Requiem

Last night I took a quiet Sunday night off to watch the film Bobby, Emilo Estevez’s lovingly crafted homage to Bobby Kennedy. The entire film takes place on June 4, 1968, tracing the lives of various “ordinary” people in the Ambassador Hotel, spinning a dozen or so of these disparate threads and then weaving them all together in the film’s fateful closing moments of Kennedy’s assassination. I was six days shy of my fifteenth birthday on June 4, 1968. Watching it now, all these years later, made for powerful viewing. Even as fifteen has turned slowly into fifty, the decades in between have not reconciled me to the losses. I still can’t quite accept the fact that JFK, MLK and RFK, men who embodied such profoundly earnest hopes, were stolen away in three wisps gunpowder. It still makes me cry. Then I went to bed, slept and forgot. I awoke to a warm, breezy Monday . . . and the news that the campus of Cameron Johnson’s alma mater, Virginia Tech, had just gone through the deadliest shooting rampage in our nation’s history. Old history last night, new history this morning. “History” — too often the word is defined by extremities of horror. Still, humanity has a way of groping through to the other side, to that state Viktor Frankl calls “tragic optimism,” even while reeling from an event like this morning’s. Our hearts feel like they’re breaking, as our prayers and anguish go out to the victim’s, their families, and the entire Tech and Blacksburg community. And with those same breaking hearts, we feel that much more of...

A Country Without a Man

So it goes. That’s the three-word refrain that peppers Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a mantra he drops with laconic grace every time a death occurs in the course of his narrative. Though he famously pledged never to write another novel after that one’s publication, he broke his promise time and again–happily for us. His most recent book was a 2005 collection of autobiographical essays entitled A Man Without a Country. Vonnegut died Wednesday at the age of 84. So it goes. John Irving, who studied with Vonnegut (and happens to be one of my favorite novelists), said of his teacher, “He is our strongest writer, the most stubbornly imaginative. He is not anybody else, or even a version of anybody else, and he is a writer with a cause.” Despite Vonnegut’s profoundly and at times bitterly satiric thrust, he was never preachy. Like Mark Twain, he despaired over the cruelties and stupidities of the human condition, and (again, like Twain) lovingly wrapped his fierce critiques in the best delivery system of all: humor. Toward the end of A Man Without a Country, he wrote: “All I really wanted to do was give people the relief of laughing. Humor can be a relief, like an aspirin tablet. If a hundred years from now people are still laughing, I’d certainly be pleased.” Yet the essence that shone through his writing, more than any other, was his gentle cheerfulness. He was truly a delightful man. Here is a passage from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965): “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in...