My shovel cut cleanly into the damp Colorado clay behind my parent's house. I was 17, and my dad had enlisted my help installing new stairs.
We shoveled side by side and finished the small staircase within a few hours. When we were done, Dad propped the shovel under his arm, looked me in the eye and said, “See, this is something you'll never forget. We're carving out a moment in place, space and time.”
At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. It wasn't until years later, when I was sharing a cramped one-bedroom apartment and finishing up my last year of college that I started to understand. I was living above a used bookstore in Hillcrest, and for no particular reason, I walked downstairs one day and bought Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.
I read it that day and got a Vonnegut-inspired tattoo the next. I came within hours of getting the actual gravestone drawn in Slaughterhouse-Five with the epitaph “Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt” (a satirical ode to everything life isn't, but a good way to live life nonetheless) permanently emblazoned across my back. At the last minute, though, the tattoo artist convinced me to symbolize death with an angel instead. The epitaph is now a tattoo scrawled across the angel's back.
And even though I'm not a big fan of ink anymore, I don't regret it-Kurt Vonnegut changed my life.
You see, the paragraphs preceding the gravestone drawing have Billy Pilgrim, Slaughterhouse's main character-a time-traveling WWII soldier-in a zoo display on the planet Tralfamadore. A Tralfamodorian translator standing in front of Billy's exhibit tries to explain an Earthling's concept of time to a crowd of Tralfamodrians, who themselves see time as the fourth dimension, meaning they see every instant of their lives, from beginning to end, at all times. The guide describes Billy as “having his head encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.” It's the guide's way of saying human's perspective is only privy to the immediate here and now.
The description leads Billy and the guide to a conversation about war and the end of the universe:
'How-how does the universe end?' said Billy. 'We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers. A Tralfamadorian test pilot presses a starter button, and the whole universe disappears.'
So it goes.
At that moment, I understood my dad's weird stair comment. He was trying to tell me that he's going to die, I'm going to die and the universe will end, but it doesn't matter. The beautiful thing is the moments we mold in between-moments that should be filled with kindness and productivity. I closed Slaughterhouse with a new, Vonnegut-esque perspective in mind: Rational man has the ability to create his own reality in a somewhat meaningless world, but when shit goes wrong-when things are out of hand like in war or the death of an innocent child-there's nothing you can do but shrug. So it goes.