“I’m Just an Old Fart, Leave Me Alone”: On Kurt Vonnegut and George Carlin

Toward the end of his life, Kurt Vonnegut mostly abandoned his life as a novelist, publishing instead political rants against George W. Bush and Republicans for In These Times. Some of those essays formed A Man Without a Country in 2005.

Vonnegut in 1972

Vonnegut, 1972

On April 11, 2007, Vonnegut died, and then a few months past a year later, George Carlin also died. Vonnegut (84), chain-smoking aside, lived a full 13 years longer than Carlin (71), who had his struggles with recreational drugs and heart disease.

Carlin and Vonnegut profoundly shaped me, Carlin’s comedy albums in the 1970s and Vonnegut’s impressive body of novels and essays throughout my adulthood. Both men as well ultimately became, as Carlin phrases, “old farts”:

Playing off Carlin’s joke that “farts are shit without the mess,” I must here acknowledge that both of these influential men were very weak versions of themselves in the final years—and they also began to fail significantly the brilliance they offered in the prime of their careers.

Two experiences with Carlin lately have nudged me to account for my affection for him and Vonnegut.

First, a much younger friend recently watched some Carlin stand up on YouTube; the response was, “He’s really problematic.” As I watched, these were much later clips, and I found them underwhelming, mostly angry-old-man rants that weren’t very thoughtful and held little evidence of the comedian I worshipped and memorized after listening to his albums over and over in my bedroom as a teenager.

Carlin’s Class Clown and Occupation: Foole were so smart and incisive, such powerful works of language, I am certain these are some of the most solid foundations of how I came to be a reader, writer, and teacher.

When I think of Carlin, I recall his slipping into songs and skits that I still can do by heart: Class Clown, Muhammad Ali—America the Beautiful, Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television. But I am in retrospect also drawn to his noting that he attended a John Dewey progressive Catholic school, where he terrorized the nuns.

Carlin and Vonnegut spoke to me through their irreverence, especially toward religion, and, of course, their deft use of language and dark humor; I also embraced the profanity.

But, second, after the sobering experience of watching Carlin with a friend, I saw these Tweets by Ja’han Jones:

Something really hard for me to confront happened to Carlin between his three-album run in the 1970s and his posthumously released I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die. The skit and material for this were shelved by Carlin because of 9/11 and then Katrina.

That collection is representative of the later Carlin, the ranting that seems, as Jones questions, little more than conservative “get off my lawn” material; this Carlin seems as annoying as being crop-dusted by a stranger while trying to shop—offensive for offensive’s sake.

As a 2008 routine shows, unlike his brilliant examination of profanity from his early career, Carlin begins simply to swear a lot:

I’d like to begin by saying fuck Lance Armstrong. Fuck him and his balls and his bicycles and his steroids and his yellow shirts and the dumb, empty expression on his face. I’m tired of that asshole. And while you’re at it fuck Tiger Woods, too. There’s another jack-off I can do without. I’m tired of being told who to admire in this country. Aren’t you sick of being told who your heroes ought to be? You know? Being told who you ought to be looking up to. I’ll choose my own heroes, thank you very much. And fuck Dr. Phil, too. Dr. Phil said I should express my emotions, so that’s what I’m doing. Now, since the last time I rolled through these parts, and I do roll through with some frequency. I’m a little bit like herpes. I keep coming back. But since the last time, I might have seen some of you folks I have had my 70th birthday.

Carlin, the old fart.

I was in New Orleans the spring before Katrina hit, the natural disaster that, like 9/11, gave Carlin pause about his angry-old-man wish for a lot of deaths. My friend and I were tired, and back in our hotel room, I flipped through the cable channels, falling on Carlin in a 1992 interview by Charlie Rose.

Carlin explained “I don’t vote and I really don’t,” once again nudging into my life and steering how I navigated the world.

