Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Vonnegut Effect

My composition classes are focusing on semicolons today, an appropriate way to honor the memory of Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut famously and frequently denigrated the semicolon as a worthless and pretentious punctuation mark, useful only to suggest that one has been to college. Vonnegut found this sufficient reason to avoid semicolons entirely, but I see the issue differently: if semicolon use is a sign of one's college experience, and if going to college is a key to success, then students who graduate from college without knowing how to use semicolons will be forever hampered in their race toward achievement. How will anyone know my students have been to college if they can't use semicolons? I consider it my solemn duty to make sure my students have a firm grasp of the correct use of semicolons; in fact, if it were up to me, at graduation we would hand every graduating student not a diploma but a lifetime supply of semicolons. "Semicolons are your friends," I tell them. "Use them wisely and they will reward you richly."

I realize that my argument contains a serious flaw, which can be summed up in the deathless words spoken by Billy Boy at the end of the Eudora Welty story "Petrified Man": "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?" I have made a lifelong habit of using semicolons correctly, but how have they rewarded me? This question is relevant right now in another area of my life in which Kurt Vonnegut also figures prominently: my garage.

Bear with me while I work through this: the garage is done, and now the drainage system is done and the deck and walkway on the back are nearly done, but a slight landslip on the slope led to the need for a retaining wall, and walls don't come cheaply--you can't just pile up a bunch of semicolons and hope they hold--so this stage of the project has resulted in certain cost overruns. Actually, every stage of the project resulted in certain cost overruns, resulting in a serious cash-flow problem, resulting in our being just a tad short of making the final payment the project, which is being completed even as we speak, or whatever it is we're doing here.

I cannot go to the contractor and say, "I am rich in semicolons! Here, take a handful!" For one thing, the exchange rate for semicolons is way down right now because of the glut on the market caused by what linguists have labelled "The Vonnegut Effect." So I'm looking for other ways to pay the bill short of selling excess organs on e-Bay, and this morning I came up with a dandy idea involving Kurt Vonnegut (who else?) and a lemon meringue pie.

I don't make pies often because, frankly, I stink at pie crust, but I can make a lemon meringue pie to die for, and I did so for Easter dinner. (Meaning I made the pie, not that I died for it. As far as I know, no lives were lost in the baking of that pie.) Meringue can be tricky, but this one was perfect: light and fluffy with a melt-in-your-mouth texture and a lovely pattern of caramelization on top. It looked almost like a face, and that's where Kurt Vonnegut comes in: it would be easy to manipulate the meringue to make it look even more like a face, and if people are willing to travel thousands of miles to gaze at cinnamon buns that look like the Virgin Mary or spend thousands of dollars to purchase a grilled-cheese sandwich bearing her image, wouldn't they do the same if a lemon meringue pie came out bearing the image of Kurt Vonnegut? Visitors would come from as far away as Indiana to gaze rapturously at the pie; I could charge for parking and sell souvenirs, little plastic pies and keyrings shaped like semicolons and postcards and bumper stickers and Tralfamadorian gewgaws. Eventually I would bow to public pressure and sell the pie on e-Bay, and I'd hand over a big chunk of the proceeds to my wonderful contractor, with thanks for a job well done.

With my luck, the highest bidder would be one of my students, who would pay me entirely in semicolons.

1 comment:

Joy said...

It is sad that you have an entire section on this blog related to the "garage" and yet none for "semicolons."

I say you take a crack at that pie and if it doesn't exactly look like the dearly departed KV, you could always sell pieces for $1 each in the English Department.

And if you do perfect the miracle of the Vonnegut Meringue, just watch out that a couple of misbehaving college students don't steal it from you and take it on a world tour i.e. the Nashville "Nun Bun."