david foster wallace
I write this column every year: a plea for humans of the college football world to use clear language instead of the names they have for bowl games. Truthfully, a brand name for a bowl game communicates something, but think how much more accurately we could communicate if things like geographical location, history, traditions, and common, relatable experiences were more important than who pays the most.
I realize not everybody enjoys the ability to elegantly express ideas to other humans as much as I do, and that mercantile interests can be human interests as well. But since I started using language in my communication, I've experienced a 1000% improvement in comprehension, and I wanted to share that success story with you. Don't believe me? Here are some other humans who've benefited from this same extraordinary device:
: "Hello, I'm Steve, a relatable middle aged white man with the body, hairline, and lifestyle that other middle aged white men envy. My wife Janet and I are proud Bowling Green graduates and big fans of the Falcons. I wanted to get Janet a trip to BGSU's bowl game for Christmas, but when I triumphantly announced "We're going to the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl!" she was very confused. Then I discovered Talking Like a Human Being™, which taught me to tell Janet it's the "Camellia Bowl in Montgomery." Janet was thrilled, because the name communicated to her that we were going to a bowl game in Montgomery, and the flower association made it memorable!"
: "I'm Lewis, a non-threatening yet sexy young African-American businessman with perfect skin. My in-laws are coming to visit our tasteful suburban Atlanta home over Christmas, but they asked me to drive them to the airport the afternoon of December 31st. When I tried to explain that we would have to leave very early because of "Chick-fil-A Bowl" traffic, they thought I meant the South is just that insane over a fast food restaurant. But when I called it the "Peach Bowl," suddenly they could recognize the name of a big traditional football game that they've heard about since the late 1960s, and even offered to order a taxi so that I could stay home and watch it! Thanks, Talking Like a Human Being™!"
: "I'm Krista, a cute and friendly Minnesota undergrad. Men find me very attractive in an approachable way, and women want to be my friend because they wish they looked this good while rocking a knit scarf, high wool socks, and "" stickers on my cheeks. I was so totally stoked by my Gophers' great season, but when I told my girls we were going to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl they were like "that's a crappy one" because until recently that meant the old Copper Bowl. So then I said it was "the old Capital One Bowl," but then they got even more confused because that's now the name of the Orange Bowl—you know, the BCS bowl in Miami that Big East teams used to go to. Then I discovered Talking Like a Human Being™. And once I said "Citrus Bowl" my friends knew that meant the bowl that 2nd place Big Ten teams go to, and they were more excited than that one time our sorority went ice skating with Goldy!"
: "I'm Batman. Specifically, I'm Batman from that 1990s Tim Burton movie with Jack Nicholson that hits all the nerd-nostalgia buttons for men between 25 and 40. When I say 'I'm Batman', people know that I'm Batman, because I've been calling myself Batman since 1939. Could you imagine if I was like: 'I'm Batman, presented by Vizio?' I'm sure I could make some money by doing that but to be honest I'm already filthy rich, and while Alfred assures me I could always use more money, I feel like the incremental revenue wouldn't be worth cheapening 75 years worth of brand equity. So I turned them down and went with Talking Like a Human Being™ instead. Because I'm Batman!"
[After the jump: bowl games in a human language, bowl logos without sponsors on them, and discussion on the whole title sponsorship business]
Hokepoints of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office Or Mobile (sic)
We're just a few days away from the start of bowl season, which means I get make my annual appeal against subsidized hell. But first a short message from Billy…
Tired of being an unwitting accomplice to some company's branding campaign every time you mention a bowl? Are you constantly struggling to get readers and listeners to know which the hell game you're talking about? Then let me tell you about the latest in idea-exchanging technology from MGoBlog: THE COMMUNICATION COLLECTION™.
Using our one-of-a-kind, industry-leading, low-fat, blogger-approved line of sponsor-free bowl names and logos, you too will be able to immediately convey accurate information to other humans. Using special shared experiences technology and our copyrighted, non-ambiguous terminology, our scientific logos and bowl names are precisely calibrated to provide you with information-sharing vehicles that are recognizable, representative, and syllabically economical. Just look at our happy customers:
- : "I told my friend I'm thinking of attending the 'Citrus Bowl' this year and he knew exactly what I meant! Thanks, MGOBLOG!"
