Every so often I have to re-experience David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon Commencement Address. It’s been a while since I’ve taught it, so I pulled it out of the mothballs today and read it to my late afternoon English 101. They really loved it. I even heard a few exclamations of “Aww, that was good!” or “I feel like crying.”
I wish that someone had taught me early on (at age 15 or so), what David Foster Wallace tried to tell the students of Kenyon College in 2005: in order to stay sane in the face of all the heartbreak and misery that life brings, we must exercise control over “how and what we think.” We must cultivate discipline and awareness, so as not to be a slave to our thoughts. The class talked about the forces in the world that prevent us from keeping this truth “upfront in daily consciousness.” We talked about advertisements, movies, social media, cell phones that all increase our self-obsession, isolation and craving.
(A few hours later, when I sat down to write this, I thought of putting some sort of music or radio news report or something on in the background. For “company” which is how my mother once described how television. But I’m glad I didn’t. The light is nearly gone The traffic sounds like some ocean hum. I am easing into the night. I can feel my hands typing these words. I’m aware of the lengthening shadows.)
After class I gathered all of my messy papers and binders and walked out of the building. I saw an older man in a nice shirt and tie with a backpack. I knew he was a teacher, not a returning student. He looked at me and I smiled. I didn’t think my smile was particularly serious or constipated. But he said with a kind of empathetic resignation, “Another day, huh?”
I don’t know why it made me happy and reflective. I wanted to laugh. Like we were those two dogs in the Warner Brothers cartoon punching the factory time clock. And I thought it was so poignant and sort of tragic that each day of our lives no matter how dull or difficult is still “a day” and I thought how many of them I have wanted simply to end. It seems like something of a sin–not the depression so much as the mindlessness.
A few months ago, I wanted to rescue a few sentences from my diaries and burn them. I stopped keeping diaries because I got sick of all the clutter of old ledgers and notebooks and I just can’t imagine keeping one online. But I went to Skylight Books tonight and bought this blank sketchbook covered with lions that looked like lions from an old 60s kid’s book. I used to feel like I’d redeemed even the most “blah” day if I could write about it in a journal. It felt like I slowed time down a little, rescued something miraculous (and there always is) from the banal progression. Maybe keeping a diary was one way of keeping “the truth up front in daily consciousness.”
About a year ago I had a dream about David Foster Wallace. We were having a wonderfully deep conversation. Like me, DFW was obsessed with shark attacks and loved the humor of P.G.Wodehouse. In the dream we had so much to talk about, at least I thought we did, until he said not unkindly but abruptly, “Well, I’ve got to go take a shower now.” I stood outside the bathroom door in disbelief. Maybe he just wanted me to leave. But then I heard the water.He really did need to take a shower.
The next day I sort of felt close to DFW–after all we’d shared a dream. So I went to Skylight Books and bought his biography “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.” D.T. Max writes about howWallace’s high school tennis team traveled around the state for tournaments. Once they were going to a Van Halen concert, but “ditched Wallace who was in the hotel room taking one of the long showers he was famous for” (10).
A couple days later, still high on this synchronicity (if that’s what you’d call it), I walked by the bookstore again. In the corner of the window I saw a little shark–almost like origami, haphazardly leaning against one of the Jeeves books by P.G. Wodehouse. In a window usually organized by theme (fire, Los Angeles, etc.) Jeeves and the shark seemed a bizarre and random pairing. But they made perfect sense to me.