To Dr. Sloan,
Thanks for the books and talks, they meant a lot.
Lollipop chicken and my strawberry-mango smoothie were the topics of the hour before we discussed the commencement speaker for our graduation. I was having a breakfast/lunch, I refuse to acknowledge the existence of brunch, with one of my professors and her TA who was a fellow grad student at a Philipino restaurant in town called Boba-Loompia. The last time the three of us ate together was at an Indian food place called Taj Mahal where I was pleasantly surprised that I suffered no bowel based problems in spite of the rhetoric of most contemporary television. We talked about the food, retirement, graduating, teaching, writing, and then eventually the actual graduation ceremony that was literally hours away. I’ll admit freely that I wasn’t looking forward to it. It wasn’t fear or nervousness about the ceremony for large crowds honestly don’t bother me much. There was a time where talking to someone one-on-one was the stuff of cold nightmares that could only be relieved by burying my face into my mother’s leg and skirt, but growing up and teaching regularly in front of hundreds of students eventually shook out that bad habit. The reason I hated graduation was because it was so painfully awkward.
Despite the fact that I attended a public university the ceremony was opened and closed with a prayer by a Catholic Priest (which is funny unto itself seeing as how most of the Christians in attendance were Baptists who believed Catholicism is a cult), and the woman who would read the names of people walking across the stage honestly couldn’t read or remember the names printed in front of her on the card. Perhaps the most awful portion of the events however was the commencement speaker. Both the most recent, and my previous graduation speaker, left little to no impression, and perhaps it was simply because I’ve grown to distrust authority figures, but being forced to listen to their “advice” about the future seemed ridiculous.
My professor said it best, as she took another bite of her lollipop chicken, “It’s ridiculous the way they put you through that mess. Why doesn’t the President just step up to the podium, read “This is Water,” and then hand out the diplomas? Why bother with the whole farce?” I laughed, feeling validated that one of my professors could be so blunt, and trust me enough to be blunt around me, but the title of the work immediately stood out. I asked her who wrote it, and when the name David Foster Wallace appeared I knew I had to read the speech.
David Foster Wallace has been a recent discovery for me, even though I had actually read his work in the past. His novel Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was excerpted in The Anchor Book Anthology of Contemporary Fiction that I’d bought for Luke Goebel’s creative writing class. I read the work, marveling that someone was still doing the “interview tapes” style of writing and actually making it interesting rather than indulgent. The man himself would appear in my radar from time to time, usually whenever I read anything about Johnathan Franzen. These authors constantly appeared in close association, and when I watched an interview with him on Charlie Rose I began to recognize more and more that I needed to read at least one of his books before I die. For the record I recently began his novel Infinite Jest, and given the size of that leviathan I should have it finished sometime before my early eighties.
I asked my professor where I could find the speech and she informed me she had a copy in her, by then, empty office. Once breakfast/lunch, never brunch, was done we drove across the street to the school and she handed me the small white tome which, at that time, was the last book she had in her office. The room where we had spent hours discussing Twain, literature, pedagogy, Faulkner, and the American literary canon was now just a few skeleton bookshelves and a desk. She handed me the book with the orange goldfish on the lower right corner and we said goodbye.
I went home after this, sat on back porch, and read the speech in one sitting. It begins in a usual, albeit unusual fashion for commencement addresses:
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?”
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories.
The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre…but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be.
I am not the wise old fish.
The immediate point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. (3-8).
The initial appeal for me is the immediate understanding that Wallace conveys to those who understand, that the ritual of graduation is wrapped up in bullshit. Rites of passages are important, and in our lives it is vital to understand the moments that are transitory; we need to recognize when our lives are changing as we enter into a new phase of life. The conflict emerges however when the people who have been in our place before us take the opportunity to talk down at us rather than to us. It’s certainly become clearer as I age that my younger self was a fucking self-obsessed moron who needed a good slap upside his head, but what I will never take from that young man is that he witnessed in his time a systematic abuse of authority coupled with bullshit. Because of this, authority figures to this day are simply self-aggrandizing windbags more interested in colonizing people’s minds and virtues for their own self-interest than they are in actually helping the people entering a new phase of life.
My shit pubescent years aside Wallace’s speech won me over because he did not place himself above his listener, he merely put himself as a fellow human being trying to figure everything out himself who’s learned maybe just a little bit more than others. Along with this attitude came a familiar notion, namely that the important aspects of reality are typically the most difficult to talk about and discuss either because they are so prevalent that it’s easy to miss them, or else because they demand a level of attention we may not be willing to give.
He offers his advice with an observation:
The point here is that I think this is one part of what the liberal arts mantra of “teaching me how to think” is really supposed to mean: to be just a little less arrogant, to have some “critical awareness” about myself and my certainties…because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.
I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of.
Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.
We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it is so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down.
It is our default setting, hardwired into our boards at birth.
Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of.
The world as you experience it is there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever.
Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
You get the idea. (33-42)
The English language is poor for not having a word for the sensation of knowing and hearing a thought you have had all of your life, but have never been able to express. Shmooblidong? That’s not it but it’s close. That’s a reference. The point is reading this passage was recognizing not only Wallace as a writer, but also myself as an individual. I don’t think it’s just because I’m a writer and a Humanities major that this passage seems so profound, for I’m sure there are engineers, biologists, physicists, and chemists who have experienced a similar sensation of their world and reality. What’s brilliant and beautiful to me is that Wallace is able to do more in this brief passage than simply describe the human feeling that your mind is, at times, all that really seems to be.