By 1996, again on Rose, Carlin is a more fully formed “old fart” from the hints of libertarianism in 1992 (“between you and me, I do not consent to be governed”), the detached observer without hope:

There’s a little bit of a sick part in this too, I [root] for the big comic, for the big asteroid to come and make things right….To get us back where we were before the first one came and knocked out these dinosaurs and…I’m routing for that big one to come right through that hole in the ozone layer because I want to see it on CNN. See, I’m here for the entertainment, Charlie. I am. People, philosophers say, “Why are we here?” I know why I’m here, for the…show. Bring it on, I want to see the circus.

Well, we’ve all seen a lot of comedians who seem to have a political bent in their work, and always implicit in the work is some positive outcome. That this is all going to work, if only we do this, if only we pass that bill, if we only elect him, if only we do that. It’s not true, it’s circling drain time for humans. I believe this, I honestly believe this, not just as a comedian, “He thinks that he has to say that,” I believe it, and when you say to yourself, “I don’t care what happens,” it just gives you a broader perspective for the art. For the words to emerge. To not care, that’s what happened in that ’92 show, that’s why I could say the planet is fine the people are (fart sound). Because the planet will outlast us, it will be here, and it will be fine.

At 81, Vonnegut wrote in “Cold Turkey”:

Many years ago, I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.

But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.

Ultimately, with Vonnegut and Carlin, I recognize their counter-cultural roots in the 1960s and 1970s (when both men really hit) that shift from skepticism to cynicism as they approached death—humanity is doomed because we are self-defeating and at war with each other and Nature.

What am I to do with the ideal, maybe even idealized, Carlin and Vonnegut who shaped me against the “old farts” they became?

I am not sure, really, but I am left with one more similarity between the two men, a few lines late in Vonnegut’s claimed last novel, Timequake, “Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different!”


Why I Am Not a Christian

She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is Doing, [writes Bokonon].

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

Born and raised in the Bible Belt, I have almost six decades of experience with the social anxiety associated with confessing that I am not a Christian.

The paradox of this anxiety, I suppose, is that the particular type of Christianity I have lived among in South Carolina is strongly grounded in witnessing and being very cheerfully public about one’s faith. “Let us pray” not as invitation but as directive.

As a public school teacher for 18 years, I was under the added weight of fearing that I would be outed in ways that threatened me socially and professionally. But when I moved to higher education, I really felt no more comfort in expressing my lack of faith—even as I was often directly asked by students, even though it was a professionally safe place to be honest.

In fact, it has always been far easier to share with students my communist/socialist/Marxist leanings than to say simply, “I am an atheist.”

The personal recognition wasn’t an easy journey, but during college, including reading and re-reading Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” and a significant amount of existential philosophy, I came to terms with ethical and moral groundings as well as being entirely comfortable with those ideals being in no way connected to God or organized religion.

Since my college years overlapped with the rise of the Moral Majority and Religious Right, that disconnect wasn’t even complicated. The most passionately Christian people of my community growing up and then the most vocal Christians in the public and political spheres of the Reagan era confirmed for me that I had zero interest in such anger, hatred, and most of all, hypocrisy.

I have taken comfort instead throughout my adult life in literature—works such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which directly interrogate all the ways I find religion, and Christianity, more apt to be a bludgeoning device than a balm.

Religious text as a tool for authority, religion as the opiate of the masses—as Emily Dickson wrote as a contemporary of Karl Marx:

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

In 2018, with Donald Trump courting and maintaining the passionate support of the religious right, specifically evangelicals across the South, and with the South Carolina summer primaries in which Republicans run aggressive TV ads shouting “100% pro-life” and images of candidates in front of NRA rallies and holding (even shooting) guns, I have never been more confident in why I am not a Christian.

During this time of Trumplandia, as well, one of the most devout and moral people I know happens to be a Muslim—whose faith is routinely and grossly demonized by Trump and his Christian base.

