For her first nine years on the planet, Big Red had lived a life of compromise. She wanted to be beautiful, but she’d had to settle for being nice. She wanted to see the Aquanauts for her birthday, but she’d had to settle for the gimp lobsters at the Crab Shack. She wanted a father, but she’d had to settle for Mr. Pappadakis. Mr. Pappadakis smells like Just for Men peroxide dye and eucalyptus foot unguents. He has a face like a catcher’s mitt. The whole thing puckers inward, drooping with the memory of some dropped fly ball. Big Red’s mother has many epithets for Mr. Pappadakis: “our meal ticket,” “my sacrifice,” “vitamin P.” He is an obdurate man, a man of irritating, inveterate habits. He refuses to put down toilet seats, or quit sucking on pistachio shells, or die.
‘The City of Shells’
She saw her waist disappear into reflectionless water; it was like walking into sky, some impurity of skies. All was one warmth, air, water, and her own body. All seemed one weight, one matter — until as she put down her head and closed her eyes and the light slipped under her lids, she felt this matter a translucent one, the river, herself, the sky all vessels which the sun filled. She began to swim in the river, forcing it gently, as she would wish for gentleness to her body. Her breasts around which she felt the water curving were as sensitive at that moment as the tips of wings must feel to birds, or antennae to insects. She felt the sand, grains intricate as little cogged wheels, minute shells of old seas, and the many dark ribbons of grass and mud touch her and leave her, like suggestions and withdrawals of some bondage that might have been dear, now dismembering and losing itself. She moved but like a cloud in skies, aware but only of the nebulous edges of her feeling and the vanishing opacity of her will, the carelessness for the water of the river through which her body had already passed as well as for what was ahead. The bank was all one, where out of the faded September world the little ripening plums started. Memory dappled her like no more than a paler light, which in slight agitations came through leaves, not darkening her for more than an instant. The iron taste of the old river was sweet to her, though. If she opened her eyes she looked at blue-bottles, the skating waterbugs. If she trembled it was at the smoothness of a fish or snake that crossed her knees.
“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies” is a line, from the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it, when I was in fact a child and nobody died. Of course people did die, but they were either very old or died unusual deaths, died while rafting on the Stanislaus or loading a shotgun or doing 95 drunk: death was construed as either a “blessing” or an exceptional case, the dramatic instance on which someone else’s (never our own) story turned. Illness, in that kingdom where I and most people I knew lingered long past childhood, proved self-limiting. Fever of unknown etiology signaled only the indulgence of a week in bed. Chest pains, investigated, revealed hypochondria.
As time passed it occurred to many of us that our benign experience was less than general, that we had been to date blessed or charmed or plain lucky, players on a good roll, but by that time we were busy: caught up in days that seemed too full, too various, too crowded with friends and obligations and children, dinner parties and deadlines, commitments and overcommitments. “You can’t imagine how it is when everyone you know is gone,” someone I knew who was old would say to me, and I would nod, uncomprehending, yes I can, I can imagine; would even think, God forgive me, that there must be a certain peace in outliving all debts and claims, in being known to no one, floating free. I believed that days would be too full forever, too crowded with friends there was no time to see. I believed, by way of contemplating the future, that we would all be around for one another’s funerals. I was wrong. I had failed to imagine, I had not understood.
Bismarck’s epigram about diplomacy and sausage applies also to the way we Americans seem to feel about professional athletes. We revere athletic excellence, competitive success. And it’s more than attention we pay; we vote with our wallets. We’ll spend large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we’ll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.
But we prefer not to countenance the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll pay lip service to these sacrifices — we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the privations, the prefight celibacy.
But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews, or to imagine what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people to actually think in the simplistic way great athletes seem to think. Note the way “up-close and personal profiles” of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life — outside interests and activities, charities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one pursuit. An almost ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to their one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very serious and very small.
David Foster Wallace
‘Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a
Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Discipline,
Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness’
At this moment it may be of interest to say a word about athletes, whom I have always admired without feeling the need to be one or to take them at all seriously, and yet who seem to me as literal and within themselves as the ancient Greeks (though with their enterprises always hopeful).
