How I Met Kurt Vonnegut and Lived to Be a Better Person

vonnegut letterNote: Kurt Vonnegut, one of my two all-time favorite writers, died ten years ago today. At the time, I was the somewhat-newly adoptive parent of a 15-month-old. While she took her afternoon nap, I wrote this essay. I’ve put it on an Internet forum or two, but never on a blog. On the 10th anniversary of Vonnegut’s death, it seemed like a good time to resurrect it.

Back in 1991 during the war (before we knew there’d be a sequel) I was a young writer, fresh out of college, working in an indie bookstore. The war pissed me off, as all wars do, and shortly after my first mass protest, I started writing a novel about a bunch of young anarchists who try to take over the U.S. government. It was kind of a comic novel. The writing was going well during the summer of 1991, and since I wasn’t sure what to do with it or how to approach an agent, I took a chance on sending a few chapters to my favorite author on the planet, Kurt Vonnegut. I figured he’d know what to do.

Did I tell you I believe in longshots?

I went to the public library and found an address for Mr. Vonnegut in a celebrity phonebook (this was in the dark days before the Internet when you actually had to leave the house in order to do research). I sent off the first three chapters along with a letter asking for his advice about agents. Two weeks later, an envelope arrived for me, my address written in blue magic marker in a swirling hand that looked vaguely familiar and a Long Island postmark. I opened it to find the following letter, typed on onion skin paper and copied here verbatim:

July 17, 1991

Dear Susan Petrone –

You are right to suspect that you have written well. I also like your politics.

The only way a literary agent can treat an unpublished writer badly is to charge stiff fees for reading material which he or she knows can’t be sold. Their business is reading, not selling.

Two good agents, both friends of mine, are Knox Burger (address deleted to protect Mr. Burger’s privacy), and Elaine Markson, NYC 10001. But no agent (except a reader for cash) will consider an unfinished work from an unpublished writer, and neither will any publisher. The only acceptable proof that an unknown can indeed finish a book is a finished book. Sorry about that.

Cheers,

Kurt Vonnegut

It was signed in the same blue marker with a signature that now reminds me slightly of the symbol Prince used to use when he wasn’t calling himself “Prince.” “Damn,” I thought, “I should have told him that the novel was finished.” (Indeed, it was.) Nonetheless, I was delighted to have received a letter from God (as I dubbed it when I put it in a frame and hung it on the wall near my desk, where it has followed me these 15+ years) and was even more delighted that God said I had written well.

A few months later (October, to be exact), I saw that a community college in Canton, Ohio, (about an hour’s drive south) was hosting a two-day writing convention and that Kurt Vonnegut was scheduled as the keynote speaker. I borrowed the registration money from my older sister and went. Thus began the most Taoist 24-hour period of my life up to that point.

The conference began with workshops in the afternoon. Vonnegut wasn’t scheduled to speak until later that evening. He was also on the agenda as doing a Q&A session early the next morning. I went to my first workshop session on a topic that I can no longer recall. There were about 60-75 people scrunched into a classroom. For some reason, one young woman about my age caught my eye. I’m straight, but something told me that I had to make friends with her. Thus when the workshop ended, I started chatting with her and successfully completed my first het-girl pickup. It turned out she was with a group of five people who worked at American Greetings and were at the conference on the company tab. They invited me to join them for dinner, during which I told them the story of writing to Vonnegut and The Letter. They were duly impressed and invited me to crash on the floor in their hotel room so I wouldn’t have to drive back to Cleveland that night. I gratefully accepted.

After dinner, they went back to their room to freshen up before heading back to the college for the keynote speech. I hung out in the lobby, fooling around on the baby grand piano sitting there, people watching, and generally feeling that all was well with the world. As I sat there, I heard applause coming from the next room. A set of double-doors leading to a conference room off the lobby opened up, and Kurt Vonnegut strode out and across the lobby.

“I must talk to him!” I thought. Vonnegut looked as though he had other things on his mind, and the same impulse that told me to buddy up to the right people told me to wait. So I did.

We went to the auditorium at the college across the way and got decent seats. We could see Kurt Vonnegut sitting in the second row on the aisle, chatting with people and signing books as the brave faithful made their pilgrimage to his seat. The American Greetings folks kept urging me to go talk to him, but again, I declined. It wasn’t the right time.

The great man gave a wonderfully clever and amusing talk. At the end of it, he walked off stage right and went directly out of the auditorium doors, not to be seen in that room again until the next morning.

