nevitably, part of my motivation to return to David Foster Wallace (DFW) came after reading a friend’s not-so-recent blog post on DFW’s address to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. You can read the blog here (which contains links to online versions of DFW’s essay). I was pretty shook up by my initial reading of the essay, but the second run through I found much more liberating, even optimistic. Echoes of this essay run through The Pale King:
The memoir-relevant point here is that I learned, in my time with the Service, something about dullness, information, and irrelevant complexity. About negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests and endless wastes. Learned about it extensively, exquisitely, in my interrupted year. And now ever since that time have noticed, at work and in rereation and time with friends and even the initmacies of family life, that living people do not speak much of the dull. Of those parts of life that are and must be dull. Why this silence? Maybe it’s because the subject is, in and of itself, dull…only then we’re again right back where we started, which is tedious and irksome. There may, though, I opine, be more to it…as in vastly more, right here before us all, hidden by virtue of its size.
Perhaps appropriately, I have been thinking alot lately about death. This comes to me most often in the summer. Not so much about death, but this looming feeling of mortality. I don’t know if you are supposed to be this conscient of mortality when you are in your twenties, maybe it’s a sign of aging. But it’s always when life takes it’s simplest, most natural state that I am most aware that I am incredibly happy right now: this is all there is. Lying in the sun on a lazy afternoon, plunging into a lake, sweat lodges under a starry sky. This is probably as good as it gets. And I am happy. But this could very well be it.
Classic webbed toes at said lake, (Kennedy Lake, BC), circa 2009.
Tonight the moon is a deep auburn, redder than the sallow orange street lights that line our downtown. There was a small earthquake earlier that shook the lilies in the milk jug and sent me to NOAA in a frenzy. The belly-lit seagulls that nest on our roof (and all the roofs of downtown) look like doves as the glide home.
Today was a day where the whole thing is a do over. This morning we overslept our yoga alarm (i.e., the crack of dawn), so naturally, after waking enough to rejoice in the inevitable need to sleep in, I unwittingly tumbled down the rabbit hole of semi-lucid dreaming…I am pleased (and perhaps slightly embarrassed) to apologize that the rest of today’s post has been devoted to my first published (rather long) writing exercise.
In the interim, rejoice in summer mortality and sun! Regular book review posts will return shortly…
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dream exercise #1
The procedure would last less than an hour. It would happen during the day, they’d pull me out of my job at the forgery. I guess you can’t really call an internship a job, especially one that’s as imposed and as mundane and backbreaking as what I was going through. It was another one of those hot, smarmy days, where the the dust and soot from the coke furnaces stuck to the oily grime of the exhaust and fumes from our machines. The trip had started out so well; optimistic, bright eyed and bushy tailed, a half-dozen of us were assembled for volunteer community service for several months before being shipped overseas on cultural exchange to do similar work abroad afterwards. We ran the rote of team building exercises, the touchy-feely cross-communication workshops, the open laughing over our differences and (as if on principal) assembled a small collection of inside jokes.
And then somehow it dissolved. Despite the war efforts scaling up demands, up the forgery began to disappear. Gradually the shop floors became spacious. What used to be an intricate navigation of heavy machinery between steel rolls waiting to be packaged up and shipped, and constant negotiation of men taking smoke breaks, standing idly, all machines moving, whirring–melted away. At first I thought it was because I was becoming more skilled with the forklift, but as I began to note the lonely cars in the parking lot, I realized it was more than that.
The factory, when it is full, is alive. The metal machines take on a life of their own. Metal making metal, small human beings precariously scrambling over their moving parts, or hiding in corrugated boxes not only seem irrelevant, but also powerless and superfluous. Knights and dragons, our plastic goggles, plastic hats, and steel capped boots an insulting excuse for production against the tonnes of steel whirring, flying overhead. Huge sections of the warehouse roof are movable cranes, and red stripes on either side of our hard hats would distinguish us (albeit very tinily) to the driver five stories overhead as unpaid interns. As rookies not only were we less aware of the intricate, lethal choreography of the mill, we were also far less predictable in our actions–likely to wander off the chalked out walkways in an underpaid, underfed, exhausted stupor, and more likely to wonder why those sirens suddenly sounded so URGENT.
