Thank God Vonnegut Smokes!


Which is a terrible thing to write since my mother currently battles lung cancer. But because of Kurt Vonnegut’s addiction to nicotine I spent five 10-15 minute private cigarette breaks with him throughout Saturday evening.

Vonnegut, in Hartford to speak alongside of fellow writers, Joyce Carol Oats and Jennifer Weiner, needed some assistance throughout the evening. As an advisory board member to the Connecticut Forum, I was asked to serve as Mr. Vonnegut’s personal valet.

In his mid-eighties, Vonnegut needed to conserve his energy throughout day’s events, which included a book signing, press conference, cocktail party, dinner, and then the two hour plus Forum event. I stuck close to his side, managed the fans that mobbed him and most importantly joined him outdoors for his smoke breaks.

Not that I smoke (my delicate vegan body would crumble from one puff of his unfiltered cigarettes) but I did not mind gulping Vonnegut’s second-hand fumes and first-hand accounts of Capote (He said that Philip Seymour Hoffman played the author exactly as Vonnegut remembered Capote from real life) and the madness of our times.

In the limo we spoke about Christianity. Mr. Vonnegut: “Jesus had some good things to say. The most radical was that he was anti-revenge which is what killed him.”

During a smoke break, joined by a young woman named Amy who flew in from California just to see Vonnegut and was resourceful enough to bum a cigarette and ask the author for his opinion of a good book to read: Mr. Vonnegut: “Voltaire’s Candide.”

He outlined a scene where Candide, with a deadly accurate Spanish rifle, enters the jungle. A beautiful naked woman runs by with a monkey biting her ass (his words). Candide shoots and kills the monkey who turns out to have been the woman’s lover. He laughed, wide mouthed and deep–deep with many messages about love and loss, prejudice and assumptions.

During our smoking breaks we talked about the Bush administration, “freedom of speech” and the blight that is humanity on the planet today. We talked about NYC and Margaret Meade (he studied as an anthropologist) and ancient people who welcomed their queer members into the community as gifts. We talked of the Nazi party and of Hemmingway with his suppressed love for men.

We spoke of the “ex-gay” movement. Mr. Vonnegut: “So does it work at all?” Sure, if the goal is to make men more “masculine” and women more “feminine” and if it is to curb certain behaviors. But no one ever becomes straight, just straight-acting.

We spoke of many things including art. Mr. Vonnegut: “Everyone needs to practice some sort of art, even if you are not very good at it. Art enlarges the soul.”

I believe he practices what he preaches. With all the profound, witty, scandalous and insightful remarks bursting out of his mouth, the most impressive thing to me was that when he spoke to me (and Amy and others he met), he really saw us, he spoke to us. He did not speak around us blowing his ideas into the atmosphere like his cigarette smoke, but he spoke to us, into our eyes, our souls. And he heard us.

“What do you do?” he asked. “I write plays, one-person shows that I perform throughout North America and Europe.” (We talked at length about The Re-Education of George W. Bush play I have been writing.) He leaned in and looked me deep in my eyes and with respect he pronounced, “You are a playwright.” Later that evening as he chatted backstage with his daughter, grandson and his grandson’s girlfriend, he introduced me as a colleague, “He is a playwright,” said with warmth, admiration and awe.

I embrace that evening as a gift (and the next day hanging out with Amy eating at the Crack Palace and learning about her amazing journey). A gift that every artist needs, a gift of how we each can grow larger, fuller, deeper and more real.

Vonnegut mused that in the wake of the backlash the tobacco companies received because of the harm caused by smoking, he wishes to write a letter complaining that after years of reading the warnings, he wants to sue them because he is still alive. And after those magical cigarette breaks with Kurt Vonnegut, I might just pen a thank you note to Phillip Morris.

(You can read Alan Bisbort’s recent interview, What Makes Your Soul Grow…and Other Observations, with Kurt Vonnegut that appeared in the Hartford Advocate.)

(Oh, and I didn’t take the photo of Vonnegut. I got it from a funky Russian language site on the author, and I couldn’t find a photo credit–my cyrillic is rusty I guess.)

This post has 12 Comments

  1. Christine on February 6, 2006 at 6:03 pm Reply

    Beautiful! What an amazing opportunity. Thanks for sharing with us!

  2. Bruce Garrett on February 6, 2006 at 6:29 pm Reply

    He leaned in and looked me deep in my eyes and with respect he pronounced, “You are a playwright.”

    Wow! Just…wow!

  3. Jeanine Byers on February 6, 2006 at 7:34 pm Reply

    That playwright thing got me, too! Tears in my eyes and everything! And him introducing you that way, later..

    How could you not just bawl right then and there?

    So happy for you to have had those moments with him!

  4. Diana_CT on February 6, 2006 at 9:46 pm Reply

    I’m so jealous.
    He is one of the earliest authors that I read and one of my favorite books by him is “Player Piano”

  5. kurt_t on February 6, 2006 at 10:50 pm Reply

    Wow.

    Wow.

    Just…

    Wow.

