Thursday, September 26, 2013

Way to Break My Balls, David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace hanged himself in 2008.

There is really no awesome way to talk about this.

I was not shocked or upset, and here's why: despite my enrollment in the creative writing program at the University of Washington, I wasn't at the time aware that DFW existed at all.

My Introduction to DFW

In 2010 I heard about this book called Infinite Jest which I was told I would enjoy.  Early in 2012, I was told about it again.

I did enjoy that book.  How I was able to enjoy it and why seemed obvious- it's pretty great.  I mean, if you have the patience to sit through whole essays squirreled away in footnotes that you must flip to the back of your book to read, and are okay with open endings, it's an extremely rewarding book.

Infinite Jest (published 1996) predicts a pretty-much 2012 that is stunning in it's accuracy re: the status of entertainment in America.  It's also a pretty run down version of America, one that failed to re-invent itself but find redemption through humble veins, such as AA or junior tennis.

A main character in that book also kills himself (not a spoiler, this fact is pretty clear from the beginning), and one characterizing question w/r/t this character is how he was able to turn on a microwave with his head inside it.

This character also creates a movie, called "The Entertainment" by secret government organizations and terrorist groups, that removes a person's will to do anything else but watch the movie.

I'm oversimplifying the book here, big time.  I'm not trying to give it a critical review here.  My goal is more along the lines of bringing DFW back from the dead.  Not in this essay though.  Not a chance there.  More like this essay is my proposed set of guidelines for doing so.

I want to bring DFW back from the dead for a few reasons:
  • His contributions to the thought and shape of today's literature are incomplete
  • I want to ask him "why you gotta break my balls?"
  • I have a big literary crush on the man.  He is the Sean Connery of writers.

Some Ideas DFW Seems to Be Getting at:

  • Irony Is Annoying
Or has at least outworn it's usefulness.  While irony has been used in the past to point out injustice or as a survival tactic, television has subverted irony for it's own ends: viewership ratings, advertisement dollars.  You can read DFW's full essay on this just by google-ing "E Unibus Pluram" (I'm not going to do all the work for you), but a large part of the gist of the essay is summed up in this statement of the problem that today's writers face:
How to snap readers awake to the fact that our televisual culture has become cynical, narcissistic, essentially empty phenomenon, when television regularly celebrates just those features in itself and its features?
  • Why should an author care enough to want to snap readers awake?
Hmm, well, I'm not finding a terribly persuasive argument within DFW's essay.  He personally wanted to, I think(hearsay, I know).  "E Unibus Pluram"(published 1993) seems to be just the kind of manifesto an author might reference while writing Infinite Jest, that's for sure.  Here's a relevant perspective from a recent article in The Stranger's A&P quarterly:
I want to read books I need to read. I want to read books that feed me, that go in my mouth and throat and down in my guts and nourish me or mess me up but feed me that way too.
-"Shut Up: A Manifesto Against Irony" Rebecca Brown

Rebecca seems on board with this "New Sincerity" thing, though she also claims that language can save your life, which is clearly, in some cases, untrue.
  • Entertainment has/is/will changed/changing/change
The worst thing about being a writer these days is probably that nobody really seems to enjoy reading anymore.  Seriously, if you've made it this far in the essay, leave a comment or something so I know you exist.  Also, marry me(family members are excused from this, but may still leave comments).  

Rather than cry about it, DFW simply continued to produce literature and essays that really get right down to the meat of how we (Americans, mostly) entertain ourselves, how that effects how we think of ourselves, and how all of that bends and shapes the forms of entertainment we prefer.  If you're this far in the essay and haven't yet googled "E Unibus Pluram", well, for fuck's sake.
  • Ditto for communication
For being the prescient/excellent writer that he is, DFW comes off as a bit of a Luddite, explaining that he doesn't really get eBooks in his preface to "Up Simba", always portraying himself as scribbling in notebooks rather than clacking at keys.  All those freaking footnotes, which is a style well suited to HTML, but, as I mentioned above, requires a lot of patience in the reader when abused in DFW's trademark style and on paper.

The fact that some of the juiciest stuff appears in those footnotes is reason enough for readers/editors/printers alike to ask in unison, "Why you gotta break my balls, DFW?"

See for example, the kick-ass essay (excerpted near the bottom of this linked page) disguised as a footnote in Infinite Jest regarding the evolution of the video-phone.

By the way, the first iPhone was released in June 2007.  Skype's been around since 2003, though Wikipedia is pretty useless at reminding me when the ability to use video was released.

Before I try to jam these ideas together to describe the kind of change I'd like DFW around to help out with, let's take a look at some things that have changed since DFW's death.

