Monday, July 25, 2005

In Praise of Long Commutes

Since I took this job a few years after we bought our house, we had to make a decision whether to move or to stay. The commute is 35-40 minutes without traffic (i.e. on the way in), and close to an hour with traffic (i.e. on the way home).

At the time, we decided to stay put for a little while, and see how it goes. Now, when The Wife and I engage in one of our periodic episodes of house lust (“did you see the big deck on that one?”), the houses we have in mind are close to our current neighborhood. While they might be bigger, newer, or on quieter streets, they’d carry the same length of commute as I have now. (Since she stays home with the kids, there’s no counterbalancing commute on her side.)

Years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed this. One of the (only) joys of graduate school was living within walking distance of campus, so on days when I taught, I could roll out of bed, make myself presentable, walk to class, teach, walk home, and have lunch. It was eco-friendly, easy, and good exercise. I may have been poor, but dammit, I was virtuous.
Bin Laden didn’t make any money off me!

Now, I’m an ecological nightmare: a single-driver commuter over a significant distance. Gravity’s pull on me is stronger than it once was, and I spend a disturbing amount of time listening to satellite radio.

Yet, when scoping out new places to live, I don’t shorten the drive. Why?

Part of it is the ‘decompression’ function of the drive. At work, I’m at work. At home, with two young kids and a wife in desperate need of relief from two young kids, I’m at a different kind of work. In the car, I’m just cruising along, listening to the weird music I like and not thinking very hard.

But there’s more to it than that.

Lots of people at my college live fairly far from work, driven mostly by the mismatch between a public sector pay scale and Northeastern housing costs. But most of them live far away in a different direction than I do. (I have no idea why.) So when I’m puttering around town, it’s very unusual that I see anybody I work with. And I’ve come to the realization that I kind of like that.

In fact, the few times that I have run into someone at the grocery store or while walking downtown, it felt like an invasion. WorkWorld isn’t supposed to invade HomeWorld.

Usually, when I’m puttering around town in the warm weather months, I’m dressed like a grad student, with young children in tow. I’m not looking very deanly. My guard is down, and my neighbors just treat me as the nice guy next door. I don’t have to wear my game face. I’m just a suburban dad. (That’s the reason for the web address of this blog. It was originally entitled “confessions of a suburban dad,” until I realized that that sounded like it would be about seducing the babysitter or some such.)

In the 90’s, I took a number of seminars in feminist theory. One of the ‘tropes’ (ah, memories…) of the time was breaking down the public/private distinction. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but I’ve come to treasure my own public/private distinction. I don’t want to have to be The Dean at the A&P. Too much work. I’m willing to be all kinds of professional at work, but at home, I’m too busy being a Dad to have to worry about that, too. The long commute affords the luxury of a kind of anonymity.

The next car will be a Prius (with satellite radio). My concession to ecology.