Thursday, April 26, 2007

Old Saab car - Short story

Have I Got a Car for You!

By Kurt Vonnegut

I used to be the owner and manager of an automobile dealership in West
Barnstable, Massachusetts, called "Saab Cape Cod." It and I went out of
business 33 years ago. The Saab then as now was a Swedish car, and I now
believe my failure as a dealer so long ago explains what would otherwise
remain a deep mystery: Why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel Prize
for Literature. Old Norwegian proverb: "Swedes have short dicks but long

Listen: The Saab back then had only one model, a bug like a VW, a two-door
sedan, but with the engine in front. It had suicide doors opening into the
slipstream. Unlike all other cars, but like your lawnmower and your
outboard, it had a two-stroke rather than a four-stroke engine. So every
time you filled your tank with gas you had to pour in a can of oil as
well. For whatever reason, straight women did not want to do this.

The chief selling point was that a Saab could drag a VW at a stoplight.
But if you or your significant other had failed to add oil to the last
tank of gas, you and the car would then become fireworks. It also had
front-wheel drive, of some help on slippery pavements or when accelerating
into curves. There was this selling point as well: As one prospective
customer said to me, "They make the best watches. Why wouldn't they make
the best cars, too?" I was bound to agree.

The Saab back then was a far cry from the sleek, powerful, four-stroke
Yuppie uniform it is today. It was the wet dream, if you like, of
engineers in an airplane factory who had never made a car before. "Wet
dream," did I say? Get a load of this: There was a ring on the dashboard,
connected to a chain running over pulleys in the engine compartment. Pull
on it, and at the far end it would raise a sort of window shade on a
spring-loaded roller behind the front grill. That was to keep the engine
warm while you went off somewhere. So, when you cam back, if you hadn't
stayed away too long, the engine would start right up again.

But if you stayed away too long, window shade or not, the oil would
separate from the gas and sink like molasses to the bottom of the tank. So
when you started up again, you would lay down a smokescreen like a
destroyer in a naval engagement. And I actually blacked out the whole town
of Woods Hole at high noon that way, having left a Saab on a parking lot
there for about a week. I am told old timers there still wonder out loud
about where all that smoke could have come from. I came to speak ill of
Swedish engineering, and so diddled myself out of a Nobel Prize.


Your Guess Is as Good as Mine

By Kurt Vonnegut

Most of you, if not all of you, like me, feel inadequately educated. That
is an ordinary feeling for a member of our species. One of the most
brilliant human beings of all times, George Bernard Shaw said on his 75th
birthday or so that at last he knew enough to become a mediocre office
boy. He died in 1950, by the way, when I was 28. He is the one who said,
"Youth is wasted on the young." I turned 83 a couple weeks ago, and I must
say I agree.

Shaw, if he were alive today, would envy us the solid information that we
have or can get about the nature of the universe, about time and space and
matter, about our own bodies and brains, about the resources and
vulnerabilities of our planet, about how all sorts of human beings
actually talk and feel and live.

This is the information revolution. We have taken it very badly so far.
Information seems to be getting in the way all the time. Human beings have
had to guess about almost everything for the past million years or so. Our
most enthralling and sometimes terrifying guessers are the leading
characters in our history books. I will name two of them: Aristotle and
Hitler. One good guesser and one bad one.

The masses of humanity, having no solid information to tell them
otherwise, have had little choice but to believe this guesser or that one.
Russians who didn't think much of the guesses of Ivan the Terrible, for
example, were likely to have their hats nailed to their heads.

We must acknowledge, though, that persuasive guessers—even Ivan the
Terrible, now a hero in Russia—have given us courage to endure
extraordinary ordeals that we had no way of understanding. Crop failures,
wars, plagues, eruptions of volcanoes, babies being born dead—the guessers
gave us the illusion that bad luck and good luck were understandable and
could somehow be dealt with intelligently and effectively.

Without that illusion, we would all have surrendered long ago. But in
fact, the guessers knew no more than the common people and sometimes less.
The important thing was that they gave us the illusion that we're in
control of our destinies.

Persuasive guessing has been at the core of leadership for so long—for all
of human experience so far—that it is wholly unsurprising that most of the
leaders of this planet, in spite of all the information that is suddenly
ours, want the guessing to go on, because now it is their turn to guess
and be listened to.

Some of the loudest, most proudly ignorant guessing in the world is going
on in Washington today. Our leaders are sick of all the solid information
that has been dumped on humanity by research and scholarship and
investigative reporting.