- : "My readers kept asking why I'm so excited over some fast food joint. Then I switched to MGOBLOG's Peach Bowl logo; now they all immediately register that I'm talking about a crazy-off between Dabo and Les Miles!"
- : "People at my office thought I was going around saying a crappy buffalo wings chain will be a 'real defensive snoozer.' But as soon as I showed them MGOBLOG's 'Copper Bowl' logo our shared experiences helped me convey I was really talking about MSU-TCU in Arizona!"
See for yourself what your friends are buzzing about (click on each logo to get at the full-sized, sponsor-free versions):
I'm not against branding. We do plenty of it, and I plan to do more. Sponsoring a nice thing so people can have it for free is one of the most polite ways folks have yet found to introduce themselves to customers. Marketing is subject to the same rules of propriety as all other intra-species communication. Polite: Your banner over the entrance to the guest lecture you're sponsoring. Impolite: making the lecturer interrupt his spiel to talk about the fantastic deals you're currently offering. Polite: Leaving your business card on the restaurant's bulletin board. Impolite: Renaming all the meats in the sandwiches after your products. Also impolite: naming your kid "Need School Supplies? Call 1-800-555-PENS and We'll Deliver!" so that every time the teacher does roll call you're drumming up business.
So yeah, my real beef is with naming rights that become a barrier to communication. The Rose Bowl doesn't need to remind anybody where it takes place or who's supposed to be in it because years of tradition have made it apparent. Outback Steakhouse annoyed me at first, but over a decade of having the name plus the smart decision to leave out the second half of their name (thus actually being easier to say than "Hall of Fame") allowed it to settle. Plus the Outback is a place on Earth; it is conceivable in the imagination that a bowl might be played amidst the gumnuts and wallabies. Bowls for causes annoy me less if they're nouns (Liberty, Independence) than adjectives (Humanitarian), which in turn is better than sentence fragments (Fight Hunger). Synonyms (Military*/Armed Forces) shouldn't be allowed. I'd prefer if newer bowls include the city name for the first five to ten years (e.g. San Francisco Fight Hunger Bowl). Anyway these are all things people might name an event without obviously having to get paid to do so.
That's where I draw the line. Adding "presented by ___" as part of the name makes it easier to ignore but still as disingenuous as if I changed my blogging handle to "Seth Presented by Iowa Corngrowers Association of America." Calling a young event the "Brelk" or "Breef-o-Ladies" means we'll never figure out where the hell it is. Letting that tire company with a name that sounds like a German salute name a second bowl after themselves when they lost the naming rights to the first is borderline criminal. Even more criminal is allowing a terribly named company to take over a well-established brand. The Copper Bowl can't claim the history of the Copper Bowl if it's no longer called the Copper Bowl. And here's where I bring up how the chicken people want to get rid of peaches:
I am guessing this is what the protests were about earlier this year.
*Since the one in D.C. is newer it should be told to change to something that differentiates it from the Fort Worth bowl. How about "The Great Big U.S.O. Show" since it's the U.S.O. that sponsors it anyway.
Half the bowls need to die. This year's lineup will feature 70 teams in 35 bowl games. For reference, the 71st-best team according to FEI this year is 3-8 Arkansas. Teams much worse than John L. Smith'd Arkansas are in bowl games. East Carolina and Louisiana-Lafayette will have a bowl game for a $500,000 payout provided by the title sponsor, who is a trucking company from Wilmington, Ohio. Somebody will broadcast it, and TV crews will show that one ECU fan dressed like a pirate and a few Cajun fans while studiously avoiding angles that show the 90% of Superdome currently unoccupied. And ultimately many people—especially those schools who'll be shelling out way more than 500k to settle their entourage in bowl-approved New Orleans hotels—will ask "why are we even having this?" And the only answers are "because to somebody this is still profitable," and "we need the practices and the swag and the recruit invitations so we can remain competitive."
