Infinite Legos 2: “Ken Erdedy”

At the end of the first Ken Erdedy passage, the phone rings right as someone knocks at the door. He is frozen with panic, not wanting to answer one and have the other be the woman he is waiting for (this sculpture was part of my ‘Reimagining Wallace’ presentation at the DFW Conference hosted by ISU).

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Five-Word Weekend: a reflection on the ISU DFW Conference

The morning radio show I listen to on the way to work has a segment every Monday morning called “Three-Word Weekend.” Callers describe their weekend using only three words, and the radio hosts try to guess the details based on the terse, often monosyllabic descriptors the receive. Example: A caller might say, “Rain. Cupcakes. Flat tire.” And the hosts might concoct a story like, “You were driving in the rain to deliver cupcakes to a party when you got a flat tire on the highway. Not only did you have to change the tire in the pouring rain, but you had to eat all the cupcakes for fear of them spoiling because of the delay in your trip.” A bit trite and cheesy, sure, but it is an amusing way to fill the gaps between songs.

Well, I thought I would take a similar approach to describing my experience at the First Annual David Foster Wallace Conference hosted by Illinois State University at Normal. But I don’t know that only three words will do justice to the experience, so I will give it to you in five[1]:

Connections. Creativity. Questions. Confirmation. and Coffee.

Connections. Thursday and Friday felt very much like a college reunion of sorts, except that we had all taken online college classes together and had never actually met in person. I knew many of the presenters by name and by their Facebook profile picture, but had never been in the same room with them. I’d never heard their voice or shook their hand. While I tend to be pretty introverted and socially awkward when meeting new people,[2] I didn’t experience that at all. No sweaty palms or nervous heart palpitations. Just a smile and a handshake and a “it’s so good to finally meet you.”

Casual conversations with Matt Bucher, Jenni Baker, Mike Miley, Bill Lattanzi, even Daniel Max were great, but not nearly long enough. I would have loved an extra day in Normal to just sit around, drink coffee (or perhaps stronger libations), and talk about Wallace,[3] literature, writing, sports, politics… whatever. Doesn’t matter. Just would have loved more time with my friends.

Perhaps the greatest connection I made was in sharing a room with JT Jackson: a mathematical genius, former Marine, poet, friend of Dave, and now a friend of mine. He shared stories and poems and clues to questions we all have about Wallace. Being the generous man that he is, he gave me a signed copy of “Marbles” for my girls and a photocopy of his manuscript of the text with Wallace’s remarks and annotations. I have a feeling I’ve got a new lifelong friend.

Creativity. Unlike previous academic conferences I’ve attended, this one was open to creative submissions as well. Good call, ISU. Good call. I personally appreciated the opportunity to share my creative connections to Dave: his inspiration for my own writing; and the marriage of two of my greatest passions, Wallace’s writing and Legos.[4] But it also allowed me to hear some wonderful presentations by others. Jenni Baker’s “Erasing Infinite” project. Bill Lattanzi’s Infinite Jest tour of Boston. Mike Miley’s personal quest at the HRC, the home of the world’s largest air conditioner. All incredibly moving. It was so great to see others interacting with Dave not just on an intellectual or theoretical level, but also on a very personal one.

Questions. As with previous conferences I have attended, I think I walked away with more questions than I got answers. A few of those questions[5] are:

  • I know it’s been brought up a gazillion times, but who’s next? Wallace was one of the great trailblazers of his generation, who will take up the mantle?
  • During one panel, the analogy came to me: Is Wallace the Moses leading Western literature out of the Egypt of Postmodernism? If so (along the same lines as the previous question), who will be the Joshua to lead us into the Promised Land? What is the Promised Land?
  • Another analogy came to me during the day: I see a bit of a connection between Wallace’s response to Postmodern literature and U2’s response to 1990’s decadence. Both seemed to immerse themselves into their respective… whatevers only to expose their flaws and shortcomings. Thoughts?
  • After the one of the panels focusing on Dave’s nonfiction, I was left wondering what sort of impact he has had on nonfiction writing, particularly on literary journalism?
  • And finally the question that has stuck with me for several years now: where did Dave stand on issues of faith and religion? I have received more and more clues over those years, but I feel there are still more clues to be unearthed.
  • After hearing Matt Bucher’s presentation, I’m still not entirely clear: what exactly is a “turdnagel”?[6]

Confirmation. About two presentations into the “Work in Process” conference two years ago, I felt like a minor leaguer in his first major league game. I hadn’t read the entirety of Wallace’s canon.[7] I only had a master’s degree.[8] And I really only understood about half of what was said in that conference room. I think I presented a pretty damn good paper, but I busted my ass to write it. I honestly think I put more time and effort into that paper than I did my master’s thesis. I certainly consider myself an academic, but I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a scholar.

