I Love My Commute

Douglas King lives 120 miles from where he teaches -- and he couldn't be happier.

July 9, 2007

A classic "Monty Python" sketch features a would-be traveler/adventurer, Mr. Smoketoomuch, being told by a travel agent, "Well, you’d better cut down a little -- I expect you get people making jokes about your name all the time.” Of course the real joke is that Mr. S. has never contemplated such a reaction to his name, has never had this obviously inevitable conversation before.

In my case, the inevitable conversation begins when I tell someone where I work -- at a small, private, Roman Catholic university in the Northeast. While this information isn’t particularly noteworthy, the location is: I teach 120 miles from where I live. The common reaction is predictable and -- for me -- cringe-inducing. People express disbelief, incredulity, sometimes a strong sense of rejection of the premise that I’m not just making this up. Often the reply is a demand for me to restate what I’ve just revealed -- something along the lines of "You live here and work there?" (or vice-versa—either way, I grit my teeth and say, “Yup”). Others, equally dubious, at least search for some amelioration of the impossibility of my life situation; thus, the most common rejoinder is "You drive up there/here five days a week?" Along the same lines but more insistent, some will simply inform me: "You don’t drive up there/here five days a week," as though challenging me to fess up to my falsehood.

I wish that in response to this stale and seemingly inevitable dialogue, I could exhibit a tad of Mr. Smoketoomuch’s blithe imperturbability, but instead I almost always go on the defensive. I shouldn’t -- after all, I’ve done this job and this commute happily and successfully for six years -- yet usually I fall prey to the awkwardness of the situation, the desire not to be thought lunatic, the posture of defending my life’s inherent sensibleness, and so I make my case, which typically involves reciting some or all of these points:

  • Well, I usually go up to campus three days a week -- sometimes four -- and work very effectively from home the other three or four days a week, especially as I engage with students through technology such as e-mail and electronically inserted comments in paper drafts.
  • I get those legendary long holiday breaks and summer months when I don’t have to make the trip, and actually, if you think about it:
  • If you measured out the total annual commute time of the person who lives near a big city and travels, say, 45 minutes to an hour each way, five days a week, throughout the year, you’d find that mine is at least comparable, and besides,
  • Most of those poor bastards are fighting horrible traffic, maybe driving 20 minutes, then catching some godawful crowded train for another half-hour before walking several blocks through the smog to their building, whereas I live nine minutes from the interstate on which I cruise straight, with little to no traffic, for an hour and 40 minutes (OK, sometimes longer in the winter) until I glide straight into the parking ramp adjoining my building, and so, you see, it all works out nicely, and . . . .

I rarely get to explain why I have made this life choice, which would go something like this: I was lucky enough to be offered a tenure-track job (when I was still ABD) that fit me beautifully -- a Master's I university where I could teach in my area of specialization (Renaissance Drama), including graduate courses; have input into what courses I want to offer; and work at an institution with great collegiality, a strong liberal arts mission, and a real spiritual commitment. The rub was the location. My family had become nicely settled near Pittsburgh, where I’d gone to graduate school rather late in life, and my kids were thriving in some activities hard to match in the smaller city where the job was (chess tournaments, ballet, and so forth). Nonetheless, the logical choice was to resettle, and so we visited, scouting housing, school systems, and jobs for my wife. It all looked plausible. Then we came home, went to a concert at the Renaissance and Baroque Society, and realized that we’re city slickers and we love the city we’re in (plug: this year Pittsburgh was ranked “America’s Most Livable City” by Places Rated Almanac). So I said I’d try the commute for a couple of years and see how it went. It went, and it goes.

Sometimes my inquisitors are mollified by these justifications; more often they still seem to doubt my veracity and/or my sanity. Occasionally when I’m feeling that I’m winning over my questioner, I’ll take a chance and reveal that not only do I not hate the commute; I actually enjoy it much of the time. I may add that I’m a busy father of three who rarely gets time to himself, that I appreciate the bubble time in the car, time during which I meditate, pray, ruminate, dream, and breathe. Warming to the opening, I may expound on how I use the time wisely, such that after quickly showering and dressing in the morning, I am into my car -- there I can eat breakfast (fruit, protein bars, juice), shave (electric is best), floss teeth (it’s safe, really, when one is free of company on the road), comb hair (ditto), and, toward the end of my trip, put on and tie my shoes.

And then there are the learning benefits. One word for anyone undertaking a long commute: Books-on-tape. They’re much more effective than loud music at keeping one awake and engaged. My local public library keeps me supplied with great CD’s and tapes. I used to mix it up a good bit between historical works, biographies, and fiction, but for the last year or two I’ve listened mostly to novels, and have "read" some great ones I would not otherwise have found the time to take in. Listening to a good reading of a hypnotizing, heartbreaking novel such as Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, or anything of the narrative wizardry of Louise Erdrich (lately, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse and The Master Butchers Singing Club), sometimes I’m so engrossed it’s hard for me to get out of the car at journey’s end. I also use the time for class prep, listening to drama and fiction that I’m teaching. I’ve even found some good lectures on authors and works and am not too proud to borrow ideas from audio colleagues. You see, the car can become a mobile learning lab.

And so, my interlocutor, if I have a secret to the long commute, it is this: The travel time cannot simply be about getting from home to work and back. If that were the case, my near two-hour drive each way would certainly be a long time to wait for life to resume. But if, instead, I am living during that time -- rather than losing time until I get to my destination -- the commute is more than bearable.

But all this is of course overkill for the inevitable conversation. Usually I just cringe and more or less silently acquiesce to the floating, self-evident proposition that my lifestyle, my commute, is impossible or insane or both. Perhaps if I could mutter, like Mr. Smoketoomuch, "Ah, yes, I see, I hadn’t thought of that." But that would come off as rude and sarcastic. Ah, well, I’ve got two new tires and just received a satellite radio for my birthday -- adding one more tool in my belt as I prepare for another semester on the road. There’s even a comedy station that plays the occasional Python bit, along with other stuff that lets me laugh. Perhaps this new toy will help me score some points the next time the conversation rolls around to "So what do you do?" and I cringe, anticipating the inevitable exchange.


Douglas King teaches at Gannon University, in Erie, Pa., and lives somewhat south of there.


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