To send from yourself what you hope will not return

In Boston AA, they call it Getting Active with your group. You get in the car and travel to some other AA meeting on the other side of town, and you get up in front of the assembly of addicts and Share. When Gately goes on these Commitments with the Crocodiles, the more he “slips up” and admits his shortcomings in sobriety, the more enthusiastically the addicts react to his Share. They tell him that having heard his testimony has done wonders for their own sobriety, and beg him to Keep Coming Back, for their sake if not his own. By speaking honestly about his own struggles with the Program, Gately has unwittingly been of service to all the other addicts in the group.

If you used the word “serve” with Don Gately, it would probably summon to mind his bit in MCI-Billerica, or the next impending stint in prison he’ll likely have to serve. If you used the word “serve” with Hal Incandenza, he’d undoubtedly think of his tennis serve, which he’s spent countless hours perfecting, hitting balls to no one in the cold Boston pre-dawn mornings. According to Schtitt, to serve in tennis is “to send from yourself what you hope will not return.” For Gately, service is paying what he owes. He serves his time in prison as penance for his crimes. He serves the newly-sober at Ennet House by running errands, cooking dinner, and staying up all night on Dream Duty. He serves his fellow AA’s by sweeping up and emptying ashtrays after meetings. He serves perhaps the few Boston citizens less fortunate than himself, the homeless and incontinent at the Shattuck shelter, by cleaning their bodily excretions. Without realizing it, Gately has devoted his whole life in sobriety to serving others. He considers his sobriety a cosmic loan, which he can only hope to pay back by aiding the sobriety of others. By paying sobriety forward, Gately is sending his addiction from himself, in the hopes that it will never return.

It’s been a while since I last practiced Lectio Divina with this text, so the rest of this post will be devoted to finding meaning in a random sentence from this week’s reading.

“None but the most street-hardened Ennet residents would ever hazard an open crack about the food, which appears nightly at the long dinner table still in the broad steaming pans it was cooked in, with Gately’s big face hovering lunarly above it, flushed and beaded under the floppy chef’s hat Annie Parrot had given him as a dark joke he hadn’t got, his eyes full of anxiety and hopes for everyone’s full enjoyment, basically looking like a nervous bride serving her first conjugal dish, except this bride’s hands are the same size as the House’s dinner plates and have jailhouse tatts on them, and this bride seems to need no oven-mitts as he sets down massive pans on the towels that have to be laid down to keep the plastic tabletop from searing.” (469)

(I swear I didn’t cheat and purposefully pick a sentence with the word “serve” in it, total coincidence!)

  1. Gately is serving a dinner of his own making to the Ennet House residents.
  2. Even though the food is a bit unappetizing, none of the residents want to complain or insult the meal because of the physical threat of Gately’s enormous size. The humor of the scene comes from the juxtaposition of Gately’s large, imposing size and his gentle demeanor, plus his desperation to serve everyone a tasty meal.
  3. This sentence makes me think about the double-sided nature of service. We serve to help others, but the feeling of having served well also benefits the servant. Service is a paradox, both selfless and selfish. It also makes me think of the transformative power of service. Being a servant has changed Gately from a sometimes-violent thief into a blushing bride, anxiously awaiting the reactions to his meatloaf covered in cornflakes (for texture.) Gately has transformed from addicted burglar to sober servant, from one who consumes and steals to one who abstains and gives back.
  4. This sentence calls me to embrace my vulnerability more. I tend to throw up defense mechanisms like humor or apathy, especially when putting something out into the world that I really hope people will like. This description of Gately is so endearing. I aim to be more like him, with my hopes for people to like what I make written all over my face.

The intersection of faith and doubt

On first glance, doubt and faith seem like opposites. To the skeptic, faith is the blind acceptance of that which cannot be proven; irresponsibly naïve. To the devout, doubt is blasphemy. But as we learned this week from Don Gately’s struggle with doubt and faith, the two are inexorably intertwined. Gately has been sober for over a year thanks to the saving grace of AA, but he’s baffled as to how he can be saved by something he doesn’t really understand or believe in. How does showing up to a bingo hall full of fellow recovering addicts, listening to their stories, and shouting trite catechisms like “Keep Coming Back,” and “It Works If You Work It,” and “One Day At A Time,”  keep Gately’s cravings for oral narcotics at bay? The answer lies at the intersection of faith and doubt.

Addiction itself is an act of faith. Performing their rituals, like Hal’s descents to the subterranean pump room with his little brass one-hitter, or Joelle’s elaborate improvised free-base cocaine routine, substance abusers trust that their drug of choice will always provide the comfort and relief they’ve come to rely on it for.

“Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do.”