No I don't think it'll change anything. If someone was going to have a conversation about diluting the concept it would have been had 20 years ago. I am resigned to a future in which the Enterprise Products Partners Bowl matches the 9th Big Ten team vs. the No. 5 Sun Belt team (you are not sure if I just made that one up just now). A win here is if people on this site and others adopt the non-subsidized logos and terminology.
It was the best time I'd ever had at a Chili's. Nothing whatsoever distinguished it from an average visit to Chili's. The beer was light American lager. The chicken was a bit dry, the cheese the usual half-step up from stuff you'd get in a great red-labeled cube. The waitress was a cheerful slab of the Midwest, and the bill was perfectly reasonable. I grinned and laughed and fought off bouts of body-encompassing tiredness.
An hour or so before I'd sat in Notre Dame Stadium as everyone else filed out. Once they were gone the next twenty minutes were filled with intermittent bursts of laughter. Those weren't enough, so I punched my friend in the arm. The punching and the laughing were good, as they forestalled a short circuit.
When the band marched out, we thought that was our cue. I grabbed one of the souvenir mugs as we exited. When I got home I crudely carved "28-24" on it with a steak knife. It's in the closet. Our walk back was half-accompanied by the band. We met a goodly chunk of my family walking the other way, exchanged excited greetings, and then went about the business of getting out of town. We got to the Chili's just as the adrenaline wore off and the stomach reasserted itself.
A few minutes before everyone filed out Denard Robinson zinged a skinny post to Roy Roundtree on third down and finished the job himself. In the first half Robinson had snuck through a crease in the line, found Patrick Omameh turning Manti Te'o into a safety-destroying weapon, and ran directly at me until he ran out of yards.
He knelt down to give thanks, and that felt inverted.
The next morning sun poured through huge windows in Goshen, Indiana, as I collected items for that week's Video of All Varieties. I'll usually watch some but rarely all unless I'm trying to suck the marrow out of a particularly savory victory. Notre Dame 2010 was one of those. I watched Martin and Van Bergen and others talk in the tunnel afterwards. I watched the highlights, watched the presser, got to Denard, and…
So this thing you dared not hope for starts to coalesce just from the things that happen on the field, and then yesterday morning I was struck by a sense of profound gratefulness when I watched the MGoBlue video of Denard's postgame presser:
I love how he smiles all the time and wears his heart on his sleeve and goes "AHHHH" when someone mentions Roundtree blocking for him and seems about as amazed as everyone else as what he's doing. I love how he drops to one knee after he scores in a way that seems genuine in a way I couldn't comprehend until I saw it. I love that if you ask him he'll sign your forehead. I was going to let my skepticism overwhelm, to wait until it was obvious that 2010 was not going to be 2009, but I lasted two games. I'm in the tank again.
Though Denard turned out to be human (somewhat, anyway) I am still in the tank for him. This offseason a small child in New York City wrote Denard about what it means to be a leader and Denard sent a letter back with a picture:
I need this person to be successful. This is such a relief.
It's no secret I've been one discontent blogger ever since the Mississippi State game transpired. In retrospect a lot of my criticisms don't make sense. I thought Michigan should keep Rodriguez after the Ohio State game and fire him after the bowl; I ripped David Brandon for not firing Rodriguez before the bowl if he was going to do the deed. I knew Denard Robinson was the most awesome dude ever and I still assumed he'd transfer. When I interviewed people for the Tim/Tom opening I asked each of them if they disagreed with something I'd written in the past year or so and asked them to argue about it with me; seven of the ten sought tactful ways to remind me that I'd posted "We Are ND*" above the press release announcing Hoke's hire. One just said I'd embarrassed myself with my pettiness. This turned out to be less useful of a question than I'd hoped since by that point I agreed.
That discontent is an overreaction to a real thing. We're going to get the last great Rodriguez blowup in about a month when John U Bacon's Three And Out hits shelves. It's going to put an inbred culture on display. If Michigan doesn't learn from these three years they'll eventually find themselves right back where they were in 2008, obviously behind their greatest rival with nowhere to turn.
