Over the last eleven weeks, in the midst of one round of finals, a new set of classes, a hundreds-of-miles-move (with wife and dog and cat and baby all in one car together), and your daily dose of grad school homework, I’ve put off writing my daughter’s birth story. Some of the reason for this is procrastination, but a bigger reason is that I believed that the experience would defy description until some of the memory had faded and I could apply words to it justly. My father says that women often forget the gory details of birth as an evolutionary mechanism–if they remembered, he says, they’d never in a million years want to have another one. I’ve done my part to help prepare for child number two by forgetting a little bit of the birth story, but I think I’ve remembered enough to give an account that Kristine can be proud of and Maia will someday be excited to read. I hope that it’s accessible enough for each of you to enjoy reading it, too. Skip ahead where necessary; the headings I’ve added should help you find the parts that you’ll find most interesting. For the truncated version, head straight down to “Delivery,” but know as you go that a start-to-finish read isn’t reserved only for grandma(s).
I read a solid 100 pages of Infinite Jest with no idea what I was reading. The novel requires the most assiduous of readers, if they are to put the big pieces together in those first hundred pages. I had to work hard to shrug the sense that I was woefully inadequate as I leapt into Infinite Jest. Instead of searching stubbornly for a “plot,” I allowed DFW to pull me along for the ride. A week’s worth of reading and I both loved and hated the book. I fought through the tougher chapters to get through great ones. At one point, I submitted to Wikipedia for help, and finally discovered the key plot points. Further reading uncovered subtle references to the samizdat, previously glossed-over major characters. Now that I knew where to look, I began to piece things together.
The facts about David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece are these:
- it is 1,300 pages, but only if you’re stingy on the margins and printing in a particularly small font.
- the 1,300 pages of text is, it seems to me, roughly 1,100 pages of primary story and 200 pages of footnotes ranging from the terse “Ibid.” to lengthy 28-page dialogs between brothers on the state of Quebecois separatism in the O.N.A.N.
- though DFW throws out an initial explanation for what O.N.A.N. or E.T.A. and other abbreviations might stand for, he never again lingers on the full names. Snooze at your peril, he expects you to keep up.
- the footnotes themselves have footnotes. I did not realize this for the first couple weeks of reading.
- even after weeks of reading Infinite Jest, your bookmark will have moved no discernible distance towards the back cover of the book. You’ll creep along a millimeter at a time, each page just a drop in the bucket, a toothy grin at your attempts to cut through the novel with your typical reader’s pace.
- I am only a third of the way through the book, having made enough progress to believe myself enough of an authority to write about it.
Now, I shouldn’t say that nothing was accomplished in those first couple of weeks of reading. Even the early pages were sustained by little chunks of wonderful eidetic descriptions of monotony, pointlessness, struggle, and frivolity. There are concentrated phrases of elegant humor buried within descriptions that go on for pages and pages. The novel has paragraphs as long as 18th-century political treatises and chapters as long as Goosebumps novels, though the two share no words in common. A favorite footnote of mine is a 28-page account of a phone conversation between brothers. While one brother presses hard on his intellectually gifted younger sibling for details on Quebecois separatism (I know), the other describes the manner in which he is launching toenail clippings into a wastebasket across the room. The conversation on the phone darts in and out of family dynamics and complex future-fiction politics, and all the while nail clippings fly at the wastebasket with a 70% rate of accuracy.
When I moved to Portland in 2003 to begin college, I signed up for an account with Bank of America. Both my parents had used BofA, and I knew that I’d have access to a network of ATM’s back in Phoenix and in Portland. It was a great national option, I liked the colors and the logo, so I signed up without much consideration.
In nine years, I haven’t really had an issue with Bank of America. I kept a nice buffer of funds in my checking account, I’ve opened a couple of new credit cards, and even found a way to make miles with my purchases through the use of the Alaska Airlines card. I didn’t have to take out any major loans, I haven’t bought a home, mortgages haven’t even ended my frame of mind. I dealt only with the tellers when I dealt with anyone at all–stopping by the bank was pleasant but neutral.
Last year, I went to see Inside Job at the Laurelhurst and came out fuming. I had so much anger and nowhere to place it. Wall Street, academic intellectual in economists, Obama administrators, “the system.” I could do little with a vote in the next election cycle, but I hadn’t even been convinced that “our guys” were better than “their guys,” and I couldn’t call myself optimistic for change or for the best realization of the democratic process.