Some Things That Have Changed Since DFW's Death

  • Late 2010: Skype releases video calling client for iPhone (thanks, Wikipedia!)
  • Okay, well it looks like Netflix introduced online streaming in 2007, so let's call this one "online streaming becomes popular".  Theoretically, DFW could have had a Netflix account.
  • Hulu came out in March of 2008.  Damn.  Okay, how about this one: Disney purchases 27% stake in Hulu - 2009.
  • Man, okay, I'm striking out here.  Facebook has been around since 2004(ish)  Facebook claims a positive cash flow for the first time in 2009.
  • Rockstar Games releases Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008 (In April, but shut up).  Critics are like "whoa, there's some serious writing behind this game"
  • With the release of Red Dead Redemption in 2010, Rockstar Games proves that video games are capable of dealing with themes, philosophy, and good damn stories well, not to mention in a way that only Choose Your Own Adventure brand books could approach and never surpass.
  • One of my all time favorite poets, Bill Knott, who is mentioned a few times in "E Unibus Pluram" leaves a comment on my blog in response to basically a very callous comment from me regarding his personality, which I know nothing about. November 2011. Considering that the Knott poems DFW refers to are from 1975, i.e. before my birth, this is a surreal moment for me.
This list has turned out pretty pathetic.  For that I apologize.  Strange that all these modes of communication and entertainment that I have found fascinating and perverse and revolutionary in the last decade all got on the path to where they are today before DFW's death, but really kicked into gear only afterwards.
Picture if you will DFW as a lone centurion, the last of an ancient order of illuminati, fiercely defending the earth against the aliens that have taken over the bodies of Alec Baldwin and Seth MacFarlane.  The warrior falls, and the earth will never be the same.
-Elevator pitch for what'll turn out to be a really bad movie.

So here's some bad logic for you:
  • The markets for entertainment and communication influence what we choose to consume.
  • What we choose to consume influences entertainment and communication technology and content.
  • In benefits E & C tech to promote it's own use.  Like the way rabbits benefit from getting it on.
  • For some reason, E & C tech has become incredibly personal.  Probably because you can sell more units and because we like our privacy.
  • Small, discrete E & C tech is popular with manufacturers and consumers.  See iPhone, see Tablet, see Laptop, see Google Glass, which is turning out to be less popular with consumers than manufacturers thought, but it's probably just a matter of time.
  • These E & C techs enable anti-social behavior i.e. more time spent with the tech/product/content.
  • E & C content enables anti-social behavior i.e. more time spent with the tech/product/content.
  • Technological advances in entertainment and communication tend to promote further extremes of anti-social behavior in their users to remain competitive.
That's basically my way of re-phrasing the interesting bits (to me) of "E Unibus Pluram", except expanded to include the last five years of my experience as an entertainment consumer. It is the same set of ideas that once again inspires the question, "David Foster Wallace, why are you breaking my balls?"

Essays like these are not exempt for this tendency, obviously, for example I'm writing this in my living room while my roommate plays his Xbox360.  He shouts at the game, I mutter to my notes.

Dear reader, you aren't reading this out loud, I suspect, but to yourself.  I'm not in the room with you.  I'm not reading this to you.  If I'm being really honest with myself, I have to realize that the only folks who read this will have followed the link from my Facebook post, or bless 'em, have followed my blog and/or are family. Hi Mom!

For another example, let's turn to another smart/sad guy, Louis C.K:

and this video has been shared by so many people on Facebook, which is cool because the content certainly seems less like the "cynical, narcissistic, essentially empty phenomenon" that DFW describes, but becomes annoying when you think about the fact that whether we saw this when it aired on TV or saw it on YouTube from a Facebook link, that's what we were doing.  Facebooking.

So maybe my problem is that I'm still thinking about this, that I'm still trying to escape all this damn irony all over everything.

There are ways to do it, I think.  One is to stop thinking about it and talk to more people.  Another is to get my thoughts straight about it so I can talk to more people without the distraction of this ball breaking confusion.

Some Examples of Social Entertainment

  • Live Music
  • Roller-Derby
  • Watching Movies with a Lively Crowd
  • Fishing
  • Live Comedy
  • Getting Out Of The House

Some Examples of Anti-Social Entertainment

  • Watching Movies Alone
  • Reading David Foster Wallace
  • Pretty Much the Whole Internet
  • Fishing
  • Hanging Out while Picking Your Nose
I hope I'm not just hanging out picking my own nose here.  I don't think it's inherently bad to be anti-social, but damn is it really easy.

And while this essay might be a bit navel gaze-y, you dear reader can redeem it by taking advantage of the comment section to lend your own perspective on these ideas, anecdotes, rebuttals, or just some good ideas w/r/t getting out of the house.

Thank you.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Uncle BAM

In the spirit of Independence Day, I'm learning how to make animated gifs.  Why?  Because I know you all want to watch my friend J frolic in his thuggin' Uncle Sam costume endlessly.  Next I'm going to try to lose the watermark, and get this so he goes back and forth.  Fingers crossed, folks!

UPDATE:  Getting there...

Smoother version:

There you go.  I'm giving up on the watermark, because I have real work to do today as well.  