Meanwhile, the athletic department has done an about face from the open Rodriguez days back to a culture of paranoia. I kind of liked it when Rodriguez reached out in a futile attempt to win hearts and minds; now it seems we've returned to the days when the fans were tolerated at best.
In place of openness we get marketing. I am increasingly worried that Michigan is drifting towards the bread-and-circus model you see not just in pro sports but at Michigan State, Ohio State, and especially Penn State where the allegiance of the diehards is taken for granted and the fringes are courted with fireworks and rawk music. I fear the day that Brandon unleashes the fandom bread bowl upon us.
I hate that I hate parts of the stadium experience now and fear those moments will expand rapidly. Never has Notre Dame fandom looked so rational. In this environment there's a risk you disconnect from the program in small or large ways. I've talked to a lot of people for whom that's the case. I don't know—maybe it's just getting older.
Denard overwhelms all reservations. He is pure. He grew up poor in a place infinitely far away from the manicured lawns and Whole Foods of Ann Arbor but came to Michigan because they said he could play quarterback. He says he never thought about leaving when Rodriguez was fired. Michigan is never going to recruit anyone like him ever again.
And there are so many guys like him on the team: Vincent Smith, who is 5'6" and is featured in every insider email I get as the scrappiest grittiest toughest guy the coaches love. He's from Pahokee, which may not exist in five years and will never, ever have another kid commit to Michigan. Roy Roundtree and his Donald Duck impression. Ricky Barnum, whose mom was really sick when he was a freshman and who thought about transferring but stayed. Ryan Van Bergen, who committed to Carr and stayed through Rodriguez and wondered where the alumni had been the last three years. Craig Roh, who runs up and down the stairs in Haven Hall if he gets to class early. David Molk, who drops f-bombs in press conferences that no one minds. Taylor Lewan, who has a mustache tattooed on his finger to impress the ladies. Troy Woolfolk and his werewolf alter-ego. Jordan Kovacs, student-body walk-on. Kevin Koger, twitter handle "KogerNotKroger."
Lewan, Van Bergen
There are no Pryors here. Each of these guys has endured the last three years of crap more gracefully than the university or I have and is still here, trying to set right what started going wrong a long time ago. Whatever reservations I have about the program and its direction are overwhelmed by a fierce desire to see these kids win. Rodriguez may not have been able to keep half the kids he recruited, but the ones who stuck around… man. Denard is their king.
In the course of doing this every year I look at the previous year's preview; last time around I linked to a couple of fantastic pieces. You should read Orson's again just because you should. The piece by Brian Phillips on Pele and David Foster Wallace's Federer essay, though, is relevant to our interests.
In the midst of describing one of these Federer Moments where sport allows us to transcend the limitations of our own bodies, if only vicariously, DFW circles round to the cancer-stricken nine-year-old ceremonial coin-tosser at Wimbledon, William Caines. This is going to be one long blockquote without a paragraph break. I think it's important, though:
I’ve always wondered what Wallace meant by circling back around to talk about William in the middle of what is for the most part a genuinely happy-seeming celebration of Federer. The image of the cancer-stricken child seems to have no part, that is, in the enthusiasm that motivates the essay, and yet the edge of unease it introduces brings a powerful and not unreligious strain of skepticism into the pseudo-theology of Federer. Clearly no athlete and no delight in sport can answer the “big, obvious” question about what could possibly justify a tiny child suffering a devastating physical illness. If Federer is there to reconcile us to the fact of having bodies, Wallace hints, then the reconciliation he offers has limits and outside those limits is a large and unanswerable despair. I called the awareness of this despair “not unreligious” because while it may seem like a mere challenge to belief, a sort of renegade anti-Federer atheism, the feeling that seems to follow it into the essay seems to me to have more in common with the longing for bodily mortification that is often a weird corollary of profound religious experience. That is, if we begin with a sense that something is intolerably wrong, and the power of Federer or Pelé is to make us feel that that thing is actually right (or at least tolerable), then William introduces a larger sphere of consciousness in which we realize that the reconciliation was flawed and the thing is actually wrong and intolerable after all. But that second, larger wrongness, as I read it in Wallace’s essay, and this may be unfair, because again, William is only a tiny grain of doubt within what is generally a really positive piece of writing—that second, larger wrongness doesn’t stem from an apprehension that the reconciliation Federer offers is false, it stems from an apprehension that the reconciliation Federer offers is incomplete, that it doesn’t go far enough, it doesn’t stick. It only lasts a moment, and then you’re left not knowing when God will take you up again, which is an anxiety that actually bubbles up at times in the writings of the saints. And that seems to be a condition in which a heightened consciousness of mortality, one that may well express itself as a yearning toward suffering and breakdown, is hard to escape.
