The skies seem cloudy and the days seem dark—and yes, I am writing metaphorically.
Here is a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, one of my literary heroes, who died back in 2007. The quote came from that year as well, and from his last interview.
“My country is in ruins. So I’m a fish in a poisoned fishbowl. I’m mostly just heartsick about this. There should have been hope. This should have been a great country. But we are despised all over the world now. I was hoping to build a country and add to its literature. That’s why I served in World War II, and that’s why I wrote books.”
If heartsick was how he felt about a country led by George W. Bush, into what further depths would he have plunged in our current moment?
At this point of my essay, I was hoping to offer a more positive and uplifting Vonnegut quote, something from earlier in his life, perhaps from one of his novels. It turns out, though, that the old Hoosier was kind of a downer on many counts. A quick search online reveals one depressing assessment of humanity and the human condition after another. I think Mr. Vonnegut might have laughed or scoffed or chastised me for the cheery postcards I have been writing (please wait for the upcoming paragraphs), although I also think (or hope, or wish, or pray) that he would have praised me for writing my novel, Fergus Falls, and self-publishing it, to boot. Vonnegut was friends with my writing-group leader and personal guru for the mid-1990s, Walter James Miller of NYU, who heaped a lot of praise on my efforts and was very encouraging. My one disappointment with Walter: he resisted all suggestions to invite Vonnegut to one of the sessions.
Here is a brief excerpt from Slaughterhouse Five, a definitive work in the Vonnegut canon.
Billy licked his lips, thought a while, inquired at last: “Why me?”
“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”
“Yes.” Billy, in fact had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three lady-bugs embedded in it.
“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”
I am guessing that when I first read this exchange, back in college, that it either puzzled me or that I merely disagreed with it. Unlike the aliens in the novel, I believed in explanations, I believed in cause and effect, and I especially believed in free will. I still do. Nevertheless, I can see—no, feel—the idea of being trapped in amber, of being stuck in a particular position in a particular moment in time. It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. An idea that comes from a movie, of course.
So yeah, I am writing postcards. I am good at writing postcards, or at least I have sent a lot of them. In my barely-legible handwriting, but legible all the same.
Back in the day, when I traveled on commercial airplanes for McGraw-Hill or Houghton Mifflin, and as frequently as one trip every 10 days on some occasions, I would send postcards from wherever I found myself to be. People said they liked the cards and they would tape them to their office walls or refrigerators, so of course I sent more.
Here in 2020, for the election, I signed up at Postcards for Democrats (https://postcardstovoters.org/) and have been participating in their campaigns for Joe Biden (‘natch) and various candidates for the Senate and Congress. Some of the cards are going to streets I have actually driven on, like Camp Craft Road, which is near the airport in Atlanta, and U.S. 1 in North Carolina. All I get are the addresses, though. I am addressing the cards to “Georgia Voter” or “Carolina Voter” or whatever.
The website asks you to write the approved copy exactly, which I try to do. Always the message is very cheery, upbeat, and innocent. “Please vote for Democrat Jon Ossoff to be your next U.S. Senator. He’ll fight for health care, clean energy, and an economy that works for all Georgians. Early voting starts October 12th!”
What I want to say is something like this: “Vote as if your life depends on it, because it does. We’re up to 200,000 deaths from COVID 19—you want to be next? Or would you prefer more wildfires and hurricanes, which we’ll get if we don’t stop global climate change? If you have any sense of decency as a citizen and human being, then treat this damn election as if it was a five-alarm emergency BECAUSE IT IS!!!”
But I don’t write like that. Might put people off. Probably not constructive.
I assume that the postcards are targeted to potential or occasional voters in the Democratic column, who maybe could use a hand-written push to take the effort needed to vote in a national election. But who the heck knows?
For a while, until my supply ran out, I was using extra postcards from my collection. My mother had given me a book of cat postcards (meaning the fronts were photographs of cats engaged in various cat-like behaviors, like lounging around furniture and lounging around more furniture) and I sent these to voters in Florida and Colorado. Maybe they reached some cat fanciers and will be extra convincing for that reason. I also used cards I had purchased but never sent from places like Battle Creek, Michigan (home of the corn flakes,) Plains, Georgia (home of Jimmy Carter,) and the Ohio Turnpike (transient home of semi-trailers and their drivers.) I have no idea how voters whom I have never met and know nothing about will receive a plea from the Ohio Turnpike, and what’s more, I will never find out. But here’s hoping.
Hope is the thing with feathers, as claimed by Emily Dickinson. Hope was the theme of the campaign of Barack Obama, which was quite successful. I believe in hope, but I also believe in being resolute and practical, and doing the grunt work as necessary.
Barbara Sharma began her acting career in gee-whiz theater productions of New York City, and eventually made her way to television. She sang, she danced, she acted, and she was funny. Although she had supporting roles in situation comedies that I watched, including the Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff, Rhoda, my main memory of her was on Laugh-In, where she was a cast member from 1970 to 1972. You can find clips of her on YouTube, hamming it up with Carol Channing. I could swear that she was introduced by the title of this essay, but I can’t find evidence of that. Very frustrating.
Barbara, if you’re out there and reading this, please respond and let me know that you are voting for Biden. This would make feel a lot better. If by some terrible twist of fate you are supporting the other guy, then do not contact me, because I do not want to know. Sincerely yours, a lifelong fan, JOE