Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way


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“When You Are Engulfed in Flames”

David Foster Wallace has a quote about suicide that is the most true thing I have ever read on the topic.

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” – David Foster Wallace

This quote came to mind when I heard the This American Life episode about William Burroughs. The episode features a conversation between a Burroughs historian and Iggy Pop. It couldn’t have been a more fitting combination.

After describing Burroughs, all the beautiful and grotesque aspects of the man, the interviewer asks Pop what he thinks of Burroughs. After a pause Pop says, “… this wonderful American man of a certain generation did his best to shoulder the burden of intelligence and sensitivity and deal with his pain.” The truth rang out in its simplicity.

The most insedious aspects of depression is that it holds your tongue mute. If the very best we can do for each other is share our burdens, depression holds its victims hostage in their own heads. In a culture where we only acknowledge publicly the positive range of human emotion, the words to name all else dry up and blow away.

My friend mentioned that going public with depression often results in sputtered, unsatisfying platitudes or comforting the listener. Because we fail to acknowledge dark emotions, well intentioned listeners are traumatized just hearing someone call them by name. I find myself minimizing the truth in response to my listener’s discomfort. And a moment for real connection is lost as I put my happy mask back on.

But everything is not fine, and living in a fictional reality is crazy-making. When you find yourself with no response to big questions like, why am I here, you also question getting out of bed in the morning. Because my body is only satisfied to lay down for a limited numbers of hours, I suppose? And when the only things you treasure are the occasional sunrise and a cup of coffee, it’s nearly impossible to answer practical questions like, what kind of job do you want?

Depression isn’t just a case of the sads. Oh God, if it was that simple! It comes quietly and distorts perception. I only become aware it is upon me once I am fully under its thumb. The alligator has me and has entered its death roll before I am aware I am in trouble; in this state I can barely muster the strength to cling to awareness. Crying for help is simply no longer an option.

It tints all aspects to concious thought. Hopelessness, insecurity, anxiety touch every moment. The greeting from the guy at the coffee shop becomes suspect. The invite from a friend suddenly is imbued with pity and obligation rather then a genuine desire to be with you. What might have been fun in another context is robbed of pleasure. Whatever was bright in this world loses its color. You are there in the burning building. And that jump is looking more and more like relief. Anything but this.

Because naming is so hard I write. Because seeing a loved one’s face when I speak these words is too overwhelming, I write. Because David Foster Wallace’s quote sooths me, not in spite of his suicide but because of it, I write. Because maybe someone else might take courage that they are not alone, I write.

…That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable…
…The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you…
– David Foster Wallace

The truth is a dick. And consider this particular moment endured.

Note: When You Are Engulfed in Flames is the title of a David Sedaris book. That reference is on purpose.

Second note: if you know me and are concerned, kindly keep that shit to yourself. This is not my first rodeo, and unfortunately this will not be my last.


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100 Books by 40: A Town Like Alice

I’ve been on this 100 books by 40 mission for a little over a year. At the outset, I wanted this effort to drive me to read more. If that is the only measure of success, this has been very successful. There have been other unintended consequences.

I like writing. I am doubtful that my writing is of interest to most other people, but I am satisfied with the effect the process has on my mood and thoughts. I’ve noticed through the year that my thoughts are getting easier and easier to type. I’ve picked up editing habits that yield ever better results. My posts now go though multiple draft readings across days prior to posting. Plus, rereading my year of posts helps me spot grammatical issues across time. I noticed that I have a problem mixing my metaphors. Metaphors will get extra attention in my edits from now on.

In addition to establishing better writing patterns, this year has made me a different reader. I recall in the not terribly distant past, I struggled with reading Dickens. The variations on English proved challenging. With Austen, Hardy, Eliot, Dickens, and the Bronte sisters behind me, I don’t struggle anymore. Seventeenth century British Literature feels easily in my grasp. I’m still pretty certain that I’m missing some nuance in these novels, but I easily follow plots and conversations.

These changes are positive, but I’ve noticed one effect that I’m ambivalent about. Reading these novels is making me more sensitive to technically good prose. I was gazing longingly at my unedited copy of On the Road, and I thought how exciting it will be to pick that up. It’s number 90 in my list, and it’s my favorite book. What a great way to celebrate wrapping up this adventure. Then I thought about how pedestrian recent novels feel to me now, fresh off Hardy and Eliot. What if I get to my favorite book and only find disappointment? What if I don’t enjoy David Foster Wallace anymore?

I can’t explain how sad this makes me feel. My favorite authors reach into my deepest thoughts and emotions and come back giving voice to things that I cannot find words for. Their voices resonate deeply, and make me feel less alone. But still, I’m too curious to deviate from this adventure. Now that I’ve started I must know if my most cherished books can withstand the changes that have been wrought in me.

So, all of that has nothing to do with A Town Like Alice. As mentioned in past posts, the 30’s are the land of 1000 page books, but A Town Like Alice broke from that trend with a mere 300 pages. The book is basically a war romance. The character development is good, and the true events that inspired part of the plot were fascinating. The female lead gets marched around Malaya with a group of British women for miles and miles. The Japanese didn’t have an appropriate camp to house them, so military leaders just kept sending them to different outposts without purpose. More than half of the women and children died.

I found all of the historical information in this book really interesting. It gave me a great sense of what Australia was like after World War 2. Otherwise, I found this book unremarkable.

Welcome to the 30's of the BBC's 100 best books list, also known as the land of 1000-page books.

Welcome to the 30’s of the BBC’s 100 best books list, also known as the land of 1000-page books.