A year later, the Occupy movement started blowing up all over the country. My friend Joe, in particular, tweeted and shared articles of greed: descriptions of excessive spending, accounts of Bank of America’s callous disregard for the homeowners who felt financial strain after the bank’s approval of incomprehensible loans. I read Krugman. And read Krugman. And read more Krugman. Credit unions became a major topic of conversation around me. Friends and I talked about ways to make a small difference. I decided to Move My Money.
There are the standard meals at the burger joint, the plate and a beer at the local pub, the happy hour at Applebee’s. Good service and mediocre service are often indistinguishable except by a single-digit percentage points on the tip at the end of the night. Egregious oversights earn only a mild and reasonable demotion, while above-and-beyond service–defined by an extra cherry on top and the quick replacement of a fork dropped on the floor–means a couple of extra bucks.
Then there is the five percent of dining experiences where the service is exceptional. These servers shift the meal into another gear because that is what they do. They are professionals. They are passionate about food and wine; they are interested in your conversation but keep a respectful distance from the details; they are attentive without being overbearing. Little Bird in Portland has a young woman who made the “A” grade with an extra plus when Kristine and I went there last month. And a recent trip to Aqua Santa in Santa Fe, New Mexico yielded a notable experience worth writing about.
The moment your wheels touch down, things begin to suck. It’s as though the air vents above you have reversed themselves, literally pulling all of the good, fresh, Portland air out into that big Texas sky. Your taxi to the gate is at least ten minutes long, a reflection of a culture that would rather spread wide than build up. When you arrive, you might depart the plane with a newspaper–like I did a few years ago–looking in earnest for a recycling bin for near a half hour before realizing that the other state philosophy is, “Fuck it. Toss that shit in the trash.”
You’re in for a long shuttle to the rental car counter and an even longer drive to civilization. DFW, in particular, is ridiculous in its inconvenient convenience. City planners figured that it’d be better to build the airport in between the encroaching suburbia of Dallas and Fort Worth than to give one the upper hand over the other. You’re at least thirty minutes from where you need to be, no matter where that is.
You follow google maps the smart way into town, and then realize a moment too late that you’ve landed on one of a few unmarked Texas Toll Roads. They’ve recently given up taking cash or credit at their toll booths, a sort of Texas-sized middle finger to out-of-town visitors. “What, y’all don’t have the Easy Pass?” As you approach a checkpoint, cursing under your breath for the last thirty seconds, you begin to envision a maneuver worthy of an action movie: a quick dart across three lanes and a powerslide through a dusty brown field to the service road and financial freedom, maybe spinning a 360′ on the way. Instead, you grit your teeth, pass under the arch, and await the penalty to come in the mail.
When I threw together my WK12 submission, I didn’t think I’d hit the mark. I submitted it a couple days late and figured that it’d be swept into cyberspace with hundreds of other submissions. It’s the reason I simul-posted it here on On the Hook.
Then last weekend came and went, and the @WK12 twitter feed let me know that “people moving on would be notified on Friday.” Wasn’t me, wasn’t too surprised. A little flare of excitement burnt out and fell back to earth.
On Monday night I was in Dallas, celebrating the end of a long work day with a shot and a beer, when I got an email from WK12: “Sorry for the delay. You have Thursday to submit if you wish to continue.” Apparently, my email address had been entered incorrectly, I’d unknowingly made the cut from 600 to 100, and I’d be spending the next two days of a busy work trip trying to answer one of three questions:
1. What would Gadhafi’s application to W+K12.8 look like? 2. What should the role of United States government be? 3. Make your favorite vegetable America’s favorite food.
On days when I’m on dog duty, I’ve taken a shine to walking up the hill to Laughing Planet for lunch. Kristine insists that Arwen get some lunch-time exercise as a part of her day in the office, and I’m happy not to have to sacrifice my mid-day meal in the process. At LP, there’s a great outdoor seating area where dogs are welcome, a large container for dog water, and few places to tie up a leash. Arwen’s always been great up at LP. She hangs out under the table, waits for scraps of chicken or a bite of a cookie, and drinks greedily from a large bowl of water.
She’s gotten so good that I’ve stopped keeping an eye on her. I ask her to sit and go in to order, and she stays put until I return. There’s a little wandering here and there, but never in earnest, so I generally ignore her. Today, I was sending an email on my phone when a few people walked up the steps behind us and all hell broke loose.