You’ve Read This Post Before


The Glossary, a Los Angeles-based audiovisual marketing firm, has reinvented David Foster Wallace as a motivational speaker. This “fine purveyor of STIMULATING VIDEOGRAMS” edited the best soundbytes from Wallace’s graduation speech at Kenyon College, “This Is Water,” and then dressed it up with video, trendy animated scribbles, and sprightly background music.

The Glossary included the lines from the speech that haunted Wallace’s readers after he hanged himself:

Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

Returned to its original context as part of an exhortation to graduates to work towards mastery of their own perceptions – considering, for instance, that the overweight woman losing her temper in a checkout line might have spent the night with a dying husband and was not, in fact, just put on earth to annoy everyone in line behind her – the passage serves as a sort of radical motivation in which reimagination is the only way to keep oneself alive. Some critics, including Leslie Jamison, in his review of a Wallace biography, have rewritten Wallace’s suicide as a piece of postmodern performance art, with the “terrible master” passage a snippet of autobiography concealed by being waved in front of a crowd.

The less esoteric version has Wallace suffering from lifelong depression, forced to go off his medication because of severe side effects, and then, after falling into an even more severe depression and restarting the poison pills, discovering that they were no longer effective for him. Apparently, even if you are a genius, you still also have to be a person and a body with an uncooperative brain. Irreconcilable differences are bound to occur.

What surprises me about The Glossary video that has gone viral this week is that people find Wallace’s views so inspiring and revolutionary. In essence, he argues that most people ricochet back to the same mental point of origin, the panoramas that are so familiar we have stopped seeing them; but by prodding ourselves to consider other versions of what looks like reality, we are free to become better masters of our minds. He also acknowledges that getting outside ourselves is difficult, exhausting work, and he admits that sometimes he himself is too tired to engage in it.

To me, this celebration of possibilities is as good a definition of creativity as I’ve ever come across – something like mental Cubism, in which all realities can be embodied at the same time. But it also makes perfect sense to me that Wallace’s call to reinvent and reenvision, and the massive effort it takes to do so, would come from someone who was suicidal enough of his life for a bullet in the brain to become a metaphor. With depression as the random point in space from which you view the world, death is always right in front of you, blocking your view. To survive, you have to imagine a different frame, in which the option of suicide is somewhere far in the distance, behind a closed door, somewhere you might visit sometime when you don’t have so many other things to do. Once you know where the door is located, though, it is impossible to forget it exists or how to open it.

In a speech at the 2011 National Book Festival, Toni Morrison briefly discussed her dissertation, which compared William Faulkner’s and Virginia Woolf’s conceptions of suicide. Faulker viewed suicide as the ultimate defeat, Morrison explained, while Woolf saw it as a reasonable choice, in her case a rational alternative to putting herself and her husband through another period of psychosis. I tend toward Woolf’s view, and, I would guess, so did Wallace. Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech offers instructions for making other choices.

However, it is a more than a little paradoxical that the speech has been appropriated by a marketing firm. As a former (mostly mediocre) ad writer, I’m in a position to know that the whole objective is to create materials that act as magnets, pulling thoughts in the intended direction without infringing on viewers’ certainty of their own free will. Within a few days, the video had attracted 2.7 million views, dwarfing the popularity of previous projects (and, incidentally, using audio of Wallace’s Kenyon speech without permissions). In an Adweek interview, the creators claim, disingenuously in my opinion, “Our main goal was to expose people to the content of the speech.” Later in the interview, though, the creators concede, “…as a tiny company in an industry filled with so much talent and competition, it’s extremely difficult to get your work noticed…so we’d welcome anyone who enjoyed ‘This Is Water’ to get in touch with us.”

I’m reminded of the perennially puzzling sentences, “This statement is untrue” and “Question authority.” Wallace’s legacy will almost certainly transcend this little ripple in the information ecosystem, but I’m also fairly sure its undertow is meant to pull us down into the water.

Advertisements

Seen and Not Seen: The 98% Inauguration, 2009

Four years ago, the night before inauguration, some friends came up with a pair of tickets. For several hours, I felt like the luckiest woman in DC: new to the area and suddenly gifted with a chance to witness the inauguration of our country’s first black president. I felt only slightly less lucky when I couldn’t find a friend to go with me on such short notice. When the Metro stop I needed closed because of overcrowding and I had to get off a stop early, my luck meter wavered only slightly: I had functioning feet, after all, and moving around would help keep me warm on a day with 9 degree wind chill.

I squirmed off the train at Gallery Place Metro and saw this, which is meant to be a photo of the mob on the escalators, but is also a reminder that our Swedish friends are happy to help us change our living rooms if we can’t change the country:

2008_0210Inauguration0022 (2)It was a strange day in D.C. It took me a while to realize why people looked so different, besides that they all were walking (though “pressing forward” is probably more accurate) in the same direction: Almost everyone was smiling underneath their hats and scarves.

