Proverbs from Infinite Jest

My fascination with David Foster Wallace goes back several years now, but it was only after moving to his home state that I attacked his monster novel, Infinite Jest. I can technically say that I finished it last week since I read every word in its 1,079 pages, including the 388 end notes, but I now believe that one never really finishes Infinite Jest. As in, when I finished War and Peace years ago, I finished War and Peace. But Infinite Jest appears to carry on like maybe your high school experience carries on—you never really stop thinking about it.

I won’t even try to explain or in any way recreate the book. I’ll note that the section that made me laugh out loud the hardest was Mario’s “first and only even remotely romantic experience, thus far” (pp. 121-126), and the two sections where DFW’s descriptive writing just left me stunned at his gifts were the squeaky bed flashback of J. O. Incandenza (pp. 491-503) and Hal’s visit to the NA meeting (pp. 795-808).

But what leads me to dust off my blog today and share is the six-page passage of “exotic new facts” learned “around a Substance-recovery halfway facility” (pp. 200-205)—the profundity sprinkled in that passage is most worthy of sharing with others who will (should?) never read Infinite Jest.  

So here you go. I’ll remove the “That” intro to selected sentences and offer these as sort of proverbs from David Foster Wallace, may he rest in peace:

  • Certain persons simply will not like you no matter what you do.
  • No matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that.
  • ‘God’ does not apparently require that you believe in Him/Her/It before He/She/It will help you.
  • You do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it.
  • Evil people never believe they are evil, but rather that everyone else is evil.
  • It is possible to learn valuable things from a stupid person.
  • Boring activities become, perversely, much less boring if you concentrate intently on them.
  • Sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt.
  • You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.
  • There is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness.
  • Concentrating intently on anything is very hard work.
  • It is simply more pleasant to be happy than to be pissed off.
  • A clean room feels better to be in than a dirty room.
  • The people to be most frightened of are the people who are the most frightened.
  • It takes great personal courage to let yourself appear weak.
  • You don’t have to hit somebody even if you really really want to.
  • No single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.
  • Other people can often see things about you that you yourself cannot see, even if those people are stupid.
  • Having a lot of money does not immunize people from suffering or fear.
  • Trying to dance sober is a whole different kettle of fish.
  • Certain sincerely devout and spiritually advanced people believe that the God of their understanding helps them find parking places and gives them advice on Lottery numbers.
  • “Acceptance” is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else.
  • Perversely, it is often more fun to want something than to have it.
  • If you do something nice for somebody in secret, anonymously, without letting the person you did it for know it was you or anybody else know what it was you did or in any way or form trying to get credit for it, it’s almost its own form of intoxicating buzz.
  • Anonymous generosity, too, can be abused.
  • Having sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place, afterward.
  • It is permissible to want.
  • Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.
  • There might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.
  • God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.

A Major Move

Jody and I have lived in The South and on both the Gulf Coast and West Coast, but in March we are relocating to a new region of the country—the Midwest—because I have recently accepted the role as Vice President of Diverse and Equitable Student Life, Dean of Students, and Title IX Coordinator at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois.

We are very excited, but the move is bittersweet—sweetness from the deep confirmation that this is the exact right move for us, and the bitterness of leaving behind people at Lipscomb and in Nashville who in just two years loved us so well and captured our hearts, including friends, colleagues, and maybe especially, students.

Years ago, when Jody served on the board of the National Student Employment Association, she attended a conference at Berea College. Afterward, she could not stop talking about the idea of a “work college,” and as I listened, I fell in love with the work college concept, too. We actually said back then how amazing it would be if either of us ever had the opportunity to work in such a place.

Well, as you might surmise, Blackburn College is one of just a handful of work colleges in the United States, and in fact, the only one that is managed by students. Its unique arrangement promotes a cost structure that allows many of its students the opportunity to receive a college education, which reflects one of our deepest values.