Since Antwerp, I’ve done a lot of writing. A lot of writing. I finished Supposedly Fun Things and am working on a number of other projects. The point is that I’m a writer, not a scholar. So to have my writing and other creative work validated and appreciated at the ISU conference was a simple, but profound confirmation that I am doing the right thing. I’ll save the theory for the scholars, and I’ll stick to the creative writing.

Coffee.[9] One final note: for mass-produced hotel-conference-room coffee, it was actually quite tasty. I went back for a second cup, not because I needed that extra jolt of 3% caffeine, but because I liked how it tasted.[10]

 

[1] And don’t worry; I won’t make you try to come up with some cockamamie story based on my words. See, it’s a narrative technique that I am using to make my account more relatable and to draw you in as a reader (I hope it worked).

[2] A common symptom of anxiety disorders; I “came out” as an anxiety disorder sufferer during one of my presentations at the conference. I am expecting calls from all the major late-night talk shows anytime now.

[3] After this conference and many conversations with those who knew him well, I am beginning to feel comfortable calling him, “just Dave.”

[4] I was overwhelmed by the positive response to the pictures of my Lego sculptures. I was nervous to share; worried others might see them as silly or juvenile, having no place at a conference like this. But to have such a large crowd to see the presentation and to see people snapping pictures of the slides and to get so many gracious compliments washed my fears away and made me so glad I made the ballsy move of sending in a seemingly ridiculous presentation proposal.

[5] If you have answers, insights, or “clues” (to use JT’s word), please feel free to share in the comments below.

[6] According to the email records that Matt showed, “turdnagel” was one of Dave’s email handles.

[7] Truth be told, I still haven’t made it all the way through.

[8] From an online (but regionally accredited) program.

[9] I wasn’t going to mention it at first, but I needed a fifth item for my list. A four-word description of the conference just didn’t seem complete.

[10] It tasted good enough to write 64 words about it, plus this 15-word footnote.

Infinite Jest – Ken Erdedy

Dear Dave,

I’m sure you remember them, those “Partnership for a Drug-Free America” commercials. You know, that one with the guy and the frying pan: “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” Or the one where the dad is grilling his son about the drugs he found in the boy’s bedroom, asking him where he got the drugs and who taught him how to use them, to which the boy dramatically responds, “I learned it by watching you!” And then the one where some little girl says, “I want to be a dancer when I grow up.” A graceful dancer on the screen twirls around, then crumbles to the floor as the voice over says, “No one ever says, ‘I want to be a junky when I grow up.’”

These public service announcements were a regular fixture in my after-school television viewing. And they seem to have worked. The closest I ever got as a kid to any sort of drug was in middle school when the kid who lived a few houses down the street showed me an unsmoked joint someone had given him.[1] None of my friends did drugs (at least not to my knowledge). Hell, I don’t know that I would have been able to find any drugs even if I wanted to try them.

Then, to seal the deal, a few years ago I read for the first time the Ken Erdedy section at the beginning of Infinite Jest (chapter 2; pages 17-26).[2] Ten anxiety-filled pages of waiting for the woman to show up with enough marijuana to have one last binge weekend. At one point, the narrator tells us that Erdedy’s plan is to make himself so sick from the pot that he will never want to touch the stuff again (22). I don’t know how well worked for Erdedy – he is in rehab later in the book, so maybe it worked – but it certainly worked for me. If I ever had even an ounce of desire to try some illicit substance, those ten pages cured me for good. If that is what the “junky” life is like, then no thank you.

October 16, 2009. As the double period of my AP English Language class began after lunch, I felt as though I had been swept under by a wave of dizziness. I tried to take roll, but struggled to get each name out as my heart pounded out of my chest and my blood pressure shot up. There was no way I would make it through my scheduled lesson plans in this condition,[3] so I told my students to take out homework to work on while I sat at my desk counting the minutes until the bell would ring.

Long story short, a few hours later I was in urgent care in the midst of what I now realize was a massive unprovoked panic attack. While I was lying on the gurney, the doctor asked me a whole host of questions as the nurse hooked up the EKG. One question he asked me repeatedly – confidentially, of course – was whether I had used drugs recently. Through his questioning he had determined that either I was a closet drug user or there was “something seriously wrong” with me.[4]

I had a bunch of blood tests[5] done that evening, all of which came back normal. Determined to get to the bottom of things, I had a long series of doctors’ appointments with a variety of specialists. The neurologist diagnosed me with “vertiginous migraines”; and seeing that anxiety was a leading contributor to the migraine attacks, he prescribed an anti-anxiety medication for me. The drug was marginally successful in preventing the migraines, but I saw very little improvement over the next several years.

