If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?

Kurt Vonnegut

Most of us know Kurt Vonnegut from his science fiction classics, such as “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Player Piano.” But his fame as a commencement speaker almost overshadowed his fame (notoriety?) as a shrewd and caustic master of fiction. As Maria Popova illustrates in her review of “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?,” Vonnegut’s collected commencement addresses, the author generously shared not only his hard-won wisdom, but also his stubborn optimism.

At the heart of Vonnegut’s talks, as in his fiction, is the urgent warning that we’re in danger of losing our humanity. We lose it, he says, by isolating and distracting ourselves. As Popova writes:

This, in fact — this passionate advocacy for the value of community, of finding your tribe — is something Vonnegut reiterates across his many commencement speeches. In another address, he, the father of seven children, argues that the modern family is simply too small, leaving too much room for loneliness and boredom, and advises: “I recommend that everybody here join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. It does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.”

Vonnegut often preached the gospel of art, including music, theater, and literature as a catalyst for emotional and social well-being. But only human contact can facilitate the growth of human, and humane, souls. As Vonnegut counseled the graduates of Agnes Scott College in 1999:

Only well-informed, warm-hearted people can teach others things they’ll always remember and love. Computers and TV don’t do that.

A computer teaches a child what a computer can become.

An educated human being teaches a child what a child can become. Bad men just want your bodies. TVs and computers want your money, which is even more disgusting. It’s so much more dehumanizing!

It is no coincidence that the same runaway market forces threatening the environment also threaten our humanity. If we are self-serving consumers with no bonds to others, we are left with nothing to strive for other than maximizing our exploitation of nature and other people. Vonnegut advises his audience to nurture ties with the “extended family,” even if it’s an a “synthetic extended family,” such as clubs and sports teams.

Of course, rebelling has its dangers, as Vonnegut warned in such stories as “Harrison Bergeron.” After all, we live in a world where going against the grain will get you branded as a threat, a theme I explored in my dystopian short story “Snake Heart.” Sometimes we lose. But as Kurt Vonnegut reminds us, the risk of mindless conformity to “the cultural current” is even worse.

Quote of the day

Jack London

“I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get the food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tales that rang true. I quite believe it was my tramp-apprenticeship that made a realist out of me. Realism constitutes the only goods one can exchange at the kitchen door for grub.” Jack London

(This reminded me of my post “Do You Have What It Takes To Be A Good Liar?“)

A Writer’s Guide to Understanding People

Understanding People

There’s always worthwhile reading over at K.M. Weiland’s writing blog, but her latest post is a real find. In it, she argues that the key to creating and describing believable characters is to understand what makes real people tick. And the first step in understanding others is to understand oneself.

That path begins by coming to grips with what Weiland calls recognizing and examining the “four corners” of one’s personality, the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual components that define us. I agree that the physical should come first. Writing can be a cerebral activity, but language, the medium of writing, is grounded in the body. In fact, the science of Embodied Cognition tells us that all language is metaphor, and the building blocks of metaphor are physical sensations. Magnetic resonance imaging scanners reveal that when we read about a physical action, we activate the same areas of our brains as when we actually perform those actions.

Awareness and sensitivity enable us to detect vital details, and physical activity, especially activity spiced with a little danger, sharpens our powers of perception.

Weiland also outlines a lifelong path of study that includes literature, drama, history, and philosophy as a program for enhancing our understanding of human motivation. But she also argues that the very act of writing offers the best means of learning about ourselves, which in turn opens us to better comprehending others. Yes — writing and learning create a continuous feedback loop. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Quote of the day

William Faulkner

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” – William Faulkner, from his acceptance speech for the 1950 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Magic of Swamps

My wife and I just got back from Carolina Beach. We spent Tuesday hiking through Carolina Beach State Park, a 761-acre wildlife sanctuary in southeastern North Carolina bordered by the Intracoastal Waterway and the mighty Cape Fear River.
We need more places like this. After driving nearly 200 miles from Charlotte down I-74, much of which is garrisoned by countless installations of Burger This and Taco That, we were ready for something that wasn’t standardized and sterile.