When news of our transition emerged in the past few days, I thought people would not understand our decision. I was prepared to quote Parker Palmer, “Vocation at its deepest level says, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.’” And yet, those who know us best said they completely understood. Even many who don’t know us best knew us well enough to say the same. I found that most reassuring.

So that is our major news.

I doubt many of your post-pandemic travel plans route directly through Carlinville, Illinois, but if they ever do, please let us know. In the meanwhile, I will do my best to share glimpses of our new small-town life from time to time.

2020 = 40?

I’m not sure if the fond posture of Auld Lang Syne is the appropriate selection to drop kick 2020 out the door this evening, but there were undoubtedly silver linings somewhere in the dark clouds of the past year. Personally, I made a break from an unhealthy Facebook/Instagram obsession and like myself better this way. I also broke a positive weekly blogging habit but am excited to now be silently scheming to write short stories. And for the first time ever I followed through on my perpetual intention to read as much fiction as I read nonfiction. In fact, my 20/20 for 2020 was reading 40 books this year — 20 fiction, and 20 nonfiction (I typically read 25 books largely tilted toward nonfiction).

If I had to pick a personal book of the year, I would go with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, although the little Parker Palmer book might end up having the most enduring influence on my life. Regardless, here is my list for 2020 — many I loved, many were interesting, and a few were endured — and I will keep that categorization to myself (but full disclosure: the few that were written by friends were truly outstanding!).

NONFICTION:

  1. The Scotch-Irish: A Social History by James G. Leyburn (history) – 334 pages
  2. Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman (theology) – 112 pages
  3. Crying in the Wilderness: The Life & Influence of David Lipscomb by Robert E. Hooper (biography) – 280 pages
  4. Jesus Next Door by Dave Clayton (religion) – 133 pages
  5. Why Churches Need to Talk about Sexuality by Mark Wingfield (theology) – 176 pages
  6. Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud (leadership) – 230 pages
  7. Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians by Lee Camp (theology) – 177 pages
  8. Race Against Time by Jerry Mitchell (biography, true crime) – 386 pages
  9. Heaven is a Playground by Rick Telander (sports) – 220 pages
  10. The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky (psychology) – 311 pages
  11. Centennial Celebration: A Century of Memories: David Lipscomb University, 1891-1991 by Robert Hooper & David England (history) – 195 pages
  12. 7 Men by Eric Metaxas (biography) – 191 pages
  13. The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldblatt (history/sports) – 446 pages
  14. The Motive by Patrick Lencioni (leadership/business) – 174 pages
  15. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer (leadership) – 116 pages
  16. Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession by Susan R. Komives; Dudley B. Woodard, Jr. & Associates (education) – 684 pages  
  17. Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett (social science) – 250 pages
  18. Hood’s Tennessee Campaign by James Knight (history) – 142 pages
  19. The Education of a Coach by David Halberstam (sports) – 283 pages
  20. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (social science) – 395 pages

FICTION:

  1. The Call of the Wild by Jack London – 122 pages
  2. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery – 113 pages
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – 205 pages
  4. Haven by Jeff Baker – 146 pages
  5. On the Road by Jack Kerouac – 307 pages
  6. The Glad River by Will D. Campbell – 310 pages
  7. Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon – 192 pages
  8. Lord of the Flies by William Golding – 206 pages
  9. Nashville 1864 by Madison Jones – 129 pages
  10. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines – 259 pages
  11. The Dog of the South by Charles Portis – 266 pages
  12. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger – 214 pages
  13. Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid: A Novel by Giuseppe Catozzella – 250 pages
  14. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips – 256 pages
  15. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros – 110 pages
  16. If I Had Two Wings: Stories by Randall Kenan – 211 pages
  17. A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest Gaines – 213 pages
  18. Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes – 231 pages
  19. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse – 128 pages
  20. 50 Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane – 560 pages

Lou

On Thursday, July 19, 1979, future major-leaguer Rick Ankiel was born, and the Cincinnati Reds arrived in St. Louis following the all-star break where 27,228 fans settled in at Busch Memorial Stadium to watch the two all-star-laden teams resume the second half of the season. I was there with my dad for my first major league baseball game.

