Kurt Vonnegut has been on my mind lately. The movie Unstuck in Time has something to do with it, I’m sure. He had a knack for creating language. Foma, granfalloons, karass and sinookas are just a few.
The first of Vonnegut’s words I learned, when I bought Sirens of Titan for 35? at a one time Mr. Paperback, was chrono-synclastic infundibulum, a sort of nexus of truths, (plural) with an intersection of time and space. It is where “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” lives, where everything old is new again, where babies discover gravity the first time they leave their safety mattress escaping from their cribs rather than getting bonked on their heads by apples. It is the place where carbon dioxide can be both poisonous and vital, where Earth is just an unpleasant obstacle in an intergalactic highway building scheme, and where privacy is evil and homeland security saves lives. It is, perhaps, the antithesis of “It just isn’t done,” a phrase I grew up with and have heard echoed in staff rooms, around dinner tables, and in blogs of the outraged.
Foma, granfalloons, karass and sinookas, all come from Cat’s Cradle. Foma are the little lies we tell to smooth over a difficult situation. I suppose only time tells if they are harmless or not. Granfalloons are groups of people who imagine they belong to a common group through sort of trivial connection, like coming from the same state, or having the same color hair. Granfalloons are at the heart of racial profiling and have as much to do about how we perceive others who don’t belong to our perceived community as they do about the groups we identify with. Orson Scott Card, in his author’s notes on Empire, delves into a discussion of what a right or left wing profile is really worth. I fell into the granfalloon trap when I bought my first car. I was young and still believed in female solidarity. I was wrong. The car had an emergency brake that barely worked, a alternator that died two weeks after I bought it, and a gas gauge that read, eternally full. At $100 per month I could barely make the payments.
Karass and sinookas are the gems of this collection of words. Karass is a group of people whose lives are linked in some weirdly cosmic fashion. Sinookas describe the bonds, “the intertwining tendrils” of people’s lives, like playing “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” using normal people. I have experienced both karasses and sinookas.
Shortly after starting my first stateside teaching job, I was having lunch in the upstairs staff room. One of the other English teachers sat down and asked “Was your maiden name Brightman?”
“Yes,” I said. “Did you have a class with my dad?” My dad had taught Human Development at UMaine in Orono and I was fairly used to people having taken his Human Sexuality courses, very popular at UMO. It was, in fact, why I had lived away for so long, but at age 45 I had moved beyond that particular shame.
“What? No. Who was he?” Clearly not Dad.
“Why did you want to know my maiden name?”
“Oh. My was best friends with Jannie Henderson when they were in college. They still are best friends. She said she knew your family in Kenya, or maybe it was New York.” Jannie’s parents were old family friends from when we had all lived in Kenya in the early 60s. I was nine years old and Jannie was the first baby I was aware of being born.
A few years later I had another encounter, this time with a new history teacher at the school. She overheard me talking about Morocco. It seems she had been best friends with a girl named Glee whose mother had hauled her half-way round the world to live in Fes, Morocco. I knew them both. Glee’s mom had looked around my apartment and asked when I was going “home.”
“Home? I am home.”
“No, you’re not,” she had said. “You won’t always want to live like this.”
I didn’t see it, but she planted a seed. I looked more closely at some of the crusty old expatriates, and those that just passed through, and I recognized the granfalloon sitting in the midst of the whole business. Busy, busy, busy as Bokonon used to say.
In any case, I recognized the starting of a karass when I saw it, and the next year used some of my book money to get a class set of Cat’s Cradle. Soon after we started to read, little blue sticky coding dots bearing a hand written “9” started appearing all over school. They were on walls, windows, doors, toilet paper holders, tables, book shelf edges, lunch trays. And people. A kind of freeze tag stopped students in halls. The dots migrated, even those not attached to students, but the custodians did nothing about them.
We read “Harrison Bergeron” and watched excerpts from the Sean Astin film and the whole “2081” once that was available. I let it be known that the rest of the stories in Welcome to the Monkey House were not quite what our high school would support. A student sidled up one day during snack break. “Wanna see what I got, Mrs. Dewey?” He opened his jacked like a knock of Rolex salesman, and there was a copy of the book. “This is amazing. Thanks,” he said before backing back into the crowd.
On April 11, 2007, I passed out copies of Cat’s Cradle to a science fiction class I was teaching. That night we went home to find that Kurt Vonnegut had died that day. The kids returned, full of omen and portent. I recognized the conjunction of events for the granfalloon it was.
Picture: Morice, Dave. Feb 12, 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vonnegut_Wooden_Nickel.jpg. Retrieved Mar 15, 2015. Web.