Christianity is rarely about love and charity, but often about tribalism and the calculated use of higher authority to maintain or gain power.

The narrator in Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night argues:

“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting,” I said, “but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive.

“It’s that part of an imbecile,” I said, “that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.”

As I grow older, it becomes more and more imperative that I seek a moral and ethical life—something I equally recognize as incredibly hard to achieve as a mere human among humanity, as we are all so flawed, so fragile, so unwilling to sacrifice and risk in the name of the hypothetical Other, the faceless and nameless human we choose either to treat as our brother/sister or to leave mostly ignored in the basement closet.

Christianity, I fear, too often allows the worst in us to thrive instead of inspiring us to be the loving community we are capable of being.

Love, community, and holding sacred all humans’ dignity—these are what matter to me, and why I am not a Christian.

Blue Scholars

Throughout the early 2000s, a conservative student group at my university was very aggressive—attacking faculty through online forums (using anonymous screen names), creating lists of faculty conservative students should avoid, and sponsoring an inordinate number of Cultural Life Programs (CLP). This group had significant outside (also anonymous) funding as well.

Once, the conservative antagonist Ann Coulter was a sponsored speaker on campus by this group. I mentioned this in a class, noting her lack of credibility, and a student responded with, “But her books have footnotes.”

I think about this exchange often because the student was recognizing the conventions of scholarly work, conventions that are apt to supersede in a superficial way the credibility of the scholarship or the scholar; footnotes denoted for the student credibility—without the student considering whether or not the sources were credible, whether or not the conclusions and claims made by Coulter were credible.

In this era of Trumplandia, the tired but resilient claim that universities are liberal and that conservative scholars are nearly absent or at least ostracized is once again gaining momentum. As well, the resurgence of the oppressed white male has gained momentum.

Those contexts are also driven by calls for free speech, allowing all sides a voice, and mostly superficial arguments about the tension between academic freedom and politically correct speech and concepts such as safe spaces.

Here, the post title, “Blue Scholars,” is not yet another addition to the “quit lit” genre, but an investigation of the race and gender implications of respectability politics in the work of scholars.

Consider the issues raised in these two following Tweets:

The expectations around social scientist Crystal Marie Fleming—the chastising of respectability politics, not what she claims but her prfanity—are quite distinct when compared to calls for civil discourse as a response to Jordan Peterson, a public scholar who has been thoroughly discredited while also being quite popular outside of academia.

Fleming is facing the academic and public stigma about working blue—the use of profanity superseding the content of her discourse. Peterson, a misogynist cloaked in academic garb and discourse, benefits from calls for civil discourse, a subset of respectability politics, because his language and the language of his detractors allow reprehensible ideas a stage more prominent than they deserve.

Fleming’s experience as a scholar parallels Colin Kaepernick’s confronting arguments that his message was not the problem, but how (and when) he was conducting his protests.

Beneath calls for respectability politics and civil discourse, then, are the interests of white and male privilege; the existing power structure always benefits from a demand for resect by default and for civility, the antithesis of protest.

Language and content, as I have examined in terms of stand-up comedy, are always about race, gender, and social class. The how of language, invariably, becomes the focus as soon as any marginalized group becomes confrontational, critical, empowered.

“Don’t speak or write that way” and “Don’t act that way” are always about the status of power—not about right or wrong, credible or baseless.

The criticism leveled at Fleming and the calls for civil discourse to allow Peterson’s vile arguments are windows into the failure of academia, an Ivory Tower trapped still in Medieval paradigms of authority, rhetoric, and deference.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the titular character of the novel, Eliot Rosewater, implores:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘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.’” (p. 129)

A moral imperative wrapped in blasphemous language.

I prefer the moral imperative, and I prefer the critical scholar working blue while rejecting the false calls for civility that foster scholars pandering to the worst among us.

If there are words that should give us pause, they are “respect” and “civil discourse”—not the seven words you can’t say on television.

