrence to meet Imelda, a 10-year-old keeshond who had been diagnosed with cancer, and for whom I had acquired Mykee, thinking she might give the older dog a new lease on life; that Imelda might be inspired to teach the young pup “the rules of the house.”

But, this was not to be.  Imelda was terminally ill and in no mood to frolic with a puppy. Friends said it was cruel of me to torment the old dog with the new object of my affection (in retrospect, making me no different from someone like Newt Gingrich, who traded in his cancer-stricken first wife for a healthier and younger model, then dumped the second wife for yet another younger model).

And so, while Imelda was still alive, I arranged to board Mykee with a kindly breeder in North Lawrence, who agreed to keep and train Mykee in his house like he would his own dog. I visited the rambunctious puppy twice a day for the next four weeks, not bringing her home again until after Imelda had died.

The kindly breeder in North Lawrence had worked wonders with Mykee, training her not only to be ladylike and hygienic, but also not to chew on anything indoors except designated toys, and not to chase or bark at squirrels and rabbits outdoors because they were God’s creatures who were also entitled to play there.

What I didn’t know about the kindly breeder was, that he did not allow any other dogs inside his house the whole time Mykee was there, only cats, four of them, so Mykee had been socialized primarily with cats.  Forever thereafter, Mykee would look at all other dogs indifferently, even disdainfully, because she didn’t think she was a servile dog; she thought she was an aristocratic cat. She ran skittishly like a cat, crouched and jumped like a cat, licked and groomed herself like a cat. She may have been as loyal as a dog, but she was also as independent as a cat.  This was really quite delightful.  I had the best of both worlds, a lovable keeshond who was not only Mykee, but also Mykitty.

I wonder if Mykee’s snapshot memories continue with the time she broke her tooth chewing on a bone, and I had to drive her to Columbia, MO, where there was a special dentist who performed root canals on dogs….of our many other lengthy car trips for summer vacations in Toronto, Montreal, Mount Rushmore, Santa Fe, Cleveland, Dallas, St. Louis, Madison, Omaha, Eureka Springs.  Closer to home, she loved our frequent outings to the KU campus and Dad Perry Park, and Saturday mornings at the Farmer’s Market in downtown Lawrence. Everywhere we went, people admired her and wanted to pet her, but she was a shy girl, and always looked to me to protect her from the kindness of strangers.

What did Mykee see at noon on Friday 9 March 2012 as I cradled her in my arms?  Her eyes were open when Dr. Liebl administered the injection, and they remained open even after he cheked to make sure that she had stopped breathing, that her little heart had stopped beating. Dr. Liebl tried to shut Mykee’s eyes, but they remained stubbornly open. She continued to look at me. The good doctor said I could stay in the room with Mykee, be alone with her for as long as I needed to be, but I declined and rushed away.  Her eyes were open, and I did not want her to witness my grief.

A week later, I received the following letter from Dr. Liebl:

“Paul, I know I will never find the words that can bring comfort to a heart that has lost a great friend, but I want you to know how sad I am for you.  Mykee was a truly great dog, a faithful companion and, from a medical standpoint, a survivor like no other.  The love, care and diligence you extended to her will never be rivaled. So many months/years passed that would never have been possible without your efforts.  And she always let the world know how much she appreciated our efforts by always being the most gentle and ‘willing’ patient I have ever seen.  I will never forget her or her greatness, and will cherish my time with her. Sincerely, Tom.”

I was numb, had been on automatic pilot for over a week. But when I read this letter from Dr.Liebl, I finally broke down, and the tears came.

 

Remembering Maura Piekalkiewicz

February 4th, 2011

I thought I knew Maura Piekalkiewicz (1933-2011) fairly well, but at the service held at Lawrence Chapel Oaks on January 29 in her memory, I found out a great deal more about her activism for civil rights and social justice from personal stories shared by her son Andrew; her daughter Ellen; her friends Laura Gassen Templet, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, and Tony Backus.

Everyone laughed when Tony said that, as a couple, Maura and Jarek Piekalkiewicz functioned beautifully together, but were incompetent when one was without the other.  After the laughter subsided, it hit home that Jarek, of course, was now without his Maura, so Tony urged us all to fill in the void not just in days and weeks but also in the months and years yet to come.

For me, the most moving part at Maura’s memorial service, beyond all the wonderful stories which were told about her, was the moment when everyone was asked to read out loud a poem which Maura had herself written. Her family found the poem in one of her journals, and they wanted to share it with everyone. Here’s Maura’s poem:

“O Heavenly Father,
O Great Spirit,
O Mary, Our Blessed Mother,
We thank you for food and
Remember the hungry.
We thank you for health and
Remember the sick.
We thank you for friends and
Remember the friendless.
We thank you for freedom and
Remember those who are not free.
May your gifts to us
Be put in the service of others.”

At the service, everyone talked about how Maura loved all the arts—poetry, fiction, theatre, music, dance—but the one art which no one mentioned, the one she and I shared passionately, was the cinema.  Not surprisingly, her taste in movies was catholic, both with a small “c” and a Capital “C.”  And of all the movies we talked about, the one we returned to over and over, was Luchino Visconti’s 1963 adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard.