Since the beginning, the floors were now quiet. The cranes rested, respectively on either side of the cavernous roof. We were shipping out steel as quickly as it could be finished. There was hardly any need to move large shipments to trains, most went straight to ammunition, and could be moved by conveyor of trolly. Let alone a lack of people to drive. Guessing from the amount of harbour traffic, most had relocated to the shipyard.
We no longer had anytime for team building or “activity” days. We used the old forum (an abandoned stage, presumably once used for shop meetings, where elite owners would address throngs of men). Now we would use the stage for lunch-when and if we got it, let alone if we had the food to warrant actually stopping to sit for a moment. Our cynicism and desperation had also pushed us far beyond anything that could conceivably be a team. While initially we would rotate through the remaining stations in the shop, a caste system had developed, where moving between the dustier “pit” and the rest of the shop floor became impossible. One afternoon when my bunkmate didn’t appear, I ended up at the other end of a broom, and never made it back onto the floor. Shortly after that my breathing started to go again, and my position on the wrong side of the divide was cemented.
Our supervisor, whose days of giving me time off to clear my lungs were long over, had been made aware of my situation. His jeering and callousness, naturally also increased, but a caught a glint of concern in his eye as he gruffly motioned my direction when the medical attendants arrived. He had the stocky wiry-ness of a hardened man who had been here for too long, and tended to wear stained green coveralls, rolled down in the heat, a stained white short (he would never be enforced) and a wool cap paradoxically perched on the back of his bald head. Icy eyes cut into you. Talking to him felt akin to scaling a cement wall unassisted, there was some distant aura of softness hidden in the deepest recesses of his frozen irises: he might have had a daughter or a wife once. In any case when they arrived I saw it. And it was touching. It reminded me of when I had a father, that he worked in a place like this too.
“Slacking off again?” he barked as I put down the broom. More taunting from the others on the floor; my fellow broom-mate smirked.
“Prissy lungs get you out of work again?” I shoved my broom in his face, and allowed the technicians to flank me as we stalked away to the medical quarters.
It goes without saying that war changes the face of a country. I waited, alone, past lock-down security to be attended to in a converted elementary school gym. I only guessed this from the ripped out drinking fountain across from me, no more than two feet off the ground. The fact that dozens of little five and six year old feet would have lined up against the wall, on top of the enormous bootprints on the thick dust lining the old marble hall was almost inconceivable. But the energy of decades of small children takes time to dissipate. I absently flecked more saffron paint from the chipping wooden bench, before realizing it would probably land me in more trouble than it was worth. I sighed, looking past the enforced glass to the stained white coats on the young overworked physicians inside.
He was annoyed.
“You’re here for what exactly?” he scrumpled his face over my dog-eared chart, an orphan of coloured sheaths of paper and iterations of spelling my last name, until eventually it was just replaced with a number. “A pulmonary recalibration? You’ve had one of these before?”
Clearly a problem that predated the war. The mismatched arms of his glasses indicated they had only recently been issued; I hoped they were an appropriate prescription.
“Yes, they told me initially that it would require three rounds of treatment, but with good health I might get away with only one.” I explained. He nodded absently.
“Right, well. Step one, we give you another one. Hopefully that’ll be good enough.” He shot one more forlorn look at my charts, as he scribbled on a post-it and shoved them back to another intern (this one looked no more than 16) and waved them off. If my chart was completed it would be returned back until the next raffle drew my number again. I nodded to calm myself (a nervous habit that had only become exaggerated in recent months). I lay back on three desks (one wobbled) covered in a stained sheet, and waited for the anaesthetic to take affect.
* * *
“You’re the oncologist?” I blearily asked the girl on my right. The world was jolted into focus by the erratic stop-starts of a repurposed city bus in traffic, lurching over potholes and switchbacking up the side of a hill. I blinked several times and looked around the faux-leather, ripped and tattered seats: all full. A mix of regular workers in various states of shift and health, with several dusty soldiers grumpily installed in the front. We were sitting in the three centre seats in the back. He hair was long, blond and curly. I was mesmerized by how clean it appeared. As the anaesthetic wore off I could even smell shampoo. Her skin was clear, and she was the type of slim that indicates an academic life rapt with absently forgetting to eat. Judging from her age and youthful enthusiasm she had tumbled into her speciality early and I was one of her first patients. She was thrilled.
