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.

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Bad Books Don’t Get Banned

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Today marks the last day of the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, which, according to the website, “celebrat[es] the freedom to read.” The ALA site makes a distinction between challenged (someone tried to get a book removed from a curriculum or library) and banned (the petition for removal was successful in at least one place) and explains that the most common reasons for censorship are sexual content, explicit language, and “unsuitab[ility] to any age group.”

The ALA’s list for 2010-11 includes a wide range of books, from Sherman Alexie’s devastating National Book Award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to Anne Frank’s classic Diary of a Young Girl. The list also includes Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, banned in a Pennsylvania town for supposedly promoting socialist ideas; and a book about pit bulls and guard dogs, banned in Logan, Australia, because the breeds themselves are prohibited, and, in true Stalinesque spirit, readers should not be allowed to learn anything about them.

Well, there is someone for everything. It is marvelous to live in a country where some people value the 2nd amendment more than the first, and where some people are more afraid of libraries than they are of semi-automatic weapons. One thing I’ve noticed about the banned book list, though: I’ve never read a book that made the list and wasn’t well-written. (Full disclosure: There are plenty of books I haven’t read from the list.) So-called “classics” are popular targets, because they’re assigned in school, although last year someone challenged Kate Chopin’s perennially banned book The Awakening, not because it contains an unremorseful portrait of infidelity or a mother’s abandonment of her children, but because the cover of the book showed a woman with a little too much cleavage.

However, I’ve observed that books so poorly written that I want to hurl them across the room never seem to make it to the banned books list. For example, The Bridges of Madison County, which features a treacly plot involving a photojournalist who swoops into a small town to rescue a woman with no personality from her life of mediocrity, has never been challenged, at least as far as I know. Neither has Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is so historically important and uniquely disturbing, and so filled with clumsily written sentences. Black writers are disproportionately represented in the list of frequently-banned classics, especially considering that novels by women – already barely represented in the so-called “canon” – are only a sliver of the total list.

I can only conclude that if a book isn’t worth reading, it’s not worth banning or challenging. Books that have been challenged, on the other hand, were good enough to be recommended or read by someone who was affected enough to be offended. So many books deemed too challenging for school curricula or bestseller lists are so amply worth reading that I would never want to suggest that the ALA list should be the definitive guide to worthwhile literature.

I will say this, though: If you read something worth banning before next year’s Banned Books Week, I doubt you will regret it.

The Religious Beliefs of Cats

As far as I can tell, early Christians determined the Seven Deadly Sins by observing the house cat. You may look at your cat and see a sleepy, self-indulgent unbeliever, the embodiment of That Which Must Be Resisted, but you are cheating yourself of a rich spiritual tradition. Because humans have bred into the domesticated cat some unpalatable traits like the desire to kill for fun, you might have difficulty perceiving its worshipful side, but the devotion of cats is there in plain sight.

First of all, cats worship the sun. They spend their time looking through windows because they are seeking the hot, sunny places where the domesticated cat originated. Find a patch of sun on a rug, and a cat will be lying in it. When cats pray, they roll onto their backs and let the sun make their bellies hot. When they feel especially spiritual, they begin grooming. They are not actually licking their fur, but licking sunshine off their coats. Cats are more active at night because they are seeking their vanished sun.

Just like practitioners of the great religions, cats must obey complex rules for behavior. Strange cats must be greeted with hissing. If something flies, skitters, or rustles, it must be chased. Before undergoing a pilgrimage to the veterinarian, a cat must humble itself under a bed and pray loudly when forced into a cat carrier. If a cat’s owner drops something on the floor, a cat feels obligated to sit on top of it in order to maintain the neatness of the room. Claws must be nurtured and cultivated like the jewels they are.

A cat who appears to be staring at nothing or puffing up its tail and rocketing around the room for no reason is actually experiencing religious visions. Cats lucky enough to have owners who read books must position themselves within the gaze of the printed page; those whose owners have mice or insects must conduct animal sacrifices. Anyone who thinks felines feel no shame has never seen the distress of a cat whose business has occurred outside the litter box.

Finally, these children of the Egyptian goddess Bast must share the blessings of the sun with others, which they do through shedding. You might call shedding dander, but cats shed to cast the sun’s warmth throughout every nook of the universe. By vacuuming their fur off floors and furniture you are committing blasphemy, which is why so many cats are so outspoken in their hatred of vacuum cleaners.

On special occasions, a cat will sometimes deliver to its owner, often with much effort, a concentrated cylinder of sunshine in the form of a hairball. Your cat believes this cylinder is a treasure and is dismayed when you call it disgusting and throw it away. Like all people around the world, your cat wants only to have its beliefs respected and honored, even though these beliefs are different from yours. At a time of year when we celebrate so many holidays, compassionate owners will take the time to embrace their cats’ traditions…or at least embrace their cats.

