“Consider David Foster Wallace” Conference – part I


“Both destiny’s kisses and its dope-slaps illustrate an individual person’s basic personal powerlessness over the really meaningful events in his life: i.e. almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it.” – David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

January 8 was one of the most frustrating days of my nearly two-and-a-half-year-long journey through the writings of David Foster Wallace.  As I went through my normal morning routine of checking my email and Facebook I stumbled upon the announcement of the DFW Symposium to be held in April at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.  Guests would include Michael Pietsch, Bonnie Nadell, DT Max, to name a few.  People I am dying to meet.

The rest of the day was a roller coaster of emotions as I contemplated ways to pay for the trip and – more importantly – talk my wife into letting me go.[1]  But like Cinderella after receiving the invitation to the royal ball, I slowly came to the sad realization that a trip to the Symposium was just simply out of the question.[2]  I tried to distract myself, but my mind kept going back to the fact that there was going to be this bitchen event in a couple months and I was not going to be there.

They say that time heals all wounds, and in two or three weeks I had come to terms with the fact that I would have to wait awhile longer before making my pilgrimage to the Ransom Center.  Every now and again something would trigger a thought about the Symposium and I would endure a few moments of sadness, but I had the consolation that the event would be webcasted.  Watching the proceedings on my 19” LCD computer monitor would sort of feel like being there.

Then roughly a month after the announcement of the Symposium came word of the “Consider David Foster Wallace” conference on February 18 hosted by the Student Union at Pomona College.  A Wallace event.  A free Wallace event.  75 miles from my house.  It would cost me roughly ten dollars in gas, and about the same for dinner on the way home.  How could I miss this?  I could not miss this.  I was not going to miss this.  I cleared my calendar, RSVP’d on the Facebook event page,[3] and began counting the days until the event.

The afternoon of Saturday, February 18 finally arrived.  I was dressed for the occasion, had my notebook and plenty of pens packed, and was waiting for my wife to get home so we could trade off kid duty so I could go to the conference.[4]  She came home at just the right time, we said we would catch up how our days went later that evening, and I was out the door.

As I ran into traffic on Interstate 5, and then realized that the online directions I wrote down had me getting off at the wrong exit,[5] and then hit every red light on the five-mile stretch of Foothill Blvd that my wrong directions had me driving down, and then missed the opportunity to stop and eat dinner because the 5:00 start time was rapidly approaching, I began to feel like some cosmic force was trying to prevent me from getting to the Edmunds Ballroom.[6]  My frustration grew and grew as the Fates through every obstacle they could in my way until I finally arrived at the Pomona College campus at approximately three minutes before 5pm.

With the help of a young man in a Pomona College athletic sweatshirt, I found my way to the already very packed Edmunds Ballroom.  There was a table of hors d’ouevres outside the main entrance, but there was also a long line waiting to eat them, and getting a good seat was more important, so I passed on the food line and went in to find an open chair.[7]  I chose an aisle chair to the right of the stage about six rows from the front.  Not ideal, but it would do.

I settled into my chair and attempted to mooch free wifi service for my first generation iPod Touch.  I had thoughts of attempting to live-Tweet the proceedings of the conference, but my hand-me-down iPod couldn’t connect to any of the several unlocked wifi connections.[8]  I gave up on that idea and opened to an empty page in my notebook and pulled my Universitiet Antwerpen pen from my backpack, meanwhile taking deep, cleansing breaths to calm myself from the stress of my less than pleasant drive to Pomona.

The hosts seemed to be running a little behind schedule for reasons unknown, but as I awaited the start of the conference I surveyed my surroundings and sized-up the other 200+ people in the room.  The audience appeared to be primarily undergrad students and their professors.[9]  Over the din of dozens of conversations I could hear those seated behind me discussing their favorite of Wallace’s books and stories and essays.  The professor among them[10] was telling the students about his first encounters with Wallace’s writings and which of Wallace’s stories were his favorites.  The students next to him were sharing how this prof used this one of Wallace’s books in this class, and that prof used that essay in that class.  As I listened, the teaching side of my brain perked up as I began to think of how I could work this book or that essay into my own classes.[11]

Although I earned my undergrad degree twelve years ago and was probably fifteen years older than seventy-five percent of the room, I quickly felt very much at home in that room full of strangers.  My kind of people, as my wife said when I first found the Wallace-l community.  I didn’t engage any of those around me in conversation – although I’m sure I could have jumped right in with the mention of some scene from The Pale King or an especially memorable footnote from “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” – but instead just sat and absorbed what was happening around me.  A room full of some 200 people all talking about the man who had summoned us here.

Here are links to the YouTube recordings of the conference:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3


[1] To be honest, coming up with the $500 to $1000 it might take to get to Austin and back for the two-day Symposium (including ground transportation, hotel, food, and incidentals) was probably going to be an easier feat than it would be to convince my wife to let me go (and we live on a very tight budget).  After spending a week in Antwerp while she was left home with the kids back in September, there was no way in heaven or on earth that I was going to convince her that I should go on this second trip within six months of the first one.[back]

[2] As expected, my wife said no, but not just because I had been gone for a week a few months ago.  There was no way we could afford it, especially since I am still paying off that trip to Belgium.  Now if I could just figure out how to get one of those Fairy Godmothers, I’d be set.[back]

[3] Unless it’s a friend’s birthday party, does this really matter?  Probably not.  But it made it feel more official.  I was going to the conference and I couldn’t wait.[back]

[4] She was out with her parents for the day, but according to the text message she sent at about noon, things weren’t going according to plan.  She promised to be home in time for me to leave – which she was – but I was getting a little worried there for a bit.[back]

[5] For the last several years, I have relied on Google Maps to get me from Point A to Point B, but the Facebook event page had a link to Bing Maps.  I figured, how different could they be?  Oh you’d be surprised.  Alls I can say is I’m sticking to Google Maps from here on out.[back]

[6] It was probably because I had recently finished Stephen King’s 11-22-63 in which the protagonist, Jake Epping / George Amberson, goes back in time to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination.  But time does not want to be tampered with, especially concerning something of this magnitude.  All kinds of obstacles are thrown in his way as he tries to stop Oswald from pulling the trigger.

Great book, by the way.[back]

[7] As I was stuck at red light after red light on my way to the event, and as I realized I was not going to have time to stop for dinner, I surveyed the eateries along Foothill Blvd in search of somewhere to stop for dinner.  Several small Mexican restaurants looked promising.[back]

[8] Probably for the best.  Once the panel discussion started and I began frenetically taking notes, I quickly concluded that attempting to produce a steady stream of Tweets would have been an exercise in futility.  I’m a pretty crappy typist on a full-size keyboard and just outright suck on that tiny touch screen keypad on my iPod.[back]

[9] Pomona College does not have a graduate program, which – as the panelists pointed out later in their conversation – was one of the things that drew Wallace to the school.[back]

[10] I am simply assuming he was a professor there at Pomona College, or perhaps at one of the other nearby schools that, as a cluster, form what are known as the Claremont Colleges.  He looked to be at least in his mid-forties and was dressed in a very “professorly” manner – horn-rimmed glasses, striped sweater, khaki pants.[back]

[11] Teaching primarily AP classes – both English Language and Literature – I have a good deal of freedom in what I can teach in my classes, and I have been doing my best to work in as many of Wallace’s stories and essays as I can.  So far I have used “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” the opening section of “A Supposedly Fun Thing…,” “Good People,” “Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR,” and “Brief Interview #46.”  I’d say not to bad for being only three weeks into the second semester.  I’m sure I can squeeze a few more in before the end of the term.  Any suggestions?[back]

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