Thursday, September 23, 2010

What's in a commute?

I had to take 8 courses to major in history in college.  I took 5 of them with the same professor, primarily because he taught most of the American history courses that interested me and partly because he taught all of his classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which made for a nice, long-weekend schedule.  Somehow this professor, a VERY tenured professor, arranged to be on campus only two days a week.  Rumor had it that he needed this schedule because he had an extremely long commute - he lived an hour away.  I remember being amazed that someone would live an hour away from work, more than 50 miles one way. 

Now, of course, I live in NJ, where a 45 minute commute is typical and an hour drive is not uncommon.  My commute to NYC this morning took me two hours. As I climbed three stories out of the subway station and started the 4-block and 2-avenue walk to the school where I was teaching today, I recognized that in the two hours it had taken me to reach my Thursday destination, I could have commuted from my home to central PA, back to my undergraduate institution.  And I laughed at my naive college self who thought that my professor's hour-long drive was ridiculous.

After finishing my teaching at the school across town, I hopped on a bus to the West side, where my office is located.  I returned to my office today because I am scheduled to participate in an author conversation with the editor of Kappan magazine.  She has selected me as the featured author of the September issue, and I am about to be interviewed over the phone while webinar participants send questions electronically. I expect to leave the office by 5:15 or so, putting me back in my house around 7.  Considering I left at 6:45 this morning, I felt it was a relatively reasonable work day, one that would not be uncommon for many people.

As I walked from the bus stop to my office, trying desperately to remember everything I possibly can about the topic of the day's conversation, I calmed myself by noticing the beautiful day in NYC.  I glanced up at an apartment building just a few blocks from my office, and I thought about the travel I had accomplished that day.  "If I lived in that building," I thought, "how would my life be different?"

I would still have a 30 minute commute across town to the school where I am teaching this semester.  But I would have a ten minute walk to my office.  Would I come to my office every day?  If I did that, would I be wrapped up in the minutiae of daily life in the academe? Would my career make center stage in my life and the balance fall apart completely?  Is my commute, in fact, helping me keep the balance?

In some ways, though it is time consuming and exhausting, I like having the long commute because it keeps my job from becoming all consuming.  I can't be here everyday, and because of that, I can put more priorities on my family life and stress a little less about the job.  I don't mind working 12 or 16 hour days once or twice a week because I am able to see my kids for lunch, take them to school, or play in the park on some of the other days.  Unlike my college prof, however, I can be here two days in a row if I need to be, which allows me to have an active career and to prioritize tasks to be done on campus and those to be done from my office at home.

Perhaps tonight on my long trip home, which will include a walk, a subway, a train, and a drive, I'll continue to ponder how the travel, which once seemed insurmountable, helps me to have it all.

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