This is Water

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet
an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says
“Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a
bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes
“What the hell is water?”
—-David Foster Wallace, from the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address

The other day I stumbled across a blog entry that posed the question, “What Book has the Most Page-for-Page Wisdom?” I had read most of the links on the page – but one that I was not familiar with caught my eye. This is Water, by David Foster Wallace.

It’s a short work, actually a transcription of a commencement address, and readily available in book form or online.

There are a lot of good ideas here, but I want to look at one piece of text – a description of the hell everyone’s life can become if we give in.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home — you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job — and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.

—–David Foster Wallace, This is Water

The excellent piece goes on to explain how important it is to not let this sort of thing get to you, to realize that we are all in the same boat, that we need to look at life in a non-selfish way and go with it – or else we will go mad.

All good advice and interesting thought provoking… but I want to present an alternative. Find out about this shit and simply don’t do it… or rather, figure out something else.

For example, I know all too well the hell of exhausted grocery shopping. So I decided not to do it.

My goal for this year… and probably for next year too, is to never drive my car to the grocery store. My commuter bike has room for a pair of big, cheap panniers I found at Wal-Mart of all places. With those and a backpack I can carry a goodly bit of groceries – enough to get by for a few days.

This has transformed my grocery shopping from a gas-fueled frustration fest into a series of fun little mini-adventures, complete with fresh air and a little exercise.

It helps that I have five grocery choices within easy cycling distance from my house. I define that as less than, say three miles… and no killer streets.

First is the Super Target – good for general shopping. They have bike racks sort of hidden in little alcoves near the entryways. This is the closest place to the hell described in Wallace’s speech. But, somehow, when you have ridden a bicycle to a store, it’s impossible to be overly frustrated at the inevitable delays. You simply feel too silly.

Bike racks tucked away at the Super Target store.

Bike racks tucked away at the Super Target store.

Then there is the Fiesta Mart – a Hispanic slanted grocery store. It’s the farthest away – maybe two miles – but a nice route, mostly bike trail. It has a beat-up but serviceable bike rack around by the propane cylinders.

My commuter bike, with panniers, waiting at the Fiesta Mark bike rack.

My commuter bike, with panniers, waiting at the Fiesta Mart bike rack.

Those are the only two groceries with bike racks near where I live. No big problem – they all have cart racks, which can be locked to as well as a dedicated rack. In the other direction – in Garland, actually – is the Saigon Market Mall – a big, cool Asian Market – good for noodles, fresh vegetables, and fish.

Then, very close to where I live is an Aldi – great for staples like milk and eggs. It’s nice to buy milk there since it is uphill from my house and I can ride up there light and coast home heavy.

Finally, there is an India Bazaar in the same center. Great place for rice, beans, and, especially spices. Their spice aisle is a wonder – I love to stand there and simply smell.

Locked up on the cart rack in front of the India Bazaar

Locked up on the cart rack in front of the India Bazaar

I know that the Wallace speech deals with much larger and more subtle issues than how to get your groceries. But in this tough world we need all the weapons we can muster and being able to roll out of the garage on a cheap, used, crappy bicycle instead of a smoke spewing SUV makes life a little bit easier to bear. For everybody.

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 16 – Good People

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day sixteen – Good People, by David Foster Wallace

Read it online here:

Good People

Good People is the first published excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published incomplete novel The Pale King. Wallace hanged himself in 2008, at age 46. His father said that he had been suffering from depression for years and his medication had ceased to work. In the last few moments of his life, Wallace arranged his notes and computer files so his wife could find them.

His friend and editor Michael Pietsch took that material and molded it into its final published form. Despite being incomplete, the novel runs to over 500 pages.

I enjoyed this fragment (which, like a lot of David Foster Wallace’s novel chapters, stand fine on its own) because it contains a respect and fondness toward characters of faith – flawed as they are. The text is rough and rambling, reflecting the confusion in Lane’s mind.

The details – the uprooted tree, the man in the suit, the fishermen across the water – are carefully chosen and add layers of complexity to the simple story.

I wonder how much this piece is an homage to the Hemingway story Hills Like White Elephants? They are both stories about a couple making a choice where the word Abortion is never uttered.

A point not expressly made in the story, but one that comes to my mind is the one-way nature of time. Our past feels like a three dimensional cloud – full of inevitability, coincidences, and luck (good or bad). But the future feels like a set of steel rails where your only hope is to stay on the tracks, come hell or high water.

But neither did he ever open up and tell her straight out he did not love her. This might be his lie by omission. This might be the frozen resistance—were he to look right at her and tell her he didn’t, she would keep the appointment and go. He knew this. Something in him, though, some terrible weakness or lack of values, could not tell her. It felt like a muscle he did not have. He didn’t know why; he just could not do it, or even pray to do it. She believed he was good, serious in his values.

Short Story Day Fifteen – Wiggle Room

15. Wiggle Room
David Foster Wallace
http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2009/03/09/090309fi_fiction_wallace

This is day Fifteen of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

The massive, classic novel, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace has been on my to-read list for a long time…, along with 2666 by Roberto Bolaño and Underworld by Don DeLillo. But Jest is over a thousand pages, Underworld a tad over eight hundred and nine hundred for 2666. To tackle a tome of this magnitude takes a commitment of time I’m not sure I have (There aren’t that many years left) when so much shorter stuff is out there. Then again, I’ll always treasure Gravity’s Rainbow and Moby Dick and the other Big Long Books I’ve soldiered through. Who knows?

