There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet
an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says
“Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a
bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes
“What the hell is water?”
—-David Foster Wallace, from the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address
The other day I stumbled across a blog entry that posed the question, “What Book has the Most Page-for-Page Wisdom?” I had read most of the links on the page – but one that I was not familiar with caught my eye. This is Water, by David Foster Wallace.
It’s a short work, actually a transcription of a commencement address, and readily available in book form or online.
There are a lot of good ideas here, but I want to look at one piece of text – a description of the hell everyone’s life can become if we give in.
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging 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 of hours and then hit the rack early because 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 workday, and the traffic’s 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’s hideously, fluorescently 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, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout 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 fury out on the frantic lady working the register.
Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.
—–David Foster Wallace, This is Water
The excellent piece goes on to explain how important it is to not let this sort of thing get to you, to realize that we are all in the same boat, that we need to look at life in a non-selfish way and go with it – or else we will go mad.
All good advice and interesting thought provoking… but I want to present an alternative. Find out about this shit and simply don’t do it… or rather, figure out something else.
For example, I know all too well the hell of exhausted grocery shopping. So I decided not to do it.
My goal for this year… and probably for next year too, is to never drive my car to the grocery store. My commuter bike has room for a pair of big, cheap panniers I found at Wal-Mart of all places. With those and a backpack I can carry a goodly bit of groceries – enough to get by for a few days.
This has transformed my grocery shopping from a gas-fueled frustration fest into a series of fun little mini-adventures, complete with fresh air and a little exercise.
It helps that I have five grocery choices within easy cycling distance from my house. I define that as less than, say three miles… and no killer streets.
First is the Super Target – good for general shopping. They have bike racks sort of hidden in little alcoves near the entryways. This is the closest place to the hell described in Wallace’s speech. But, somehow, when you have ridden a bicycle to a store, it’s impossible to be overly frustrated at the inevitable delays. You simply feel too silly.
Then there is the Fiesta Mart – a Hispanic slanted grocery store. It’s the farthest away – maybe two miles – but a nice route, mostly bike trail. It has a beat-up but serviceable bike rack around by the propane cylinders.
Those are the only two groceries with bike racks near where I live. No big problem – they all have cart racks, which can be locked to as well as a dedicated rack. In the other direction – in Garland, actually – is the Saigon Market Mall – a big, cool Asian Market – good for noodles, fresh vegetables, and fish.
Then, very close to where I live is an Aldi – great for staples like milk and eggs. It’s nice to buy milk there since it is uphill from my house and I can ride up there light and coast home heavy.
Finally, there is an India Bazaar in the same center. Great place for rice, beans, and, especially spices. Their spice aisle is a wonder – I love to stand there and simply smell.
I know that the Wallace speech deals with much larger and more subtle issues than how to get your groceries. But in this tough world we need all the weapons we can muster and being able to roll out of the garage on a cheap, used, crappy bicycle instead of a smoke spewing SUV makes life a little bit easier to bear. For everybody.