Infinite Jest

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.

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Everything is Texas in Texas

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.

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Arwen’s run-in with the law

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.

Typical mild-mannered Arwen.

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.

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WK12 Application – Excerpts

I finally got the stones and applied (late) for Wieden + Kennedy 12. The exercise was interesting enough to share some excerpts here. If you already know me pretty well, you might find this redundant. I’m not sure exactly what WK12 is, or why I should want to do it. And that’s part of the reason I want to do it. A very good company creating a thought experiment like this one for a calendar year… well that’s just too interesting to pass up.

First name ian
Middle initial
Last name fisher
Phone number ***.7*7.7***
Email address f********@*****.com
Mailing address ** NE **th Ave. Portland, OR 97***
Country of citizenship USA
Occupation Senior Assistant Dean of Admission
Education B.A. Philosophy, Reed College
Blog address
Twitter handle ianbrookfisher

Describe yourself I was born in Arizona 26 years ago, the same year my mother earned her PhD. It was a big year for her. We lived in a desert house until I was two years old. My crib was covered with netting–not for mosquitos, but for scorpions. When I was a baby, a seven-foot rattlesnake slithered by my head with only a wire screen between us while my mom looked on, frozen in horror. I was lucky it had just fed.

In general, I was a pain in the ass as an infant, but I had a remarkable attention span. I committed to figuring things out in my playpen, spending hours on a game or a task. I’ve always been curious, always tenacious.

At two, a baby brother was added to the family and we became four strong*. In the last twenty-four years, I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that my little brother is much, much cooler than I am. Maybe the names have something to do with it–his is a warrior constellation, I was almost Ben. He has learned humility where I’ve been brash. He’s listened when I’ve talked. He’s a brilliant painter and a bold musician–stylish without trying, funny without planning on it. We’ve always been opposites and yet, the same. It comes from good parenting.

I staggered through junior high school like most pre-teenagers. I played with wrestling dolls until I was thirteen, insisting they were action figures. I bought a CD with their entrance music and turned the lights out in my living-room arena as they strutted to the stage. They say that junior high is a low point in human development. They say it right.

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The Elderly Patrol Car

My car rental needs are rather simple, really.

  • I need four wheels attached to the outside of the car and a fifth to control the direction of the others.
  • I don’t want anything too big. I’ve learned there are few things worse than trying to park a boat in a tight spot in a strange part of a new town with pedestrian traffic gaping at you as though you’ve pulled down your pants and tried to park with your ass hanging out the passenger side window.
  • Music is important, but not that XM satellite radio bullshit. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song I’ve like over hundreds of stations. It seems to be the straight-to-DVD world of music. All I need is an input jack for an auxiliary cable so I can cruise with Pandora.
  • Good gas mileage is a plus. I drive a guzzler back home, so when I’m on the road I like to be able to slowly emit greenhouse gasses in order to feel a little more environmentally conscious.

As I’m waiting in that painfully slow line at the rental counter, I’m hoping to have at least three of these conditions met. I know that nobody is going to screw up condition one, so that’s a freebie for them. Making a reservation should guarantee at least two of the other three–I can never really know what the audio setup is going to be, but I’m willing to trust that outcome to a hope.

I wait and I visualize myself stepping up to the counter: Place license and credit card on counter immediately. Declare that you’ve made a reservation. Engage in smalltalk about the weather. Laugh when the woman standing next to you says there’s a “heat advisory” in place today. Remark that it’s August in Phoenix–of course there’s a fucking heat advisory. Decline all coverages. Insist that no, you don’t need even that additional $14.99/day option that covers collision. Feign interest at XM radio and GPS devices–a courtesy–before passing on the option. I’m prepared. It’s my turn. I step forward when I’m called.

