Lately, the final scene from one of my favorite movies -- Mike Nichol's THE GRADUATE -- haunts me. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has just pulled off the ultimate youthful rebellion. He has stolen Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross), daughter of his lover and parent's contemporary Mrs. Robinson, away from her just finished wedding ceremony. The pair catch a bus out of town and rush to the bench seat at the very back, Elaine still in her white lace gown and veil, Benjamin disheveled from his confrontation with the father of the bride. The adrenaline-rushed, grinning escapees are stared down by the rest of the passengers. But their grinning doesn't last for more than a few seconds and the passionate kiss you expect to seal the deal never comes. Instead, Benjamin stares ahead blankly, Elaine looking briefly at him and then away toward the front of the bus. Both look as if they are thinking, "okay, now what?"
What happens after the happy ending? After the dust of the rebellion has settled? Funny, isn't it, that commencement speeches and retirement toasts inspire by exalting the few-and-far-between pinnacle moments in life, but omit the reality of what happens in-between. Or doesn't happen. We are taught to look forward to the marriages, the babies, the graduations, the promotions, the awards, the holidays and the vacations and then, when we finally reach an age to collect social security, we are toasted on the marriages, the babies, the graduations, the promotions, the awards, the holidays and the vacations we achieved. What's left out is practical advice on how to enjoy the day in, day out as much as the happy endings and beginnings. After all, there are a hell of a lot more days after Christmas than Christmas mornings in life.
I just read the commencement address writer David Foster Wallace gave to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. It was recently published as a small book called THIS IS WATER. In it, Wallace, refreshingly, told the co-ed's this: "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...you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar college-graduate job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again."
I wish David Foster Wallace had delivered my commencement speech instead of now Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton. I don't remember what Mrs. Rodham-Clinton told me about life, but I am sure it was more of the Seussical OH, THE PLACES YOU'LL GO! ilk than the Foster-Wallace like OH, THE PLACES YOU WON'T WANT TO GO BUT WILL HAVE TO ANYWAY.
Every good commencement speech should include some sort of call out to the necessity of weekly, if not daily, grocery shopping trips under fluorescent lights. It should mention that a huge amount of an adult life is spent doing laundry, paying bills, loading and unloading dishwashers, driving to and from day-care and work, filling sippy cups with water and apple-juice, compiling paperwork for taxes, cleaning the scum ring off the inside of the bath-tub, clipping your toe-nails, waiting in line at the DMV or Disneyland (if you're lucky) or the county fair (if you're not.) It should point out that even the best jobs are rife with compromise and negotiation and a great deal of ass-kissing that leads you to feel, on most days, like a sell-out. And, surprisingly, this feeling like a sell out can happen even if you are one of the very lucky few who actually get a job in a field you're passionate about. And when it comes to true love, even soul-mates can spend weeks at a time shuffling past each-other with zombie-like-glassed-over-eyes barely touching or talking let alone kissing because the stress of the job and the bill-paying and the grocery-shopping and the day in, day out is "just a little too much right now, sorry."
And what about retirement? Shouldn't we focus on congratulating the retiree not on all of the obvious achievements of his or her career, but of the sheer fact that they've lived three-quarters of their lives and managed to get through the day in, day out of it without going out for a pack of cigarettes and never coming back? "Congratulations, Tom, you managed to get every one of your cars in for their 15,000 mile service over the past 30 years. That's quite an achievement! You managed to let your wife know you love her in countless tiny little ways every day for the past 40 years - not just on birthdays, anniversaries, holidays or just because you felt like having sex. Bravo! And Tom, let's not forget your commitment to the company carpooling initiative. That every day, despite the fact that your co-worker Larry has horrible halitosis and insists on riding shot-gun, you picked him up at the carpool lot at the corner of I-5 and Carmel Valley Drive, rain or shine with a stick of Trident gum at the ready and arrived into the office by 8:30. Now that's dedication. " And let us not forget to also provide retirees with a how-to-retire guide that gives them specific tips on how to feel they're achieving something after stepping off the rat-race treadmill and suddenly having no societal structure within which to measure their worth.
Okay, I've depressed you. And yes, I know David Foster Wallace killed himself and may not be the best example of how to live your life. But, he did point out in his commencement address something very important: The fact that we all have a choice of how to approach the moments that come after the happy ending, after the big win, after the great celebration, after you steal Mrs. Robinson's daughter away from her just completed wedding ceremony and hop the first bus out of town.
Wallace reminds us that "it's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities...I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is probably just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people actually have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars -- compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it."
What if Benjamin Braddock had turned to Elaine Robinson at the back of that bus and let her into his skull by saying, "now what, Elaine?" Yes, it would have ruined the movie, but that's not my point.
For me, nearing mid-life, I wish my mother were still alive to present me with some kind of back-half commencement speech giving me some tips on banishing ennui, seeing the beauty in the simple, the top ten list of what's really important to you when you reach your death-bed.
Just the other day, the gold of a coin caught my eye while rummaging through my bathroom junk drawer. For an instant I thought I'd found an old friend: a thick French coin I'd pocketed during my first trip to France as a teenage student. The art-deco design was different than the typical currency I'd spent during the trip, so I set it aside as a special souvenir of my maiden voyage overseas. During my twenties I kept it with me all the time, either in my wallet or in my pocket as a make-shift worry stone. During those years, the French coin proved that I had turned a few early dreams into realities. My first thought was that maybe the coins' return after spending years at the back of a junk drawer was a good omen in the midst of ho-hum times. I reached to the very back of the drawer to reclaim my lost treasure and turned it over in my palm. My heart sank a little.
It was no French Franc. It was a token from Chuck E. Cheese.
It was no French Franc. It was a token from Chuck E. Cheese.
Chuck E. Cheese. One of the hideous compromises of motherhood. A place devoid of true character in which your children play on filthy, germ-ridden miniature spaceships and climbing contraptions, home of the "poop in the ball pit" scandal of the 1980's, purveyor of microwaved pizza and questionable salad-bar fixin's. A place that only serves Bud-Light and Gallo on tap. Yes, wine on tap. At least, that's the way I choose to see it when my Ben and Nate beg to meet me there after my work day. I usually succumb to their requests, grudgingly, with a chip on my shoulder, and the need to check my wrist-watch every five minutes to see just how much longer I have to bear the headache inducing neon lights and screaming children.
As I fingered the token in my hand, I wondered about my disappointment that it wasn't a token from one of the most life-altering trips of my life. And, clear as digital surround-sound, I heard my mom - one of those "parents and older folks who know all too well what I'm talking about" that David Foster Wallace addressed in his speech about day in, day out.
This is what she said: "Put the coin back in the drawer. In the blink of an eye, twenty-years will have passed and when you find the coin again in twenty years' time, the memory of happy-hours at Chuck E. Cheese over a glass of Gallo on tap watching your children laugh will be far more precious than you think it is now. Choose to see it that way."