Divine illusion shattered, addicts Come In to AA. “This unromantic, unhip, clichéd AA thing,” seems hopelessly limp to Gately, and most other newcomers, at first. But as he racks up more and more sober days, Gately is shocked to find that somehow, it really does work.

“And then this goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons… and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’d had and then lost, when you Came In.”

The blind faith addicts put into their Substance, the absence of doubt that drugs or alcohol could ever fail you, is every addict’s downfall. AA is the inverse, the antidote. The clichés that form AA’s dogma seem so shallow, inspire so much doubt. That doubt seems crucial to AA’s success. Early in his sobriety, Gately tries to get kicked out of his Beginners meetings by insulting the program and all its participants with obscenity-strewn vitriol. Much to his chagrin, his invectives are met with smiles, thanks, and more trite encouragements to “Keep Coming Back.” Gately is invited to doubt away, and to share that doubt as hatefully as he needs to. You don’t have to believe in AA for it to work. You just have to do it. The deep faith that eventually creeps in is founded on the freedom to doubt. Faith without doubt is empty, doomed to let you down. Doubt interrogates faith, forces it to evolve to new information, and strengthens the foundation on which faith resides.

 

As staggering as it is that Wallace seems to have prefigured things like Netflix and Snapchat filters (albeit in his analog low-tech way,) the most striking prediction I’ve noticed in Infinite Jest so far is that of “fake news.” That phrase itself pops up more than once in this week’s reading in reference to the spinning newspaper headlines Mario uses to illustrate the chronology of Johnny Gentle’s presidency. Some of the headlines are real, some are fake, and it can be really hard to distinguish between the two. This, in tandem with Gentle’s undeniable Trump-ness and the section on advertising and entertainment, seem to paint a frighteningly familiar picture of America in 2017. In a clickbait world where entertainment, and more troublingly, news, is heavily influenced by the people responsible for funding it, doubt is absolutely crucial. The only hope we have of surviving this administration and our cultural political moment is to be skeptical of everything we hear, research the truth rigorously, and use our best judgment to scrutinize the motivations of content-producers. As Gately teaches us, faith without doubt is a dead-end road. If faith in America is to be upheld, doubt is one of our most powerful tools.

Shades of skin, and what’s within

Is Don Gately white?

In my mind, the answer is no. I have always pictured Gately as a Pacific Islander. How did I get that impression? I think it may have had something to do with the passage comparing his head to an Easter Island head. It was only on my second read-through that I realized Gately’s race is never explicitly stated. Does that make him white?

What about Poor Tony Krause?

I have always pictured him as a black person. Only this week did it occur to me that I may have completely imagined that. The only clue I could find about his race is the fact that, during his Withdrawal, his skin turns the color of summer squash, which probably eliminates the possibility that he could be black.

And then there’s Mario. This week, we learned of his origins and his myriad physical deformities. We also learned that his skin is greenish gray. Among the many characters of ambiguous race, we have one who, despite being technically Caucasian, doesn’t look like he belongs to any race whatsoever.

Mario is the epitome of otherness. His disabilities are many, and the description of his physical appearance, while exhaustive, is so bizarre it’s hard to picture. Yet despite these challenges, he’s a beloved figure at ETA. He’s carved out a niche for himself as a documentarian. As someone who has undoubtedly drawn the stares of strangers throughout his life, he responds by turning the camera around, rendering himself sort of invisible. If we compare Mario with Poor Tony, another paragon of difference, the text seems to be telling us that sublimation is the way to overcome the challenges that come with otherness. Don’t turn to vice, as Poor Tony does to heroin. Instead, create. Mario uses his camera as a mirror, to reflect people’s reactions to him back to themselves. After all, aren’t our reactions to outward otherness really a fear of the otherness we all sense within ourselves?

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?

whdxv1i

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.

Irrevocable emblems

If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time reading Infinite Jest as a sacred text through the theme of commitment, you will realize just how many different types of commitment there are.

You can be so committed to the Anonymous part of Alcoholics Anonymous that you refuse to use even your first name in meetings.

You can be so committed to your cover as a female soft-profile journalist that you write a piece on a literal stolen heart.

You can be so committed to the filtered, beautified image of yourself that you transmit digitally that you will avoid seeing people in real life so as not to shatter the illusion.

You can be so committed to your particular recreational substance that, when the young O.N.A.N.T.A. toxicologist shows up to collect urine samples, you buy a clean one in a Visine bottle.

You can be so committed to some delusion of yourself, and alcohol, and the desire to craft your son into a tennis prodigy, that it can detrimentally affect generations to come.

You can commit a crime.

You can be so committed to a sport in which you show the potential of greatness that you’ll sacrifice your childhood for a chance to fulfill that promise.