The American Greetings folks and I toyed with the idea of going out for a drink, but decided to go back to the hotel first and regroup. We wandered into the hotel bar. For some reason I ordered a hot fudge sundae—I was in a good mood. Before my ice cream had even arrived, Kurt Vonnegut walked in—alone—sat down at the bar and lit a Pall Mall.

Now seemed a good time to approach him.

I used to work in professional theater and have met more than my share of famous people, but none has made my heart pound as much as Kurt Vonnegut did. I walked up to his bar stool and waited until he had finished ordering a drink (a scotch and water I believe, but don’t quote me).

“Excuse me, Mr. Vonnegut?” I said. “My name is Susan Petrone. I wrote to you last summer and send you a few chapters of my novel.”

His Basset Hound-like eyes gave me a once-over. “Did I write you back?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“I remember.” My heart was about to pound through my chest. I didn’t expect a writer of his caliber to want to bother with a 23-year-old kid and all I could think was: “Don’t even bother playing polite. If you’re going to tell me to buzz off, just do it fast. I can handle that.” Then he said: “So how goes the life of a radical?”

He actually did remember what I had written. The tension in my chest eased up a bit and I was able to speak. We chatted for a few minutes about my novel. I told him that I had tried the two agents he had suggested in his letter, but both had replied that they didn’t think it was something they could sell. He tried to think of the name of a small press to send it to. I tried not to fall over.

We had only been talking for a few minutes when the American Greetings person I had originally buddied up to came over and said, “Mr. Vonnegut, if you’d care to join us for a drink, we promise not to talk about any matters literary.” I could have smacked her. He declined politely, saying he had to get up early for the Q&A session the next morning at eight. I took that as my cue to leave him alone, although I think I probably could have hung around longer.

My ice cream had melted (and here I had thought that time had stopped while I was talking to God). We told the waitress that we wanted to buy Kurt Vonnegut a drink. She said “Who?” and simultaneously, the original American Greetings girl and I said, “Bless you.”

The concierge apparently didn’t know who Kurt Vonnegut was either, because he gave me his room number. I actually stood outside the door for a full minute, feeling like a stalker, before running away.

I crashed on the floor of the kind people from American Greetings (none of whom I’ve ever seen or spoken with again) and the next morning, we got seats in the third row, center for the Q&A session. At one point, Vonnegut was talking about people who wrote because they love it and the difficulty of getting published. Then he said, “Last night, I went to the hotel bar to congratulate myself on my marvelous speech, when a woman came up to me, and it turned out that we had corresponded. Is she here?” he asked, looking around the 250 or so upturned faces staring at him.

Shocked, I slowly raised my hand as the American Greetings crew all pointed at me and yelled “She’s right here.”

Vonnegut asked for my first name again. I told him. And he said that Susan had written this great book about how war is bad and government is bad and that he had recommended some agents but they had turned it down. He said that the problem was not the writing, because it was good (!) but the parochial attitudes of editors and agents on both coasts. He went on from there to talk more about writing and to answer more questions, but there it was. I was a Kurt Vonnegut anecdote. I got to be a minor celebrity for the rest of the day. There was, fortunately, a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal sitting in the first row, tape recording the whole thing. He sent me copies, so I have a recording of Kurt Vonnegut saying that I write well, and that is a mood lifter better than Zoloft with a wine chaser, let me tell you.

When I went back to work at the bookstore, my co-workers asked, “So, did you meet Kurt Vonnegut?” When I said, “Better,” when of them actually said (not asked): “You slept with him.” “No,” I replied. “He remembered my writing.”

The following spring, one of our buyers went to a conference where Kurt Vonnegut was the speaker. He brought back a special edition of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater for me, signed by Kurt Vonnegut. It is inscribed: “For dear Susan Petrone” with the same symbolic-looking signature. My colleague said they just put slips of paper into the books with the name to be inscribed and that he didn’t know anyone else for whom Vonnegut had written “dear.” “Maybe he remembered you,” the colleague said.

Maybe he did.

My mother always thought that I’d have one more encounter with our Mr. Vonnegut. I regret to say that she was wrong. She’s no longer among the living—she’s in heaven or somewhere in the great beyond. And now so is Kurt Vonnegut. I hope that she and he have a chance to talk. Although she was Catholic and he a secular humanist, they would agree on most topics. They would agree that war is bad, that human beings need to be kind to each other. I think they would agree that you need to trust your instincts and be patient and go where your heart leads you and that if you can be kind and make people laugh while you do so, you just might meet God.

