I will not be political.
I am consumed with the events of the past weekend but I will strive as much as possible to ignore this burbling emotional stew and to write about the things I had originally planned to write about. So I will not speak of recent tragedies other than to acknowledge a morbid coincidence I came across concerning the one line that was excised from the essay I am raving about – David Foster Wallace’s This is Water – when it was converted from a 2005 Kenyon Collegecommencement address to posthumously-released book. The line, at the end of a mini-riff on suicide, was this: “they shoot the terrible master.” DFW was referring to the human mind – that “terrible master” – that sometimes turns its wrath inward, mutinies against our better angels with devastating consequences.
I chose, for my Advent digression, a speech. The messy, unedited, un-excised version of This is Water, complete with David Foster Wallace’s asides about sweating, his live-mic editing, and direct addresses to the crowd of graduates to not feel that they were being lectured. I chose this piece, because while many of DFW’s essays have stuck in my mind long after most prose has submerged into forgetfulness, This is Water actually changed my life.
This ________ will change your life! How often we say that. That movie changed my life. This story will change your life. This song will change your life. This recipe for organic free-range barbeque chicken pizza will change your life! The phrase has in itself become a hyperbolic Mad-Lib, which by its overuse mocks the very meaningful concept of change, belittles our attempts, however futilely, to recognize and alter the arc of our existence.
I am not a scholar of DFW, I am not an aficionado. I am a fan. I have loved every page of his prose that I have read. I am 102 pages into The Pale King, which is to say less than one-fifth of the way through. I finished (most of) Consider the Lobster. A good chunk of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. If the essay is the essayist’s brain at work on the page, it is fair to say that DFW had few peers in this regard. I love reading his work, yet a small part of me is momentarily depressed by his stature on the page. It is a humbling dose of reality to know that I am unlikely to ever replicate any of DFW’s greatest moments, any more than I am likely to win an Oscar, or throw the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl, or dunk on LeBron James in the NBA Finals. Perhaps peace in adulthood is the acceptance of realistic expectations. Perhaps.
When DFW died during my first semester in Tucson, I was aware that I was missing out on the moment. I knew of the man, but was not that familiar with his work. I knew of his great opus, that bible-thick book that was an absolute must read, the voice of the generation, the great declaration of the absurdity of (then) modern life in the 1990s. As the news of his death spread, and the public accolades poured forth, I was ashamed to admit that I’d never actually gotten around to reading that epic tome, much in the same way that I was ashamed to admit that I’d labored through the first twelve pages of Ulysses before returning it to the St. Paul library to be re-shelved amongst the other lonely Joyce hard-covers. So when I say that This is Water changed my life, it is not in the broad sense born from a prolonged, dedicated scholarship of an artist’s canon. DFW changed my life with a mere handful of words. About standing in line. At the grocery store.
I think of DFW now, today, while meandering through HEB (the Texas version of Gigantor Grocery Chain), and find I am soothed among the masses. I smile and feel my connection to my fellow humans. This is a significant metamorphosis on my part, for I am Gemini, and partly ruled by an inner curmudgeon, a little grumbling mind-troll who dwells in a damp, shady fold of my gray matter. He remains mostly mute inside the confines of my cranium, but has publicly reared his ugly head on occasion when not properly restrained. He is the legacy of my Germanic-Lutheran Minnesota curse. I suffer from an innate tendency towards judgment, a Midwestern certainty of correctness, as if I were a bitter Vulcan trapped in an idiotic world. Mr. Spock finds your refusal to use your fucking turn-signal for its intended purpose to be infuriatingly illogical! DFW, in a few short paragraphs, helped me see that I can make a choice about whether or not my inner curmudgeon is allowed to run rampant. So as clichéd as it sounds, This is Water changed my life. It is the emotional Nicorette I ritually chew to soothe my ornery moments.
This is Water is at the core a humanist manifesto in speech form, a plea to a generation that DFW felt (and he was certainly not alone in this) was in danger of being submerged by an easy addiction to distractive technologies. The inability to just be where you are, consciously connected to the real. As DFW makes his case for immersion in the tangible moment, he asks not for sainthood – he acknowledges our (and his) inherent human failings. He asks only that we try to get out of our own headspace every once in a while, that we work to employ a little self-awareness, a touch of empathy, that we acknowledge that our “natural, hard-wired default setting…is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” Our natural solipsism is obvious enough to have spawned its own legion of clichés: Get out of your head. Stop navel-gazing. Stop shoe-gazing. Stop. DFW asks us to take the first baby-step towards becoming better human beings – to be aware that how we view the world is a choice. That how we interpret what happens to us is a choice. That we do, in fact, have the power to re-task our mind from “horrible master” to “excellent servant.”
I’m not going to quote too much of the work (you should read This is Water today – now – if you aren’t familiar with it), but the following chunks of what I’m calling the Parable of the Grocery Store Line were the ones that set the deepest roots in my mind:
“The traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop.”
“If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
Did I mention that DFW was talking about being stuck in a long line at Safeway? Is there a place that we could imagine contains less “mystical oneness?” Maybe these sentiments are obvious. Maybe I am inherently more self-centered, more tethered to my inner-curmudgeon than most, and so what should have been absorbed as simple commencement-ceremony platitudes were tremor-inducing for me. But these simple words in The Parable of the Grocery Line burrowed deeply into my mind and have taken up residence there, smothering my inner curmudgeon. While standing in line at the grocery store, ruminating on those words, taking deep breaths of our shared humanity, I have found moments of nearly ecstatic peace, a lightheaded Zen I have only previously accessed in settings of epic and isolated natural grandeur.
This ultimately is the reason why we write, and read, and hash out the philosophy of Nonfiction on pizza joint barstools and classrooms and couches and AWP panels and interactive forums such as The Essay Daily. It is why I click upon link after shared link with my morning coffee – to become part of the conversation, to see what everyone is talking about today. We want to connect – to each other, connect the dots, to feel when we read that someone else is speaking to us, to feel when we write that someone else might understand us, that in the cacophony of this world there is still the possibility of intimacy through words. That I understand, that I can see things in a new light, that I feel what you’re saying. Crackling connectivity.
The day I first read This is Water was one such moment of this intimate connection. I knew, reading those words, that DFW had understood this seasonal Midwestern malaise, that he was talking to me, confronting my inner curmudgeon, poking and prodding me to at least make the token attempt at being a better man. That’s a hell of a gift, in any season.
Kirk Wisland has spent the past few years moving from town to town like an essaying Johnny Appleseed. During these travels, his work has appeared in The Normal School, DIAGRAM, Creative Nonfiction, and Paper Darts, to name a few. His current stop is Houston, Texas, where he teaches English Composition and ponders his next move.