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Being Lead to Water

wallaceOne cold, rainy, October evening in 2011, I found myself at an Illinois Authors’ Dinner hosted by the Illinois Library Association. As I sat rattling my teaspoon around a half cup of surprisingly good coffee, I chatted with my friend Eric who was similarly roped into attending this dinner after a long day’s work and a shitty commute from the pastoral setting of Palos Hills, where our campus is located, down the Tri-state, past airport traffic, and into the hell of Rosemont, Il—a town replete with oppressive office buildings, crappy—even if well appointed—airport hotels, and bumper-to-bumper luxury SUVS edging their way to their own sleepy suburbs. There we sat in the basement ballroom of the InterContinental Hotel beneath the amber, incandescent glow of the crystal chandeliers and amidst the din of librarian banter. We waited for the evening’s keynote speaker—Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hours.

Cunningham was all right. I had read nothing of his except his most prestigious claim to fame. I enjoyed the book for its overlapping narrative and the intertextual connections to Virginia Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. In fact, I taught the book for a handful of semesters in my intro to fiction class. The book was good; Cunningham was all right—unremarkable. Honestly, with four years between then and now, not much of his talk sticks with me.

It’s funny how something so insignificant, so overlooked, can reach out of the past and tap you on the shoulder years later.

Until this day, I thought nothing of that night four years ago. It’s returned today, though, and it has nothing to do with Cunningham, or librarian small talk, or Illinois authors, or surprisingly good coffee. Rather the night has returned to me because through the fog of seemingly insignificant detail something has emerged. While clinking spoons and sipping coffee that night, and being mildly bothered by the elitist, arrogance of Michael Cunningham, my friend Eric made an offhand remark: “This is no ‘This Is Water.’” He told me about a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005 with the title “This Is Water.” Eric took a class under Wallace at Illinois State and seemed to have a special fondness for his work. I hadn’t heard of this talk, but because of Eric’s enthusiasm in mentioning this speech and Wallace, I told myself I’d look it up later. I never did, and four years went by.

Just recently, though, through surfing some random internet wave, I stumbling upon said speech and Eric’s small, offhand remark reached out of the past and tapped me on the shoulder once again . Here is David Foster Wallace’s speech “This Is Water.”


Wallace has a way of articulating a simple and terrible truth that I have been feeling for some time now but have not or could not quite put to words. He asserts that we must learn to override our default setting of being completely, utterly self-absorbed long enough to choose to see things differently. In discussing what he calls the cliché of a liberal arts education being about “learning how to think,” he suggests we look past the “lame and banal” platitude to consider the “great and terrible truth” that lies beneath. He reminds us that learning how to think really means “exercis[ing] some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious…” We get to choose what we pay attention to and how we “construct meaning from experience”—that is, if we can override our default setting of being the center of our own universe long enough to see things differently.

And I submit that this is what the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.David Foster Wallace

Wallace strikes a beautiful balance in this piece between intellectual abstraction and the hard-hitting concrete detail of daily life. He pairs away the “rhetorical bullshit” and delivers his message with such urgency. It is not “fun and breezy,” but it is the truth.

In listening to the recording of the speech he delivered and in reading the text of the speech published by Little, Brown and Company, I am struck by a couple small but significant differences. As Wallace talks about the adage of the mind being “an excellent servant but a terrible master,” as he makes a reference to adults who commit suicide by shooting themselves in the head, and then asserts “most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger,” one can’t help but think of the circumstances of Wallace’s own death which would come by his own hand three years later. In his speech, Wallace says, “The capital-T truth is about life before death.” In the written manuscript alone, he adds, “It’s about making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.” For whatever reason, he chose to omit this latter line from his speech to the Kenyon graduates. Perhaps, in the moment, he found this line to be even too much capital-T truth for him.

Another small but remarkable difference between the speech and the written text comes right at the end. Early in the piece he conveys what he calls a “didactic little story” about a religious guy and an atheist talking about their divergent worldviews. He talks about how the atheist tried out religion when stuck in a blizzard. He prays to be saved, and then comes along a couple of Eskimos who guide him back to camp. Later, the atheist rejects the notion that this was some sort of divine intervention but was rather mere luck of circumstance. Wallace uses this story early in his talk to make a point about how we each individually will construct meaning differently based on our individual belief templates. Fair enough. The interesting addition at the end of the written piece, though, is when Wallace writes, “These Eskimos might be much more than they seem.” Interestingly, this addition (omitted from the spoken version) created a religious overtone, amplified given the emphasis of placement at the end of the piece.

Wallace talks about another truth towards the end of his speech: the truth that we all worshop. The only choice we have, he says, is what to worship. He speaks about the dangers of worshiping money, power, beauty, intellect, and so on. He tells us our culture would have us worship these things and give us “the freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.” But this is not real freedom.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. This is real freedom.David Foster Wallace

I am glad that Eric’s offhand remark so many years ago led me to Wallace’s “This Is Water.” It has left an indelible mark on me. It reminds me that each day, I have the freedom to choose what to think and to create meaning from my experience. It reminds me of the work I have to do to remain aware of “what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain site.” To be present. To be mindful. To consider how infinitely small I am in the grand scheme of meaning, and yet to know I am not alone.

feeling this

Watching Aidan grow up. He’s 12 now. Saw Linklater’s Boyhood. Feeling this…

cabin dreams underway

So the day has come! We’ve been planning for our log cabin project for a while now—well for about 20 years actually; however, we’ve been making the dream a reality now since June 2011 when we purchased 40 acres of northern woods just outside of Marquette, Michigan. We had taken a road trip the summer before through the UP and fell in love with the place. After a year of searching, we found our land and have been trying to move a building project forward ever since. There have been a number of challenges and delays. We had to work with our neighbors (whose private property we cross to get to our land) for deeded easement rights over their property. It took a while to build some trust there, but in the end they were very gracious and granted us these rights in perpetuity.

Camp McGuire Print of Camp McGuire

We then had to figure out where we might build on this chunk of wilderness. While it’s a nice 40 acre piece, there are really just 3 and a half acres that are “buildable” in any sense of the word, as the rest is cut off by creek and granite ridge. We decided that if we moved the existing road back away from the creek, we could open up a nice building site for our cabin so that it would overlook the creek nicely and give us a little privacy from the road (a private dirt road that sees maybe 3 cars a year). We spent about a year trying to get permission to cross about 30 feet of land owned by a timber company in order to avoid unnecessary hairpin turns in our rerouted road, but they were not very reasonable, so we thought hairpins are fun.

There was some significant delay in getting the required permits from the DEQ to lay a temporary bridge to cross the creek on the way in. (The existing bridge wouldn’t take the weight of the construction vehicles.) Dan from Oberstar was really helpful in this matter. He contacted a logger he knew who had a bridge we could use, worked with an outside consultant to write the permit application (apparently it’s got to be just right for the DEQ, and it isn’t cheap), and consulted us on how to make it all work within our budget.

The fun part has been working with Hiawatha Log Homes out of Munising. We’ve been designing the cabin with them all the while we were working out the many other details. Garrett from Hiawatha has been great. He helped us take our vision and adjust in such a way that it made good building sense and became financially feasible for us. On July 23rd, they delivered the logs to our property.

Finally, this July, everything was in place and we broke ground. First the road—a bit of a challenge given the rocky terrain—and then clearing and excavation for the cabin foundation. Days later, Scott, our builder from Northland Builders had the foundation and subfloor in place with his crew stacking the walls the next day. How exciting! It’s underway. We hope for the exterior cabin to complete by November.

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