The Space of an Eyelash

My daughter and I went to see the Cleveland Indians play the Yankees tonight.  It was an exciting game, even though the Tribe lost to the Evil Empire in extra innings. As we were walking back to our car, I felt something go into my right eye. I wasn’t sure if it was dust (there was a construction site nearby) or an eyelash or what. It hurt, but I rubbed it gently as we walked. The eye teared a bit, and then felt okay.

We got in the car, turned onto Prospect Avenue, and headed for the Innerbelt on ramp that would take us to the Shoreway and the few miles home. A block before the on ramp, whatever was in my right eye shifted. Suddenly, it hurt so much that I couldn’t keep my eye open. It was late, the kid was tired, I was tired, but rather than try to drive on the freeway with something in my eye, I made a split-second decision to pull into the parking lot of the Cleveland Institute of Dental and Medical Assistants. It just seemed safer. I grabbed a flashlight, pointed it at my eye, and asked my daughter “Is there anything in there?”

“There’s an eyelash,” she said.

With the flashlight and vanity mirror, I managed to get the lash out of my eye.  We were in the parking lot for perhaps two minutes. We pulled back onto Prospect and hopped on the Shoreway. Just before the Eddy Road exit, traffic slowed. Then a police car came speeding by on the left, then one on the right berm.

The accident was just ahead of us. A dark red sedan had half its front ripped off. It had obviously just happened. We missed it by perhaps two minutes.

But for the space of an eyelash, it might have been us.

Good-bye, Big Baby

My daughter is ten and moving into the so-called Tween years, that nebulous period between Kid-dom and Teen-dom. She loves climbing trees, playing in mud, and all sorts of imaginative play. Listening to her and her friends can still sound like a good improv scene, where everything is “Yes, and…” Like “Yeah, we’re all ponies, except S., who’s a goat. And we can all change colors whenever we want.” “Yes, and we all live together on a farm.” “Yes, and we have a bunch of cats…” And so it goes. On the other side, she’s more into pop music than she used to be. She loves to paint her nails. She loves to do hair–hers, mine, her dolls. When she and her friends get together, they spend more time talking than they used to. And on more than one occasion, she’ll take the phone (or the iPad) into her room and close the door while she’s talking/skyping/texting with friends. Oh Lord, it’s starting already.

She still loves to play with dolls, but only her American Girl dolls. Sometimes they’re the students in her classroom as she and a friend play School (my kid wants to be a teacher), and sometimes she just likes giving them elaborate braided hair-do’s. Her first-ever doll, whom she christened Big Baby (to distinguish her from a little Cabbage Patch Kid who was named Little Baby), is a rag doll., the kind with a plastic head, hands, and feet but the rest soft. Perfect for a three-year-old, which is about how old she was when she got the doll. Over the years, Big Baby’s name was changed to Abigail (because she has grown up), but she was played with less and less. She doesn’t have any hair, and because she’s a rag doll, you can’t make her sit or stand on her own. Despite the name change, Abigail is still a little kid’s doll.

big babyWhich brings us to this morning. We’re getting together old clothes, etc. for donation. You know where this is going, don’t you? This is the part where the child thoughtlessly parts with the doll that she once loved, once carried around constantly. The doll that was real enough to  her that she gave me a mortified look when I said Big Baby wasn’t real. (In my defense, she was sharing her real lunch with Big Baby, whose little mouth actually has a tiny little hole. I just didn’t want yogurt going inside a hollow plastic head.) The doll that brought her from toddler to little kid to, damn, big kid. To tween. The doll that brought us to this Sunday morning, where my child is going through her old toys and I, her mother who never even liked dolls when I was a child, am trying not to cry while writing an elegy to a rag doll who will, if the Toy Gods deem it so, find another little girl to love her.

Godspeed, Big Baby.

Why Writing Letters Should Not Fall by the Wayside

My daughter and I just spent an hour with my daughter going through some of my old report cards, yearbooks, and drawings from when I was a kid. She was especially curious about what my old report cards looked like in elementary school.  We also looked through the box of letters, etc. I have from my mom. When I went to college and when I lived overseas, my mom and I wrote to each other a lot. I have all her letters. I just reread what is perhaps the kindest, most loving letter I will ever receive.  My daughter made me read it aloud because she’s still learning to read cursive (but please note she is the only kid I know who has made a point of teaching herself cursive). I made it through the whole thing and only got a little misty near the end. I said, “Isn’t that the nicest letter you could ever get?” With a slight sense of wonder, she replied, “Yeah.”