Maura loved the movie, all 183 minutes of it.  She was rhapsodic about the long ballroom sequence at the end of the film, when the elderly Prince (played magnificently by Burt Lancaster), in poor health but keeping up a fine facade for the sake of those closest to him, wanders from room to room at the festive palace, looking at all the partying guests, bemoaning the passing of the old aristocracy but, at the same time, celebrating the birth of a new middle class.  At the conclusion of the evening, the weary Prince finally wanders out into the night, alone, where he sees a priest and some acolytes hurrying into a church, as he himself disappears into the darkness.

In life, Maura Piekalkiewicz lit up whatever room she was in, and for those among us who were fortunate to know this wonderful woman, her memory continues to light up all the rooms in our minds.  She may have now wandered into the night, but she is not disappearing into the darkness.

Remembering Ilse Steinhardt

December 17th, 2010

I know Ilse Steinhardt (2 November 1914—3 December 2010) only through her good friends Anita Herzfeld and Grant Goodman, who for some reason always included me in their dinner parties and birthday celebrations for Ilse.  I was told that Ilse liked me, even though for many years she called me Jim instead of Paul.  Once, when I finally decided to correct her, she said, “Funny, but you look like a Jim to me.  I’ve always loved people named Jim. But Paul is very nice too.”  From then on, she never called me Jim again, but I often wondered if I ought not to have changed my name to Jim.  After all, James was one of the Twelve Apostles, and Paul wasn’t.

At one of her birthday parties at Alvamar Country Club a couple of years ago, all the guests were asked to say a few words about Ilse.  Many spoke about what a terrific cook she was, what fine and elegant dinner parties she gave, her wonderful sense of humor, her love of music, and above all her skill at the piano.  When it came to my turn, I really did not know what else to add to what everyone had already said, so I simply said, “Like all the pianos that she plays so wonderfully, Ilse is both upright and grand.”  The guests liked this a lot, and they have now repeated the line many times, at succeeding birthday parties, and then again by Betty Baron at the brief remembrance celebration of Ilse’s life which was held at the Unitarian Fellowship in Lawrence, KS on Friday 10 December 2010.

Of the many beautiful melodies I’ve heard Ilse play on the piano through the years, the one I remember best is “When I Grow Too Old To Dream.”  Even at age 96, Ilse never grew too old to dream, and I hope I never do either.

My Arthur Miller Story

March 31st, 2010

Since Kansas isn’t exactly a beehive of playwriting activity, beginning playwrights in this neck of the woods are almost always told that, if they write about what they know, and if they choose to chronicle their small-town roots,  they could be “the next William Inge,” the playwright from Independence, KS who couldn’t leave his birthplace fast enough but who, his entire life, gave voice in his plays to the people from Kansas in plays like Picnic, Bus Stop, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Come Back, Little Sheba—many of them people who, like himself, lived lives of quiet desperation.

In 1982, nine years after Inge committed suicide in his Hollywood home, and after his surviving relatives donated the bulk of his papers to Independence Community College in Independence, KS, the college did something wonderful by starting The William Inge Festival, celebrated every year in late April, when stars of stage and screen come to town for three or four days, to honor Inge and, more significantly, to pay tribute to the work of other living American playwrights. And so, every year in late April, Independence, KS is suddenly transformed into a mecca for playwrights, a lovefest for the written word because, truly,  “In the beginning was the Word…”

I remember attending the first Inge Festival, back in 1982, staying at the Lamplighter Inn, which had no dining facilities. For food, one had to go to Eggbert’s, within walking distance of the motel.  I remember the first time I had breakfast at Eggbert’s.  All conversation stopped when I entered the tiny diner, and everyone turned to stare at me.  Although the moment was awkward, it passed quickly, and conversation resumed. Truthfully, I think they would all have turned to stare at any stranger in their midst, not just because I looked like a foreigner, an alien, the yellow peril, the lavender mafia.  Back in his day, growing up in Independence, would a homosexual like William Inge have been comfortable at a place like Eggbert’s?

Originally, the mission of the Inge Festival was to pay tribute to American playwrights who were Inge’s contemporaries, those writers who were still living, who were ready, willing and able to spend three or four days in the heartland of America, which for Inge also turned out to be his “hurtland.”  I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve been told that, in the early days of the Inge Festival, scholars who submitted academic papers for presentation and discussion at the festival were told not to call undue attention to Inge’s suicide, his alcoholism and, above all, his homosexuality.

Arthur Miller (1915-2005) is one of my gods.  Death of a Salesman is the only play that makes me cry everytime I see it.  When it was announced that the Inge Festival in 1995 would be honoring Arthur Miller, I decided to bring nine of my playwriting students from the University of Kansas to meet the man.  Luckily, we managed to book rooms at the same motel where he would be staying—not the Lamplighter Inn, but the Apple Tree Inn, newer and nicer, which also offered complimentary morning coffee and doughnuts so guests didn’t have to trek to Eggbert’s.