    I’m picturing Vonnegut introducing me and saying “This is kurt_t. He’s a humorist.”

    Yeah, I’d cry. No doubt about it.

    Heck, I’d cry if he said “This is kurt_t. He decorates cakes.”

    I’d cry if he forgot my name and called me Bob!

    Now that I think of it, I think the first gay character I ever encountered in fiction was Bunny, from Breakfast of Champions.

  6. Willie Hewes on February 7, 2006 at 9:20 am Reply

    Hey, Pete! You’re a playwright! ^.^

  7. sadia on February 7, 2006 at 10:57 pm Reply

    Hey Peterson..

    so if you can point me to where you found that photo, my cyrillic isn’t so rusty.
    😉

    I need to practice my Russian more anyway!

    Sadelle

  8. Anonymous on February 8, 2006 at 6:57 pm Reply

    “But no one ever becomes straight, just straight-acting.”

    How do YOU know this? This is a lofty presumption I don’t think you can make unchallenged.

  9. Peterson Toscano on February 8, 2006 at 9:24 pm Reply

    anonymous,
    I spent two years at the Love in Action “ex-gay” program in Memphis, TN. This came after 15 years of seeking change from my same-sex attractions. I spent time with ministers, counselors and in”ex-gay” support groups. I was an earnest evangelical Christian who believed that the power of Jesus and his blood could transform me and make me into a new man.

    In all that time, with the hundreds of people I met, I never once encountered anyone who no longer had same-sex attractions. They may not have been acting on these attractions any longer and may have even entered into a sexual/romantic relationship with someone of the opposite sex, but they were not heterosexual. (Subsequently most of these marriages ended in divorce)

    My first day in Love in Action the director of the program stated, “We cannot make you heterosexual. You most likely will have to deal with same-sex attractions for the rest of your life.”

    Someone can change their behavior, but I have yet to meet anyone who has experienced such a fundamental internal change that they no longer experience same-sex attractions.
    Peterson

  10. Anonymous on February 8, 2006 at 11:30 pm Reply

    Thanks for the thoughtful response.

    To answer another question…no Eartha is no longer at the Wash. Blade. She received a fellowship from a university think tank and is doing some work for them and some freelance magazine writing. I agree with you about her professionalism and talent.

    I just really have a problem when someone claims to know what is in the heart of others — of ALL others in this case. I am not doubting that you struggled honestly for many years and you have given up that struggle for your own reasons. As someone who has no same-sex inclinations, I can’t pretend to know what it’s like. But on the same side of the coin, I don’t think that you can make assumptions about others because you have had a particular experience and have known others who have shared a similar walk. I also don’t think you can back up the claim that “most of these marriages ended in divorce.” This may be true of one or more people you know personally, but I don’t think thereis any empirical data to support this assertion.

    I don’t sense that you have any particular animus concerning LIA or bear any scars (I could be wrong) except that you don’t think the counseling is effective and you think may even harm one’s pysche. The decision should be with the individual and in the case of a minor, the families — the homosexual community should not show such vicious intolerance for the existence of a program by trying to shut it down because they disagree with its objectives. You do not fall into this category, but I’ve seen some of the most vile, hateful things said about “ex-gays” (and an entire community of blogs dedicated to the character assassination of these people)because they have made decisions in their life that are not convenient for a particular activist community that for political reasons needs to convince the world that it is IMPOSSIBLE for someone to change his/her sexual behavior/attraction.

    Your laudatory treatment of the group that is trying to bring LIA down may be misplaced…they are not the squeeky-clean Crusaders for Good you have credited them with being. You likely have a personal relationship with them and want to do nothing but praise their effort, but as you’ve noted, you can’t vouch for the accuracy of the recent accounts…nor should you. The most recent entry on their site should be a good indication that they are not so sure anymore either.

    Bottom line for me is that there ARE people who want to fight their homosexual proclivities and there are services and ministries available for those people. Neither you nor I can say either way whether someone who has tried was able to defeat the desire they wished to defeat. Too many in the gay community are willing to savagely attack people who’ve decided that they no longer want to live a homosexual lifestyle and offer a public testimony and/or counseling for others. For a community that constantly implores the rest of the world to let them “be who they are,” I hear a lot of hypocrisy when someone decides who they are and it wasn’t the “right” choice. People can and do change — whether they fight lingering (or powerful) same-sex attraction or not is something you or I can’t know…every person is different…and it doesn’t really matter.

    I hope I have been able to reasonably articulate my thoughts. I have posted similar comments on other gay/gay-friendly websites and been digitally thrashed by other contributors…so I hope my approach isn’t to blame and I’ve presented my arguments respectfully to you.

    May God Bless You Abundantly.

  11. Michael on February 9, 2006 at 7:08 pm Reply

    Peterson,

    What a priviledge to spend time with Vonnegut! I was a fan of Slaughterhouse 5 years ago. I would have asked him about his experiences in Dresden, Germany, which part of that book refers to. He was apparently an American POW in Dresden when the allies bombed it.

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