Expectations in President Baby Hands’ America

So how are you doing? If you’re reading along with the schedule, then you deserve a Mega-breakfast from Denny’s, because you’ve cleared what is considered by many to be the hardest stretch of Infinite Jest. You reached the Chronology of ONAN’s Revenue-Enhancing Subsidized Time, which grants at least a little relief from the onslaught of confusion. How are you feeling about all this? Are you in love with this book? Are you frustrated? Bored? How is this experience measuring up to your expectations?

This week we delved deeper into the twin worlds of ETA and Ennet House. The former sits atop a hill, the top shaved flat to accommodate its purpose. The latter sits in the hill’s shadow, underfunded and crumbling into decay. These two settings seem diametrically opposed: the untarnished potential of young privilege and the destitution of ruined lives. Yet certain images pop up in both places. Toenail clippings much like the ones Hal aims into a wastebasket turn up in an ashtray at Ennet House. The coaches at ETA watch the student athletes for warning signs of burnout, just as the staff members at Ennet House monitor the residents for red flags of compromised sobriety. The recovering addicts and junior tennis players are both aiming to meet high expectations that are somewhat nebulous and unclear.

A large portion of this week’s reading was dedicated to Hal and Orin’s phone conversation, wherein Orin grills Hal about the particulars of their father’s suicide. Hal reveals that it was he who discovered Himself’s body, and as a result, wound up in grief counselling. Hal’s a people-pleaser, a goods-deliverer. He’s used to knowing clearly what’s expected of him and meeting those expectations expediently. However, his performance of grief does not satisfy the counselor. Hal makes himself sick trying to parse out what emotional reaction this grief counselor expects from him, paradoxically exhibiting the outward signs of mourning as a consequence of this stress. When trauma occurs, it can feel like all eyes are on you, the traumatized, and you don’t know how you’re expected to react. Hal fixates on that problem instead of confronting his real feelings about finding his father dead. When he finally finds the solution in a text for grief counselors (as advised by Lyle) Hal is finally free from the weight of unmet expectations. The story ends with a final subversion of expectations, when the grief counselor reveals his previously-hidden, tiny, pink, “butt-smooth” hands.

Sound like anyone you know?


This twist in the grief counselor anecdote has been stuck in my mind since I first read it, and I’ve never known quite how to make sense of it. Reading it in the year 2017 has lent me new insight. Hal reacts to the tiny hands with uncontrollable laughter. He could be laughing because, hey, it’s objectively pretty funny. But the fit of hysterics Hal describes seems to signify some deeper emotion, like relief. I think Hal is feeling ridiculous for having ever been intimidated by this man. The grief counselor’s demand for Hal to exhibit some sort of hidden shame about his father’s suicide stems from the counselor’s own shame about his itty bitty baby hands. People’s expectations of you are invariably shaded by their own private neuroses and insecurities. The most imposing, oppressive authority figures have their own soft little miniature hands hidden beneath the desks over which they expect you to deliver the goods. What’s a guy to do but laugh?

At the Port Washington Invitational, Pemulis faces the crushing force of expectations to be great at tennis, and responds by vomiting, and then (probably) drugging his opponent to secure a default win. His foil is Teddy Schacht, who has been relieved of the burden of expectation by a chronic knee injury and Crohn’s Disease. The interactions between Pemulis, rendered touchingly vulnerable by performance anxiety, and Schacht, comforting, compassionate, and only privately judgmental, are nothing short of cockle-warming. It’s telling that Schacht has found such peace in the face of his dimming tennis future. Perhaps the most mentally-healthy student at ETA, Schacht has let go of the pressure to be a tennis star and redefined the expectations placed upon him. And ironically, since he ceased caring whether he wins or not, his tennis game has only improved. When we’re freed of the expectations others put on us, we find out what really matters to us, and can reach new levels of success.

The scene that ends this week’s reading shows us what meeting expectations looks and feels like. On the bus home from the Port Washington Invitational, the athletes joke, and talk, and do homework. The atmosphere is pleasant, but not exactly celebratory. There are always more expectations to meet, and never enough time to revel in victory. You get your Denny’s Grand Slam, and you move on to the next hurdle that needs clearing. I hope having cleared nearly 300 pages of this monumental book has you feeling the same way. Be proud, but don’t get cocky.

We’ve really only just begun.

One thought on “Expectations in President Baby Hands’ America”

  1. I love that you mention Hal’s meeting with the grief counselor. I also have on occasion thought about that. I also love the way you tied it in with what’s happening here in 2017. Its such a great point that leads me to think Wallace wants us to see beyond simply what other people are doing that could make us feel insecure and try to see where they themselves could feel insecure as well. This is so good.


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