My mom wrote the letter to me 23 years ago. It’s written in the lovely, even hand that was honed by years of Catholic school in Youngstown, Ohio.  She wrote it on thin, crinkly airmail paper, the light blue kind that I’m not even sure if they sell anymore. Reading it is not only an emotional experience, it’s a visual and tactile one.  It’s an experience you cannot get from texts or emails. All day, I’ve been mulling over Sherry Turkle’s wonderful essay in the New York Times on how texting and constant phone use is killing meaningful conversation, empathy, and appreciation for solitude. It’s killing letter writing and all that goes with it, too.

If my mother had emailed this note to me, reading it now wouldn’t have the same effect. It would be printed in toner, not blue ballpoint ink in her distinctive, unique handwriting. The paper I printed it on wouldn’t have been the paper she held in her hands as she chose and wrote her words. Nor would it have been the same paper that traveled from Cleveland, Ohio, to Alkmaar, Netherlands, arriving two days after my first birthday overseas. In short, it would be a printout of a lovely letter, but the immediacy of emotion, the connection to someone who is now gone, wouldn’t be there.

I write notes to my daughter, and when she grows up and moves away, I will write her letters. Real letters. Hell, instead of just putting in a note in her lunchbox, I’m going to start putting in a damn missive. Listen–we only have so much time here together. The people we love will someday leave us. We will someday leave them. Leave the people you love with something more than the printout of an email or a text conversation that will accidentally be deleted the next time they upgrade their phone. Leave behind something tangible, something meaningful, not just pixels.

How You Can Help New Writers (Even If You Don’t Have Any Money)

The more I look at the publishing world, the more I realize what a closed world it is. The mid-list hardly exists anymore, and unless you’re one of the handful of huge names, you don’t have a publishing contract and have to hope and pray each time you write a book that your agent can sell it (if you even have an agent).

There seems to be this resistance on the part of much of the book-buying public to move beyond the big names published by the major publishing houses. I wonder if part of the problem is that there isn’t really a proving ground for young/new authors like there is for young bands (bars/festivals) or new filmmakers (film festivals). People rarely go to readings, you don’t hear new literature read when you’re waiting in the dentist office (and while they might have Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly, they don’t have Glimmer Train or Tin House other lit journals). There isn’t the public forum for writers to test the waters, try out new material, and polish their craft. And in most cities, there really isn’t a culture of going to readings or of reading new voices in literature unless they’ve been recommended by the NY Times Book Review.

Herewith, a few suggestions you can do to help rectify the situation:

  • Donate a couple copies of your favorite literary journal to your doctor or dentist’s office. Perhaps someone waiting will decide to read a short story rather than a three-month old copy of Newsweek.
  • If you hear about a fiction or poetry reading in your area, go to it. Better yet, organize one. If there’s a college or university in your area that has a literary journal, work with them.
  • Bring a friend to a reading.
  • Support your local independent bookstore by, you know, occasionally buying a book.
  • Buy the work of new writers, especially those who are being published by smaller presses
  • If you can’t afford to buy new literature, get it from your local library. Consider it a way of testing what’s out there. Librarians notice how many holds certain books get, and libraries buy books. Checking out books by new writers does help.
  • Give books or subscriptions to literary journals as gifts. Who needs a new sweater? Give them something good to read.
  • Surround the children in your life with books.
  • Write and post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, your local library’s website, or wherever you talk about books online.

What Kind of Accent Is That?

My daughter and I speak our own language. Not all the time,  mind you, but third graders like nonsense as much as silly grownups. Sometimes I’ll just say “Da bee domp, dima shima la,” and she’ll reply “Da bee doopa, dima!” And it goes from there. Sometimes we sing songs from Frozen in this language. It’s all in the emphasis and nonverbal cues. It’s actually not a bad exercise for a kid who has a tendency to be quiet and shy.

After dinner this evening, the kid and I were “talking,” my husband joined in with a “Gabi goo goo.” (We don’t normally team up against him, although once when he was being a goof as only a Daddy can be a goof, I asked “Where did we find this guy?” The kid replied “Alaska.”) Tonight I just I said, “I can’t understand his accent.” The kid replied “Dooma deema ladida French.”