American Emperor: The Harrison Bergeron Presidency

When The New Yorker published a cover presenting Donald Trump nude in front of reporters, some mainstream and social media commentary accused the publication of body shaming:

I had two different responses. First, the cover reminded me of Trump’s own repeated body shaming of Alicia Machado, Miss Universe, and then doubling down on that shaming when the issue was raised during the presidential debates. And second, my literary mind assumed the image was an allusion to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes.

In the first case, the rush to defend Trump against behavior he himself has demonstrated fits into a disturbing pattern concerning Trump and the women he abuses. Every time Stormy Daniels is mentioned in the press related to Trump, she is slut shamed, while his many and varied transgression remain unmentioned—accusations of sexually violating his first wife (initially framed as “rape”), on-the-record boasting about being a sexual predator, and a series of marriages that ended after adultery (including Daniels and Karen McDougal admitting to affairs with Trump in the early years of his current marriage).

Trump has taken the Ronald Reagan Teflon presidency to an entirely new level.

The allusion to Anderson’s tale that has spawned “the emperor has no clothes” is particularly important in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting and the rise of teens protesting for gun control.

Yes, Anderson’s parable points a finger at the delusional emperor—no stretch seeing how this speaks volumes today about Trump—but also key is that the only person in the empire willing to say the truth is a child: “‘But he hasn’t got anything on,’ a little child said.”

As I have discussed before, the rise of Trump can be seen in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” a story often misread but that captures perfectly how a people’s irrational fear of totalitarianism, a militarized state, can lead to idealizing an equally dangerous option, the megalomaniac rugged individual.

In Vonnegut’s dark satire, the latter is Bergeron:

“Clanking, clownish, and huge” as well as “wear[ing] at all times a red rubber ball for a nose,” Harrison bursts into the story with “‘I am the Emperor!’”

In the U.S. currently, the latter is Trump, our American emperor.

However, as my premise for Trumplandia argues, Trump himself, the bombastic and hollow clown, is not the problem; all those so willing to defend and support him, that is the ultimate problem, possibly one that is unsurmountable.

Like those defending guns who are immune to facts, clutching their weapons almost entirely out of irrational fear and for symbolic effect, Trump supporters simply revel in lies.

Parkland, Florida student David Hogg, like the child in Anderson’s parable, has been one of many teens to speak truth to power, notably the NRA and Trump, since the most recent mass shooting at his school. As a result, these teens have been attacked, almost always through fake news and baseless slurs.

Hogg was, for example, accused of not being on campus during the shooting, a fake news story that someone posted on Facebook. I immediately posted a link explaining that not only was the story fake news, but also that the original post had already admitted such.

The response I received was a blunt “I don’t care” this is false, and then the poster called Hogg a series of slurs, none of which have any foundation in facts. Anyone viewed as a partisan political, ideology enemy is fair game to savage; anyone viewed as a partisan political, ideological ally is above any criticism.

This pattern, again witnessed in the gun control debate, occurs daily, fed by right-wing media, not just trolls. Laura Ingraham also attacked Hogg, and Meghan McCain launched into the Parkland protesters for profanity, although her Twitter feed has been exposed for the same language (her Twitter bio includes, for example, #FuckCancer).

And not inconsequential is the occasional hand wringing in the media about why Evangelical Christians, typically identified without the key element of “white,” continue to support Trump, pathological liar and serial adulterer.

In this time of the American emperor, it may be relevant to note that Easter in a few days falls on April Fool’s Day.

Delusion is a powerful thing, deluding others as well as self-delusion.

Religious dogma in the service of power, and not in the service of Good, has a long history, and therefore, when Easter and April Fool’s Day overlap on 1 April 2018, we may have come to the real national holiday of Trumplandia.

Trumplandia is a people who love their lies even when they know they are lies.

Even a child can see that.

Wherefore Capitalism?

