In Vonnegut’s SLAPSTICK, the last President of the United States, who is facing the end of the civilized world, attempts to cure loneliness by creating networks of artificial families. He has the government assign all Americans a new randomly-generated middle name made up of a noun for a natural object like a plant or an animal, followed by a hyphen, and then a number between 1 and 20. Anyone with the same name as you is your cousin, and anyone with the same name and number as you is your brother or sister. That way you never have to feel alone in the world.

Vonnegut mentions families and artificial families a number of times in his books and essays. He talks about how people used to have big families, and how you never had to feel lonely because of that. And then families got smaller, and people moved away from one another, and so on. I suppose losing that was something that bothered him about the modern era. Here is a good summation of this sentiment in his own words:

Well, I am used to the rootlessness that goes with my profession. But I would like people to be able to stay in one community for a lifetime, to travel away from it to see the world, but always to come home again. . . . Until recent times, you know, human beings usually had a permanent community of relatives. They had dozens of homes to go to. So when a married couple had a fight, one or the other could go to a house three doors down and stay with a close relative until he was feeling tender again. Or if a kid was so fed up with his parents that he couldn’t stand it, he could march over his uncle’s for a while. And this is no longer possible. Each family is locked into its little box. The neighbors aren’t relatives. There aren’t other houses where people can go and be cared for.

Before my sister ended up in California, I was alone and far away from my entire family for many years. I moved to Baltimore when I was 19, then to Austin when I was 23, and then Oakland and Portland and back to Oakland from 25 on. In all that time I did not have any immediate relatives within 2,500 miles of me. It was not lonely necessarily, because I have a lot of friends, and there was a time when we were all together here in Oakland for a number of years . . . but of course that has all gone away, and outside of seeing Alayna sometimes, or Laura when she comes over from San Francisco, I am the only one left over here. It is a sadness to me, because of course the thing I had is something I won’t ever have again, at least not with those people and in this place. And now I shoulder the burden of memory in a city that has come to feel like a sort of haunted house.

. . . She had figured out that the most pervasive American disease was loneliness, and that even people at the top often suffered from it, and that they could be surprisingly responsive to attractive strangers who were friendly.

I have wondered what it is I can do to keep from feeling this way again, what with everyone always moving away, though I reckon I only really have so much control of the situation. And let’s face it: this feeling is unavoidable no matter which way you cut it. Thing is, I don’t mind being alone. But as anyone can tell you, there is all the difference in the world between being alone and feeling lonesome. I don’t just want company for the sake of company . . . I want to set aside a place for myself and those who would want to be there too. I don’t have a family, and I’m sure I know plenty of other people who don’t have one either. What do I do? I’m going to do something about it here soon. Maybe it is a delusion, but I’m going to do it anyway. If you’re reading this, you might already know what I’m referring to, and if not, I will tell you soon enough. Because it is getting scary out there, and we are getting older, and when you are the sort of person who has no family or desire to get married and have children, the forward path is less tangible unless you know what you’re doing, which practically no one ever does. I mean, hell, there’s no god damn guide for this sort of thing! Sooner or later it all goes away, though do we have to succumb to this loneliness now? It feels like a choice we still have, and . . . I know what I’m gonna do!

And so, midway upon the journey of our life, having found myself in a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost, and like the last President of the United States, I uh . . . have a sort of plan for all the little orphaned angels I know . . . a new middle name, SO TO SPEAK. Yes, and I have written out what it is exactly, though it is not the right time to post it.

See: I am just its architect. I want the people I know to take it up is all, when I do make the thing I have said I will make. Who knows if anyone will care. I have to know that I tried to do it is the thing, to cure the loneliness of the lonely people I know who don’t belong anywhere, and don’t want to be alone. There has to be a thing you can leave and come back to again. I have to make it. I would love it if someone else made it, but I sure ain’t seeing it happen. If anyone can pull this off, it’s me. I hate to say it but it’s true.

I left once, to go to Portland, and I came back to Oakland when I felt alone. It was beautiful for a while. But years later I have seen so many people leave and go someplace else. I came back to a thing and watched the thing break away. It really is such a sadness. I can’t bear it anymore!! It’s too much.

So I’m in Oakland and living in a constellation of disconnected people. It feels like I’m just kicking around with randos anymore. There is no one place to go to see everyone again. I am wandering around this haunted house at night and I am alone.

I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started.

It is late now, and so I feel lonely again. I have not slept in about a week, and for no good reason. I just can’t is all, and I think I’m going insane. I don’t have much more to say about that, although I will say that last night I was visited by some sort of presence. I realize that this is a dubious claim, having just admitted that I’m severely sleep-deprived and losing my mind . . . but I really did feel something touch me! I was trying to fall asleep on the couch, and Dante was curled up next to me, and it was cold and so I was beneath many blankets. I felt something gently push my side. Looking up I saw nothing of course. I turned away again and waited, and I felt it touch my side twice more a few seconds later. Why didn’t Dante notice? I thought animals were supposed to be sensitive to spirits passing through dimensions into ours. At any rate, I wasn’t scared. It didn’t feel ominous or malicious or anything, whatever it was. It really was a gentle sort of touch. Who knows. Maybe this is what it’s come down to: attracting ghostly entities in the dark who feel just as lonesome as me. That’s fine. I have never had a negative encounter with a phantom, and in many ways I guess I identify with them. And perhaps this phantom is known to me in a familial sort of way. Maybe it is someone who I used to know checking in me when I am feeling rotten like this. Well, sure.

I don’t know what my new middle name would be. In the book, they are assigned at random. The President’s own government-assigned middle name is Daffodil-11. His granddaughter, who he lives with inside the ruins of the Empire State Building, and where he sleeps in a nest of rags, is an Oriole-2. Their neighbor is a Chipmunk-5, and on and on. I suppose I would want to be given a fruit name, or maybe something celestial. Yes, something like Strawberry-8, or maybe Jupiter-8. Yeah. I love strawberries, and I love Jupiter, and 8 is my favorite number, so why not. I don’t know.

Well: If you really care about the thing I have vaguely alluded to here, the LONESOME NO MORE! initiative, then don’t touch the dial, et cetera. As for me: I really need to go to sleep. I’ll say something soon . . . maybe sooner than you think. OK!

ryan strawberry-8 starsailor ☆彡
19 october 2019
03:17 am PST

oakland, california