The Parts They Left Out, Day In, Day Out

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m supposed to be doing with my time these days.

For a while it seemed like things couldn’t be happening any faster. It was one surprise after another. Trip to Austin for SXSW. Promotion at work. New partner projects. Hours of planning, learning, stressing, and executing. Ex-girlfriend drama. New people and new places every weekend with a few run ins with old friends in between.

But then it all just sort of became mundane. I’m still going out on weekends with friends. Still swamped at work. Still planning, learning, stressing, executing. But slowly I’m starting to realize what I fear most has arrived…

The day in, day out.

From David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon Commencement Speech

The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, 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 work day and the traffic is apt to be: 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 is hideously 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, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out 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 frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides.

The good news is this commencement speech by Wallace carried a much brighter lesson and much deeper meaning than this one small anecdote suggests. Unfortunately, it was a lesson I completely left out when I pulled this portion of the speech—a lesson I suggest you go read.

The reality is the day in day out portion of life is just one side of life. It’s a side you eventually learn to cope with. And while I know right now is a down time for me, I know the next great challenge is just around the bend. Just have to keep plugging away, day in, day out.