The yin and yang of dystopian speculative/science fiction, George Orwell’s dark 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s light Brave New World, share a common motif about the consequences of both any contemporary and future human cultures: Love is so dangerous to power that power always seeks ways to eradicate love.

In Orwell’s other world, fascism simply bans love, and for Winston and Julia, their love is an act of rebellion. Huxley’s brilliant alternative is incredibly disturbing in its prescience since love is sacrificed on the alter of distraction—monogamy is taboo and recreational promiscuity is the norm along with the ever-present soma.

As a result, Orwell’s warning feels speculative, and Huxley’s reads chilling because we can more easily see his fiction in our recent history (the sexual revolution of the 1960s) and in every single “right now” we encounter.

In 2018, citizens of the U.S. are nearly eternally distracted—the sexless and loveless virtual other world of our devices—mired as we are in our consumerism and the Social Darwinism of capitalism.

While I was thinking directly about Orwell’s 1984 when I wrote “fascism”—”fascism always comes for love/fascists know that lovers always win every battle”—and the risk taken by Winston and Julia “in quest of rendezvous or tobetogether,” I am more compelled by Huxley Brave New World—not as some dire warning about a possible future, but a very powerful analysis of what we face today.

As Margaret Atwood argues in her Introduction to Brave New World:

Surely it’s time to look again at Brave New World and to examine its arguments for and against the totally planned society it describes, in which ‘everybody is happy now’. What sort of happiness is on offer, and what is the price we might pay to achieve it?

I am drawn to Atwood’s word choice, “pay,” and it is there I ask, Wherefore capitalism?

I am struggling with a sub-question to that as well: Did humans create capitalism or has capitalism created a brave new world, a new inhumane humanity, one perilously close to having our most precious gift next to life, love, erased?

Has the Western world (a code for “America”) so pervaded the entire world that no place remains unscathed from this consumerism/capitalism that consumes us?

In 1891, Oscar Wilde protested: “It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.”

And Wilde concluded about the materialism of capitalism: “But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”

So it is another work of speculative/science fiction, a label rejected by the author, that speaks directly to the corrosive power of capitalism as the enemy of love, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. A brilliant satire of religion and politics, the novel includes a scene in which John fails to understand that Mona, the woman he claims to love, “adored her promiscuity”; in Vonnegut’s faux-religion, Bokononism, promiscuity is the full embracing of love, unlike promiscuity as a distraction from love in Huxley.

And they argue:

“As your husband, I’ll want all your love for myself.”

She stared at me with widening eyes. “A sin-wat!”

“What was that?”

“A sin-wat!” she cried. “A man who wants all of somebody’s love. That’s very bad.”

…”Bokonon tells us it is very wrong not to love everyone exactly the same. What does your religion say?”

Resting beneath this exchange are the central tenets of Christianity expressed by Jesus as two simple commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

Resting beneath this exchange is the implicit message that the Western world worships capitalism and consumerism, that Westerners who claim to be Christians do so only in word, not action.

John can express his claim of love for Mona only in his ownership of Mona, a commodification of affection as if love is a finite thing to be obtained.

As we “scuttl[e] across the floors of silent seas” toward Valentine’s Day, then, we cannot ignore the distractions before us as good consumers and very marginal lovers—as disconnected from all sorts of unconditional love, familial and romantic, as the well-conditioned cast in Huxley’s Brave New World.

I was first introduced to the idea that god did not create humans, but humans created god through reading Karl Marx as a naive college student, a redneck who made mostly As.

I am compelled now many decades later to lament that humans may have created capitalism, but capitalism has created a not-so-brave new humanity. And in the process, while we have been distracted by fear-mongering about fascism, capitalism did its job.

And the price?

All it cost us was love.

Confessions of a Born Again Agnostic

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

Born November 11, 1922, Kurt Vonnegut has been dead a few months more than a decade now. For all his dark humor and fantastic stories, it seems impossible to believe he could have imagined the U.S. in 2017.