2008_0210Inauguration0028If everyone you meet feels lucky, it’s hard to worry too much when emergency vehicles start blocking all possible paths to the Mall. Just find the big cheese, and move when the cheese does.

2008_0210Inauguration0032Eventually I reached a turning point: Give up and go get coffee, or carry on? I carried on, looking for a route to the Mall. I even tried to slip through the lobby of a hotel, but I ended up routed back to the same spot, back with a lot of people who didn’t know what direction to walk.

2008_0210Inauguration0033Soon I couldn’t walk any farther because I reached a bottleneck – an entrance gate, supposedly – with snipers on all the rooftops and Secret Service trying (but failing) to steer a family through the crowd. One of the girls, probably in her late teens, started to cry, and a man who must have been her father kept shouting, “I own that building!” until it became clear that there was no way to move in any direction.

Welcome to the proletariat.

This is what I saw for the next four hours.

2008_0210Inauguration0037I am under five feet tall, and for most of my time in the crowd, we were packed too close for me even to lift my arms. The fence on the left was a temporary barrier. Periodically the crowd would press forward, unleashing the hope that we might actually get through the line. It became clear that all of us, even though we had tickets, were going to miss the inauguration, but we were squeezed too tight to turn away. Often I couldn’t bend my knees or feel my feet, and when the crowd moved, I was carried by the pressure rather than walking under my own power.

But it was a happy day. Nobody complained or argued, at least that I heard. When Obama took the stage, a young woman called a friend who was on the Mall near a Jumbotron and streamed the inaugural address through her Blackberry (remember those?) so that everyone around her could hear it. She was our hero that day!

2008_0210Inauguration0046But…we were still stuck between the crowd and the fence. Soldiers controlled the gate, letting people dribble through a few at a time. When the gates opened, the surges forward became more forceful as we got closer. Finally the crowd pushed forward, and though I couldn’t get my feet under me to stop, I saw the gate closing as I approached. For a moment I was sure I was going to be crushed, but the soldier left the gate open long enough for me to stagger through.

I looked back and saw the other people who were still trapped behind the fence:

2008_0210Inauguration0045This is me with a numb face, feet, and hands. I had a big smile for a bad hair day in a gigantic coat:

2008_0210Inauguration0047My inauguration experience ended shortly after I got through the gates. Already people were gathering along the parade route, showing off how prepared they were:

2008_0210Inauguration0055 2008_0210Inauguration0057Then I finally got coffee.

2008_0210Inauguration0054A USA Today journalist saw me walking to the Metro and asked me why I was leaving. I told the story you see here, some of which he got right (the part where I’m quoted is near the end of the article).

Today’s inauguration doesn’t even compare. For one thing, I had no interest in being there in person. It’s true that there’s never a second second time, but the view from my sofa was perfect. This year, the story is “I turned on the television. I turned off the television.”

In 2009, on the other hand, I had a story you couldn’t get on television, and that’s something that’s amply worth standing in sub-freezing cold to see.

No, Really and Truly – The Absolutely, Positively Worst Ideas of 2012

Copernicus_-_Heliocentric_Solar_SystemFor some reason, The Washington Post prematurely nominated its worst ideas of 2012 way back on October 1. All the Post’s bad ideas had to do with sexual indiscretion by powerful men, political incorrectness, hubris, or all three. The one bad decision in the bunch made by a woman was the failed ouster of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan, which was spearheaded by that self-appointed defender of vision, the unfortunately-named Helen Dragas.

Speaking of hubris, though, the Post left out almost three months of bad ideas and almost an entire gender – which is sort of amusing, considering that some of the worst ideas of the year were about women. Here goes:

Do-it-yourself birth control: First, Foster Friess, a billionaire and mutual fund manager, kicked off the war on women when he suggested Bayer aspirin could prevent pregnancy: “The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.” In case we excused Friess’s comment as anomalous, Missouri Republican Todd Akin – also known for trying to eliminate school lunches for embryos that make it to grade school – defended prohibitions on abortion for rape victims by declaring, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Rape as God’s will: Not to be outdone, Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock argued – several times! – that any life resulting from rape was “something God intended to happen.” His idea manages to be terrible on several levels: first, that (despite its frequent appearance in the Bible) rape is acceptable because the ends justify the means; second, that God means to torture women; and third, that Mourdock somehow knows what God intends.

Ayn Rand: From Rand’s excruciating prose, eugenically-selected protagonists, contempt for acts of generosity on the grounds that they enable helplessness, and glorification of selfishness, we learned that the Romney-Ryan defeat stemmed from the triumph of mediocrity rather than Romney’s staggering ignorance of the world inhabited by the ordinary riffraff. (Dana Milbank’s piece in the Washington Post, “At Romney Headquarters, the Defeat of the 1%” does the best job I’ve seen to show that Romney’s insensitivity comes straight from the heart.)

