“If this isn’t nice, what is?” – Alex Vonnegut
For a few years now, I’ve reread the collection of graduation speeches by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. around this time of year. You may be familiar with his most famous novel, Slaughter-House 5—it may even have been assigned reading at some point in your schooling. That novel, while perhaps more widely known, only begins to express the humanist philosophy of the author. Vonnegut’s graduation speeches are his Sermon on the Mount.
In many of his speeches, he quoted his uncle Alex Vonnegut who, at any given moment of tranquility, often said, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” He was one of my heroes, and I still find joy in re-experiencing his words.
These words resurfaced the other day as I sat on my deck with my wife. We had finished our major tasks for the day. Her work was complete, my teaching and grading were done, and our children’s homework had been scanned and posted just in time. Earlier that week, I had accompanied my children into the woods behind our house where we continued working on the fort located in the common ground.
At some point in the past, another family had begun this project. Between two trees, a frame had been mounted, but it wiggled and was completely unsafe to play on. So my kids and I took the time to go out there and shore up the frame. We hammered in struts and supports and began collecting sticks for the roof; we even dragged a pallet back there and used it as one of the walls.
As we continued the construction begun by someone else, I showed my children how to hold a board and hammer nails.
Now, they had learned this skill before but in a more controlled environment with a solid foundation to hammer into, not a wobbly pallet.
My son and daughter had to hold the wood steady so I could hammer in the supports. We worked together for this project and when finished, we had a solid frame for them to use.
Back on the deck, the night before the big storm blew in, I sat and thought about how I had learned to use a hammer. I sat at my grandfather’s knee and he showed me how to hammer a nail. He was a carpenter, and he passed on a little skill to me one summer when I was about four. My father had shown me how to use a hammer as a child as well, and then when I was an adult, he and I refinished the basement in my old house. My father had also previously shown my children how to use a hammer and nails; then I took them into the woods to teach them in the field how to build supports.
That day on the deck, my kids begged me to go into the woods with them to work on the fort and I told them, “No.” I purposely told them no. It wasn’t because I was tired and had worked hard that day. It was for them to go and work together without help; to use the skills they had learned from their father, their grandfather, and indirectly their great-grandfather; skills passed down through generations. I sat on the deck and listened to them work together, and it was a beautiful sound. Did they fight? No, they didn’t, which surprised me. They worked to build a shelf for their water bottles, and they did it without my help. When they finished, they ran to the deck and begged me to come see it, and of course I did. They felt such pride in their work and I told them they did a wonderful job, noticing they had even used a square and a level to make sure the shelf was straight.
I returned to the deck and sat in silence with my wife. I watched the clouds roll in and the first drops of the storm rain down. I thought, “This is nice.”
We have time now; time we didn’t have before.
We were busy people, running to every sport practice, music practice, chess practice, sewing class, art class. We shoveled food down our throats and ran to the next thing. Now we have time to do more than just finish the task and build the fort; we have time to teach our children skills and time to let them truly learn and apply those skills to their own creations. If this time isn’t nice, then what is?