David Foster Wallace

Congratulations, by the Way

Writer George Saunders delivered a commencement address at Syracuse University this past spring urging us towards kindness.  Chances are you’ve read it already, or someone has at least shared it with you as the speech tours social media and flies in and out of work emails. Random House plans to publish Congratulations, by the Way next year, similar to This is Water by David Foster Wallace.

During his speech, Saunders says that “although it’s a little corny, and don’t quite know what to do with it: ‘What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.’ The words resonate because, as David Ulin writes, “we’ve all been there.”

I know my failure (or one of them because if you know me well you know there are many). The image is clear, a vision more crystal than the memory of exploding convenient store glass in my parent’s Trailblazer. The moment, or moments, occurred in high school. Senior year. Lunch. I sit and eat with a pack of friends. A young kid a grade or two below me sits alone at a table. Day after day. Lunch after lunch. Alone.

Nobody mocked him. Nobody poked fun. Nobody teased. We would have had to notice him if we wanted to be jerks. And we didn’t even take that step. Or at least I didn’t, ever, not in any meaningful way. And I think about this lack of kindness, this complete and utter indifference to someone else. It eats at me, most days,

This is just one example of many regrettable actions (or in-actions) on my part. Live, learn, and improve, I suppose. It just sucks that sometimes how we learn what we learn never leaves our side.

Perfection is impossible. This is fact. But if we’re all going to screw up anyways, shouldn’t we aim to “err in the direction of kindness”?

George Saunders: Congratulations, by the Way

“Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).

And I intend to respect that tradition.

Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.

So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.

But here’s something I do regret: (more…)


“This is Water” and it’s worth a watch and listen…

Today, find time and spend 10 minutes with This is Water by David Foster Wallace (From Nathan M. Peracciny). It’s worth it.

I wish that I could add my own words to this speech but they don’t measure up. Instead, I’ll end with a passage from the conclusion of the talk:

“I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really 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 the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

This is water; this is water.

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.”

On the road searching for a definition

“But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”
David Foster Wallace, 2005, Commencement Address to graduates of Kenyon College, Published in This is Water

NO Chairs

We missed a chair…

In late July 2007, I spent one week in New Orleans repainting schools damaged by Hurricane Katrina’s landfall nearly two years earlier. My plane touched down in the Big Easy late on a Sunday morning and after dropping my bags in the cockroach-infested hostel bedroom I would share with twelve others that week, I set off to explore New Orleans.

I bought a tin of Skoal mint snuff, carried a copy of Bryce Courtney’s The Power of One, a blue pen, and pale skin roasting in the suffocating air I collided with on each step. Drops of sweat slid down my frying forehead; the pinch of fiberglass and nicotine jammed into my lower lip seeped into my bloodstream and my head buzzed. I needed relief and found it in the shade of a secluded bar patio near the Garden District and an ice-cold Abita Purple Haze beer.

In one gulp, I sipped away a third of my beer and settled comfortably into my chair. I flipped my book open to the inside of the back cover where I scribbled the following phrase: What Ideas Define Me?