Time: The High Cost of Commuting

May 12th, 2011 § 10 comments

Sad Face, by NikoClasses are over, final projects are coming in, and I’ve just wrapped up another year of my high-flying, jet-setting lifestyle. Which is just a sexier way of saying I commute. Which is just shorthand for: every Tuesday I wake up at 5am, drive 30 miles to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, fly at dawn to Washington Dulles International Airport, get myself over to George Mason’s campus, where I teach, advise, write, collaborate, work, eat, and occasionally sleep until Thursday at 7:45pm, when I fly back to Charlotte, making it home in the best of times by 10:30pm. And then I repeat the following week. And the week after that. And so on.

Minus one year my wife was on sabbatical from her institution, when we moved the entire family up to Fairfax, and minus another year when I was half on sabbatical and half on personal leave, I’ve been doing this Tuesday through Thursday commute since 2005. It seems that every year I attempt to make sense of commuting in a new way. Last year I tried to be practical about it. Another year I tried to be funny. Once I wrote poems assembled from the caution signs on airplane wings.

This year I’m simply going to be honest.

The commute is costing me the one treasure I can never get back: time.

Friends, families, and colleagues often say to me, You’re away from home two nights a week? That’s not so bad. It could be a lot worse.

Dear friends, families, and colleagues: this is the worst possible thing you could say to me, my wife, or my children.

Two nights a week? It could be a lot worse.

To those who mean well but nevertheless end up minimizing the difficulty of my weekly commute, let me do some math for you.

I have two semesters. Each semester is fifteen weeks long. I’m away from my family three days and two nights every single one of those weeks. Throw in a couple of other nights when I’ve had to be away for flight cancellations, extra travel time, and extraordinary commitments bringing me to campus early or keeping me late. Add it up, and I’ve been away from my home just over ninety days and sixty nights since August 2010.

Now look me in the eye and try to minimize the pain and sorrow of missing two months of my sons’ lives. Three months, if you count the days. Three months is hard enough to be apart from my wife, but we’re adults, and we made the decision together to be an academic commuter couple, at least for a while. But three months means something entirely different when children are involved, a four- and six-year-old, making great physical, cognitive, and social leaps in a matter of weeks—even in a matter of days. Imagine missing crucial milestones, the kind we usually celebrate with hugs and kisses, joy and smiles. Imagine leaving behind your most cherished loved ones two or three months out of every year. Compound this absence by four, the number of years I’ve had to travel, and I’ve missed an entire year of my children’s daily lives. A year when I was not there.

Certainly there are people who are away from their families more than I am. Soldiers on extended tours of duty, businessmen and women traveling across the globe. Diplomats, spies, the pilots of the planes themselves. But I am neither making a sacrifice in the name of my country nor earning a generous salary that allows me to buy figments of happiness. I’m a poor English professor, teaching and studying words, images, and ideas.

That I love my career—working with kind and collegial people, teaching engaging and challenging courses— only makes the commute harder. Sweet as well as bitter. Several months ago, in the dead of winter, the bitterest time of the semester, I wrote on Twitter:

Commuting every week is hard enough already, but in the cold dark days of February and March the hard enough grows harder.
@samplereality
Mark Sample

Now it’s spring, now it’s May. And there is the summer to rejuvenate, to be present. But the shadow of another semester already looms ahead, and my mind is soaked through even now with work and writing that calls me away from my family though I’m still home. The hard enough grows harder, and it never gets easy.

[Crazy Sad Face Drawing by my son, Niko]

§ 10 Responses to Time: The High Cost of Commuting"

  • Twila Johnson says:

    I had no idea that you commuted this far. I’m so sorry that you have to divide your job from your family with such an alarming physical and mental distance. You are so brilliant (and I learned so much from your CTE winning teaching portfolio) that I hope you can find something closer to home. Would teaching online courses for a semester help you refuel and give you time to search for other opportunities?

  • Sarah says:

    I just had a row with my 6yo who insists on smearing toothpaste everywhere–himself, the sink, the walls–every single night after he insists on putting the toothpaste on his toothbrush himself. It drives me nuts. But I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’m sorry that this is your life right now.

  • Chad Black says:

    Mark– I think I told myself the first year, “it could be worse.” And that helped for a while, but you’re absolutely right that it doesn’t anymore. As you say, what’s lost in commuting are things that can never be regained. Moments, events, conversations, etc. And especially with kids. I find that my mind is frequently not where my body is, and when I’m home, even in the summer, I’m thinking constantly about the next semester, the next piece of writing, the next whatever.

    I have a zero teaching semester, and that gives me a little more mental space that you have this summer. But, I empathize with you. I’m also going up for tenure this next year. So, that will either produce a point of clarity or continue the in-between.

  • Matt says:

    It’s a heavy toll. I very much hope that you and your family can work out a happier arrangement, soon.

  • Ethan says:

    Makes my heart very heavy to read this. I know I couldn’t stand being away from my son like this. Anyone who says the university is some sort of cushy alternate reality, divorced from the “real world” should read this.

  • JHoward says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Not enough people really look at where their time is going, even if they don’t have the kind of regular and wearing commute that you do. I hope you can change the travel-and-time equation soon. My kids (ages 7 and 8.5) hate my occasional overnight business trips enough, and those are only a few times a year and produce tourist swag. (We’ve amassed an impressive and useless collection of refrigerator magnets from every city the MLA and the AAUP have held conventions in the past 5 years.)

  • Bethany says:

    Mark, one of my kids (the same age as yours) cried broken-heartedly last night when I had to answer a couple of emails before we took on a promised art project together — and not because of the momentary frustration, but because he’s a pretty sensitive reader of Mommy’s schedule. Time means an entirely different thing to them, and to us, once they’re around. I hope you find a way to make a shift that works for you and the people you love.

  • Thanks for sharing this, Mark, and for putting it in such clear terms. When I was commuting to Clemson (which, after all, is only 120 miles away from where I live), I batted around the idea of my staying up there overnight and therefore being able to work solidly for an entire day and shortening my weekly commute by four hours and a tank of gas. My wife unequivocally said, “No,” and my listening to her was about the best decision I made that year.

    Here again we see the terrible costs (financial and otherwise) that the academy extracts on those who work there. One wonders how productivity would improve if more effort was made to alleviate such problems for dual-academic households.

  • maria says:

    I remember finding out about this schedule of yours when I took an undergrad class that you taught in Spring of 2005 or 2006. I remember you saying something about just having your first kid, and I couldn’t really understand how you did it. While I’m sorry that you have to do endure the commute and time away, I hope it offers a bit of comfort to know that your students think you’re a great professor and that you’ve made a difference in their lives.

  • I wrote about the experience and costs of commuting here: http://t.co/tL2xJl34Nh