The Swamp Trail was alive with surprises. Here’s the Lily Pond, which was overflowing with dark green lily pads and dotted with white blossoms, all floating in unpolluted water. The air around the Lily Pond smelled deliciously earthy and rich.

Not far away, large swaths of the pine forest still showed signs of this summer’s controlled burn. This process helps clear away old and diseased vegetation, thereby freeing up nutrients for the soil and new life, such as this little guy:

If this newborn pine reminds you of the young Groot, you’re not the only one.

Swamps reaffirm the astonishing resilience and adaptability of life. The Wilmington, North Carolina area is the only place in the world where you can find Venus Flytraps. Both Pitcher Plants and Venus Flytraps evolved in an environment lacking the proteins and nitrogen needed to sustain them, so these plants started feeding on meat. We didn’t come across any Venus Flytraps on our hike, but here are some Pitcher Plants we saw waiting for their usual customers, including flies, small frogs, and even birds:

Carnivorous plants. Pretty wild, huh?

Guess you could say swamps are to our everyday environment what science fiction and fantasy are to our routine reading. In the swamp, you’re face-to-face with nature’s more fantastical creatures, creatures whose vitality and outlandish attributes force you to pay attention to them. Swamps are the incubators of wild imaginings and unexpected beauty. My story “Hunting Ground,” which was included in the Unbound II: Changed Worlds anthology, was not only set in a swamp but inspired by my boyhood ramblings in local marshes. Did carnivorous plants get a starring role? Well, their (could be) cousins did …

Getting outdoors, and hiking in particular, help you sharpen your senses. And don’t forget how experiencing nature lets you encounter beauty and rediscover peace of mind, which can lead you to becoming a more balanced person and a better writer.

The Idiot Box vs. Humanity

idiot box

“After forty-odd years, the evidence is everywhere that television, far from proving a great tool of education, is a tool of stupefaction and disintegration.”
Wendell Berry

“So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books.”
Roald Dahl

“Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.” Andrew Lytle

Happy 230th Birthday, Enceladus, Our Solar System’s Greatest Hope For Life Beyond Earth

Metaphorosis April 2018 The latest issue of Forbes Magazine features this article commemorating the 230th anniversary of William Herschel’s discovery of Saturn’s most intriguing moon, Enceladus. Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel explains why this mysterious and beautiful body fascinates scientists:

Given that we know of 62 moons around Saturn, and that one of them (Titan) is enormous and has a thick atmosphere with liquid hydrocarbons on its surface, it hardly seems like Enceladus would be the place to look for life. It has no thick atmosphere like Titan; it has no lava-rich volcanoes like Io or cryovolcanoes like Triton. But still, Enceladus might be the most habitable place in our Solar System beyond Earth.

Its ultra-reflective, lifeless surface simply provides cover for a complex, possibly life-rich liquid ocean that begins just ~20 kilometers (12 miles) beneath the icy crust. A series of pale blue stripes cuts across its surface, telling the tale of deep fissures that go down into the interior of the world. But what’s perhaps most remarkable is that we can actually see water-ice being spewed from these fissures into space, extending upwards for hundreds of miles (or kilometers) with every eruption.

With water, energy, and organic molecules, some new, alien form of life could very well be waiting here to be discovered. And just to deepen the allure of this remarkable little moon, Siegel reminds us that we once believed the sunless bottom of our own oceans could not support life, and yet we now know creatures do indeed live around hydrothermal vents. And those vents, with their rich interplay of chemical and thermal processes, may well explain the origin of life itself.

Nature has frequently exploded our notions of the possibilities of life, a truth that inspires both science and science fiction. Enceladus reminds us just how vast, beautiful, and awe-inspiring the universe truly is.

UPDATE: From the comments section:

Great read as usual and one I will look into more. Curious? Is there any works of science-fiction that feature this Moon.

MCT: Oh, here’s one:

https://magazine.metaphorosis.com/story/2018/cathedra-m-c-tuggle/

“Tuggle ably captures the spirit of Dan Brown novels and Indiana Jones–style adventure stories.” Kirkus Reviews

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