Validation Cookies

Also known as “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” David Foster Wallace’s “Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise,” is a long, absurdly detailed portrait of one of the many morbidly bloated vacation staples in these here United States of America: the five-star luxury cruise. A month ago someone’s tweet led me to this blog post, which led me to this episode of The Simpsons, which references Wallace’s aforementioned 1996 Harper’s essay, which I then placed in my reading queue, saving a PDF of it to my desktop before promising myself I’d eventually get to it. It only took me a few weeks to muster the intestinal fortitude to plow through its roughly 20,000 words, but this past weekend I finally finished. It’s a good read, if not sad, but when it was all over I was left with an unsatisfied itch that really had nothing to do with what I felt about the conclusion of the piece. I just felt like there had to be something more.

So I returned to and re-read the blog post, again chewing on the author’s conclusion that “the main point” of Wallace’s piece “is that cruise vacations are mercilessly inhuman” (I still took away a feeling that Wallace neglected to share at least a few moments of enjoyment that might have softened his point), and read all the post’s comments which are mostly comprised of peanut gallery nitpicking about whether or not the show felt like a Simpsons episode (though due to the suggested deteriorating quality of the program, readers of this particular site often refer to it as Zombie Simpsons). Still hungry (for brains?), a quick Googling for Wallace’s article kept me on the prowl.

The Awl has a piece about how (acclaimed author and a longtime close friend of Wallace) Jonathan Franzen had openly raised issue with how fictitious Wallace’s journalism — particularly “Shipping Out” — might have been. Again, I took to the comments which offer a variety of straying ideas often veering from the pair’s relationship and the accusation itself to discussion surrounding mental illness and suicide (some were surprisingly topical however, including one person who quoted author David Shields in adding, “Anything processed by memory is fiction”). A 1996 Charlie Rose interview segment with Wallace, Franzen, and Mark Leyner referenced by the article’s author added a secondary dimension to the debate (discussion repeatedly returned to that of television’s role in society, with Wallace drawing similarities, in my mind, to the modern-day Internet by commenting on how we recognize that while we’re intently satiated by it, we believe there to be something more), but overall the whole package left me feeling that it’s sort of tasteless to revert back to such conversation without Wallace actually being around to either confirm or deny such a statement. Franzen and Wallace went back many years, had a sordid history (as DFW apparently did with many of those close to him), and it just seems like a cheap shot more than anything; many of the comments on the post explain it better than I can.

The rest of the crop of results I harvested ended up yielding remarkably balanced perspectives: I read both a bubbling and complimentary recap (“What makes ‘Shipping Out’ such a fantastic specimen of literary journalism is how insistently un-literary it is”… Although that led to me daydreaming up a scene of an art gallery where a rather tidy pair is standing together, each looking intently at a well-constructed canvas hung on an otherwise empty wall. “What’s so great about that?” asks the first. “That, right there?” the second replies. “My dear, that’s great simply because it’s not trying to be great.”) as well as a sharp and insightful rebuttal to Wallace’s entire approach (“In most [of] these cases it feels like you’re reading the effusions of very smart, extremely insecure children. DFW’s inability to interact with people who don’t have a subscription to the Utne Reader explains why he spends so much time in his cabin playing with the various mechanical utilities.”). Again, more comments, more ideas set to simmer on the backburner.

The entire time I was still not fully understanding though, still taking into account my own belief that I’m probably not smart enough to realize why we’re here, over 16 years later, watching one of the greatest television shows of all time (zombified version or no) pay homage to an article that succeeded because it was able to structure the largely mundane details of life aboard a cruise line in such a way as to please stuffy college professors everywhere: Wallace told us that he was going to reveal how such experiences are sad, explained precisely why such experiences are sad, and wrapped it up by essentially confirming, “Now, wasn’t that sad?” The dueling perspectives and after-the-fact revelation (as well as the lengthy online discussion that surrounded each) helped me gain a deeper understanding for what was both positive and negative about what I’d just read, but even after spending the better part of the day in contemplation there was still something missing from the equation. Then it hit me.

I needed a cookie.