If we are being very generous and very convincing, DFW-level, Brian-Phillips-level convincing, this is Denard Robinson in the Michigan zeitgeist. Something is intolerably wrong and the Denard reconciliation is incomplete and we are going to have to accept that, like the Hart reconciliation was incomplete, and just take the Denard Moments as they are—as parts of an imperfect whole. Our compensation for the things that have happened is just this, the last few words of the thesis statement of the Federer article:
…just look at him down there. Look at that.
ONE At irregular intervals, one of my girlfriend’s cats—yes, there are two and yes I realize this means I am playing with serious cat-lady-down-the-road fire—will face the wall or a window or a door and emit what is possibly the world’s most angst-ridden noise, somewhere between a meow and a strangled cry of existential dread.
Sometimes, the girlfriend will call out to the cat, acknowledging the deep roiling depths of his soul-dread. The cat will continue making the noise, unconsoled. Then, because it is a cat, it will completely forget about it and go do something else.
TWO Some years ago a strange literary conception popped into my mind in the course of writing twenty or so pages of a novel about the whittling of a set of five ninjas*: one of the characters in the book was subconsciously off-putting and consciously morose because instead of the usual organs and cells and atoms and subatomic particles he was comprised of layer after layer of tiny cats. Cat nerve cells stretched down his spine, each with their mouth on the tail of the adjacent cell; messages were passed when a sensory cat would be disturbed and bite down, causing the next cat to become impotently angry and use the only means of revenge at his disposal, which would be more biting. These cells had cat organelles and cat molecules all the way down to the frantically yowling electron cats and ovoid neutron cats that looked more like balls of yarn than cats and spent their time purringly content, &c.
I never got around to fleshing that idea out, but when I saw David Foster Wallace respond to a question posed by Charlie Rose with a sort of enraged incomprehension—literally saying “are we really talking about X?” before stammering out a spittle flecked, blindingly intelligent answer—I saw my man made of cats in the flesh. Wallace seemed repulsed by everything around him down to his own skin and torn between flight, murder, or suicide; lacking the ability to decide, he grit his teeth and soldiered on.
No more of that.
*(The ninjas were I dunno, symbolic of a friendship forged in one of those houses occupied by five to eleven guys in college and eventually ended up cinders as the people from the house splintered into their adult lives. It was (obviously) autobiographical and (equally obviously) embarked upon during that horrible post-college, mid-twenties lull where you are just getting used to the idea that you are not a special snowflake and all your friends moved, or you did, and your connections to the world are flimsy and unsatisfying.)
THREE I think, insofar as it is possible for anyone who really, really likes David Foster Wallace to think like this, that the aforementioned is pretty much #1 on my list of personal heroes. At this point, styles and formatting and idioms from his writing are so deeply embedded into mine that I’d forgotten where I got “&c”—DFW for etc.—from. “Bats” is my preferred term for insane. On Friday, I referenced Orin Incandenza, Wallace’s insanely valuable and accurate punter from Infinite Jest. In a 2005 post I urge you to not go back and read because yikes the prose, I riffed on a section of DFW’s brilliant article on fringe tennis player Michael Joyce. I’m extremely disappointed in myself because the season preview didn’t claim the offensive line gave me the howling fantods.
At some point a few years ago, I read the 1,079 pages of Infinite Jest in five days. When I was done, I was livid it wasn’t 300 pages longer. I went back to the beginning and read the first 50 or 100 pages again and realized that the book really was infinite: it was a loop. You could start from any point in it and end at any point and it would be the same: brilliant, infuriating, incomplete, and recursive. Wallace wrote a book on infinity and a thesis on modal logic and sometimes seemed more like a math genius with a side of authorial genius.