It was the summer after third grade, and I was eight years old. I now knew my multiplication tables and how to write in cursive, but no educational environment could have prepared me for what going to a major league stadium with my dad would do to my soul. It was the highlight of my life at the time, and forty-one years later, it remains pretty close to the top.

My dad never missed work at the meat-packing plant, but he did that summer day. We didn’t have enough money for a hotel, so we boarded a Great Southern Coaches bus in the early morning darkness for a twenty-four-hour adventure, rode the two-hundred miles north, and spent the afternoon using public buses to check out the zoo and marvel at the majesty of the Gateway Arch. But that evening, cliché notwithstanding, I walked through the left-field tunnel into the open air of the stadium and felt as if I had entered heaven.

Lou Brock had turned forty a month before and was in the final season of a remarkable career. He still hit over .300 that season, and in a stroke of good luck, our seats were right behind him. Two months later, the Redbirds would go ahead and retire his #20 jersey, making him only the fourth Cardinal at the time to receive such an honor—joining legends Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, and Stan Musial. The speedy Brock finished his career in the 3,000 hit club and as the all-time leader in stolen bases (and decades later he has only slid into second place).

Lou went 3-5 that night, knocking in three runs along the way. He also caught a couple of fly balls that evening under my eager eye, and somewhere along the way, little eight-year-old me held the family camera and snapped a fuzzy picture of the future hall-of-famer as he patrolled left field.

Lou Brock died yesterday at the age of eighty-one. One of his famous legs was amputated five years ago, and he battled blood cancer for the past several. His storied life is over now, which makes me sad. But it also makes me remember.

My wife bought me a couple of stadium seats from that old version of Busch Stadium a few years ago now, and they sit on our back patio. Sitting in those seats reminds me of July 19, 1979, when I was eight years old and sitting with my dad in a veritable heaven watching Lou Brock play baseball.  I’m glad to imagine Lou suiting up on the other side of life now, and I like to imagine that my dad is saving me a seat.

Premonition

As summer transitions to fall and then an ultimate winter, the days shorten, and as a result my early morning runs now begin in darkness. It is a bit harder to get out the door, but to be candid, the stress of leading through this pandemic confounds my sleep so that it really isn’t that hard to get up and moving anymore.

Recently, I stretched and took off, aging joints creaking as they now do, and jogged down the one-way exit road of our condominium complex toward the freedom of the unlit neighborhood streets. As I did, in that strange sensation when you are arguably awake and seem to be the only one, I had an oddball thought: What if a vehicle turned down this one-way road my direction in the early morning darkness?

Two seconds later, a small pickup truck turned down the one-way road my direction in the early morning darkness.

Hand to heart, stack of bibles, and all that.

I moved over easily, so it wasn’t the danger of the moment, but for the duration of the three-mile run in the shadowy stillness I kept thinking: Did that just happen? Am I awake? And the craziest thought: Did my mind just create that pickup truck?

I concluded that just might be my luck, that maybe we all get one moment in life when our thoughts create something out of thin air, and I wasted mine on a cheap pickup truck turning down a one-way road in the dark.

My favorite musician, John Fogerty, recorded a live album the year my youngest daughter was born that he titled, Premonition. In the title track he sang:

I got a feelin’ way down inside
I can’t shake it, no matter how I try
You can’t touch it, you just know
The earth is gonna shake and the wind is gonna blow
Well that’s all right
This premonition is killin’ me
But that’s all right
I must be crazy, I must be seein’ things

I don’t know if anyone saw this year coming, but every part of it has left us all a little jumpy about what will come next. All I have to say is that as we run ahead in such darkness, watch out for pickup trucks.

Mother’s Smile

I live one mile from the office, so it almost isn’t worth the trouble to drive. But in August it is always worth the trouble. Turning on the radio, however, does seem a little silly. I only have time for one song at the most.