About five years ago I attended a martini party (who says short socks and martinis don’t mix?) and during conversation with one of the well-read, well-dressed, well-respected hosts, he casually boasted of how much he reads every day online (explaining how his reading habits were changing with times) after I gestured to the couple’s rather impressive collection of books. I remember trying to explain that I, too, spent a lot of time online (true) reading (not as true). And in a move of confession that could deal a swift blow to any credibility I might have built to this point, after years of reading others’ praises, and even adding a few of my own opinions, it’s with great weakness that I announce that “Shipping Out” was actually the first long-form piece I’ve ever actually read of David Foster Wallace’s (aside from the Kenyon College commencement address). I’ve watched plenty of online interviews with the guy, but I’m hardly a student of Infinite Jest. The point is, when I was having a hard time deciding whether to continue with the essay I convinced myself that in finishing there would be a reward of some sort. If I do finish and DFW came through with an earth-shattering revelation, I’d be rewarded with the sort of reflection that follows an earth-shattering revelation. If he didn’t, I could still at least brag about how I had actually read the whole thing. I might not be the aging playwright with the pencil-thin mustache and impossibly gorgeous girlfriend, but at least I could try to squeak out some sort of validation in the process.

I’ve often found myself considering the motivation behind a lot of what I do (online at least, although what I do in Real Life hardly makes sense most times either). Take Twitter, for instance, and in particular re-tweeting: sure, it’s passing along someone else’s point, and maybe communicating something hilarious or insightful that you couldn’t voice prior, but it’s also sort of begging others to recognize that you saw something of value, identified it as such, and shared it with the expectation that it would reflect on you accordingly: A RT Gandhi quote is hardly ever just a RT Gandhi quote. Same goes for “Liking” articles online and adding disposable status updates. I mean, how telling of my coolness would it be to toss up a quick note reading, “Wow, just read an interesting essay on how depressing cruise lines are: DFW = truth”? It’d be a tad silly, sure, but it gets the point across: I accomplished something and might have even learned something today. Which I did, I guess. The problem is that despite any reflection on my own, without that validation from others the whole practice felt a bit empty. Empty and kind of sad.

It might not be as bad as I’m making it to seem though. I mean, I’ve actually read quite a few books lately (there I go again…) but haven’t jumped online to say how bored I was by Michael J. Fox or how The Great Gatsby hardly rocked my world. But this was different. Reading DFW felt like it came with a sort of factory wrapped brag cookie to be indulged in after the meal, filling my stomach with the much craved acknowledgment of others, satisfying the validation junkie I’ve become. But it’s not worth it (says the guy dedicating an entire blog post to the idea). Something’s wrong here (says the guy who will plug this blog post on Twitter and Facebook as soon as it’s published).

I have a hard time with social media: I think it can be helpful and I think it can be terrible. But this cycle of putting yourself out there only for the cheap stimulation of someone else saying, “Hey, you exist!” is a tough one. I’d like to think that there’s a place for a lot of the throw-away conversation that exists online, and sometimes there’s even some real good that can slip through the cracks and impact someone’s life. But after all of this — the reading, the searching, the viewing, the contemplating — I’m left wondering what happened to the 1997 me (aside from too many burgers and not enough exercise) who spent countless hours listening to music by himself in his room, without a single thought of calling someone on the phone to tell them how great live Black Sabbath was when listened to in the dark? It just was, and that was good enough. I always thought I had low self-esteem growing up, but looking back I don’t think it was ever low enough to the point where I craved such continual feedback from others, begging onlookers to recognize that such commonplace nonsense as getting a sunburn or reading an essay has simply taken place (Hey, I exist!). I love connecting with people online, but is sitting around with a chat window open all day with the hope that someone (anyone) reaches out to comment on how cool an essay you is read really the point of reading an essay? What’s worse is that I know — even as I look ahead to attempting to snuff out this habit — that the need for validation is one I’m not bound to escape any time soon.