President George W. Bush left Vonnegut in a near-constant state of exasperation so a country now led by Trump with Republicans and conservative Christians scrambling to excuse every indecency known to humanity, including crimes against women and children, would make even Vonnegut shrug, “Nobody would buy it.”

On this day of Vonnegut’s birth, I am witnessing a world I could have never imagined—especially considering my lifelong mostly closeted existence as an atheist/agnostic.

I came to recognize that atheism/agnosticism in the first years of college, and I also realized this was no choice, but who I am to the bone.

During intense years of reading Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, and other existentialists mostly, I was an aggressive atheist, mostly outing myself and obnoxiously confronting peers who were themselves equally obnoxious as witnessing Christians.

Being born, growing up, and living in the deep South, the Bible Belt, I was confronting this aspect of my Self with a great deal of angst, fear, and self-loathing. Once I graduated and entered my profession as a public school English teacher—at the same high school I had attended in my home town—this important aspect of who I was as a young adult was quickly packed back into the closet.

The four schools of the district I taught in literally surrounded the dominant church in the small town, the steeple towering above the horizon when looking from any of the school buildings.

Many students attended that church, but everyone in the school confronted everyone about what church they attended.

The great paradox about my early years teaching was that I was adamant about not sharing my atheism with my students, about not in any way imposing my nontraditional beliefs on my students who were in most ways as I was growing up in that town.

Yet, gradually and increasingly, students were more and more aggressive about asking and even explicitly pushing me to confirm or deny a rumor I was an atheist.

This was incredibly stressful for my early years. I literally feared for my job each time these situations popped up, some of them reaching administration and causing me to be quizzed by the principal as well.

Later in my time at that school for almost two decades, this became something of a joke, that I refused to answer what I did or did not believe. But it lingered as a threat none the less.

I tried to play along; it was a defense mechanism about the closeted life.

Once, when one of the office staff asked me just to tell her the truth, I looked around to make sure we were alone, and then whispered, “I am an agrarian,” before walking away with a smile.

The next day when I saw her, she apparently had shared my confession with someone, unaware of the joke, so I followed up with, “That’s right. I work the land!”

Being atheist/agnostic, however, has never been anything other than stress for me, as an outlier, someone who simply sees the world unlike the vast majority of people. Even moving to higher education, I am moment by moment confronted by traditionally religious students and the norm of being Christian and attending church.

Once while in a diversity training session for faculty, the facilitator had people stand by their religious identities. The list worked through virtually every faith and many Christian denominations, but non-believers were excluded by omission.

In my row were two colleagues who are atheists as well. We made eye contact, one shaking her head, and I simply stood, leaving the session.

From those early days of college, my embarrassing certainty and in-your-face atheism, to my much more reserved and comfortable understanding that I am a born again agnostic, I have continued to suffer under the weight of how angry traditional Christians make me with their conservative politics and egregious hypocrisy.

I want to bite my tongue, but it is challenging, especially in political discussions.

The Moral Majority, the Religious Right, and the Reagan era—these were the sort of perverse marriages of politics and religion that confirmed by humanistic commitments, ones espoused by Vonnegut, and my inability to commit to the petty God and spurious dogma of organized religion, often brilliantly skewered by George Carlin.

So I sit here on Vonnegut’s birthday genuinely stunned at the U.S., this bastardized Christian nation in which white evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for a sexual predator and continue to support him.

This bastardized Christian nation in which so-called Christians contort themselves in whatever way necessary to justify child abusers and sexual abusers, abdicating any semblance of moral or ethical beliefs for crass political affiliation.

This, then, is what I could have never imagined: The religious right is so morally bankrupt that I am for the first time in my nearly six decades entirely comfortable to be out of the closet as a born again agnostic committed, as Vonnegut wrote, “to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.”