Perhaps a good example of this is the title of this very website. I picked the title “White Tower Musings” because I was caught by the image of the old concept of the intellectual living in the “ivory tower.” This is the idea, originally it was a pejorative expression and in many ways it still is, that intellectuals are often locked away in their minds more concerned with reading books and talking about abstract concepts and theories rather than actually living in the real world and seeing how things actually work. Given the fact that I’m constantly reading and thinking and writing this imagery seemed appropriate, but I also wanted to subvert the idea that literature and art had no relevance. At the time however I couldn’t remember the damn word “Ivory” because at that point I was caught thinking of something else and I managed to prove the critics right in the end.
Wallace isn’t talking just about selfishness though, or my particular variety of absent-mindedness, for there’s another philosophic concept he addresses in this speech known as solipsism. If the reader is unfamiliar with this expression I’ll explain, as if I wasn’t going to anyway. Solipsism is a concept in philosophy in which an individual believes themselves to be the only real existence in reality. By implication that would mean that every person, animal, plant, protist, etc. are not in fact independent beings but just a projection in the mind of the person who looks at them. When I see my cat all that I am seeing is just a projection. He isn’t real. His meows are just further illusions. If this is a disturbing concept it should be and many philosophers have rejected this concept, but of course for those of us living in this Pseudo-Modern time, solipsism has actually become ingrained into us whether we realize it or not.
Wallace offers up an example:
There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches.
One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration.
The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.
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, et cetera, et cetera.
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because 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 going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to foodshop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people. (64-78).
This was a long but necessary quote. This passage describes, perhaps to some people’s discomfort, an almost crystal clear picture of human being’s day to day existence. For the record I don’t usually go grocery shopping. My wife waits till Sunday and goes early, but I do help her unload and sort everything into the right cabinets and containers. I did have to go the other day through the local Brookshires however because I needed olive owl and dish-soap. Walking through the grocery store I was reminded why I hate the act. People are all in such a rush, the cashier’s automatic responses grind on you, and when you’re there at 5 P.M. everybody just got off work and so they’re tired, not paying attention, or else annoyed and hate being there. Despite all this I tried to remain pleasant and consider them and the reasons they were there. I could have just crept inside of my head, but instead I opened myself up and talked to the cashiers and tried to make them laugh.
The reason was because of another passage Wallace gives:
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to.
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line-maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.
Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible-it just depends on what you want to consider.
If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important-if you want to operate on your default-setting-then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.
But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options.
It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars-compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things.
Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.
You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…(88-96)
When Wallace ends here with worship he does go on to address the idea of religion and atheism and how the unconscious acts we perform are a kind of worship, but I wanted to focus on this last passage because it was unlike anything I had ever heard or read in a public address. Growing up in a private Christian school there was always lectures and moral lessons about the grand acts of heroism, or the bold/brave acts that were supposed to be revealing about how the small actions matter, but ultimately they always fell flat. The selfless actions were never really selfless, they were about proving that Jesus was real and that you were part of his club, and that always seemed counter to everything that I was actually taught about god and religion and Christianity. As I grew up and parted from god, reality became something far more important, for in the absence of god it was all I really had, as such being a good person for the sake of being a good person was everything. Wallace was able in this speech to remind me of the thought I have always had and held close to me but never been able to really put into words.
Human beings are not evil, nor are they purely good. Human beings just want comfort. All efforts in life point to that desire and watching people in supermarkets it becomes easy to fall back upon the first two philosophies. This guy made his kid cry in line he’s an evil bastard. His kid is crying that means he’s innocent and guiltless, but in fact both of these opinions are just self-bullshitting. The kid wanted candy because candy tasted good and the father’s trying to teach his kid not to steal but he can’t do it properly because it’s hot because it’s fucking Texas and it’s fucking hot as hell and so not thinking clearly he grabs the kid too hard and makes him cry. Both individuals are trying to act in a way that will bring themselves comfort from the bullshit that realities throwing at them, they just go about it in the wrong way. Comfort is in this moment all that is and will ever be and so listening to my commencement speaker talk about the opportunities for growth and the great chances, everything just fell flat and I thought of my professor.
Why didn’t they just read “This is Water” and remind the students that the “great actions” are ultimately fleeting and that our real lives are not in these actions but in the small day-to-day realities that build over time. Smiling at a cashier and remembering that they have a hard job is a small action, but ultimately it will influence your reality far more than anything because it will further shape your reality.
Wallace ends his speech on this note, following the style of ending where you originally started began:
I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech’s central stuff should sound.
What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away.
Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish.
But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon.
None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death.
The capital-T Truth is about life before death.
It is about making it to thirty, or maybe fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.
It is about simple awareness-awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.” (124-133)
My copy of This is Water, with the little orange goldfish in the lower right hand corner, sat behind Dr. Sloan’s desk for as long as I knew her. That’s what I realized the day she handed me the book. While we talked I would see a slim little white book behind the monitor and I assumed she had forgotten it or just couldn’t see it. It sat behind the monitor while we talked about Twain, Faulkner, Literary Theory, Hemingway, Feminism, The Sentimental Novel, Life, Death, coffee, and graduate school. It sat and listened to the pair of us and when she left it was the last gift, of many that she gave to me. Sitting on my back porch, in my cheap Big-Lots wicker rocking chair, I finished the book. Closed it. Looked up at the sunlight through the leaves of the pecan tree and just thought about those little moments.
My graduation was a sad farce in the end, but only because somebody had taught me the lessons of the next step before I’d even put on my robes.