I do love my family.

Day of the Dead

My daughter and I went to Cleveland’s Day of the Dead celebration today. She had studied Dia de los Muertos in art class at school (my, but I love her art teacher) and really wanted to go. Neither my husband nor our “temporary” daughter (we’re hosting a foreign exchange student this year) wanted to go, so we went on our own. We hadn’t had just a mother-daughter day for a while, so it was kind of nice to trade in a family outing for just the two of us.

It was a cold, drizzly, windy day in the CLE today, but there were droves of people at the celebration. We checked out the altars created by different artists, watched the Dia de los Muertos parade, and wandered through the art installation/cemetery. One of the installations in the cemetery was titled Writing to the Dead. Postcards on ribbons and markers sat in baskets in front of a piece made to look like a mausoleum and iron fence. You could write a note to someone who has died, share a joke or a memory, or just say hello. I wrote a postcard to my mom, who died 12 years ago, well before my child was even born.  The kid signed it too.

I’ve always had this tiny shadow of longing and sadness that my daughter and my mother never got to meet. They would have doted on each other. And even though my child and I don’t share the same genes, she reminds me frequently of my mom in her generosity of spirit, her kindness, her gentleness that surrounds a surprising inner strength.

Writing our postcard to the dead and tying it on the fence was the last thing we did there. The kid was getting tired (she had had a Halloween sleepover the night before), plus you could tell it was going to start raining again soon. The Dia de los Muertos celebration is held in the Gordon Square neighborhood, by Detroit and W. 65th. We had found a spot on 65th and were walking back to the car when I suggested we stop into this tiny little bookstore on the corner. I don’t even know the name of it.  The store caught my eye because it had a number of manual typewriters in the window. I’m a sucker for machines that print–the older the better. So we went in.

This place was so small that you couldn’t really call it a bookstore. Just a few bookshelves in a space smaller than a motel room, but we were there and I saw books, so I browsed.  It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to see three back copies of Glimmer Train Stories on a shelf of fiction. One of them was issue 64, from fall of 2007. It’s been sold out for years. I know this without checking  because I had a short story in that issue. It’s called “This Is How It Happened.” I started writing it when my mother was dying, and that’s what it was about–about the process of dying and what happens and what you think about. It’s my mother’s story.  And there it was, improbably placed in front of me and my child on the Day of the Dead, not more than eight minutes after we had written her a postcard.

She wrote back.

How to Become a Parent in 37 Easy Steps

This is something I originally wrote over at The SockKids.com blog, but people seemed to like it, so I wanted to share it over here.

How to Become a Parent in 37 Easy Steps

We celebrated the 7th anniversary of my daughter’s “Gotcha Day” last weekend. That was the day we met–the day we became a family.  The day I became a parent. Most people become parents the old-fashioned way. There are really only two steps . Step 1: Get pregnant. Step  2: Deliver a baby. Yes, there are all sorts of doctors appointments and stuff along the way, but that’s the gist of the process as designed by Mr. Spock. Simple, logical, and straightforward.

The process by which I became a parent was designed Rube Goldberg (or maybe M.C. Escher) . It went kind of like this.

Step 1: Yay, we want to have a family! Attempt traditional step 1.

Step 2: Step 1 does not work. Consider other options.

Step 3: Take a bunch of tests to see why Step 1 does not work.

Steps 4-7: Attempt various medically induced methods of achieving Step 1.

Step 8: Cry a lot.

Step 9: Realize that the love in our hearts does not need to be confined to bio-kids.

Step 10: Decide to adopt.

Step 11: Go to parenting certification classes through county.

Step 12: Complete home study with county social worker, who inspects your house and has to ask some very personal questions.

Step 13: Wait around for county to match you with a child.

Step 14: Get disappointed a few times and wait some more.

Step 15: Switch to a private adoption agency.

Step 16: Make the decision to go with an international adoption.

Step 17: Repeat Step 12.

Step  18: Fill out a gazillion forms.

Step 19: Collect copies of every important document in your and your spouse’s life short of high school transcripts.

Step 20: Mail everything off to the adoption agency in a starry-eyed dream of parenthood.

Step 21: Wait 12.5 months (note that this is one trimester longer than the old-fashioned method but less than half the gestation time of an elephant, so we’ve got that going for us).