Not All Losses Are Equal

This Memorial Day weekend Vice President Biden took the lectern in front of over two thousand attendees (Gold Star families of deceased veterans who died in service) speaking as part of the T.A.P.S. survivor seminar, initially determined to discuss a very empathetic matter: his son Beau’s Iraq deployment. “We felt guilty because he came home whole.” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow introduced the clip, “I do not think I have ever seen a speech like this from a President or a Vice president. I have never seen something this raw and emotional said by a President or a Vice President before… ever, I don’t think.” Not that my eyes and ears have ever been particularly aimed at politics, but I agree. What the man said was heavy about his son, but his words became even more serious when the topic veered to a topic even more emotional.
"The call said my wife was dead, my daughter was dead, and [they] wasn’t sure how my sons were going to make it. [They went] Christmas shopping and a tractor trailer broadsided them, in one instant killed, two of them and… well… And I have to tell ya I used to resent, I knew people meant well, they’d come up to me and say ‘Joe, I know how you feel.’ (crowd erupts in laughter and applause) I knew they meant well, I knew they were genuine, but you knew they didn’t have any damn idea. Right? (more laughter) That black hole in your chest like you’re being sucked back into it. Looking at your kids, and most of you have kids here. Um… And knowing it was the first time in my career — my life — I realized someone could go out — and I probably shouldn’t say this with the press here; no, but it’s more important, you’re more important — for the first time in my life I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts: because they’d been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again. That it was never going to get… never going to be… again. That’s how a lot of you feel. There will come a day — I promise you, and you parents as well — when the thought of your son or daughter, your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is that day will come sooner or later, but the only thing I have more experience than you in is this: I’m tellin’ ya, it will come."
I wouldn’t say that I acted as emotionally to this as I did, say, the recently viral Lip-Dub Proposal video, but I’d like to think that what I lack in tears I make up for with understanding. Biden’s words touched me because they’re not solely aimed at the families of loss, but the lost themselves (ourselves?).

From time to time I feel guilty, too, but not because I’ve come home from some misguided war effort in one piece, but because I so consistently revert back to feelings that I know represent betrayal to many friends and family members. I don’t think that I’ve ever really reached any mountain top, as Biden called it, but I often feel like I’ll never again experience the resounding sensation of wholeness that the Vice President alluded to in his speech. It’s not an every day thing, and I’m not moments away from drawing a razor blade to my skin and making a mess of myself, but the thought persists: I often feel like I want to die. When times are dark, the mind strays accordingly, but even when the sun is shining emotionally, I still find a way to make the connection: How romantic would it be to go out while in a good mood than a bad one? I’ve quite literally thought that before. Hopefully that doesn’t make me any more deranged or nuts than anyone else though.

I’m lucky to have friends, but the few that still listen to me are probably growing tired of hearing me think out loud about how I’m struggling to find out What Comes Next. One recent idea I’ve been bouncing around is that of landing in a new city, back in a state where I have (to this point, at least) a rather terrible track record, hoping that the kindness of a few old friends and a relative strangers helps me land on my feet. Overall, I really don’t know what I’d be looking for if I made the leap other than a safe place to spend some time, but more than anything I think what spurred the idea was simply Possibility: The possibility of new beginnings, new adventures, new love… even if none of them are actually there to be discovered. I think I’m searching for what we all are, in some respects, but I feel guilty that I know I’ll probably turn my back on whatever I find, good or bad, no matter where I land, by continuing to experience these feelings. They’re hardly like clockwork, but I can count on them with the same infallibility as death and taxes.

I was recently told that I am “a risky man to love right now.” The friend who offered me that espresso shot of reflection was dead on. Her cautionary words weren’t meant to say anything about me as a person, or at least anything I didn’t already know, but something about what’s fair to expect out of other people. As long as I feel this way, any attachment I find to anything or anyone is going to act as a replacement for what I’ve lost: that black hole in my chest Biden alluded to. Hopefully I’ll have fun along the way because I’m sure I’ll later feel guilty as my fun is balanced by thoughts that reduce my mind to a bleak wasteland of stark emotion. But rather than determining that all is either perfect or lost, I find myself momentarily taking shelter in the today’s words. Hopefully, like Biden said, in the future today’s tears will become tomorrow’s smile. So easily lost is the reality that the experience of surviving is what makes the next moment of adversity less unbearable to combat. Joe, I know how you feel.