They think that the whole country is sick of it, and they want standards,
and it isn't the gold standard. They want to put us back on the snake-oil

Loaded pistols are good for people unless they're in prisons or lunatic

That's correct.

Millions spent on public health are inflationary.

That's correct.

Billions spent on weapons will bring inflation down.

That's correct.

Industrial wastes, and especially those that are radioactive, hardly ever
hurt anybody, so everybody should shut up about them.

That's correct.

Industries should be allowed to do whatever they want to do: Bribe, wreck
the environment just a little, fix prices, screw dumb customers, put a
stop to competition and raid the Treasury in case they go broke.

That's correct.

That's free enterprise.

And that's correct.

The poor have done something very wrong or they wouldn't be poor, so their
children should pay the consequences.

That's correct.

The United States of America cannot be expected to look after its people.

That's correct.

The free market will do that.

That's correct.

The free market is an automatic system of justice.

That's correct.

And so on.

If you actually are an educated, thinking person, you will not be welcome
in Washington, D.C. I know a couple of bright seventh graders who would
not be welcomed in Washington, D.C.

Do you remember those doctors a few years back who got together and
announced that it was a simple, clear medical fact that we could not
survive even a moderate attack by hydrogen bombs? They were not welcome in
Washington, D.C.

Even if we fired the first salvo of hydrogen weapons and the enemy never
fired back, the poisons released would probably kill the whole planet by
and by.

What is the response in Washington? They guess otherwise. What good is an
education? The boisterous guessers are still in charge—the haters of
information. And the guessers are almost all highly educated people. Think
of that. They have had to throw away their educations, even Harvard or
Yale educations, to become guessers. If they didn't do that, there is no
way their uninhibited guessing could go on and on and on.

Please, don't you do that. But let me warn you, if you make use of the
vast fund of knowledge now available to educated persons, you are going to
be lonesome as hell. The guessers outnumber you—and now I have to guess—
about ten to one.


What follows is a conversation between Kurt Vonnegut and out-of-print
science fiction writer Kilgore Trout. It was to be their last. Trout
committed suicide by drinking Drano at midnight on October 15 in Cohoes,
New York, after a female psychic using tarot cards predicted that the
environmental calamity George W. Bush would once again be elected
president of the most powerful nation on the planet by a five-to-four
decision of the Supreme Court, which included "100 per-cent of the black


Requiem for a Dreamer

By Kurt Vonnegut

TROUT: I've never voted in my whole damn life. I didn't want to be
complicit. But is it time I did?

KV: The planet's immune system is obviously trying to get rid of us, and
high time! But sure, go vote for somebody. What the hell.

TROUT: Everybody's so ignorant.

KV: The overwhelming popularity of President Bush, in spite of everything,
finally shows us what the American people, whom we have so sentimentalized
for so long, a la Norman Rockwell, really are, thanks to TV and purposely
lousy public schools: ignorant. Count on it!

TROUT: You ever meet anybody who was really smart?

KV: Only one: Saul Steinberg, the graphic artist who's dead now. Everybody
I know is dead now, present company excepted. I could ask Saul anything,
and six seconds would pass, and then he would give me a perfect answer. He
growled a perfect answer. He was born in Rumania, and, according to him,
he was born into a house where "the geese peeked in the windows."

TROUT: Like what kind of questions?

KV: I said, "Saul, what should I think about Picasso?" Six seconds went
by, and then he growled, "God put him on Earth to show us what it's like
to be really rich." I said, "Saul, I'm a novelist, and many of my friends
are novelists, but I can't help feeling that some of them are in a very
different business from mine, even though I like their books a lot. What
would make me feel that way?" Six seconds went by, and then he growled,
"It is very simple: There are two kinds of artists, and one is not
superior to the other. But one kind responds to the history of his or her
art so far, and the other responds to life itself."

I said, "Saul, are you gifted?" Six seconds went by, and then he growled,
"No. But what we respond to in any work of art is the artist's struggle
against his or her limitations."


KV: You seem unimpressed.

TROUT: I said, "OK."

KV: You said it so emptily.

TROUT: Sorry. You know me: Always running on empty.

KV: Somebody else smart? OK, try this: After the Second World War I
enrolled in the graduate division of the Anthropology Department of the
University of Chicago, the most conceited university in the country. And
in a seminar for about eight of us, half of us vets on the GI Bill of
Rights, my favorite professor, in fact my thesis advisor, put this
Socratic question to us: "What is it an artist does?"

TROUT: Hold on: What makes Chicago so conceited?

KV: That it isn't Harvard.