On an early morning several days ago I went to the trouble of turning on Sirius XM satellite radio for some reason and chose a station called “The Coffee House.” The station seemed right for an early morning just for the name itself, but I like it any time of day for its soothing, acoustic music.

The song that played immediately was unfamiliar, and in about two seconds it had me. The title was “Mother’s Smile” by an artist named Keelan Donovan. It was only a mile to the office, but my goodness I had gone on a journey by the time I got there.

A couple of mornings later I chose The Coffee House again, and somehow that exact song came on once more , and the combination of the coincidence and the content took my breath away.

My mother died eight years ago today. I’m not sure how satellites work and what all goes on up in the space we call the heavens, but somehow leading up to this special day I was greeted twice on early mornings with these opening lyrics—and I smiled, too.

My mother’s smile
Looks the same as it did when I was a child
It’ll stay right here with me for a while
My mother’s smile
Oh, oh, how I miss you

Office of Student Life, Reporting for Duty

Professional headshots of 44 team members above (6 more team members not pictured) plus pictures of 12 new hires this summer below (still searching for 3 open positions)

image046

This afternoon feels part finish line, part starting line, and all sorts of consequential.

In the middle of March 2019 my wife and I said our tearful goodbyes to California and drove across the country to a new life in Tennessee. One year later, in the middle of March 2020, I was leading an effort to evacuate as many university students as possible from campus as COVID-19 began its terrible reign. And for the last five months, both I and my team have worked harder than I thought possible.

This has been the most challenging season of work that I have faced, including working through multiple historic natural disasters—and in a real sense we are just getting started.

My university is one of many that carefully and prayerfully weighed all the competing forces and decided to welcome large numbers of students back to our classrooms and residence halls for a new academic year, and the preparatory work to do that well has been intense. Although both my housing/residence life team and security team literally never left campus for a single second—and my other teams have worked nonstop remotely as well—early tomorrow morning is when freshmen begin moving in our residence halls in significant numbers. And this week of move-ins and new student orientations build to the first day of fall semester classes one week from tomorrow.

So this afternoon feels like a big deal.

I am confident that we have prepared well and that we will love our community well, but in a COVID-19 world we have all discovered that we cannot predict what happens next. So I cannot say with confidence, nor should I predict, what the next few months will hold. What I do know is this: regardless of what happens, if I grow to be an old man and sit on a porch someday with folks from my team who lived through these past few months, we will look back and remember with pride that we gave our full hearts along with blood, sweat, and tears—most definitely, tears—on behalf of our students. And what might stand out the most is that we learned that our capacity to do extraordinary work was greater than we had ever imagined.

I find great comfort in that today. To be a part of a team like this is an honor. And knowing full well that the days ahead are filled with great challenges, I am proud to face those challenges with these good people.

Here we go.

Special Delivery

Respect-Quotes-7

Needing a break from grading final exams, I wandered downstairs and happened to glance out the window just as a colorful minivan from a local florist whipped into a parking space across the way. A skinny kid in a baseball cap got out with a potted plant, left the van door open, and walked toward a neighbor’s door. I watched as he opened the storm door, carefully wedged the plant in at its base, rang the bell, and turned to leave.

I must have really been bored because I kept watching.

Several steps from the front door he stopped, and with military precision, turned and faced the door. I assumed he would wait for a second and head off to his next assignment, but he just kept waiting. And waiting. I’m sure that is floral delivery protocol, but he stood at attention like a stinking guard at Buckingham Palace, only in drab green shorts, an old t-shirt, and a cheap mask. I was mesmerized by this sign of respect. Eventually, the door slowly opened, and our elderly neighbor, whose husband has been in the hospital, appeared while still putting her own mask on. The two strangers exchanged words that I obviously could not hear as I spied out my front window, but the young boy then turned to leave as our neighbor collected her gift.

The situation in our world is ominous, and as much as I wish there was a rainbow waiting just around the corner, it seems that the storm is far from over. But I felt the slightest glimmer of hope looking out my window yesterday as the colors of the rainbow streaked out of our parking lot in that bright and radiant minivan.