Today, submitted for your approval, is a short work by David Foster Wallace from the New Yorker. It’s a harrowing look at the soul-destroying numbness of working in a mindless modern cubical-cluttered workplace. Specifically, a midwestern backwater IRS office.

If it seems incomplete, it’s because it is. It is a snippet of Wallace’s last, unfinished novel, The Pale King.

David Foster Wallace committed suicide leaving The Pale King as a disorganized pile of paper and computer files. His friend and editor Michael Pietsch assembled the novel from that and it was published in 2011.

Before it came out, several selections were printed. The New Yorker also published a piece that’s still available online, Good People. It’s a completely different type of story (or snippet) even though it features the same character, Lane Dean, as today’s Wiggle Room.

Also, in the same issue, is a long article on Wallace, The Unfinished… it’s worth a read.

He felt in a position to say he knew now that hell had nothing to do with fires or frozen troops. Lock a fellow in a windowless room to perform rote tasks just tricky enough to make him have to think, but still rote, tasks involving numbers that connect to nothing he’ll ever see or care about, a stack of tasks that never goes down, and nail a clock to the wall where he can see it, and just leave the man there to his mind’s own devices. Tell him to pucker his butt and think beach when he starts to get antsy-and that would be just the word they’d use, antsy, like his mother. Let him find out in time’s fullness what a joke the word was, how it didn’t come anyplace close. He’d already dusted the desk with his cuff, moved his infant son’s photo in its rattly little frame where the front glass slid a bit if you shook it. He’d already tried switching the green rubber over and doing the adding machine with his left hand, pretending he’d had a stroke and was bravely soldiering on. The rubber made the pinkie’s tip all damp and pale beneath it.
—-from Wiggle Room, by David Foster Wallace

What I learned this week,February 22, 2013

It even comes to Dallas and Klyde Warren Park

I like the guy in the yellow cowboy hat.

FADER Explains: Harlem Shake


I really enjoyed Red at the Dallas Theater Center’s Wyly Theater.

It’s nice to see it get a good review.


I have been thinking about Big Bend a lot. I miss the place. I used to go there to reconnect. I need to figure out how to get back.


Sometimes you get ideas that you really like but know they are crazy and will never happen. That’s when you feel stupid.

Sometimes… not too often… you find out that your crazy idea isn’t that insane and that somebody else is trying to actually do it. That’s when you no longer feel stupid, but instead feel lazy, cowardly, and ineffectual.

Affordable artist housing potentially coming to Dallas Arts District


8 New Punctuation Marks We Desperately Need


I’ve read all these – a pretty good list.


Bring Good Brews Home From Craft and Growler


That guy Guy Fieri – from that food show that shows him eating all sorts of stuff you should not eat – accomplished a rare feat. He opened a restaurant that garnered a zero star review from the New York Times (read it, it’s well written and pretty funny).

He also neglected to register the whole URL for his restaurant’s name… so somebody else did, and posted a

great fake menu.

Shame it’s satire… wouldn’t you want to get something like:

Guy’s Big Balls – $26.95

Snuggle up to two 4-pound Rice-A-Roni crusted mozzarella balls endangered with shaved lamb and pork and blasted with Guy’s signature Cadillac Cream sauce until dripping off the plate. Served Nestled inside a tempura pickle, with a side of maximum-well-done duck skin.

Extra Wet Naps – $3.50.


Photograph by Jamie Chung for Bloomberg Businessweek

Photograph by Jamie Chung for Bloomberg Businessweek

Sriracha Hot Sauce Catches Fire, Yet ‘There’s Only One Rooster’

Like ketchup, sriracha is a generic term, its name coming from a port town in Thailand where the sauce supposedly was conceived. When people in America talk about sriracha, what they’re really talking about is Huy Fong’s version. It’s been name-checked on The Simpsons, is featured prominently on the Food Network, and has inspired a cottage industry of knockoffs, small-batch artisanal homages, and merchandise ranging from iPhone cases to air fresheners to lip balm to sriracha-patterned high heels.


15 Great David Foster Wallace Quotes

por ejemplo:

12. “I do things like get in a taxi and say, ‘The library, and step on it.’”

– Infinite Jest (1996)

Just go there and read them all.



This looks really, really cool:
Nasher Sculpture Center and Mayor Mike Rawlings announce landmark public art initiative in conjunction with the museum’s 10th anniversary

Official site: Nasher X-Change


100 icebreakers for talks with strangers



America’s New Mandarins

But I think that we are looking at something even deeper than that: the Mandarinization of America.

The Chinese imperial bureaucracy was immensely powerful. Entrance was theoretically open to anyone, from any walk of society–as long as they could pass a very tough examination. The number of passes was tightly restricted to keep the bureaucracy at optimal size.

Passing the tests and becoming a “scholar official” was a ticket to a very good, very secure life. And there is something to like about a system like this . . . especially if you happen to be good at exams. Of course, once you gave the imperial bureaucracy a lot of power, and made entrance into said bureaucracy conditional on passing a tough exam, what you have is . . . a country run by people who think that being good at exams is the most important thing on earth. Sound familiar?

The people who pass these sorts of admissions tests are very clever. But they’re also, as time goes on, increasingly narrow. The way to pass a series of highly competitive exams is to focus every fiber of your being on learning what the authorities want, and giving it to them. To the extent that the “Tiger Mom” phenomenon is actually real, it’s arguably the cultural legacy of the Mandarin system.

….

In fact, I think that to some extent, the current political wars are a culture war not between social liberals and social conservatives, but between the values of the mandarin system, and the values of those who compete in the very different culture of ordinary businesses–ones outside glamor industries like tech or design.