About six months before his death in April of 2007, biographer Charles J. Shields went to visit Kurt Vonnegut at his brownstone on East 48th in Manhattan.
By all physical appearances, he was every bit the octogenarian, but when he greeted Shields and opened the front door for him, he excitedly asked, “Wanna see my room?” in the exact same way a 12-year-old would have.
To say Vonnegut was a complicated man would seem a bit dismissive. He was more than that. He’d be better described as one of those Russian dolls that keep opening up to reveal many more dolls underneath.
His childhood, although he was from the privileged class, left him feeling alienated. This was partially due to the fact that his older brother secretly recorded their parents admitting that Kurt’s conception was accidental.
Then, at 21 years old, he discovered his mother, dead from suicide, on the morning of Mother’s Day. Finally, there was his being present at the bombing of Dresden during WWII.
The Dresden bombing left Vonnegut with serious PTSD, which, because of the time period, went undiagnosed. It also gave him the raw material needed to write Slaughterhouse 5, long considered one of the classics of American Literature. If you haven’t read it yet, try to get on it. It is still every bit as life-changing as it always was.
One of the things Vonnegut was famous for was his funny, witty, and oftentimes irreverent commencement addresses. He always wrote something fresh for each occasion, but his general message was similar to the quote below: you’ve got to be kind.
Here are 10 of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut gems:
1. “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
2. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
3. “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
4. “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover your high school class is running the country.”
5. “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”
6. “If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you are a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.”
7. “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous, like a person wearing full armor attacking a hot fudge sundae.”
8. “If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts.”
9. “Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, and don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.”
10. “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”