With the current unmasking of very awful men living their lives mostly without any consequences for being very awful, I must admit Vonnegut himself was a flawed man, embodying the tension in the spotlight now between artist and his art.

In Vonnegut’s case, I do not justify or excuse his flaws as a man—just as I admit my own—but I do hold tight to the many wonderful and enduring codes he at least promoted with his writing, and best expressed in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, where the titular character of the novel, Eliot Rosewater, implores:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘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.’” (p. 129)

Everything else, including religion in the service of politics, is, as Carlin charged, bullshit.

Growing Old Not the Problem, But Lack of Community Is

Since I teach mostly young people, college age, and have been an active cyclist with much younger friends for a while now, I have depended on a persistent self-deprecating joke about being old.

Since the end of 2016, a pelvis fracture, a winter of illnesses including the flu for the first time in decades, and then my mom’s stroke followed by my father’s death have all tempted me to shift that joke to a more serious view of life. However, I am increasingly convinced the problem with the human condition is not aging—which is inevitable and preferred to the alternative—but a lack of compassion and community in the U.S.

While literature and pop culture are awash in portrayals of the challenges that families bring, Kurt Vonnegut spent a great deal of his work as a writer—in speeches, essays, and fiction—arguing passionately for more human kindness as well as the importance of the extended family, an idealizing of tribal life that recognized the horror that is human loneliness.

Like most people, Vonnegut himself may have failed some or even often as a spouse, sibling, and father, but that doesn’t diminish the power and truth behind his essential message.

I suspect I have compassion for Vonnegut’s flaws since I share them along with his ideological commitments to kindness and community—regardless of how inept I can be at both.

And my curmudgeon tendencies are strong, but as I grow older, and as I struggle with the necessary deteriorations of aging, I am more and more apt to recognize the futility of lamenting aging, of fearing and regretting old age (whatever that may be).

I remain frustrated with aging, and my vanity is triggered more than I like to admit. But I am more convinced than ever that the real fear is a lack of communiy as I continue to struggle with how to provide for my mom the sort of late life she deserves despite the consequences of her stoke (which took a significant part of her humanity) and the barriers we are encountering because, to be blunt, she has very little money to sustain her—and the typically horrible insurance that most working-class and poor people are saddled with (if they have any at all) in the godforsaken U.S.

Many times I have lamented that in the U.S. we simply do not care about children, and about that I am both deeply saddened and convinced. But that callousness and carelessness is a subset of a much larger and damning part of the so-called American character: we simply do not care about any vulnerable populations: children, disabled people, carers, and the elderly.

The great and caustic residue of being a rugged-individual culture is that we are willfully choosing to reject community in favor of Social Darwinism, consumerism, and the all-mighty dollar.

Instead of social safety nets being a foundational commitment among us, we have chosen to cast everyone to the fate of the Invisible Hand, our claims to being a Christian nature reduced to so-much hokum in practice.

The cost of growing old is in fact not the deterioration of the mind and body, but the consequences of aging being magnified by a people who refuse to provide for vulnerable populations as an unwavering commitment to human dignity.

I will continue to joke with my younger students and friends about being old; it is fun and often a way to assert my humanity into an environment that I recognize will eventually discard me because of age, although my privileges of being male, white, and well-educated will inoculate me for quite some time.

Despite my many, many flaws, my anger about the callousness of the U.S. toward vulnerable populations is not about me, and extends well beyond my sadness at how the world does not really care about my aging and disabled mother.

My anger is reflected in why Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” has resonated so powerfully over the past several months. Smith forces us to admit “[t]he world is at least/ fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative/ estimate,” and she keeps us focused on the vulnerability of children.

My anger is enflamed because I do believe Smith’s closing lines: “This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful.”

My anger grows because I doubt we will ever assure that comes to fruition.

To squander vulnerable populations—from children to the elderly—is to abandon our souls, to spit in the face of beauty, to declare our society morally bankrupt.

“So it goes.”