TROUT: Got it: That it isn't high society.

KV: Bingo. Anyway, I'm sure we all came up with smart-ass answers, since a
graduate seminar in any subject is a form of improv theater. But the only
answer I remember is the one he gave: "An artist says, 'I can't do
anything about the chaos in the universe or my country, or even in my own
miserable life, but I can at least make this piece of paper or canvas, or
blob of clay or chunk of marble, exactly what it should be.'"


KV: Did you forget to take your Viagra today?

TROUT: Very funny. But what he said an artist does is what I do every time
I brush my teeth or tie my shoes. You thought this guy was smart? He's an

KV: Look, when you put a piece of paper in your typewriter, don't you try
to make it exactly what it should be?

TROUT: No, I just effing write.

KV: What are you effing writing now?

TROUT: It's about how the future has as much to do with the present as the
past does. Giraffes can only have come from the future. There's no way
evolution in the past would have let something that defenseless and
impractical live for 15 minutes.

KV: If you say so.

TROUT: Try this: The First World War was caused by the second one.
Otherwise the first one makes no sense, wasn't about anything. And all
Picasso had to do was paint pictures that were already hanging in museums
in the future.


TROUT: Just trying to be Einstein. You never know. But hey, the two people
you said were so smart were both men. Women say smart things, too. I went
walking with a woman the other day, if you can believe it, and I stopped
to retie my shoes, and she said, "Every time I go for a walk with a man he
always has to stop to retie his shoes. Why won't men tie double knots? A
fear of commitment?" How's that for anthropology, the science of man? I'll
bet they didn't teach you about men and shoelaces at Chicago.

KV: That isn't anthropology. That's sociology.

TROUT: What's the difference? I've often wondered.

KV: A sociologist is paid by the Sociology Department. An anthropologist
is paid by the Anthropology Department.

TROUT: Glad to have that cleared up.

KV: Knowledge is power.

TROUT: Well, I'm off. Ciao, adios and aloha.

KV: Whither bound?

TROUT: Back to Cohoes for an AA meeting.

KV: But you're not an alcoholic.

TROUT: It's the only place I can pick up women. They have their defenses
down. "Hello, I'm Kilgore Trout and I'm an alcoholic." And I've met this
babe named Flamingo who is a professional psychic. She's going to tell me
our country's fortune. Who'll win the next election.


TROUT: Take care.

KV: You too.


Kurt Vonnegut at Ohio State - 1 March, 2006.

The conversation started with politics. Vonnegut first asked what he was
allowed to say – "How dirty," he asked, "Are we allowed to talk?" The
moderator gave him a bemused grin and told him it was an adult audience.
"I know," replied Vonnegut, "But I suspect that there are some young
ladies here away from home for the first time, so let me try it out on
you." He stood up, walked over the moderator, and whispered something into
his ear. "I think that'll be ok," was the reply. Vonnegut smiled, returned
to his seat.

"George Bush is so stupid, he thinks Peter Pan is a washboard in a

(A brothel is the most likely place where you'd need a pan to wash your

"War is so reputable still, because of Hollywood that George Bush can say
'I am a war president'. That's like saying 'I am a syphilis president'.
War is the most horrible disease that the planet could experience but he
though it was beautiful and glamorous to be a war president".

From near the end of a recent interview with Harriet Gilbert of the BBC
World Book Club Program. You can hear the entire interview by going here

and finding it in the list under Listen to previous World Book Clubs

What is wrong with this country?

Vonnegut turned serious, and said:

The reason so many people want to come to America is that the payoff for
crime is bigger than anywhere else in the world. What other people call
embezzling we call executive compensation; fraud= public relations. The
biggest cash cow is a casino named wall street. But the big payoff is war.
You know, the treasury just gets empty and money gets thrown in the
direction of people who ride the government. Vietnam made millionaires
into billionaires. And now the iraq war is going to make bil into tril.

The moderator asks, "It's disturbing, but you write that George Bush has
made this country – or at least the American people - appear to be war
loving. What can we as individuals do about that?
"Look, the neocons say 'we gave you free speech, say what you want.'
That's cuz no matter what we say it makes no difference. All the protests
against Iraq, by decent middle class people, was not covered by the press.
We have created a small class of people actually richer than some nations.

This is about the point that Mr. Vonnegut realized that no matter what he
said, the crowd loved him and would cheer.
"I can say anything I want tonight, can't I? What the hell? I wish someone
would give the president a blowjob, so we can finally get rid of him."

