Enjoy a little preview of our July theme, stunt journalism, from Jack today!

While originally I intended to write this piece as a hopefully humorous post-mortem on my defeat at the hands of David Foster Wallace, I feel compelled to share the real reason I failed.

When the theme for this month (stunt journalism) was announced, I thought of a variety of challenges to take on. Most of them related to going through some terrible filmmaker’s catalog, watching all the episodes of a terrible tv show, or otherwise subjecting myself to abysmal art for the sake of others’ enjoyment.

While that would have been considerably more fun, instead I decided this would be a convenient time frame in which I could accomplish a long-held goal: to tackle Wallace’s behemoth novel, Infinite Jest.

The book is over 1,000 pages, but I felt confident in my ability to make it happen. More than that, I had a plan. I figured that if I read twenty-five pages or more each evening, I’d be done in around six weeks, assuming there would be some evenings that I would necessarily miss.

The first week and a half had mediocre results. I underestimated the immense complexity of Wallace’s sentence structures, finding myself reading and re-reading the same sentences upwards of four times just to make sure I was tracking.

About this time, I got a phone call from my mom while I was at the office letting me know that my grandfather had suffered an unexpected and serious heart attack. Visiting him in the hospital, I offered to stay behind so my mother could drive my grandma back to their condo for the evening. As I sat and talked with my grandfather, I had a sense that this may be one of the last conversations I would have with him.

I left that evening feeling unsettled and unable to read any more of the book. Two days later, my grandfather went home from the hospital and I cracked the book open that evening, planning to make up for lost time on the weekend.

But that Saturday, while I was still in bed, I got another call from my mom. I knew from her first word the reason she was calling. Very early that morning, my grandfather had died in his sleep. I wept.

My grandfather and I were very close. Beyond the usual family gatherings, as one of the last grandchildren still in the Grand Rapids area, I had become his default IT provider. He was still computing as an octogenarian, so I got quite a few calls. But I didn’t ever mind.

Going over to their place gave me a chance to solve problems like a broken spam filter or a wifi router in need of a re-boot. They were problems with solutions. It was a peaceful ritual. I would fix the issue, talk with my grandfather about his woodworking, his birds, his genealogy project, or any number of his other interests. And he had many. He and my grandmother would take me out for a meal, or give me a large bowl of ice cream, and thank me profusely, despite my insistence that it was my pleasure.

The day he died, I realized I would never again receive a call from him. I realized I would never hear him slip another Dutch phrase into our conversation. I realized I would never get another wink, another hug, another smile from him.

It messed me up so badly I couldn’t finish the book. I could barely finish anything. I was distracted at work, distracted with friends. I spent each evening that week working on a eulogy for his funeral, often until the wee hours of the morning. I couldn’t hold my emotions in enough to string sentences together. Even as I write this I am hurting.

And I felt guilty. Guilty for not finishing the book, guilty for allowing my work performance to slip, guilty for my mental absence with friends. Guilty for not doing what I needed to so I could write this piece.

I knew the irrationality of it. I knew that nobody would fault me. I knew that my failures were completely understandable, even justified. But it didn’t help.

It’s a feeling that I often have. I’ll be talking with friends and realize how poorly read I am, or how pedestrian my knowledge of art history is, or that I’m a terrible cook. And I’ll feel guilty because instead of cultivating those skills and interests, I had been busy watching the same movies with my family, or walking the same block, or swimming in the same pool.

I don’t know what I learned from this all. From the loss, from the lapses that resulted, from any of it. Perhaps that part of life is letting some things slide. I think the Dutch work ethic wired into my personality short-circuits even as I write that. But maybe enough is all it needs to be.

Jack Van Allsburg

Studied psychology and writing, works at a design firm. Film junkie, amateur photographer. (’16)

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