Ruminations about Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Rules For Old Men Waiting to Die

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. died at age 84 on April 11, 2007. His many books employed satire, gallows humor and science fiction to blend amazing tales populated by fascinating characters. His themes were politics, sex and religion. He was a well infidel of distinction, an outspoken freethinker recognized by the American Humanist Association as its honorary president for life.

I read all the Vonnegut books over the years, as did a lot of other college students and millions of others. His stories and particularly the interviews he gave to Playboy and other magazines fueled my skepticism while raising existential issues in entertaining ways. My favorite Vonnegut books were "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" (1965), "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1969) and "Cat's Cradle" (1963). Vonnegut was our Mark Twain. I'm surprised he lived as long as he did. He had a high-risk lifestyle (including a life-long chain smoking habit) and a poor family history (suicide). He also faced some horrific hazards as a WW II soldier at the Battle of the Bulge, including time as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the infamous firebombing allied war crime. But, I'm glad he lived so long and produced so much. Now he's gone. So it goes. Vonnegut is missed but fondly remembered.

All my Vonnegut paperback novels are liberally marked in magic marker colors. I found countless passages meaningful, insightful, humorous, profound, delightful or otherwise worth memorizing or revisiting time and again. One such favorite, spoken by the character Rosewater in "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," offers babies welcoming advice: "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.'"

I thought of Vonnegut when I read Peter Pouncey's novel "Rules for Old Men Waiting." The protagonist, Robert MacIver, is an 80-year-old retired Colombia University history professor/ He is on his last legs, living in an isolated cabin itself on its last legs. (Note: Pouncey himself an aging retired professor, of English.)

In the story, Winter has set in. Old MacIver is failing. An illness lingers and worsens. He knows he is doomed. He is not taking good care of himself (i.e., misses meals, the place is a mess, he does not bathe enough, sleep is fitful and so on). Yet, he is determined to complete a story he created about an incident set in World War I. This novel within a novel about MacIver is very Vonnegut-like. To promote his chances of living long enough to finish his tale, MacIver decides he's better write down and follow a few rules. MacIver believes, "if you are going to go under, it should not be from the weight of self-pity alone." 

He resolves, among other things, to:

  1. Keep himself clean.
  2. Make the bed every day and clean up the house.
  3. Dress properly.
  4. Eat regularly and wisely.
  5. Play music and read.
  6. Limit television viewing.
  7. Value order and resolve.
  8. Work in the morning, nap in the afternoon. 
  9. Retain the beautiful and useful.
  10. Finish the story he was writing to the end.

Not everyone nearing the end will, like Peter Pouncey's protagonist, Robert MacIver, be living alone in a crumbling home in Winter woods, working on a novel. Yet, most who read Pouncey's compelling tale will, I think, gain from MacIver something else, something Vonnegut would enjoy: An appreciation for a few good rules that enable one to remain alert and be happy as long as possible. This is a theme Vonnegut sounded did in his books, lectures, interviews, plays and columns on politics, sex and religion. 

Just as Pouncey's MacIver will remind you of Vonnegut, Vonnegut always reminded me to be kind, to be skeptical, to not take things including myself too seriously and to look on the bright side of life. Oh, and one more thing: Make up a few cool rules.  

Donald B. Ardell is the Well Infidel...