The woman behind the counter doesn’t immediately move to help me, instead typing away at her keyboard. Interesting strategy, I think to myself. Declaring readiness and then making me wait. I take note of the surroundings, and the woman I’ll be dealing with. Her name is Shirley (you can’t be serious!), and she’s got the look of a conservative of moderate means–but then, so do most white Arizonans–with short blonde hair and wire-framed spectacles firmly trained on the screen. She pays me no mind, and I begin to regret shaving this morning, which makes me look like a first-time renter. The ball’s in your court, Shirley.

After a minute or so, she collects my information and enters it into the system. The man who stepped to the counter after I did is now leaving with his rental agreement. Shirley reports to me that she can get me a small SUV at only $110 a day, a discount of $20 off the typical price, and a modest $30 more than the cost of my reservation. “It’s a Hyundai Santa Fe. They’re a lot of fun.” I insist that I’d prefer a car at the price that I reserved, and she scrunches her nose and narrows her eyes, staring directly at the screen. “We’re running short on cars today, but… you know, I’ll see what I can do.” Great, now she’s doing me a favor.

The concept of having a reservation vanish into thin air is not lost on anyone. Imagine for a moment how laughable it would be for a restaurant to tell you that, despite your reservation, they’ve run out of tables. They’d never stay in business! And yet, rental companies perpetrate this injustice every single day. Seinfeld did a great treatment of this back before I even knew how to drive, and I won’t presume to add any new insight here. Moving on.

After some time talking to a colleague, Shirley (you still can’t be serious) returns to me to say that she’ll just “have to give me a free upgrade,” and I agree that this seems the sensible thing to do. Now the work begins. I’m declining additional coverages with my left and fighting off the GPS with my right. She’s persistent, and I’ve given up even listening to her spiel, for fear that she’ll gain momentum and steamroll me. I initial boxes and circles, declining here, refusing there. I boldly assure her that I can find a gas station and fill up a tank with fuel, and so I won’t be needing to pay $7.98/gallon for them to fill it for me.

(A quick aside: How do they come up with that number? Do they just figure $8 is the largest figure they can possibly extort from people without raising an alarm, and then drop it $.02 to make it seem reasonable? The price wasn’t some factor of the gas price in town ($3.39), nor was it explicated in the directions, which read “While you will have to pay more for us to refuel the vehicle, it can be a smart option if you won’t have time to fill up on your way to the return site.” Leave it to a rental car company to spin $7.98/gallon as the “smart option.”)

Standing firm on my last legs, I peer down at the rental car agreement and find that

I’ve been saddled with the flagship of the piece of shit rental car fleet: The Ford Crown Victoria. I had one of these back in New Mexico for a single-day rental, and it was awful. I felt like I entered some alternate universe of time dilation that caused me to age three years as the leather bench seats and digital speedometer oozed elderly onto me. And now I was going to have one for four days. I protested harshly, and Shirley assured me that it was “a nice big car with a very smooth ride.” Of course, you can’t be serious. “You’ll be really comfortable,” she said. “It’s a great car, very luxurious.”

“Yeah, if you’re a police officer.” I don’t think she got it.

On the freeway minutes later, I would find that the Crown Vic is as ubiquitous in Phoenix as the Outback in Portland, just one more indication of the cultural chasm between the two cities. For Shirley, an upgrade to the Crown Vic is a dream–she’ll rue the day when she arrives in PDX and we’ve got a surplus of Priuses to replace her full-size reservation. I can imagine her panicking again and again as that damn engine keeps shutting off whenever she comes to a stop. I find it no small coincidence that you’ve got to fly over the Grand Canyon to get from Portland to Phoenix.

So now I’m cruising the mean streets of Tempe on a sweltering 109 degree day (“Heat advisory!”). Looks like it’s going to be a week of aviators and straw hats, badges and Hawaiian print shirts. The car has two speeds: ten miles an hour under the speed limit, or twenty-five over–with a siren firing in the background. I’m headed down to Van Buren this afternoon to make some arrests, but only after I stop off to pick the grandkids up from daycare. This car has a mission, and I am to live it.