Happy birthday, America.


Monday, June 3, 2013

The Japanese Garden

Just finished an essay that I thought I would publish here.  Then I thought, wait a minute, I should submit this for publication.  So the search is on for a journal, any journal, that will publish a piece called "Lake Shitty Way".

Since submitting my essay means I had better not drop it here (yet), I guess I might as well share with you this piece, which was published in Ruckus about a year ago:

The Japanese Garden

This is the hardest I've seen
my grandmother laugh:
a frog with a rock on its back.
Was it the strange reversal
of nature, usually the frog
sits on the rock, or the fact
that the frog, unstartled,
stared back at her after
she tossed a stone at it?

My grandmother is a hard read.
The licked tooth, the scrupulously
clean kitchen. Direct subtext.
She gives marvelous responses
to poetry.  Explained "number one"
instead of "I have to pee."
When grandfather exclaimed
"My son. I have a son!"
She said "Yes. Sometimes you
just forget,” her delicate hands
clasped around his waxy fingertips.

But anyway, she thought
that frog was hysterical.
Those peals of laughter
sent ripples across the pond.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Phantom Phone Syndrome

Okay, I don't really have anything to say about phantom phone syndrome, except that it's obnoxious.

Phantom Phone Syndrome is also a horrible headline.  I've written headlines on this blog that range from terrible to nothing special.  Why do I care what quality of headline it is, anyway?  I'll get to that.

I rate these headlines as poor, lackluster, inane, or too blatantly bokononist :
  • Website
  • In Progress
  • Galaxy Bird
  • Busy, Busy, Busy
Here are some headlines I find more acceptable:
  • 3 Reasons You Should Watch Doctor Who
  • Liam Neeson as an Action Star
  • A Review of "Reality Hunger" by David Sheilds
  • A Year in Books
These two are my personal favorites, but I'll understand if you disagree:
  • Doctor Who is Santa Clause
  • Inappropriately Named Rivers
I've been writing a lot of headlines lately, so it occupies a fair amount of brain space.  Here's a few that I've written on other blogs:
Don't know if the new ones are quite up to snuff.  I think "Doctor Who is Santa Clause" is still my favorite.

UPDATE:  I hacked by brain into cutting out the phantom phone stuff by switching my phone to the other pocket of my pants for two days.  No more phantom vibrations.  Take that, brain!  Chalk another one up for the little guy.

Monday, October 15, 2012

In Progress

I haven't been submitting too many poems lately, so why I figure no harm in sharing a piece still very much in progress:


There is a phone call that will change
your life.  No more so and so celebrity
impersonator for you, oh no.  A voice that
unlocks parts of your brain you didn't

know existed says calmly "Agent Icarus,
we have a new assignment for you."  Click.

You live in the future.  Are you
ready for your eyeballs to crackle with
raw data?  Shut up and create new

robots already.  Ray guns were forecast
by the '50s.  Come on.  It isn't the
phone that calls, it is the work.

I know you Icarus, and you are about
to learn a hell of a lot about water.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ever Lovin' Poems

What is so great about poems anyway?

Few things:

Rhythm, rhyme, meter, visual presentation, the cadence of speech, are a short list of what I'd say sets poetry apart from other word combinations.  They are the tools poetry uses to capture your attention.

Does it work?

Lets find out.  Here's a poem by Kay Ryan:

A pitcher molds
the air in it, dividing
from the air beyond
the air it holds.  And
should the pitcher
vanish, something
would take a minute
to escape, a gradually
diminishing integrity,
a thinning pitcherful
of pitcher shape.

Kay Ryan, everyone.  United States Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2010.  In other words, helping you appreciate poetry was her job for two years.

Two years is a long time to be Poet Laureate.  C'mon.  Read that again.

Here's one by Maria von Rilke (in german):

Der römische Brunnen  
Aufsteigt der Strahl und fallend gießt
Er voll der Marmorschale Rund,
Die, sich verschleiernd, überfließt
In einer zweiten Schale Grund;
Die zweite gibt, sie wird zu reich,
Der dritten wallend ihre Flut,
Und jede nimmt und gibt zugleich
Und strömt und ruht.

Howzat?  Let me know if you enjoyed these in the comments.  Also let me know if you can find a good translation of the Roman Fountain.  I'm having trouble googling it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Super Position

The Horse has two riders, one facing forward,
one back.  Insolent, they stare at each
other.  What path did the horse take?

In a similar tale, there is a cat.
Her assassin possessed with urgent ignorance,
Don't open that box! the man said.

Ships call to one another off the waterfront,
not out of loneliness, a ship in love is a wreck.
They share a kinship of distance.

This is the natural defiance of the river strider,
it falls to the atom to observe itself.
An ocean of belief is balanced by a drop of doubt.

Words are symbols, not cement.  Call me a liar.
If there's to be uncertainty, let its mother be my mouth.