“Are you my oncologist?” I asked, as if it was the most normal thing in the world that a girl two years younger than I would complete the seven years medical training requires and four of specialization without glasses, let alone successfully.
“Oh no!” she laughed, “I’m a sexologist actually, just finishing my second year of my program. But I want to be an endrocrinologist.” She corrected, brightly. Gesturing to my left she affirmed: “and she’s my intern!”
Another girl, Chinese and this time one no more than 14, was on my other side. Long straight black hair, hung down by her wide investigative eyes. “Hello,” she spoke quietly, raising her hand, half in greeting, half out of fear. I was clearly one of the first people she had met outside of the medical program. I offered a brusque nod in return, taking pride in the authenticity of my filthy, faded appearance. My endocrinologist-to-be was unphazed.
“I normally see an oncologist.” I pressed. “Dr. Malcolm…”
She laughed again, “Oh yes, well fortunately they’ve identified your imbalance to be hormonal, so we’re going to start you on medication once we visit the specialist. Your case will be handled by endocrinology from now on.”
I replied through a half-nod, half-shrug. Drugs at this point in the war were the equivalent to a death sentence. I had at least four months left, unless I became sick enough to warrant a true release. Or the war ended. Or the lottery. I looked down at my lap, which I now noticed, was holding a shallow rubbermaid container, the type that would’ve held plastic dinosaurs or been the camp wash basin outside the compound. I choked back a wave of nausea as I realized not only that it was attached to me, but it was filled with organs: my organs.
My lungs, my sad little choked out lungs, tattered and drying leaned up against what I identified to be a large cornucopia of a gallbladder, and a huge, crumbly brown, blood soaked liver. The lungs were pulsing slowly, and a large silicon tube attached them back into a small slit above my sternum. Another tube emerged from the liver and snaked left into a box the quiet one was sitting on.
“Oh don’t worry, we’re going to put them back!” Intern #1 comforted, gingerly touching my forearm clutching the tub. I visibly had turned green. “What with cutbacks and all, taking them out was easier for analysis. And then we just have to take public transportation to the doctor who will have them re-installed! You’ll be back at work this afternoon!” She smiled, as if it would be helpful. My head became weightless. I was carrying my internal organs. We were on public transportation while I carried my internal organs. My life was being supported by a cooler carried by a 14 year old. If I hadn’t felt three seconds away from losing consciousness I would have laughed. Medical cutbacks…!
“This is us!!” She sprang up, motioning for us to do the same. I staggered behind her as we positioned ourselves to leap from the slowing bus. No sooner had we gathered ourselves on stable land when the cries of “TORNADO!!” rang out across the compound. Both girls bolted into the facility. The box carrying my life support crashed to the ground, and as I lunged forward to grab it, my tub filled with organs bounced out of my hands and tumbled onto the dusty, yellow earth. I gasped. The tube connecting me to life support was ripped out of my stomach, I had seven minutes, seven minutes at best. All around me, doors were slamming shut. The wind was picking up. Life support was no use to me now. Organs, I needed organs. Still attached I now had my lungs back in the box. The gall bladder. Grey began to creep in along the edges of my periphery…My liver! I needed my liver..it was missing…I just needed a piece. I looked back, I was standing, suddenly I was on the ground, my tub in one hand, clutching a piece of liver, totally encased in dirt in the other. I needed to keep moving, just to get inside the door, six meters away. There they had life support.
There were no colours anymore. My left arm was wrapped around my tub, I was dragging myself on my belly. My legs had no feeling. I needed my hand free. My hand free to open the door. I shoved the dust-covered piece of liver in my mouth to keep it warm, to free my hand. It was crumbling into pieces. My mouth felt like it was too full of paper towel. I reached for the handle as the wave crashed over me: I was about to die.
Then I woke up.
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Pretty dropcap props (as always) go out to Jessica Hische!
DFW ramblings continued here and here.