There’s a classic shot in alien movies where the abducted wakes up in a flash of bright light. His eyes close and open lazily, and the shot feels the darkness rise and fall with each blink. Perception is fuzzy, but there’s a bright light overheard. Creatures in masks methodically bring tools in and out of the frame–tools at which we can only guess the purpose, tools for cutting and slicing and drilling and pulling and sucking. This scene is terrifying because it’s shot from the first-person perspective, but even more terrifying because it mimics the trip to the dentist, a much despised but exceedingly necessary bi-annual event.

Some people might claim they like the dentist, but they’ve never been. I was one of these for years, as a bouncy child with bright pearly whites and resilient enamel. I’d never glimpsed a drill, and the worst memory of my youth was when my hygienest used a cinnamon polish that made me puke out my mom’s window on the way to a friend’s birthday party. The hard times were the times when I got sealant on my back molars, a gentle tsk tsk from the dentist when I shrugged embarrassingly at the “how often do you floss?” question, the days there were only balloons and no more toy cars in the goody basket.

I'm a cool customer in the dentist's chair.

So I say again, if you like the dentist, you’ve never been. You’ve never had ’em throw a rubber dam over your mouth, push and pull your lips aside, shoot you up with novocaine, mutilate your gums, and then dump you by the side of the road, your wallet a little bit lighter for the process.

My last few trips to the dentist have been eventful, which is not what you want. In January, I started at a new practice and after all the x-rays and introductions, they discovered the need for some fillings in two spots. I went a week later for the first spot to be filled. The second appointment was scheduled for a week later. I never went back after that first experience. I had hoped it would go away.

Fast forward six months and they’ve still got work to do in the same spot, and it might be getting worse, too. So today I went in for the follow up and let them go to town on me.

I don’t know what it is about dentists that makes them want to carry on a conversation with you as they’re pulling your teeth about, but it seriously baffles me. They ask complex questions about the state of political affairs in the Middle East, or a few words on the importance of environmental conservation. I’m trying to throw together a response with a nod and an “mmm, eh aghsloff” here and there, hoping the subject’ll change and we can move back to yes’s and no’s.

The thing that’s always been somewhat striking to me is that dentists seem to lack a sense of humor. They have to know their job brings misery, they have to! It’s a brutal experience, the subject of good stand-up and bad blog posts. And yet, when you throw around some sarcastic comments about pain and the horror of the process, they brush it aside, “Oh it won’t be that bad!” If most dental hygienists in my experience weren’t such kind and friendly young women, I wouldn’t be able to keep myself from responding, with a glare and a declaration: “Are you fucking kidding me?”

As one hygienest was shooting me up with a four-inch needle at the start of the process, she kept asking “Is it still okay? Still doing good?” No, it wasn’t. But what am I supposed to say? Is there an alternate method, something less painful that she’s waiting to pull out of her drawer when I utter a word of complaint? If not, then why ask? I know the needle is going to be terrible and I know it’s a necessary part of the process, if I’m going to be spared later pain. Just shoot me up and get it over with.

I was smart enough today to bring in an some headphones and some music while the drilling was happening (TV on the Radio’s New Cannonball Blues goes nicely with the rhythm of a supersonic drill, by the way. Keep an eye out for the remix). I’d finally found a way to tune out the worst of the ambient dental noises, and a way to cue the doc that I wasn’t interested in carrying on a deep conversation about my well-being or African hunger. I was so shot up with novocaine today that I actually fell asleep in the chair. About an hour through the process, the dentist pulled out my ear plug and told me I was “doing great!” I was motionless, looked like a balloon had exploded across my face, drugged and numb across half my mouth. I’m glad I was doing so well.