The economy isn't doing so well, there aren't a lot of jobs – what advice
do you have?"
"As I say, the world is ending – I dunno what the hell they should do.
We'll have to ask the Native Americans what the hell THEY did when they
lost everything."

The moderator asks, "You talk about the arts, etc – doesn't that suggest
that one answer is a personal revolution?"
"I have said we should be kind to one another. Just be civil, you don't
even have to be kind."

Mr. Vonnegut then goes on to tell the story from Timequake about his uncle
– the short summary is, his Uncle never understood why people always
noticed when they were having a bad time, but never noticed when they were
having a good time. As a reaction against this, his uncle would frequently
stop – perhaps with a glass of lemonade on a sunny day – and say, out
loud, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."
Recognize it when you're happy, and say it. I got a letter from a guy the
other day, he says he says it during sexual intercourse.

Then Kurt Vonnegut said something that surprised me and most of the other
people in the room. He said that the very first time he had ever spoken on
a college campus for money was here at Ohio State, many years ago. And he
said that this evening was the very last such speech he would ever do. It
was oddly touching and somehow terribly sad to hear this bit of news.

"And by the way," he said, to lighten the suddenly somber mood:
You can feel safe from terrorists because I took my shoes off at the
airport. If there's one thing terrorists can't stand it's the smell of
feet. If this isn't nice, I dunno what is.

"You have put forth, in your books, the idea that we are here on earth to
fart around. What do you mean by that? How do you yourself fart around?"
I run errands. I write letters, go to the mailbox, buy stamps. I don't use
email and I have no answering machine, all of my communication is through
letters. So I run out to buy an envelope and a stamp, I run into people,
say hi. If a fire engine goes by, I give it a thumbs up – I never get
tired of fire engines. We are here on earth to fart around.

Sometimes I'll be getting ready to go out and my wife will ask"Where are
you going?" I say, "To buy an envelope!" She says, "Kurt, you are not a
poor man. Why don't you buy 100 envelopes, and put them in your closet?" I
pretend not to hear her.

A creative writing student asks: "Should writers maintain a social
consciousness in order to be great?"
You should maintain a social consciousness in order to be alive!

If you want a lesson in creative writing, here is a brief one: Do not use
semicolons. They stand for absolutely nothing. They are transvestite
hermaphrodites. All they do is suggest you went to college. I'll be
reading something and it's going along fine with periods and colons and
commas, and all of a sudden there's this goddamn semicolon, and everything
stops. I'm wondering, what the hell am I supposed to do with this thing?
So don't use them.

Also, since we're on the subject of creative writing, the best short story
ever written was "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce.
Please read it if you haven't.

Next student question. There was a lot in front of this, but the gist of
the question was "Can humans truly learn and forgive?"
Well, war is like what George Bernard Shaw said about marriage. … … I
can't remember what Shaw said about marriage. But! I do remember a great
line from Susan Sontag. She said that 10% of any population is cruel no
matter what. 10% is merciful. The middle 80% can be pulled in either
direction. So yes, people can be pulled that way.

I've been asked, I'm 83, what's the biggest change I've seen in my life.
Well, Jesus used to be merciful and loving of the poor, but now he's a

I lived through the Great Depression. It was almost hopeless for white
people, so I was always worried about how terrible it must have been for
the black people. I asked my uncle, the same one who said "If this isn't
nice I don't know what is," and he told me something great. "The poor," he
said, "take care of the poor."


3/6/06 - Kurt Vonnegut's "Stardust Memory"
Harvey Wasserman
Columbus Free Press (Ohio)

On a cold, cloudy night, the lines threaded all the way around the Ohio
State campus. News that Kurt Vonnegut was speaking at the Ohio Union
prompted these "apathetic" heartland college students to start lining up
in the early afternoon. About 2,000 got in to the Ohio Union. At least
that many more were turned away. It was the biggest crowd for a speaker
here since Michael Moore.

In an age dominated by hype and sex, neither Moore nor Vonnegut seems a
likely candidate to rock a campus whose biggest news has been the men's
and women's basketball teams' joint assault on Big Ten championships.

But maybe there's more going on here than Fox wants us to think.

Vonnegut takes an easy chair across from Prof. Manuel Luis Martinez, a
poet and teacher of writing. He grabs Martinez and semi-whispers into his
ear (and the mike) "What can I say here?"

Martinez urges candor.

"Well," says Vonnegut, "I just want to say that George W. Bush is the
syphilis president."

The students seem to agree.

"The only difference between Bush and Hitler," Vonnegut adds, "is that
Hitler was elected."