Athletes, by and large, are people who are happy to let their actions speak for them, happy to be what they do. As a result, when you talk to an athlete, as I do all the time in locker rooms, in hotel coffee shops and hallways, standing beside expensive automobiles — even if he’s paying no attention to you at all, which is very often the case — he’s never likely to feel the least bit divided, or alienated, or one ounce of existential dread. He may be thinking about a case of beer, or a barbecue, or some man-made lake in Oklahoma he wishes he was waterskiing on, or some girl or a new Chevy shortbed, or a discothèque he owns as a tax shelter, or just simply himself. But you can be he isn’t worried one bit about you and what you’re thinking. His is a rare selfishness that means he isn’t looking around the sides of his emotions to wonder about alternatives for what he’s saying or thinking about. In fact, athletes at the height of their powers make literalness into a mystery all its own simply by becoming absorbed in what they’re doing.
Years of athletic training teach this; the necessity of relinquishing doubt and ambiguity and self-inquiry in favor of a pleasant, self-championing one-dimensionality which has instant rewards in sports. You can even ruin everything with athletes simply by speaking to them in your own everyday voice, a voice possibly full of contingency and speculation. It will scare them to death by demonstrating that the world — where they often don’t do too well and sometimes fall into depressions and financial imbroglios and worse once their careers are over — is complexer than what their training has prepared them for. As a result, they much prefer their own voices and questions or the jabber of their teammates (even if it’s in Spanish). And if you are a sportswriter you have to tailor yourself to their voices and answers: “How are you going to beat this team, Stu?” Truth, of course, can still be the result — “We’re just going out and play our kind of game, Frank, since that’s what’s got us this far” — but it will be their simpler truth, not your complex one — unless, of course, you agree with them, which I often do. (Athletes, of course, are not always the dummies they’re sometimes portrayed as being, and will often talk intelligently about whatever interests them until your ears turn to cement.)
One of the few things I still miss from my Midwest childhood was this weird, deluded but unshakable conviction that everything around me existed all and only For Me. Am I the only one who had this queer deep sense as a kid? — that everything exterior to me existed only insofar as it affected me somehow? that all things were somehow, via some occult adult activity, specially arranged for my benefit? Does anybody else identify with this memory? The child leaves a room, and now everything in that room, once he’s no longer there to see it, melts away into some void of potential or else (my personal childhood theory) is trundled away by occult adults and stored until the child’s reentry into the room recalls it all back into animate service. Was this nuts? It was radically self-centered, of course, this conviction, and more than a little paranoid. Plus the responsibility it conferred: if the whole of the world dissolved and resolved each time I blinked, what if my eyes didn’t open?
Maybe what I really miss now is the fact that a child’s radical delusive self-centeredness doesn’t cause him conflict or pain. His is the regally innocent solipsism of Bishop Berkeley’s God: all things are nothing until his sight calls them forth from the void: his stimulation is the world’s very being. And this is maybe why a little kid so fears the dark: it’s not the possible presence of unseen fanged things in the dark, but rather the actual absence of everything his blindness has now erased. For me, at least, pace my folks’ indulgent smiles, this was my true reason for needing a nightlight: it kept the world turning.
Plus maybe this sense of the world as all and only For-Him is why special ritual public occasions drive a kid right out of his mind with excitement. Holidays, parades, summer trips, sporting events. Fairs. Here the child’s manic excitement is really exultation at his own power: the world will now not only exist For-Him but will present itself as Special-For-Him. Every hanging banner, balloon, gilded booth, clown-wig, turn of the wrench on a tent’s erection — every bright bit signifies, refers. Counting down to the Special Event, time itself will alter, from a child’s annular system of flashes and sweeps to a more adultish linear chronology — the concept of looking forward to — with successive moments ticking off toward a calendar-X’d telos, a new kind of fulfilling and apocalyptic End, the 0-hour of the Special Occasion, Special, of the garish and in all ways exceptional Spectacle which the child has made be and which is, he intuits at the same inarticulate depth as his need for a nightlight, For-Him alone, unique at the absolute center.
David Foster Wallace
‘Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All’