You can be so committed to your sobriety that you’ll live with a bunch of other recently-sober folks as your minds unravel and then attempt to put themselves back together again just for a shot at a life without your Substance.

You can be committed to listening to your favorite radio show every night.

You can be committed to another person, or to a mental hospital, or to reading a long book as a sacred text every week.

Commitment, I think, is a promise to do something even when you don’t feel like it. That’s the turning point of addiction: when you keep doing it even when it’s not fun. But it’s also the foundation of a lasting relationship: when you’re willing to Hang In and Keep Coming Back to that person, even if something else sounds more appealing.

It’s striking to me that this section ends by talking about a very specific type of commitment: tattoos. The recovering addicts of Ennet House sport tattoos of the most regrettable variety. There’re the pot leaves and martini glasses; the misspellings of racial slurs; the names of women long gone or forgotten. Don Gately’s simple square prison tattoo, inscribed by hand with a sewing needle and ball-point pen ink, isn’t a particular source of shame or regret for him, “if only because these irrevocable emblems of jail are minor Rung Bells compared to some of the fucked-up and really irrevocable impulsive mistakes Gately’d made…which Gately’s trying to accept he’ll be paying off for a real long time.”

Some commitments are superficial.

Some commitments can be quit and cast aside, forgotten.

Some commitments are worth fighting for, and others are better off abandoned.

Some commitments can be changed, the terms renegotiated.

And some commitments, like tattoos, or certain crimes, are irrevocable. Irredeemable.

 

Lectio Divina time!

From page 183: “Like most marriages, theirs was the evolved product of concordance and compromise.”

  1. Literally speaking, this sentence has two meanings, because it occurs twice. The first time, it’s read almost as a sound-check at the start of Madame Psychosis’ radio hour. The second time, it’s adjusted to directly reference the marriage of Avril and the late James Incandenza.
  2. Allegorically speaking, a lot is happening here. The two instances of this sentence form a link between Madame Psychosis and the Incandenzas, or perhaps between MP and the narrator, or maybe both.
  3. This sentence reminds of me of the way that very warm concepts can sound cold when spoken so directly. The evolved product of concordance and compromise sounds like what all marriages aim to be. But the detached way MP utters this sentence reminds me that neither concordance nor compromise are necessarily positive. Perhaps these words don’t do justice to the married couple in question, or perhaps the words gloss over something more complicated and painful.
  4. This sentence calls me to examine my own commitments, to describe them to myself and ask myself: are the words I use merely scratching the surface of the depth and meaning these commitments bring to my life? Or are the words prettifying something unhealthy or unworthy of my time and energy?

 

 

Next week, we’ll be reading pages 211-283 through the lens of expectations. In the meantime, head on over to reddit.com/r/sacredjest and join the discussion!

Words as hiding places

Here’s a bonus mid-week Lectio Divina from Week 2.

From p. 75: “I was going to say I’ve thought sometimes before like the feeling maybe had to do with Hope.”

  1. What is literally happening?

Kate Gompert is answering questions as part of an evaluation in the mental hospital she’s been admitted to after her most recent suicide attempt. The “Hope” being referred to is Bob Hope, a street name for marijuana. She’s explaining to the doctor doing the evaluation that her depression worsens when she’s not regularly using the drug.

2.  What is happening allegorically?

There’s a sort of misdirection happening with the use of the word Hope. Until Kate explains herself, we and the doctor think she’s referring to the more common usage of the word. Correlating depression and hope is obviously unusual and brings up a lot of questions in our minds. How can hope be painful?

3. What does this remind me of from my own life?

The phrasing of Kate’s sentence is sort of evasive. She fills the sentence with superfluous words like sometimes, before and maybe. It’s as if she’s trying to draw out the amount of time it takes to get to the important part of her sentence: the revelation of her drug problem. Even when she gets there, she uses a code word for the drug that adds even more time before she has to admit to her problem.  This obfuscation is something I do all the time when talking about things that make me feel vulnerable.

4. What action does this sentence call me to do?

This sentence compels me to be more direct when I talk about things, particularly things I might find embarrassing or delicate. Hiding behind unnecessary words only makes me sound less certain of what I’m saying. I challenge myself to be upfront about things that are difficult to talk about.

 

Our walled nation

I attended my first-ever protest last week. About 1,000 of us marched on the courthouse lawn in my town last Sunday to protest the travel ban and proposed wall.  I made a sign with cardboard and markers and fervor. We showed up and listened to ferocious speeches and clapped and cheered. And then came the first chant. The call-and-response echoed back and forth once, twice, three times. I looked around dumbly, sweating in the snow. I wanted to add my voice to the rallying cry, but it felt like a risk. I feared the sound of my voice wouldn’t blend organically with the hundreds of others, that it would pierce the fabric of the group and stand apart, intrinsically out of place. My friends joined in as the crowd chanted a fourth, fifth, sixth time. And finally I gathered my bearings, took a deep breath, and yelled.

