The Storytellers

We are: the storytellers,
Tell each other lies,
If we tell our stories big enough
They’ll wind up in the sky,
We’ll trace some constellations
And connect the dots with lines.
All these words I’ve spoken:
Were they ever really mine?

Infinite Jest Challenge

Infinite Jest

You’re busy, I get it. You have responsibilities, obligations, appointments. And I know there’s probably a long list of things you want to do but are not doing. I don’t want to add to that list, I’d actually like to help you knock some things off of that list, if only by knocking stuff off my own and inspiring you to do the same. But here’s the thing, reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is probably not on that ideal to-do list of yours and it really should be. You know what, skip the list, just pick up a copy and open at page one.  Because we are talking about arguably (and argue they will,) the most important book written in your lifetime (at least if you are under, well, let’s say 40.) Maybe you haven’t read Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby, but they weren’t published in 1996 and they don’t deal with the time we’re living through now.

David Foster Wallace is the man behind This is Water, and the themes from that speech run through Infinite Jest, though it would be difficult to say they are the main themes of the Novel. It’s hard to say what the main themes of the Novel are, truth be told, because there are so many: striving for achievement in art and/or sports, struggling with addiction, dealing with loss, existing in a family, the class divide in contemporary America, the place of entertainment in our society, and the tenuous nature of sanity in light of all of the above and more. But the themes of mindfulness and the lack thereof can be found within the book’s 1,000+ pages as well. Here are a couple examples pulled from early pages:

“He didn’t reject the idea so much as not react to it and watch as it floated away.”

“Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves.”

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The Antidote

The AntidoteThe Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman is the book that gave me a taste for Stoicism and got me reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  In his book Oliver Burkeman takes on the prevailing ideas about optimism and positivity that are so prevalent today, namely, that unflinching optimism in the face of any situation is inherently good, and that “staying positive” is a recipe for happiness. With a healthy dose of humor, he easily picks apart these arguments and sets off to explore the negative path to happiness. The Antidote pulls from many sources, including Dostoyevsky and the Buddha, ancient philosophy and cutting edge psychology, to convincingly show how our current emphasis on optimism can actually be impeding our search for happiness, and might even be making us miserable.

“… It is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness – that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy”

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This is Water

This Is WaterWriting the last post on Marcus Aurelius made me think of the parallels to David Foster Wallace’s famous speech turned book This Is Water. Infinite Jest is one of my favorite books of all time and I’m gearing up to reread it after I finish the Stoics, but I may prefer this insightful little piece to the tremendous novel. It’s such a well constructed work that I’ve found it difficult to pick apart and discuss in pieces, so I invite you to take some time in the next couple days and listen through it. It is shorter than an episode of your favorite TV show and it will stay with you for a long time. In the meantime I’ll give you the beginning and the end.

He begins the commencement speech with a joke:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

 This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.

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Life Is What Our Thoughts Make It

Marcus AureliusLast week the stars aligned in odd ways and a spam comment on this blog quoted the very book I had just begun to read. I am a very fast reader, but The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius has proven to be slow going for me. Part of it is that there is no plot arc to propel me through like there would be in a novel. But the main reason I am making such little progress on it is that I constantly have to put it down and contemplate my life. The Meditations are the personal diaries of a philosopher king and they contain a lot to give one pause. I wanted to finish reading them before I wrote about them, but here I am two posts behind schedule on the path to Eleventyone. So with Marcus’s admonishments to do your duty as best you can in the present moment echoing in my mind, I dive in to the Stoic’s work.

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

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