"You all know, of course, that the election was stolen. Right here."

Off to a flying start, Vonnegut explains that this will be his "last
speech for money." He can't remember the first one, but it was on a campus
long, long ago, and this will be the end.

The students are hushed with the prospect of the final appearance of
America's greatest living novelist. Alongside Mark Twain and Ben Franklin,
Will Rogers and Joseph Heller and a very short list of immortal satirists
and storytellers, there stands Kurt Vonnegut, author of SLAUGHTERHOUSE
books these students are studying now, as did their parents, as will their
children and grandchildren, with a deeply felt mixture of gratitude and

Nobody tonight seems to think they were in for a detached, scholarly
presentation from a disengaged academic genius coasting on his
incomparable laurels

"I'm lucky enough to have known a great president, one who really cared
about ALL the people, rich and poor. That was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He
was rich himself, and his class considered him a traitor.

"We have people in this country who are richer than whole countries," he
says. "They run everything.

"We have no Democratic Party. It's financed by the same millionaires and
billionaires as the Republicans.

"So we have no representatives in Washington. Working people have no
leverage whatsoever.

"I'm trying to write a novel about the end of the world. But the world is
really ending! It's becoming more and more uninhabitable because of our
addiction to oil.

"Bush used that line recently," Vonnegut adds. "I should sue him for

Things have gotten so bad, he says, "people are in revolt again life

Our economy has been making money, but "all the money that should have
gone into research and development has gone into executive compensation.
If people insist on living as if there's no tomorrow, there really won't
be one.

"As the world is ending, I'm always glad to be entertained for a few
moments. The best way to do that is with music. You should practice once a

"If you want really want to hurt your parents and don't want to be gay, go
into the arts," he says.

Then he breaks into song, doing a passable, tender rendition of "Stardust

By this time this packed hall has grown reverential. The sound system is
appropriately tenuous. Straining to hear every word is both an effort and
a meditation.

"To hell with the advances in computers," he says after he finishes
singing. "YOU are supposed to advance and become, not the computers. Find
out what's inside you. And don't kill anybody.

"There are no factories any more. Where are the jobs supposed to come
from? There's nothing for people to do anymore. We need to ask the
Seminoles: 'what the hell did you do?'' after the tribe's traditional
livelihood was taken away.

Answering questions written in by students, he explains the meaning of
life. "We should be kind to each other. Be civil. And appreciate the good
moments by saying 'If this isn't nice, what is?'

"You're awful cute" he says to someone in the front row. He grins and
looks around. "If this isn't nice, what is?

"You're all perfectly safe, by the way. I took off my shoes at the
airport. The terrorists hate the smell of feet.

"We are here on Earth to fart around," he explains, and then embarks on a
soliloquy about the joys of going to the store to buy an envelope. One
talks to the people there, comments on the "silly-looking dog," finds all
sorts of adventures along the way.

As for being a midwesterner, he recalls his roots in nearby Indianapolis,
a heartland town, the next one west of here. "I'm a fresh water person.
When I swim in the ocean, I feel like I'm swimming in chicken soup. Who
wants to swim in flavored water?"

A key to great writing, he adds, is to "never use semi-colons. What are
they good for? What are you supposed to do with them? You're reading
along, and then suddenly, there it is. What does it mean? All semi-colons
do is suggest you've been to college."

Make sure, he adds, "that your reader is having a good time. Get to the
who, when, where, what right away, so the reader knows what is going on."

As for making money, "war is a very profitable thing for a few people.
Jesus used to be so merciful and loving of the poor. But now he's a

"Our economy today is not capitalism. It's casino-ism. That's all the
stock market is about. Gambling.

"Live one day at a time. Say 'if this isn't nice, I don't know what is!'

"You meet saints every where. They can be anywhere. They are people
behaving decently in an indecent society.

"I'm going to sue the cigarette companies because they haven't killed me,"
he says. His son lived out his dream to be a pilot and has spent his
career flying for Continental. Now they've "screwed up his pension."

The greatest peace, Vonnegut wraps up, "comes from the knowledge that I
have enough. Joe Heller told me that.

"I began writing because I found myself possessed. I looked at what I
wrote and I said 'How the hell did I do that?'

"We may all be possessed. I hope so."

He accepts the students' standing ovation with characteristic dignity and
grace. Not a few tears flow from young people with the wisdom to
appreciate what they are seeing. "If this isn't nice, we don't know what

Not long ago we spoke on the phone. I asked Kurt how he was. "Too fucking
old," he replied.

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