The Time I Met Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut had been invited to speak at my university and my English professor arranged a little meet-and-greet with Vonnegut after his speech. This little private reception ended up being a line of students, each of us waiting our turn to shake this literary legend’s hand and ask him a question. What was I supposed to ask Kurt Vonnegut? I had read Slaughterhouse-Five and Galapagos, but what about those books was worth a question? Would I look stupid if I asked about something that should have been plainly obvious to any half-witted reader?

Kurt_Vonnegut_1972

I had come unprepared for this. In my mind, the reception was going to be Vonnegut sipping a glass of wine amidst of a circle of students, talking about writing and maybe answering the questions a few of the braver students might have the courage to ask. I was hoping to be a bystander, a silent witness soaking it all in so that one day I could tell people about the time I met Kurt Vonnegut. I didn’t think I’d have to shake his hand and  come up with a smart question.

My anxiety grew as my turn neared. It was too late to drop out of the line without drawing attention to myself. At the last moment, it came to me. A decent, safe question.

“What was it like seeing your book made into a movie?” I asked as he steadied my trembling hand with a handshake.

He then gave me this look I’ll never forget, a look that said, “That was the stupidest, most inane question anyone has ever asked me.” It was a look of bewilderment mixed with disdain.

I had brought with me my copy of Slaughterhouse-Five that I wanted him to sign, but after this, there was no way I could come up with the courage to ask for that favor. I held the book to my chest as a shield (Vonnegut protecting me from Vonnegut) not knowing what to do next. He didn’t answer the question. The awkward moment lingered, and he finally shook his head in disappointment as if to say, “you have one question and this is the question you ask me?” He looked to the next person in line, and I meekly shuffled out of the way. I retreated to the back of the room, further disheartened by the enlightened conversation between Vonnegut and the next student in line.

Years later, I would come to see my experience as a wasted opportunity. It was as if I had traveled all the way to the Oracle of Delphi and asked, “What do you think about this rotten weather we’ve been having?” If I were to go back to that reception with Vonnegut and do it again, this is the question I might ask: How does a writer allay the self-doubt and fear of rejection that constantly gnaws away at the ego? But then again, maybe there’s no answer to this question either.

I Am Fated to Meet Her One Day

I am fated to meet her one day
and as she awaits me,
weaving her stories as great authors do
and preserving evidence of her existence
on the flax paper of a burgeoning scrapbook,
I do my best to avoid her as I craft my own story
that at the moment seems to be going nowhere.

Nothing I invent rivals the vast arcs and clever ironies
the sadness and humor
the suspense and tranquility of her epic creation.
She is omnipresent
through my mundane tasks and mindless activities
through my successes and failures, which seem minuscule in the grand scheme.
What stories could this character inspire?
I never evade her pursuit because she is one step ahead,
always knowing where I’m going.

I am fated to meet her one day
whether I greet her at the front door
or let her sneak in through a pried window.
Fate will find her way in
and we’ll sit together
reminiscing on our story replete with pivotal moments and plot twists I’d missed,
all the clues neatly placed as in a perfectly unfolding novel that I didn’t quite get
until the very end.

Dreaming at Exactly 3 a.m.

I found the following gambling story of Monte Carlo in an 1882 issue (Volume XXXVIII) of Baily’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes. The factual basis of the story is about as dubious as a fairy tale, but the writer of this piece found no need to question its authenticity.

Monte Carlo from aboveThe hero in this story is a man who had come to Monte Carlo not for the gambling but to watch the pigeon shooting. Because Monte Carlo never overtly advertised the casino but instead showcased its abundance of gentlemanly activities, there were a lot of men who were in Monte Carlo to pursue purer interests other than gambling. The modern day equivalents are the people who claim they go to Las Vegas for the shows.

Monaco et Monte-Carlo - Monte-Carlo et le Tir aux Pigeons - RJD10332.jpgAnyway, after watching a fair amount of birds blown from the sky from the platform located behind the casino, our hero wandered through the casino as a spectator, had a nice meal, smoked a pipe, and went to bed at 11:40 p.m. (I love how precise details are scattered throughout the story to make it more believable).

At 3:00 a.m. his dream began. (I, too, keep accurate logs of the precise hour when my dreams begin)

“Listen,” said a voice that seemed to address him; “listen to the hour, it is striking three; there the last stroke has been struck, now look at that procession, it will begin to-morrow exactly at three;” and there passed before him twelve priests, each bearing a banner on which was inscribed a number alternately in black and red ink; following the priests came two little girls, bearing a waving sheet of some fabric, on which was printed: “You have seen your fortune; go and seek it!”

When the man awoke the next morning he had the wherewithal to immediately write down all the numbers and the corresponding colors in his notebook: 19, 17, 36, 13, 29, etc. He must have known these would be important.

MonteCarloCasinoInterior After having breakfast he decided to wander back to the casino to spectate a little more. He waited until the clocks read 3:00 before he approached a roulette table. It was just then he had the sudden realization the priests of his dream were relaying a message to gamble their numbers. He placed two Napoleons on 19. The ball spun round and round, and lo and behold, he won!

The next time he doubled his stake, and when 17 hit, he won again! He bet on 36 then 13 then 29 and came up a winner each time. He continued this for all twelve numbers but never had the courage to bet more than 5 Napoleons. The writer of the article concluded with the following assessment:

I only wish that I could have such a chance, I should go the whole maximum and no mistake. Being the narrative of a dream, I dare say many persons will think the foregoing story a pure invention, but I have every reason to believe it true.