The Top Five Things That Aren’t on a Top Ten List

Photo by Paul Octavious at pauloctavious.com

’Tis the season to prove your mastery of the decimal system by listing items that are already popular and showing off your knowledge of them. My list, however, consists of the humble little underdogs that I think are least likely to make it onto a top ten list.

5. My blog. If you are reading this post, you may not realize how much I appreciate you. You are a rare and wonderful creature, and if you post a comment, you are practically an endangered species. I have noticed that all the blogs on WordPress’s “Freshly Pressed” are mostly breezy little tea sandwiches: tiny, concentrated, and divided with numbers and headings. You, dearest readers, have actually read multiple long paragraphs at a time, but if I tell you how much I appreciate your generosity, Item Five will get too long.

4. Postal service. Maybe neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night shall stay our couriers, but – like everything else this year – the economy has threatened the lovely anticipation of getting an actual card or letter from an actual person. I won’t miss the junk mail or even the catalogs, but the post office funeral march already has me nostalgic.

3. Coffee. I do not need to list the many wonderful qualities of The Holy Bean. I admit that coffee might even be on someone else’s Top 10 list, but it’s too good to leave out. Yes, I already know I’m addicted – no need to say so. I appreciate your coffee at least as much as my own, because it means I can talk to you without needing an adult beverage afterwards.

2. Pharmaceuticals. Maybe drug companies are evil zombies that are killing our health care system, but I am still grateful for the miracle of antibiotics, not to mention the other assorted pills, sprays, and liquids that keep all of us walking, eating, sleeping, and breathing.

1. Books. You know: bendy paperbacks, printed on paper. A book should be a multimedia experience that you can touch, smell, and hear as well as see. Every time I hold one, I think, “Thank you, Book, for not being a Kindle or a Nook.”

Please let me know if you find any of these items on a Top 10 list. In fact, I invite you to post a comment telling me I’m full of it. At least I kept it short for once.

Cold Shoulders

When the water heater in our building fell unconscious on a Monday morning, I had no idea that Google would produce over 12 million hits for “how to take a cold shower.” Already sick, I’d turned to Google in an effort to lessen what I knew would be water torture.

If I hadn’t been in such a rush to get the shower over with, I might have taken the time to appreciate the marketing might devoted to cold showers, which, I have since learned, are purported to boost masculinity. According to the Meditations on Manliness website, cold showers and baths have been endorsed by James Bond, and before him the Spartans, the Finns, ancient Russians, Shinto practitioners, and hydrotherapists – including, evidently, Charles Darwin. Everyone in this august history is now dead, so it is impossible to say whether their icy ablutions extended their lives or shortened them. Knowing that my shower would make me more manly, however, did not increase its appeal.

I was also unswayed by the supposed health benefits, which didn’t seem relevant to a shivering woman with a sinus infection and laryngitis. I am fairly sure I have no use for higher testosterone or more robust “little swimmers” (that’s Meditations on Manliness again). According to the Sikh Dharma International website, a cold shower approximates a dip in a sacred pool. Um. Right. But wait – this expert was female! Writes Bhai Sahiba Dr. Bibiji Inderjit Kaur: “When you take a cold shower in the morning, it is like the first battle of the day.”  To combat the cold, you should rub yourself with oil and shout “Wahe Guru!” if you shiver, so that you “come out victorious.”

I was more in the mood for a warm bed than a frigid sacred pool, but I kept the good doctor’s words in mind when I turned on the shower and stuck my hand in it. Instantly my hand froze. I poked a toe into the freezing spray – okay, I know the water wasn’t actually freezing, or it would be sleet – and my foot froze, too. I thought about the many countries in the world that have no running water, never mind hot running water. These countries include the U.S., I discovered – 1.7 million people, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. In fact, the World Water Organization reports that only 20% of the world population has access to running water, including one billion people who have to walk 3 or more miles to a water source.

Guilt did not warm me up, but it did strengthen my resolve. I thought about how I had succumbed to the American compulsion to wash one’s hair every day, and then I stuck my head in from behind, arching my back more than was probably prudent. I shivered, I writhed, I hyperventilated to the point that it was hard to breathe, and I thought about the billions of people for whom “the first battle of the day” was not a choice but a daily occurrence. (Yes, I really did, and I didn’t feel virtuous, either.)

I emerged a short time later – you didn’t actually think I was going to describe my own shower, did you? – unenlightened, telling myself I’d won the first battle of the day but not feeling particularly victorious. I felt even less victorious after a couple of hours of work, when I had to go home sick; and even less victorious two days later when I lost the ability to speak and then finally dragged myself in defeat to the doctor’s office. If my immune system was strengthened, it was so imperceptible that it felt just like weakness. And those “little swimmers” – maybe those were the bacteria in my sinuses? Or maybe the health benefits were only for men.

Whatever the reason, if there were ever any doubt, it seems that I’m no James Bond. And when our hot water returned, I celebrated. I guess that means I’m no Mother Teresa, either.