A half hour later, I walked out of the office with a smile like Two-Face and a strange affinity for rubbing my numbed-up lip and feeling nothing in return. Now, I can feel the numbness fading and the pain coming on. I’m not quite sure when I’ll get a chance to eat again or whether this experience will be inspirational enough in the long term to keep me flossing more than once a month. A horror film indeed–and I paid $190 for the pleasure of the experience. Love that dentist.

Survival of the fittest

Each year, right around June 21, I head down to Eugene for the Summer Solstice ultimate Frisbee tournament. It’s still early enough in the season that my knees haven’t begun failing me, and I’m feeling the excitement and vigor of a promising young season. By Labor Day, something here’ll be swollen over there and I’ll be slowing down until I can build back up for the next go ’round.

I am really beginning to enjoy this team and all the chemistry that comes with it. There’s the requisite handful of youth on the team–high school kids who’ve known Frisbee since they started growing hair in strange places on their bodies–who have gotten a head start in understanding the game and the skills that go with it. Strangely, there are no old, crafty veterans on our team this year. Aside from the impressionable youth, our roster is filled out with twenty-somethings who’ve accomplished various mileposts on the grown-up scale. Those without jobs are on an academic track or just wrapping one up, most have a girlfriend, a handful are engaged, one’s married, and there are plenty of puppies to go around. No kids yet, though. Not with this group.

On Saturday night, after a soggy day of Frisbee in the muck, we spread out sleeping pads and bags on the floor of Jackson’s childhood home. When you host a group of ultimate players after a tournament, you’re tacitly consenting to the takeover of your laundry apparatus, the high probability of an increase in offensive odors, and a significant reduction in usable floorspace. Be warned if ever you agree to play the host.

We entertained ourselves with the only video game in reach–a truly awful “hunting” simulator called Big Game Hunter. See the trailer here. As men are wont to do, we shot shit and drank beers and made fun of one another. Bryson stepped in to particular success, blasting the hell out of truly massive herds of rams and bucks–herds that were chased by packs of wolves and even the occasional trio of bears. Yes, bears travel in threes in this wildlife wonderland, which is all the more reason for population control. Blast away.

The game was littered with odd and unjustifiable rules. Blast a female of a vegetarian species, lose a thousand points. Horned animals only, please. They make the best trophies. Birds are to be shot with shotguns only–not assault rifles!–it would be inhumane to kill them otherwise. The sport of mowing down rams with shotguns is only enough to earn you 5 points a head, so keep to the assault rifle and put one between then eyes, hm?

An hour of shootin’ and we were itching for something better. So what do young men do when they lose interest in a video game, and have only a handful of objects at their disposal? They begin a search for risky behavior. My dad always said the bravest guy in human history was the one dude that got drunk with his buddies in a barn, looked over at a nearby cow’s udder and said, “you see those things hangin’ down from that animal over there? I’m gonna go squeeze ’em and whatever comes out, I’m gonna drink it.” Not the brightest point in human history, but an important stepping stone to all kinds of good stuff.

Human history has taught us a lot about entertainment. Like the guy who sat in an empty barn and zeroed in on a cow, it’s important to consider everything in sight. And so we did. Icy Hot for sore muscles and joints? A great post-tournament recovery tool. Or perhaps something to put on your balls. A box of dice? All the makings of a dice game, but we’re resistant to money loss and don’t know the rules. Maybe we could use these as a method of determining who puts Icy Hot on his balls.

Adolescence never really leaves us, especially when there aren’t any women around to keep things in check. Writing this story is an exercise in embarrassment. Wait, we did what?! Why? Oh, but it was funny. I wonder about the evolutionary mechanisms at play. Are they, still? Doesn’t “putting a foreign substance on a reproductive organ” sort of make you genetically less fit by definition? Maybe more likely to win the babes. Worth an experiment by someone, down the road. Those Jackass guys sure are doing alright… depending on your definition of the word.

In all, a great evening that needs recounting if only to remind me that moments like these are tellable only in their infrequency. If I throw out another post of a similar variety in a few days, well I’ll have some bigger things to worry about.