Step 22: Receive a photograph from the adoption agency of Your Child. Fly over the moon as many times as necessary.

Step 23: Get visas and other travel documents together.

Step 24: Make arrangements to leave the country for two weeks. (If you don’t have pets, perhaps you can skip this step.)

Step 25:  Pretend to go to work and do all the things you’re supposed to do while surreptitiously looking at photo of Your Child and flipping out.

Step 26: Fly to Beijing, where you spend a nervous few days trying to remember every moment so you can share it with your child later while you acclimate to a time zone 12  hours opposite your own.

Step 27: Fly to the city where you’ll meet your child. Walk into the hotel room in this city and see two beds, a crib, and a stroller and realize This Is Really Happening.

Step 28: Sit nervously in said hotel room in new city for two hours waiting to meet your guide while your husband finds an NFL game from four days ago to occupy his time (and takes a video of you babbling your excitement so your child has future documentation of what a spaz you were before you met her.)

Step 29: Meet the guide and other family who is adopting in the lobby and walk down the street to the provincial civil affairs office.

Step 30: Sit down in chairs across from the door of the waiting room so you can see people walking down the hallway. Wait

Step 31: Other family is adopting an older set of twins. They get there first. Watch this new family take shape before your eyes.

Step 32: Hear the elevator bell ring and know that in two more heartbeats, a stranger will turn the corner and walk down the hallway toward you, carrying the baby who is destined to be Your Child.

Step 33: Wait the longest two heartbeats of your life.

Step 34: Have your breath taken away by the first sight of Your Child.

Step 35: Sit down with your guide/translator and people from the orphanage.

Step 36: Have person from the orphanage hand Your Child to you. Reach out your hands, wondering if you are really prepared for this, if you are totally going to screw up this whole parenting thing, if someone made a terrible mistake somewhere because this can’t possibly finally be happening, if you’ll ever manage to be as good a parent as this little human deserves to have.

Step 37: Hold Your Child in your lap for the first time. Breathe. Feel an unimaginable wave of gratitude wash over you. Repeat as often as necessary.

Easter Morning

I wonder what Jesus thought about
when he woke up on Easter morning.

Did it feel like the morning after the worst bar fight you’ve ever seen?
A hangover for the ages?
Or the greatest joy you’ve ever known?

He’d just participated in the ultimate trust exercise.
What kind of trust does it take to “Yes, I will die for this cause,” believing that you’ll be resurrected?
He had to be scared. After all the miracles and wisdom, he was still human.

I wonder what was the first thing Jesus did on Easter morning.
Maybe once he discovered he was alive, he laid back down, closed his eyes, and jumped back up, just so he could rediscover his resurrection all over again.  I think I would.
Imagine that joy, that delight in discovering your own rebirth.
Imagine doing that every day.

Please Don’t Talk About Him When He’s Gone

So Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Church, just died. He was the guy who got his fellow church members to protest at the funerals of servicemen and women and other notable funerals because he had the strange idea that war and other human actions were somehow God’s punishment for homosexuality. So yeah, he had a pretty despicable agenda. Over the last few days, I’ve seen a number of Facebook posts and Tweets and cartoons that were downright happy about his death.

Here’s the thing: Taking joy in the death of another human being, no matter how despicable he or she was, tarnishes our own humanity. You can’t say, “I l love all people. I am for equality and social justice” and still be happy when someone else dies. You can’t. What you can do is fight despicable agendas. We’re all the same species. We all do good things and bad things. Fred Phelps left a legacy built on discrimination and irrational hatred. I don’t know what lies beyond this life. If he is now in eternal sleep, well then, he can’t hurt anybody. If there is an afterlife, now he gets to have a come-to-Jesus chat with, well, Jesus. They can go over the whole “love thy neighbor” stuff together and review how well Fred did on that during his 84 years in his mortal coil.

It’s tempting to hate back and to make jokes at the expense of the Fred Phelps of the world. Instead of that, let’s just try to be really awesome human beings. Let’s be the type of person who helps push a stranger’s car when it’s stuck in the snow, even if that car has a Westboro Church bumper sticker. Hold the door open for another person. Volunteer. And then let that person know, “Oh by the way, the people who just helped you are gay/lesbian/allies. ” Be the kindness you want to see in other people. My mother always said that the best way to deal with difficult people was to kill them with kindness. I don’t want to repay hate with hate, that doesn’t get us anywhere. If we really believe in equality, then we need to be equally kind.