Fast-forward about three years. My employer switched insurance carriers, forcing me to switch doctors. As my new doctor reviewed my medications, he questioned me about the anti-anxiety medication my previous doctor had prescribed for me. He said this medication was for symptomatic treatment, not for prevention.[6] And it was likely interfering with my sleep and actually worsening my sleep apnea. And it was a highly addictive narcotic.[7] In other words, I’d been taking the wrong medication for three years.

That weekend I began the “detox” process, which would last about two weeks. Two weeks of nausea, dizziness, insomnia, tremors… it was pure hell.[8] I lost over ten pounds from not eating. I was stuck in a fog, disconnected from reality around me.

After the fog began to lift, I began to reflect on this experience. I was – I am – a recovering drug addict. Me, Mr. Vanilla.[9] I was one of those kids who never said, “I want to be a junky when I grow up.” And here I was on the tail end of my withdrawals and recovery. I never thought this would be a chapter in my story.

And I’m sure that in his younger years Ken Erdedy never thought he would be paralyzed by the sounds of the phone and doorbell ringing at the same time, unable to decide which to answer fearing the one he doesn’t answer is going to be the woman bringing him his drugs. I’m sure Don Gately never thought he’d be reduced to burglary to support his drug habit. And Tiny Ewell and Kate Gompert and Randy Lenz and Poor Tony Krause. I imagine none of them planned to end up where they did. No one plans this sort of thing. No one thinks it will happen to them.

And yet, here they… here we are. Recovering addicts.


[1] Well, there were also a few instances when I walked into a suspicious-smelling cloud while chaperoning Grad Nite at Disneyland. There was one time when the men’s room right around the corner from the chaperone station had a very funky smell to it. It would seem that either some of the chaperones were engaging in their own “recreational activities,” or some really ballsy students decided to get high right under the chaperones’ noses.

[2] I have made several failed attempts to read IJ, and in most of those attempts I never got much further than these pages. I was that scarred by Erdedy’s story.

[3] In addition to these physical symptoms, I was scared out of my skull. I had had a similar panic-attack-like episode a few weeks earlier, but this time was much worse and lasted much longer.

[4] Looking back, I’ve come to think that that is the worst thing a doctor could say to someone in the midst of a panic attack.

[5] The doctor didn’t tell me all of what he was testing for, which in hindsight was probably best. They were testing for some pretty scary stuff.

[6] At almost every appointment with my previous doctors, I questioned them about this particular medication, but they assured me that everything would be fine.

[7] My wife pointed out the irony that at the start of this, the doctor thought I was a drug addict based on my symptoms. But then because of my symptoms, the doctors turned me into a drug addict.

[8] After about two days, I found an online discussion forum for those going through the same withdrawals I was experiencing. And there were those coming off of much higher doses and experiencing much worse symptoms that I was, but those two weeks were some of the worst of my life.

[9] I don’t smoke or drink or chew, and I don’t go with girls that do.

The Pale King – Chapter 13

Dear Dave,

In the fall in my AP English Lit classes – which consist of mostly seniors – I have my students write one of their college application essays for a class assignment so that I can give them feedback on their writing and hopefully better their chances of getting into the college of their dreams.  Most colleges’ prompts are pretty formulaic and lend themselves nicely to a standard five-paragraph essay, but on the advice of a veteran teacher I recommend (actually demand would be a better word for it) that they tell a story rather than write an overused five-paragraph essay.  I tell them that stories are more memorable and impactful and more likely to provide that extra edge in the cut-throat arena of college admissions.[1]

Most of these essays cover your standard topics: death of a loved one, moving to a new school, learning a lesson from a community service experience.  But one student, J–, wrote an essay that grabbed my attention right from the start.  He told the story of how, several years prior, he began experiencing a rather peculiar tingling sensation at the base of his skull.  A little research on WebMD had him convinced he had a brain tumor.  Too scared to say anything, he waited to see what would happen; knowing what symptoms he ought to look out for should the “tumor” progress.  Nothing did happen, and after his next annual physical he realized that there was nothing wrong with him.[2]  He concluded the essay reflecting on the lesson he quietly learned about the dangers of over-thinking and overreacting to a situation.

Reading the opening line of §13 reminded me ever so slightly of reading this student’s essay several years ago.

“It was in public high school that this boy learned the terrible power of attention and what you pay attention to.  He learned it in a way whose very ridiculousness was part of what made it so terrible.  And terrible it was” (91).[3]

Like my former student, David Cusk learned the difficult burden of hyper-self-awareness.  For J–, this hyper-awareness took the form of unnecessary anxiety.  For Cusk, this hyper-awareness manifests itself in sudden and severe sweating attacks.  And like the Depressed Person, the fear of an oncoming attack and the hyper-awareness of his surroundings only compound the severity of Cusk’s attacks.

I’ve come to know a little something about fear and anxiety over the last few years.  I’ll just come out and say it: I have anxiety issues.  I tend to internalize and worry about things way more than I should.  Little things, big things; insignificant things, important things.  It doesn’t really matter.  I worry about it all.

And if that’s not enough, I tend to have adverse physical reactions to this often-unnecessary stress.  Including, but not limited to eye twitches, muscle spasms in my back and neck, and migraine headaches.

So my worrying causes these adverse physical responses, which then causes me to worry even more.  What if it’s not just a headache?  What if these pains are from something more serious?  So I worry some more, which only makes the headache or muscle spasms worse, which makes me worry all the more.  It’s a vicious cycle, really.  An ugly, vicious cycle.

I found myself in the midst of one of these downward spirals recently.  I don’t really remember what started it[4] – probably something of very little import – but I found myself stressed out and not feeling well and stressed out about not feeling well.  Then I caught a glance of my right wrist.

“This is Water”[5]

I can’t control my circumstances.  I can’t change what’s going on around me.  But I can choose my response.  I don’t have to let these things get me down.  I don’t have to revert to the “default setting.”  I just keep telling myself:

“This is Water.”

“This is Water.”

“This is Water.”


[1] Unfortunately, in some cases, not even a damn good essay was enough to allow some of my top students rise to the top of the “keep” pile.  It’s often a sad time in early spring when my students with a 4.whatever GPA and stellar resumes get a rejection letter from their first-choice university.  If being valedictorian of a rather competitive prep school doesn’t get you into a top-tier school, then I don’t know what will.

[2] This hypochondriac’s essay was an interesting – if not humorous – counterpart to another student’s essay about how he actually suffered a brain tumor as a child.  His was an inspiring story of faith and perseverance in the midst of a very frightening ordeal.  He’s perfectly fine now, aside from a rather large scar on his scalp.

[3] This opening line is also rather reminiscent of the opening line of “The Depressed Person” from Brief Interviews: “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component and a contributing factor in its essential horror” (37).

[4] I rarely ever do remember what it is that gives me that little nudge that begins the newest cycle.

[5] Written in – as I told my students after returning from my trip to Antwerp for the “Work in Process” conference – very, very, very permanent marker.

The Pale King – Chapter 2

Dear Dave,

“The flight took fifty minutes and seemed much longer.  There was nothing to do and nothing would hold still in his head in all the confined noise and after the nuts were gone there was nothing for Sylvanshine to do to occupy his mind…” (page 6).  That first sentence describes exactly how I felt in reading chapter 2.  It probably took me just under an hour to get through it, but it felt so much longer as I bounced along inside the turbulence of Claude Sylvanshine’s muddled mind.  Like Sylvanshine, I would look up from the text at some distraction, then have to search the page for my lost place, often rereading the same couple of sentences several times as I regained my bearings.

The chapter seemed a big incoherent mess until I realized you simply provided us a transcript of Sylvanshine’s thoughts as he travels the last leg to Peoria to sit for his CPA exam.  His observations of the interior of the plane mix with his observations out the rain-laced window mix with his memories of the Rome REC debacle of 1982 mix with his trying to remember equations and information that will be on the CPA exam that awaits him.  His line of thinking is a tangled, knotted mess, a reflection of the rest of his life.

Claude Sylvanshine is the very embodiment of a person running on the “default setting,” a “slave to the terrible master” which is his mind, a person with a “tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside [his] head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of [him], paying attention to what is going on inside [him]” (This is Water).  He is what you warned the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College they would become if they did not break free from their default setting and exercise the conscientious ability to choose how to view and interpret one’s surroundings that brings real freedom.

This short plane ride is a microcosm of his entire life.  He has been studying[1] for his third attempt at the CPA exam for three and a half years, something that his roommate, Reynolds, was able to do with little trouble in a much less time.  He finds himself distracted by the claw-like hands of the woman sitting next to him or by the pimples on the back of the pilot’s neck.  He even worries about whether worrying about the exam will cause him too much stress, and therefore sabotage his attempt that the exam.  He has tried various anti-stress coping mechanisms to overcome this anxiety, but he can’t even seem to do those right.

The entropy that is his life seems to reach its climax in the last sentence[2] of the story in which he is rendered nearly catatonic with worry about how exactly he will get to the testing location and whether he packed his alarm clock or not.  He is frozen on the tarmac, unable to move, all but sealing his disastrous fate.  He is, in your words from the Kenyon speech, “totally hosed.”


[1] “Studying” might be too strong a word here.  He has been worrying about the exam and trying to get himself organized so that he can prepare to study for the exam, but it seems that he does very little actual studying for the exam.

[2] A sentence that goes on for nearly three pages, mind you.