Friday, September 19, 2008

The storm in our minds

I was amazed, impressed, and saddened by today's article in the Wall Street Journal that gives an extract of David Foster Wallace's work.

Who the heck is David Foster Wallace? I never heard of the guy before. But it seems he was brilliant and prolific.

And suicidal.

He was found to have hanged himself last Friday:,0,246155.story

I was saddened by his death. I have known several folks who took their own lives, my mother, Mike Boorda, and now this person. That is incomprehensible to me, but these people obviously were miserable beyond comprehension.

I am so sorry for their misery, but equally sorry for our loss of their presence.

But it is what it is.

OK, now that we are past all that, let me tell you why this person was so special.

The cited article

describes exactly what is going on in each of our minds, and what we can do about it.

Just one excerpt that I am sure the WSJ will allow me, especially since I am flogging their excellent article:

By way of example, let's say it's an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home -- you haven't had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job -- and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the workday, and the traffic's very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store's hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can't just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store's crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn't fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.

David was able to describe in detail the storm that rages in each of our minds every single day, every single moment. He also pointed to, but obviously did not attain, the solution.

This section is so much like the Gilbert and Sullivan monologue about Crossing the Channel from Harwich, a brilliant description of a nightmare (do th following in all one line): 2006/01/blog-post_113764713618167128.html

I'm an engineer and like having things be orthogonal: separate, independent, identically distributed.

Life unfortunately is not so.

I see each person as a tiramisu: layers upon layers of different stuff.

Consider your life as a set of layers:

+ A layer for your spouse, your health, your kids, your job, your dreams, your accomplishments

Then consider each layer to have a slider bar from 0-10 (or 0-100 if you think you can be more precise) and grade each of these layers on that scale, sliding the slider to the proper position.

These shall all arrive at different positions, unless you are extraordinarily extraordinary.

Your "Happiness Index" shall be the aggregate you choose (mean, median, mode) of the layers. In this case a simple mean (average) is Good Enough.

On this system, I am pretty well off, but still some layers have very low scores.

I wonder about David.

His article is so very much like my own thoughts while going home on a Friday night with a zillion other harried drivers. I saw three bloody, yes bloody with blood flowing down the street, accidents on the other side of the road, driving home from Logan to Newport. I had already read David's article, and spent a lot of the time thinking about the poor souls who suffered these events, their families, their children, the dads or moms who could never come home again.

So I drove much more carefully, for a while.

So what is the message?

We are all in our own personal envelopes of trials and tribulations. We all have our sliders on the various layers at various settings. Some of the settings are at the extreme ends of the scale, either high or low. When those occur we are distracted from what may be vital issues, like paying attention to the road.

So we need to do two things: 1) temper our own behavior to recognize the distractions and provide for them, like by paying attention to the road, and 2) to recognize the existence of distractions in others and accommodate their distractions.

I also think that we have the right to 3) point out to others, kindly but pointedly, when their behavior indicates that they are distracted and their distraction is affecting us.

So it was a bitter sweet day, and I am so very sorry for David and his family and the victims and their families of the scenes I observed.

And I identify with David's observations, but have no intent whatsoever of doing away with myself over them.

What a loss. What a loss when anyone dies, but especially when it is someone so brilliant who could have done so much for us all. And very especially, when that person could not recognize his own worth in a manner to prevent him from doing away with himself.

That is the bitter. What is the sweet?

That we can recognize the difference. We can change this by changing our own behavior.

David recognized this but could not follow through.

Bitter sweet.

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