If it were me, after the 11th consecutive win, I’d have been sweating bullets that I was just about to be simultaneously struck by lightning and consumed by a tornado while being attacked by a thousand stinging bees.

Five Amazing Stories of Monte Carlo

Sleep

Sleep makes no promises

it is the riskiest moment of a day

a journey through an unknown passage

to an uncertain world

but certainly a fast-forward toward death

Sleep is the mercurial half-brother of consciousness

a blessing

a curse

elusive for those who crave a release from today

or avoided because it pulls closer the dread of tomorrow

Sleep is messy with savage dreams

that tease with hope

or terrorize with threat

Sleep has no language

It knows no peace

It is exhausting

It takes no rest

The Noble Lord’s System

It’s one thing to ascribe great gambling wins to incredible streaks of luck, but I find stories that attribute gambling success to divine intervention particularly intriguing. If gambling is a sin, would God reward a person who commits this sin? The next Monte Carlo story is one that I’ve encountered in multiple sources even thought it’s the hardest one to believe.

A noble lord was having a bad week at the tables and took a break from the casino. He stopped in the church but stayed only through the last verse of the hymn preceding the sermon.

Monaco et Monte-Carlo - Monte-Carlo vers la mer - RJD10334.jpgHe slipped out and took a stroll toward the casino, the music and words of the tune still in his head. Simply wanting to watch the action, he had no intention of gambling once he entered the game rooms.

From the table to his left, he heard the croupier call out, “Thirty-two!” He suddenly remembered that thirty-two was the number of the last hymn he’d heard in church. From the table to his right, the croupier announced “thirty-two” as the winner. He knew he had something here so he approached the table ahead of him and put all the money he had on him on thirty-two. Of course, he won. He moved from table to table playing the same number until he’d won £500.

RouletteHe told friends of his story and the story quickly spread around Monte Carlo. The next Sunday the church was packed. The offertory was as large as the church had ever seen as the parishioners contributed a little extra for good luck. Just before the last hymn was announced, there was a hush in the church as everyone bristled with excitement. As soon as the hymn number was announced, there was a mass exodus to the door. Everyone hurried to the casino.

Casino InteriorBy several accounts, many were successful playing the hymn number at the roulette tables.

The non-gambling members of the congregation were shocked by this behavior. The church quickly made it a rule that no hymns under 37 would ever be sung again.

What I love most about the story is its inclusion in a short book of gambling systems published in 1902.

Systems of PlayThere’s no attempt to discredit the story, and in all seriousness, the author offers the following conclusion:

“The moral of this, when you have discovered a really good system, keep it to yourself.”

Back to Five Amazing Stories of Monte Carlo

Seeing Red and Faking Death

Like many gambling legends, it’s not important whether there is any truth to the story. What’s more important is whether people believe them. My favorites are the ones that have a story arc and a tidy resolution. This one was found in one of the casino at Monte Carlo’s early promotional pamphlets printed around 1880.

Monte Carlo casino front

A modestly affluent young couple decided to take their honeymoon in Monte Carlo. It was an attractive honeymoon destination because of the world-class entertainment along with fine food offered at a reasonable price.

Concert on the Terrace

The husband set aside 3,000 francs for gambling. He sat down at a roulette table and began testing his luck. Immediately, his money started to dwindle. Inexperienced at roulette, his stack dwindled to just 160 francs, but he wasn’t terribly upset. He hadn’t come to Monte Carlo with the expectation of winning big.

gamblers in monte carlo

At the suggestion of another gambler who noticed the young husband’s inexperience, he began playing the colors rather than the numbers. He played red and won. Letting his bet ride, he won again. He hit a streak of fourteen straight wins on red and amassed 112,000 francs. After a loss, he changed to black and began another run until he had acquired 260,000 francs.

His young wife, who was standing behind him, wanted him to collect his winnings and stop, but by this point he was so focused on the game he didn’t notice her. He was a high roller now, betting the maximum of 12,000 francs per spin. When he hit an unlucky streak and lost three times in a row, his wife became desperate. He wouldn’t listen to her, and she feared their new wealth would evaporate as fast as they had earned it. She pretended to faint, and collapsed to the ground. It did no good. Her husband didn’t notice. He had just lost two more hands and he was sweating, mesmerized by the ball racing around its track.

Roulette Cartoon

A gentleman tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I think your wife is ill. Perhaps dying.”

He dismissed the man and continued to play despite the fact that a group of men were carrying his fallen wife out of the casino. Finally, he won again, and was momentarily relieved. He searched for his wife to reassure her that he was back on the right track, but she was gone. He pulled his wager from the table and considered the situation. He had a decision to make. He now had 210,000 francs, and he felt guilty for falling below the 260,000 francs he had once reached. If he could get back to that point…

He fought off the gambling high and pulled his money together. He rushed back to the hotel where the men had taken his wife. He found her apparently unconscious on the bed. He put his bag of money atop a chest of drawers and leaned over to check on his wife. Immediately, she sprang up and grabbed the bag of money. She threw the bag into the drawer, locked it, and put the key in her pocket. She then rang the bell for the porter and prepared to check out of the hotel. Finally understanding his wife’s prudence, the husband agreed to leave Monte Carlo, and within an hour they were on a train with their new riches, ready to begin their life as a married couple.

Last Train