On May 17, 2007, George W. Bush was President. David Foster Wallace was about to go off phenelzine, the anti-depressant medication he’d been taking for the previous twenty years, and would write that year in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2007, subtitled “Deciderization 2007: A Special Report”:
“[N]onfiction’s based on reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex.
“[W]hatever our founders and framers thought of as a literate, informed citizenry can no longer exist, at least not without a whole new modern degree of subcontracting and dependence packed into what we mean by ‘informed.’”
Less than a year later, Wallace arranged the unfinished manuscript for his novel The Pale King on his desk, went out and through his garage, and hung himself from the patio rafter.
All of this is well-documented and not terribly personal to me. Perhaps I should now tell you about Andrew Bodenrader. On May 17, 2007, Andy was about to take over the department of Academic Writing at the college where I’d been adjuncting. After another year, he would hire me fulltime in his department, and George W. Bush would be replaced as president by Barack Obama. Over the next few years, Andy and I spent many hours in our offices and bars talking about DFW, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and the many other writers who chose to end their own lives. We haggled over whether it was an act of self-determination to appropriate one’s own death, to determine when it was time, to mold one’s death into a statement, a manifesto even. On May 17 of last year, 10:08pm, I texted Andy:
Red Sox-Royals in a tight one. Summer’s here!
Andy may or may not have been dead by the time I sent this text. Two days later, his body was recovered from the bottom of Breakneck Ridge in the bluffs near Cold Spring, New York, from which he’d jumped two nights earlier.
I’ve been thinking over the past few months, in the fog of my own depression in the wake of Andy’s death and a relentlessly negative political campaign ending in our election of Donald Trump, that modern American history—both global and personal to me—is relentlessly cyclical. In my lifetime alone, we have elected almost every President in direct rebuke of the President before him—Carter was the anti-Nixon/Ford, Reagan/Bush were the anti-Carter, Clinton was the anti-Bush/Reagan, W. was the anti-Clinton, Obama was the anti-W., and now the cycle has reached its spectacularly foolhardy crescendo with the election of a racist billionaire with no experience or qualifications in rebuke of our first black president. I’ve quantified the past American century as a series of thirty-year cycles of falls-and-returns to a collectively imagined innocence: the pre-crash Twenties, the pre-social-upheaval Fifties, the pre-internet Eighties, now the Teens which, according to self-perpetuating American mythology, promise to be remembered as another golden age of adolescent self-delusion.
Despite our college having five provosts and four presidents in the ten years I’ve been here, Andy managed to develop our department, essentially an intellectual ghetto originally created so the English department wouldn’t have to teach freshmen, into a Center of Academic Writing through a series of ad hoc partnerships with various faculty and administrators. I didn’t realize until his death how many of those partnerships were with him rather than with our department, which is my way of saying without giving any details that might get me fired that this has been the most troubling year of my professional career.
For the past ten years I’ve settled into a happy marriage with a woman I met at the college where I teach when we were both in our first year teaching there. We have two daughters who are now entering a public education system our new Secretary of Education wants to destroy. We vacation in the same places every year: North Carolina and Kansas in the summer, and Vermont for Christmas. Last Christmas Eve, the day after we arrived at the Trapp Family Lodge, I watched my oldest daughter sledding down the hill outside my window. My father-in-law told me I should go out and join her. “No, thanks,” I said. I didn’t tell him that I was seeing myself right then through a window, spectating on a life and a world over which I was realizing I felt no agency. I was a man looking at a man looking out a window at the world. I believe that something happens to the mind and the heart when one comes to a full understanding that one’s life doesn’t have to mean anything, that getting through it without making much noise is what is expected of us. Bending one’s own will to the rhythms of the world is natural. Only something unnatural has happened to our world in the last century, the rhythms of industry and consumption and simulacra replacing accumulated wisdom, empathy, the real. Sitting here in this manicured landscape modeled on a musical fiction about the worst mass genocide of the past century, the span of not just ten but a hundred years spread out before me, and all I could think was, You are complicit.
I told my wife I needed to take a drive. I’d forgotten to pack pants for the trip, so I said I’d try to somehow find a pair or two on Christmas Eve. As I sped down Highway 90 in the snow, every bridge was its own temptation. I wondered what it would feel like to simply drive off the edge, to feel, like Andy, a couple of seconds of complete freedom with no ground beneath me—no cyclic measurements of time or space separating me from the infinitude of non-existence.
This is my first time sharing this in writing. In fact, besides journals this is the longest thing I’ve written since Andy’s death a year ago. I can’t yet say what kept me from joining DFW, Woolf, Andy, and the rest of them. All I can say is that I’m feeling pretty positive now. I went into therapy on my return from Vermont. I’ve started teaching a Friday writing workshop at Rikers Island, which somehow feels infinitely more comfortable to me than teaching college freshmen. I can’t say my marriage is perfect or that I’m an ideal husband for my wife, but she does put up with me patiently and mostly empathetically. My children and the baby green and blossoms on the trees give me a certain abstract hope—Summer’s almost here!—and I’ve just submitted an individual piece (this one!) for publication for the first time in over a year. Perhaps this is the transition into middle age, or at least mine. And what the hell, since my writing gears are a bit rusty I’ll indulge myself by ending with a cliché:
It beats the alternative.
John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. His work has been published in The Weeklings, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, Underwater New York, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, and the international microfiction anthology Minificción y nanofilología: Latitudes de la hiperbrevedad. His essay “The Question of Influence” was a recent Notable selection in The Best American Essays 2015, and his essay “The A-Rod of Ballhawking” was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at NotThatJohnProctor.com/.
John encourages you to check out The Posse Foundation, an organization based in ten America cities that works to scholarships and a community of mentors and fellow scholars to urban youth throughout their undergraduate experience. You might consider volunteering if you live in any of the cities it serves, or you might just want to donate. Visit possefoundation.org.