Two incidents stand out in my mind about the 1995 Inge festival.

First, there was the Independence Community College production of Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, a play which, among other things, deals with anti-Semitism among the country club set in small-town America.  The day after we saw the production, a fancy gala dinner was held at the country club. The president of the Chamber of Commerce in his welcoming remarks told everyone that this was the same country club Inge had written about in the play, but that times have changed.  He said the country club now had some Jewish members.

And then, the next night, back in the auditorium at Independence Community College, we were treated to reenactments of “scenes” from various plays by Arthur Miller, as the man himself and his wife, photographer Inge Morath, sat and watched in the audience. At the end of the evening, when he got up on the stage to accept his award, Miller seemed genuinely moved.  He was quiet for a while, and then he cleared his throat and spoke.  This is what he said: “I did not know William Inge well in life.  Our paths did not cross often. But, whenever I saw him, in New York or in Hollywood, he seemed to be a very sad man.  I wish this town could have honored him while he was still alive.”  And then he sat down.  The audience was stunned.  There was polite applause, and then people filed out of the auditorium, into the dark at the bottom of the stairs.

The next morning, unlike all the other mornings, there were no people hovering around Arthur Miller and Inge Morath as they sat quietly by themselves, in a corner of the lobby at the Apple Tree Inn, having their complimentary coffee and doughnuts.  I had been in awe of the man all week, indeed my entire life, had not dared to approach him, had been quite content just to be in his presence.  But, somehow, on this particular morning, I needed to say something when everyone else remained awkwardly silent.  I summoned up enough courage and went up to him.  I shook his hand and thanked him for his remarks the night before.  He was Arthur Miller, the same Arthur Miller who had remained courageously silent and had refused to name names during his testimony before Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, who now could not remain silent on other matters even if it should make him persona non grata, perhaps even a pariah.   Amidst all the hoopla of the Inge Festival in 1995, Arthur Miller had now said what needed to be said about William Inge and the town that rejected him in life but embraced him in death.

Of the 31 playwrights who have been honored thus far at the Inge Festival, one is a person of color (August Wilson); three are women (Betty Comden, Tina Howe, Wendy Wasserstein); and at least nine are homosexuals (Edward Albee, Fred Ebb, Christopher Durang, Arthur Laurents, Terrence McNally, John Patrick, Peter Shaffer, Stephen Sondheim, Lanford Wilson).  The honoree for 2010 is Paula Vogel, a playwright who also happens to be a lesbian.

I don’t know if there’s any special reason why the Inge Festival is always held in late April.  William Inge was born on May 3, 1913 and he died on June 10, 1973.  It would be wonderful if his life could be celebrated in June, the same month which saw the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969, which gave birth to Pride Parades not just in America but indeed all over the world, perhaps even in Independence, KS.  If William Inge were alive today, he would be astonished, and proud, to see his old hometown embracing, even if only for three or four days each year, a gaggle of gays, a legion of lesbians, a pride of playwrights.

My Kurt Vonnegut Story

March 9th, 2010

Like many of my peers, when I was in college forty years ago, one of the writers whom we all admired was Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007).  I never thought I would actually meet the man but, during one of my trips to New York, meet him I did, sort of, and this is what happened. 

It was a Saturday afternoon, sometime in the early 1980s.  I don’t remember what play it was we had been seeing, or which theater on Broadway we were in, but during the intermission at that particular matinee performance, we were all mingling in the lobby, and there he was, standing right next to me, towering over me, a shaggy bear of a man—looking like something the cat might have cradled and then dragged in from the monkeyhouse—the great man himself, Kurt Vonnegut! 

I was still drinking in the power and the glory of the man when I saw two teenage girls coming up to him, shyly but bravely asking him for his autograph.  We all tried not to eavesdrop as the man cleared his throat, paused dramatically, and then spoke in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear.  “I’m sorry,” he said gruffly, looking at his watch, “but I never sign autographs at 3:30 on Saturday afternoons.” 

The champion could have had all of us for breakfast, and he did. The two girls shrank and turned to me in confusion, because I just happened to be standing next to the man.  “Sir,” they asked me haltingly, trying to cover their embarrassment, not knowing whether or not to ask me for my autograph, “are you anyone?”

“No,” I mumbled apologetically, fleeing from the scene, back to the safety of my seat inside the theater.  During the entire second act of the play, I thought of all the things I might have said to console the two girls but didn’t, to cut the great man down to size but didn’t; and I hated myself for not being quick-witted enough, for having been in awe of a hero, for wanting the same thing those two girls wanted, the man’s autograph. 

In the introduction to BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX, Kurt Vonnegut lists eight cardinal rules for anyone wishing to write short fiction.  Here’s Rule #6:  “Be a sadist.  No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” 

Perhaps, back in the lobby of that theater in New York, at 3:30 on that particular Saturday afternoon in the early 1980s, Kurt Vonnegut was being deliberately sadistic, leading his young fans into that familiar slaughterhouse, teaching us all a lesson in life, liberty and the pursuit of celebrities.

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