Social Media Distancing

Social-media-phoneMy recent time away was beneficial, and of the many thoughts that came to mind once I had an opportunity to think again was that I should find some way to disembark the social media train at the next station. It was a relief just to think it.

For years now I have harbored a secret fantasy of going off the grid and living a simple life in relative obscurity, and I’m pretty sure that fantasy is fueled by the complications produced by the time I have invested in social media. I’m not exactly sure what possessed a private person to lead a fairly public life, but I am pretty sure that it was not the smartest idea.

I had already dipped my toe in the water just a tiny bit. When the pandemic hit I upped my social media game and tried to post more content, telling myself that I was encouraging others. But when the deeply important racism conversation erupted—a conversation that I care about very much—I was soon exhausted and, to be candid, frustrated at rhetoric from a wide range of people that I love who vote differently from one another. So I shared less and less, and I wanted to see what others shared less and less, and I cared about social media less and less. So stepping away is no great sacrifice. It is more a move to maintain some measure of sanity.

And I get the irony that I am sharing this post on various forms of social media. Given my history, I felt it was kind to provide some type of notice.

There are positive attributes of social media, of course, which explains its ability to take over the world. But of the downsides, the most troubling may be the invitation to social comparison that has led to what Jonathan Haidt argues as the “decline of wisdom.” (Note: Haidt wrote “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks” in the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic—just before this crazy year began.) I kept trying to convince myself that I was aware of and immune to social media dangers, but I now confess that I was wrong.

This will be a work in progress, so the following is subject to change:

  1. I don’t plan to delete my Facebook or Instagram accounts (i.e., my primary drinks of choice), but I do plan to stop both posting and scrolling. Instead, I will simply use them as some sort of 21st century phone book and respond to messages.
  2. I don’t plan to stop my blog entirely, but I do plan to stop posting on a schedule, and I do plan to stop sharing my blog posts on Facebook. I will write and post when the feeling strikes and not worry about who sees what I write (for those who want to read what I write, you can sign up by email to receive the posts when they happen).
  3. Finally, I think I will keep sharing my running information with running friends on Nike Run Club and Strava as a little virtual running club, but if that ever turns into me trying to impress others, I’m out there, too.

That’s the plan for now. It is interesting how just the plan provides genuine stress relief.

“Social distancing” is the phrase of the year, of course, but I am employing “social media distancing.” If that catches on, trends, goes viral, or gets an incredible number of likes or retweets…well, to tell the truth, I don’t need to know.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

mask

“It is my task / To wear a mask / Deep in the heart of Texas.” – Me (July 2020)

I have the personality type that keeps me on the burnout watch list, so during this pandemic journey multiple people (predictably including both those who work for me and those I work for) have dropped multiple hints that I should take some time off and recharge. I also have the personality type that can ignore sound advice regarding my personal mental health, but I gave in, and not reluctantly. Our youngest daughter invited my wife and I to help her move, and since that was the only way I would get to see her this summer, it was an easy decision.

And yet, she lives deep in the heart of Texas, so of course as I tied up loose ends to take vacation around a long holiday weekend, Texas became a focal point of this blasted virus right on cue. I spend months going nowhere, and then when I do, I get on an airplane of all things to fly directly into the belly of the beast. It is like spinning the wheel on vacation locations and landing on Hell. Or, Chuck E. Cheese.

Nevertheless, I masked up and headed to Texas late last week.

I always wanted to visit Austin, although sitting in a hotel room was not at all what I envisioned. But I am glad to be here, enjoying the gift of family, resting, reading, relaxing—and washing my hands every thirty seconds.

I was most assuredly not trying to be irresponsible. Ironically, getting away was my attempt to be responsible. That, and being a dad. But I suspect others can relate to having the very best intentions and then looking up to discover that those intentions ended up as asphalt on the road to you know where.

Texas. Ha! Just kidding, although it is that hot down here.