Time for Livin'

Practically everyone with 140 characters to spare has already said their piece on the death of the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch. Though only 48 hours have passed since the news broke, it already seems like an eternity since many far more eloquent and thoughtful than I made their longer-form goodbyes public, signing off to one of the greats with reflections on the group and the man that I could only dream of duplicating:

The always reliable Jeff Weiss, "For our generation, the Beastie Boys were forever 22, the turnstile-hopping, egg-wielding, seltzer-spraying punks... Little did they know that they were also religious searchers, music video visionaries, and street art scholars. Decades before Kanye, they were pioneers of sophisticated ignorance."

Sasha Frere-Jones' New Yorker postscript, "And this is the Yauch people remember: a man who could say he was sorry and not feel lessened by it; a man living within the principles of Buddhism and committed to broadening awareness of the political situation in Tibet; and a genuinely quiet person who had become more likely to make a joke at his own expense than anyone else's."

And Pitchfork's Mark Richardson, calling Yauch, "a relatable blueprint for growing up, in both his art and his life."

Those are just a few of my favorites.

It seems pointless to go deep in revisiting much of the band's history or Yauch's personal triumphs as, again, others have already taken care of that, and done a damn fine job of it, too. They had the first chart-topping hip hop album ever, they were a key proponent in the popularization of the genre as a "reputable" art-form, their Grand Royal imprint was a cornerstone of the '90s, their music videos were revolutionary, and their music remains tirelessly relevant. They're one of my favorite musical acts of all time, but I never saw them live. Now I never will.

A brief period of time has passed since another group of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, R.E.M., said their collective goodbye to fans, breaking up after about 31 years of active duty together. The Beastie Boys outlasted them, and by my account they left an imprint on pop music that overshadows the group of Athens-rockers in the process. Now that the Beastie Boys belong to history though, I'm struggling to muster any emotion that puts the emphasis back on me — what about my memories and my loss, as a fan?! — and I'm left with a feeling that I'm not sure I would have predicted after learning that the group had (unceremoniously, of course) broken up. The truth is though, as hours continue to pad the distance between the news and the present moment, "shattered," "shocked," and "heartbroken" are three reactions that I can't claim to be honest, and I've hardly felt "sad" in response to the news. Nope, I'm not crushed because of a key cultural proponent's passing. I'm glad.

From The New York Times' timeline of events leading up to Yauch's death,
Mr. Yauch’s mother said he died at 9 a.m. on Friday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan with his parents, his in-laws, his wife, Dechen Wangdu, and his 13-year-old daughter, Tenzin Losel Yauch, at his bedside. He had been admitted to the hospital on April 14 after a three-year battle with cancer of the salivary gland. He was conscious until the end... Mrs. Yauch said had been undergoing chemotherapy this spring, but his health deteriorated rapidly over the last two weeks. 'It all just seemed to happen overnight,' she said.
Of course it's terrible that Yauch's leaving behind a loving family and a globe full of friends, and was cut down well before His Time was supposed to come. But what if he had survived? What if he wasn't so lucky with the cancer this time, and treatment was unable to combat its assault, allowing it to metastasize further, and potentially prompting some grotesque removal of flesh and bone. Or worse: the loss of his spirit. What if he "survived" and was left a shell of a person that the world has come to love, the cancer slowly separating the body from the man, crippling his family with the burden of seeing their loved one slowly disappear over a seemingly endless period of soul-crushing despair? Fantasy is a wonderful thing, and it's pleasant to think of what could be and what might have been, but reality is often far more gruesome than anything we can conceive of.

Is it better to burn out than to fade away? How about a third option? How about doing it better than most have ever done before, and will likely do again? How about boasting a resume of such near-unparalleled longevity and depth that not a single soul can claim that your accomplishments would be anything less than impossible to match? How about embracing the role as humanitarian and philosophical bee-e-a-ess-tee-i-e in changing the face of global culture? How about a life that was neither too short nor too long, but one just long enough to help alter the world and leave behind a soundtrack to help us each embrace whatever the future may hold. Is Adam Yauch's passing unfortunate? Unarguably so. But am I glad, no — thankful, that he lived as long as he did in the first place? With all my heart.