I mean, obviously, right? Obviously as soon as I picked something up.
FOUR Wallace would see-saw back and forth on a topic and in writing about one thing would invariably recurse his way into something entirely other, precisely define that, and then tie that back into the main thrust of his argument. Yesterday I re-read his review of a usage dictionary—usage! English usage!—and found this brilliant summation of why this blog is a successful endeavor:
…all the autobiographical stuff in ADMAU's Preface does more than just humanize Mr. Bryan A. Garner. It also serves to detail the early and enduring passion that helps make someone a credible technocrat — we tend to like and trust experts whose expertise is born of a real love for their specialty instead of just a desire to be expert at something. In fact, it turns out that ADMAU's Preface quietly and steadily invests Garner with every single qualification of modern technocratic Authority: passionate devotion, reason, and accountability, experience, exhaustive and tech-savvy research, an even and judicious temperament [uh… I try. –ed], and the sort of humble integrity (for instance, including in one of the entries a past published usage-error of his own) that not only renders Garner likable but transmits the same kind of reverence for English that good jurists have for the law, both of which are bigger and more important than any one person.
Probably the most attractive thing about ADMAU's Ethical Appeal, though, is Garner's scrupulous consideration of the reader's concern about his (or her) own linguistic authority and rhetorical persona and ability to convince an Audience that he cares.
He did this all the time, accidentally. Writing on lobsters, he defined the only morally and logically consistent position you can have on abortion. Writing on the Illinois State Fair, he defined an entire elusive section of the American populace. Writing on cruise ships, he defined his life: “a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.”
FIVE DFW, like all of the people who have written truly great things about sports since I’ve been paying attention, was not a sportswriter. He was a writer whose attention occasionally turned to sports, mostly tennis, and people who invest their time in the intricately choreographed peregrinations of athletes were always better off for it. The last time Wallace touched upon the subject was a New York Times Magazine article on the 2006 Federer-Nadal Wimbeldon final. This I also read yesterday, after considering the vast array of brooding photos that accompanied news stories and tributes across the internet, after revisiting the Rose interview in which Wallace seemed like a preternaturally unhappy person.
Necessary background for what’s to follow: the piece is titled “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” states its thesis thusly…
if you’ve never seen the young man play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the ’06 fortnight, then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describes as a “bloody near-religious experience.”
…and touches upon on a seven year-old boy named William Caines who was diagnosed with cancer at two and a half and served as Wimbeldon’s inspiring moppet du jour—my words, not Wallace’s.
In typically infuriating DFW fashion, Wallace buries the very crux of his piece—this cannot be disputed, it’s the title and thesis—in footnote #17. Perhaps he wanted to hide it. Didn’t know what to do with it. Wanted to say it but whisper it. Whatever. Midway through the third set there is a Federer Moment. DFW writes:
By the way, it’s right around here, or the next game, watching, that three separate inner-type things come together and mesh. One is a feeling of deep personal privilege at being alive to get to see this; another is the thought that William Caines is probably somewhere here in the Centre Court crowd, too, watching, maybe with his mum. The third thing is a sudden memory of the earnest way the press bus driver promised just this experience. Because there is one. It’s hard to describe — it’s like a thought that’s also a feeling. One wouldn’t want to make too much of it, or to pretend that it’s any sort of equitable balance; that would be grotesque. But the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that.
Everybody but everybody is dredging up the thousand and one points in Wallace’s writing that presage a premature, self-inflicted demise; this might be the one passage in his entire oeuvre that makes it shocking. And I think that sports may not be such a silly thing to make a career of describing and relating and experiencing.
SIX I even kind of look like DFW: tall, broad-shouldered, glasses, shaggy, shoulder-length brown hair, perpetual growth of stubble.
SEVEN I love that image of DFW at Wimbeldon, in the stands, those things converging on him, forgetting all the things that make his suicide so very unsurprising, thinking just look at him down there.
Look at that.