“No ban! No wall!” said my stupid voice, and mine alone.

I felt like melting into a dumb puddle and being absorbed by the grass.

I felt like disappearing from the earth entirely.

Like Orin Incandeza, plummeting towards the football field dressed as a man-sized cardinal, I felt like a dick.

Insecurity stops us from doing things we want to or should do all the time. It holds us back from speaking up for what’s right, or from sharing our stories with others, or from dancing in public. Paralyzed by self-doubt, we let our insecurities keep us from enjoying things for fear of looking stupid. Hang-gliding onto a football field dressed as a giant bird could be humiliating, sure. But if Orin embraced the silliness and absurdity of it all and just let himself enjoy the ride, it could probably be pretty fun.

This week’s reading introduced us to the general rhythm of Infinite Jest, waltzing among the student athletes at ETA, drug addicts of Boston, and a couple of geopolitical agents standing on a cliff in Arizona. Each of these disparate worlds represents different types of insecurity. At ETA, we see Hal and his fellow seniors mentoring their Little Buddies. The younger boys are full of the type of insecurity that Orin and I felt this week. It’s the crippling emotional insecurity we all feel in adolescence and early adulthood. It’s the feeling that everyone else received some sort of How to Be a Person guidebook that you never got your hands on.  That type of insecurity is real, and it sucks. But it’s also the most privileged type of insecurity.

Toward the end of the week’s reading, we meet three homeless heroin addicts in Copley Square (where, coincidentally, another large protest was held last Sunday.) C, Poor Tony, and a narrator we only know as yrstruly spend Christmas Eve mugging people for drug money. Their very lives are insecure. Food, shelter, and the heroin they shoot in the street are never guaranteed. Their entire existence revolves around survival.

Then there’s Marathe and Steeply. The former is a wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatist, betraying his country and cause in the name of his dying wife. The latter is an American agent from the shady Office of Unspecified Services, deep undercover as a female journalist. They’re dealing with insecurity on a national scale. They discuss a mysterious weapon, referred to as the Entertainment or samizdat, which has the potential to devastate the entire country.

There’s no shortage of moments in this week’s pages that feel alarmingly relevant to America, 2017. The head tennis coach at ETA, Gerhardt Schtitt, calls our country “hilarious and frightening at the same time… A modern U.S. of A where the state is not a team or a code, but a sort of sloppy intersection of desires and fears.” The first victim of the Entertainment is the Near-Eastern Medical Attaché, an ethnically Saudi Canadian Muslim. Marathe calls the U.S. “your walled nation,” a strikingly fitting moniker for America today. The fear of foreign terrorism is deep enough that many Americans are willing to forgo our foundational national ideals. Our homeless and addicted citizens are struggling to stay alive, bereft of resources to help them. And teen suicide rates have been rising sharply for 20 years as our young citizens become less sure of their place in the world than ever.

America is insecure.

However, just as Steeply and Marathe conjecture about a possible anti-Entertainment to reverse the disastrous effects of the samizdat, there may be an antidote for insecurity in this week’s reading. Mario and Millicent Kent’s rendezvous in the woods has all the makings of a humiliating trauma for two teenagers. He’s a short, disfigured individual who needs special equipment to help him walk. She’s a top-ranked athlete with a very weird hairstyle who, according to the narrator, weighs over 400 lbs. Their search for an oddly-placed tripod turns intimate when Millicent confides in Mario about her morbidly obese father and his affinity for wearing his daughters’ leotards. Then it turns sexual when Millicent confesses her lust for Mario and sticks her hand down his pants. The ticklish Mario starts laughing hysterically, which results in the lovers being discovered by Mario’s brother.

One would expect the characters to be absolutely mortified. But we never get any indication that either Mario or Millicent is the least bit insecure or embarrassed. Mario showers Millicent with compliments on her violet hair bow. Millicent brags about her athletic prowess and promising future in the Show. These two bizarre characters, who society deems unattractive and disabled, show no trepidation about bearing their souls or going after what they want. They’re confident, brave, secure.

In short, Mario and Millicent are my heroes.

And in their honor, I kept chanting. I chanted, I marched, I stood up for what I believed in. Because my insecurities are no excuse for standing idly by as the insecurities of a certain president turn our country into Wallace’s nightmare. And later that night, I went dancing. Surrounded by like-minded individuals just as pissed and scared as I am, I danced like a fool. And in that moment, I felt proud. I felt good.