Monday, December 19, 2016

Evanston: the mouth of the mother wolf; let your soul grow

        Fortunately the fringe benefits of being Webb Chiles are good, because the basic salary is not.
        By far the greatest of these is that I have had control of my time, with a few brief exceptions such as being imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, for more than forty years.  
        People often say I’m crazy.  This is a pure failure of the imagination.  Since 1974 I have spent zero minutes grid locked on a freeway commuting to or from work.  I have attended no team meetings and no conferences.  I have never been called into the boss’s office.  I have never been laid off or even threatened to be.  I have seen the sun rise from the sea thousands of times and watched it set while listening to music as my boat sailed toward darkness.  I have sipped wine and whisky and watched diving birds.  And some of the most charming, clever and beautiful women of two generations have shared their lives with me.  So, who’s crazy?
        Other fringe benefits include communicating with interesting people who sometimes offer me unusual compliments and remind me of things I have forgotten I wrote.

        Scott recently concluded an email to me:
Che tu possa viaggiare in bocca del lupo madre.
        Google translate offers:  You can travel in the mouth of the mother wolf.
        That looks right, but I wrote to Fabio, whose native language is Italian, for clarification. 
        He writes that he would translate the phrase as:  May you travel in the mouth of the mother wolf.
        He says that the expression may be a reverse superstition, that by wishing something bad, such as being in a wolf’s mouth, you keep away evil.  
        Alternatively, it may relate to mother wolves carrying their young with their mouths when fleeing from danger.
        Whatever the origin, the idea and image of GANNET and me traveling in the mouth of the mother wolf is pleasing.
        I thank Scott and Fabio.


        Steve Earley came across a quote attributed to me:  If a sailor doesn’t learn anything more from the sea than how to reef a sail, the voyage wasn’t worth making.
        It is a good line.  The problem is that I don’t remember saying that, though I’ve written more than a million words, and spoken who knows how many more, so I can’t possibly remember them all.  If I didn’t say it, I wish I had.
        As it happens, Fabio interviewed me by telephone not long ago for a site he is preparing about the psychology of sailing.  I have been interviewed often enough so that few questions are new, but when Fabio asked, “What are you still learning?” I did not have a ready answer.  Finally I replied that I did not know what I was still learning, but what I am still studying is how to sail ever more simply, that I take great pleasure whenever I can remove something from GANNET, and I am exploring my limits, which is what I have always done, curious to discover if and how those limits have changed and are changing now that I am old.

        On the slight possibility that you have not already had enough of me, the entire interview can be found here.


       I received an email inviting me to join The Circumnavigators Club.
       I did not know there was such an organization.
       I replied:  
       I thank you for your invitation, which brings a slight smile because I completed my first circumnavigation forty years ago.
       With respect I decline to accept because I am not by nature a member of clubs or organizations, nor a member of any.


        One of the finds on Bookbub was LETTERS OF NOTE, a collection of 125 letters written by the famous and not famous, mostly in the past hundred years, but some dating back much further.  Many are humorous, such as the one written to a government agency in Michigan requiring a man to remove an illegal dam on a stream on his property that had been built by beavers.  Many are touching, such as a letter from a young Korean widow written to her recently deceased husband asking how could he possibly have left her.
        When I bought LETTERS OF NOTE I did not realize that it was volume one.  Through Bookbub I paid only $1.99 for it.  The price is now $15.39 and there is a volume two which also costs $15.39, which I bought it just as the publisher hoped.
        Overall I enjoyed volume two less than volume one, though there are many fascinating letters in it.  The very last, number 125, is a detailed first hand account written by a British officer of the spontaneous Christmas truce in 1914 between German and British front line soldiers.
        There is one letter I deeply wish had not been included.  It is from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to his nineteen year old cousin, Marianne, and is extremely disgusting.  I am not easily shocked, but I was.  I stopped reading part way through.  Enough was far too much.  How an individual who could create such beautiful music could write such filth, I do not know.  I am not sure that I will again be able to listen to Mozart without thinking of that letter, which may mean that I won’t be listening to Mozart at all.  At least it wasn’t Bach.
        All this may arouse your curiosity as to what I could find so disgusting.  Do not indulge it.  If you read LETTERS OF NOTE Vol. 2. skip letter 081, titled, Oh My Ass Burns Like Fire!
        To conclude on a more pleasant note, and one that is not unrelated to learning, Letter 098, Make Your Soul Grow, was written by Kurt Vonnegut to an English class at Xavier High School.  As a test of persuasive writing skills, the teacher, Ms. Lockwood, assigned the students to write to their favorite author, asking him or her to visit the class.  Five in the class choose to write to Kurt Vonnegut, who was the only author to respond.

November 6, 2006 

Dear Xavier High School, and Mrs. Lockwood, and Messrs. Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Conglusta,

I thank you for your friendly letters.  You sure know how to cheer up an old geezer (84) in his sunset years.  I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit:  Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or  badly, not to get money or fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your spirit grow.

Seriously!  I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives.  Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her.  Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and so on and on.  Make a face in your mashed potatoes.  Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it:  Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed.  No fair tennis without a net.  Make it as good as you possibly can.  But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing.  Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood.  OK?

Tear it into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles.  You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem.  You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut