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.

Interpolation: Teaching “Brief Interview #46”

Almost a year and a half ago, I wrote this post as I struggled to find meaning in “Brief Interview #46” while at the same time I struggled to find meaning in my own suffering as I battled chronic and sometimes debilitating migraine headaches.  I have more or less come to terms with the migraines, but this story has still troubled me all this time.  I downloaded the audio version some time ago and listen to it maybe once a month.[1]  But even after reading it and listening to it probably two dozen times, I was still unable to wrap my brain all the way around it.  Every time I thought I’d answered one question, it seemed that two more popped up.

Then about three months ago, I had a crazy idea:  why not bring this story into my AP Literature classes for discussion.  The group of seniors I have this year is very mature, and I have been able to push them with really challenging readings.  They know of my obsession with Wallace, and we’ve read two of his “tamer” stories already, so I played with the idea of asking my principal’s permission to use the story.[2]  I finally got up the “testicular solidity”[3] to approach my principal about reading the story with my students.[4]

I was very pleasantly surprised by his response after reading the story – twice.  He loved it and thought it would provide an excellent opportunity to let my students wrestle with the very important and very difficult questions that this story raises.  Over the course of several weeks, we hammered out the logistics of sending home parental consent forms and providing students an opt-out if they or their parents weren’t comfortable with the story and getting final approval from the Head of Schools.  But in those meetings we also engaged in some great conversations about our depraved human nature, about our faith, and about finding meaning in even the most horrible of circumstances.

The time came to hand out copies of the story along with the consent forms.  The students were given about a week to read the story, which I recommended doing at least twice.

Then came time for our discussions.  We spent the better part of four days wrestling with the text and the many issues and questions it raises.  We often found ourselves in tangential conversations about loosely related topics; but my gosh, I can’t recall ever having a more engaging discussion with students.  Students grew emotional as they grappled with the difficult and uncomfortable subject matter.  We got to the bottom of some issues raised by the story, but also had to settle for leaving many questions unanswered.

Our discussions taking place in the context of a Christian school, we had to address the elephant in the room that Wallace never brings into the story: where is God in all of this?  In the midst of human suffering and unthinkable violence and degradation, where is God?  Unfortunately, this line of thinking and questioning only aroused more questioning and brought very few answers.

But in the midst of these hours of discussions with these wonderfully mature students, a moment of clarity came to me.  At some point during one of the class periods, one of my students offered a rather insightful comment.  The whole Interview – with its references to Victor Frankl and the Holocaust, and with its three versions of the same story about a brutal gang rape, and with its bold statements about identity and self-knowledge – can be summed up in the very last sentence:

“You don’t know sh*t.”

When talking about suffering and degradation and violence and self-knowledge and identity – especially in terms of others – we just simply don’t know what they go through.  We can’t know.  It is impossible to ever fully understand another’s pain and suffering.

And yet this understanding of our inability to understand became very freeing for me.  By knowing that I will probably never fully understand these things, I gained freedom from having to try to figure it all out.  Paradoxical and contradictory and difficult to explain, but freeing all the same.

I don’t know sh*t, and I’m ok with that.

[1] The nearly thirty-minute reading is almost the same length as my commute to work, so it is perfect for those days when I need distraction from the troubles of that day but still want something challenging to think about.

[2] Teaching at a parochial school, I need to be sensitive to parents and students when it comes to language and sex and violence.  Since this story had the worst of all three – a number of F-bombs and descriptions of a gang rape – I needed to be very careful in how I approached this if I wanted to use the story in class and keep my job afterward.

[3] A quote from a comment on the “Infinite Summer” blog written by someone very intimidated by the enormity of Infinite Jest.

[4] Being the department chair and the only teacher on campus who is College-Board approved to teach both AP English classes, and riding a 79% pass rate on last year’s AP exam, I figured I have about the closest thing to tenure that a private school can offer.  So I thought it a risk I could afford to take.

Two Years and Counting…

It was just over two and a half years ago that my wife first handed me a copy of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” saying “here, I think you’ll like this.”  I loved it.  And thus, my life has not been the same since.

About this time two years ago my wife and I sat on our couch watching Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia, the film that inspired me to begin this blog.  And once again, my life took a turn in an unexpected direction.

Two years into this project, I am far from completing my goal of reading and blogging my way through Wallace’s entire canon.  To date, I’ve only finished Consider the Lobster, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, The Pale King, and David Lipsky’s transcription of his week-long interview with Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.  In addition, I’ve written about a number of uncollected pieces ranging from short stories published in the New Yorker to his syllabus for and Intro to Fiction class.

This writing endeavor has been all I’d hoped for and beyond anything I could have imagined.  I started this blog needing focus and discipline in my writing.  Working toward a tangible goal has helped me gain those things, as well has helped me in shaping and developing my written voice.  In studying Wallace and emulating his style and voice, I have begun to find my own.

But this journey has been so much more.  It has opened up a world to me previously unknown.  Because of this blog I stumbled upon the Wallace-l community, making many friends and engaging in wonderful conversation.  For a time, I helped run the group blog, Supposedly Fun Things…, experiencing the ironies and absurdities of life with some of my fellow writers.  And I was able to meet several listers in person for the first time at The Pale King release party at Skylight Books in Hollywood.

Writing this blog has given me opportunities I never thought I’d be afforded.  Last spring, I was approached about participating in an online tribute to Wallace on commemorating the release of The Pale King.  Shortly after this, I saw a post on Wallace-l requesting proposals for an academic conference focusing on The Pale King hosted by the University of Antwerp.  It’s amazing what 500 words can do.  My proposal was accepted, and a couple months later I was on a flight to Belgium to join some of the greatest scholars in the field of Wallace studies as we blazed the trail for discussion and criticism of Wallace’s final novel.

While in Antwerp I was inspired to take my studies of Wallace’s works in a new direction.  A number of the presenters alluded to the religious, and specifically Christian, themes in TPK and others of Wallace’s novels.  This was something I need to pursue further, and thus begins a new direction and focus in my blogging endeavors here.  In order to write about these themes in his writing, I need to read and ponder the rest of his canon.

So with the new year just a few weeks away, I am renewing my commitment to see this project through to its completion.  I want to turn this new train of thought into a book one day – The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace – and I will be diligent to finish this blog with that end in mind.

I still can’t believe where this blog has taken me, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

… And I invite you to continue this journey with me.