Teachers bearing arms: If I actually have to explain why this is a terrible idea, please stop reading now.

The Second Amendment: If you skip the “well-regulated” and “necessary to a free state” parts, assault weapons make perfect sense.

Jonathan Franzen’s opinion of Edith Wharton: Based on Wharton being unattractive and sexless, America’s most popular purveyor of unpleasant characters dismisses her entire body of work. The bad idea – which you really might expect someone at The New Yorker to question – is the entire assumption that women have no artistic legitimacy without sex appeal.

New Yorker cartoons: Looking for sexism? Women carping at their downtrodden husbands? Gender dynamics that haven’t changed since the 1920s? I love The New Yorker, but I wish it would reconsider its tradition of phallocentrism.

Women are helpless, except when they’re not: Okay, I’m supposed to believe that the general of the most powerful military in the world was prostrate before the siren song of Paula Broadwell? Either he couldn’t resist – which I highly doubt, given that Petraeus was entrusted with our national security – or he could have resisted, but didn’t bother since the popular press would blame the woman anyway.

Voyeurism. Maybe Invisible Children was a showcase for the arrogance of Jason Russell, but when TMZ broadcast him staggering naked through the streets of San Diego and ridiculed what was clearly a mental breakdown, it didn’t exactly show the public in a flattering light when we played along. Same with the photograph of a man about to be hit by a NYC subway car. And same with the anguished photo of a woman trying to find out the fate of her sister, who had already been killed by the Sandy Hook shooter.

Illusions of privacy. Yes, my privacy has gone the way of the Twinkie, without the anti-union rhetoric. I value privacy, but not when it gets in the way of seeing the cartoons and photos my friends post or being able to avoid entering twice as many addresses into Google Maps on my phone.

The end of the world. The true bad idea here is that I didn’t plan an end-of-the-world potluck holiday party; I hosted one in 1999, asking guests to bring the dish they would want to eat if the world really ended at the turn of the millennium. Good times. P.S. Runner-up: blaming the prediction on the Mayans.

The end of the list. And if you believe that these are the only worst ideas of 2012, I have something I want to sell you. Close your eyes, hold out your hands, and count to ten.

The Whole Dang Pie

I made pizza a few nights ago (yes, that’s it in the photo). My three year-old cats sat on the windowsill and observed with mild interest as I simmered sauce, stirred poufs of flour into water, kneaded dough, and grated cheese. Dough’s nature is to abandon itself to your hands, and the moment it yields under my fingers is one of my purest, simplest pleasures.

My cats looked at me. I looked at my cats. And then I realized: Although cooking is one of my favorite things to do and pizza is probably my favorite thing to cook, I hadn’t made it in over three years.

That just seems wrong. The process of pizza-making is the opposite of teaching, writing, thinking, and reading, which is how I spend most of my time. When I am cooking, my hands, nose, and tongue experience every sensation while my head empties and floats out of the kitchen like a helium balloon. Also, almost everyone of any age can be made happy with pizza, and I have no particular qualms about exchanging homemade pizza for affection. I am reminded of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, when Gaston the waiter explains, “The world is a beautiful place. You must go into it and love everyone. Try to make everyone happy, and bring peace and contentment everywhere you go. And so I became a waiter….”


I love teaching. In fact, I’m crazy about it. Even when I “go into it and love everyone,” I can’t make everyone happy, nor can I bring peace and contentment everywhere I go. Knowledge – when I am skilled enough to impart it – is unsettling and challenging more often than not. The slice of me that thinks, reads, plans, and grades feeds one set of mouths, and the slice that wants to serve peace and contentment topped with grilled eggplant and sundried tomatoes feeds others.

Every January and every August I tell myself that if I scrupulously manage my time and energy, I can have the whole pie. I can return papers on time and read lush, fat novels; I can be brilliant in the classroom every single day; I can fulfill the CDC’s physical activity guidelines; I can write twenty pages a week; I can sleep eight hours a night, entertain every weekend, and launch a wildly satisfying and time-consuming love affair with no impact on any of the above.

If a meeting runs late, an emergency comes up at work, a home repair becomes urgent, or a cat has to go to the vet, my January/August illusions fall apart. Usually, the disillusionment process occurs sometime during the first week of classes and accelerates until it’s time to refuel my illusions again.

I am like many other teachers in that I have a hard time making a commitment to fulfill my own needs when the needs of students are so often so much greater than my own. I can tell myself “Put your own oxygen mask on first” as often as I like, but frankly I don’t like watching other people turn blue while I take time for myself. I don’t think the habit of gasping for air makes me a better teacher, though, and I’m fairly certain it doesn’t make me a better person, either.

Lately I’ve started thinking that maybe it’s not better to lavish all my attention on one slice of pizza when I could be serving up an entire sumptuous pie.

Blah, blah, blah.

First, I need my January/August syndrome to last until February.