Time: The High Cost of Commuting

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]

My carbon footprint has got to be ridiculous

In a recent conversation between Thom Yorke and David Byrne in Wired, Yorke describes how Radiohead conducted a study to assess its carbon footprint, in the hopes of then being able to reduce it. But their biggest impact upon the environment turned out to be something out of their control: all their fans driving to their concerts.

It makes me wonder about my carbon footprint. It has to be ridiculously huge. Not because I drive to work, but because I fly. It’s one of those crazy tales of an academic couple, two professors who can’t, because the market is so tight in their fields, find tenure-track jobs in the same city. So I fly to work. Actually I drive to the airport, fly to a city 400 miles away, then drive again to campus. Two days later I do the same thing in reverse to get back home. As I say, my carbon footprint has got to be ridiculous.

In fact I know it is.

Using Friends of the Forest’s Carbon Calculator, I’ve just found that my flying to work churns out about 23 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. The average American releases under a half metric ton of carbon dioxide from flying.

This is not just ridiculous, it’s despairingly ridiculous. I can refuse all the plastic bags I want at the grocery store, but in the end I’m one of the killers of the world.

Art and Terror in the Arctic

It’s a good thing that August had record temperatures—seemingly endless days over 100 degrees—because I spent a better part of the month reading Dan Simmons’ leviathan of a novel The Terror, a semi-historical account of a failed bid in the 1840s to chart the legendary “northwest passage” through the frozen arctic.

Simmons accomplishes much in his 800 pages—supernatural beings stalking the ice, arrogant British explorers ignoring nature and common sense, a landscape both barren and hostile, sailors succumbing to scurvy and cannibalism—but what stands out is the cold.

A hundred degrees below zero cold.

The painting on the cover of the hardback edition of novel (shown above) goes a long way toward capturing this alien, frozen wasteland and the suffering and wonder it provoked. The painting is Magdalena Bay, by the 19th century French artist Auguste François Biard (larger image). The painting, which is now in the Louvre, shows the aurora borealis from a bay on the Arctic island of Spitzbergen. In the foreground are five figures, presumably explorers, who are either dying or dead:

Biard painted this fantastic, morbid scene after he participated in a scientific expedition to the Arctic in the 1830s (in which nobody died), and he seems to foreshadow, in an oddly Romantic style, the ill-fated journey of the HMS Erebus and Terror in the 1840s (in which everybody died). It is quite easy to imagine that the men in Biard’s painting are the same men who Simmons has dying by the dozens…from exposure, from botulism, from pneumonia, from tuberculosis, from scurvy, and from murder.

In line with the humanistic outlook of the time, the French expedition team aboard the corvette La Recherche, included both scientists and artists. The hope was that the artists would create works that documented the expedition as well as inspired the citizens back home about the value of exploration and discovery. The artists had an implicit pedagogical mission: to teach people that scientific progress is worthwhile, that extending the limits of human knowledge is brave, vital, and beautiful. Of course, Biard’s painting would seem to suggest that it’s also dangerous, and that for prideful men, the drive to chart the uncharted can be pure folly.

There is a contemporary project reminiscent of the Recherche expedition’s melding of art and science: David Buckland’s Cape Farewell Project, which takes photographers, writers, sculptors and other artists on voyages in the arctic. A report on NPR described the origins of Buckland’s project:

Buckland had been talking with scientists about global warming–and he was convinced they needed help to communicate what they knew about the way the world’s climate was changing. Now, after three voyages to the Arctic for his Cape Farewell project, Buckland believes the artists have lived up to his expectations.

While I am a strong advocate of l’art pour l’art, I also believe in art with a mission, and I think Buckland and his fellow artists (which includes notables like Ian McEwan and Gretel Ehrlich) are following a noble purpose. I can only wish there were more collaborative efforts between contemporary artists and scientists. Instead of a teacher aboard the space shuttle, send a sculptor. Forget the reality TV camera crews on Sir Richard Branson’s latest exploit; send a sound artist. Don’t be satisfied with mapping an underground world, design one of your own.

Between here and Philadelphia

The train. Unapologetically steel. Irresistible momentum. And the joy of discovering the red brake handle, knowing I can pull, and the train becomes my limb, my extension, which I control.

Overriding engineers, coffee splashed on laptops throughout, the sudden stop.

A hundred people stalled on tracks, the train a bullet bludgeoned to a blunt standstill, all because of me.

I pause.

What if it’s a trick, the red brake handle. Disconnected, only an ornament, simulated safety to comfort me. Or worse, the engineer doesn’t care if it’s pulled and will not stop, overriding me overriding him. Or what if he stops this time, a ruse, lulling me into believing I can indeed stop the unstoppable, when it’s arbitrary, and he may not stop next time. What to do. I pause. I freeze. The train thunders on.

Goodbye 2006, Goodbye US Airways

It’s been one long fall. And it’s finally come to a close. Late December is when everyone comes out with their “best of” or “worst of” lists, so I thought I’d throw together a few lists. There’s no best and no worst, simply a snapshot of some of the things that made life as a commuting professor so grueling these past five months (and which explains why I haven’t posted in weeks). Come to think of it, this is more like a Harper’s Index than a proper list…

Number of novels read and taught since the beginning of August: 13

Number of those novels featuring characters named Asa: 2

Estimated average length, in pages, of each novel: 400

Estimated number of student papers read, in pages: 1,950

Estimated time spent grading those papers, in hours: 975

Percentage of students who “stopped attending” (as the registrar puts it) but were still registered for my classes: 8

Frequent flier miles earned since August: 54,484

Number of peanut butter jars confiscated by TSA screeners under the “no liquid” ban: 1

Percentage of successful smuggling attempts of lip balm aboard aircraft: 100

Number of times the 9 volt battery, digital watch, stress ball, and random twist-tie in my carry on baggage were mistaken for bomb components: 1

Fly the Fiendly Skies

This is the scariest freaking business I’ve read in a long time: Christopher Soghoian, a computer science student who had created an online generator for fake boarding passes–solely to point out how ludicrously ineffective airport security is–has been visited several times by the FBI, most recently, with a 2am warrant that allowed the Bureau to seize every single piece of tech in the student’s home. (See a scan of the warrant at BoingBoing).

The kid (he’s 24 years old) is simply highlighting that TSA airport security is “security theater”–providing the illusion of security while actually not protecting anything or anyone. Anybody can print their own online boarding pass and use it to get past gate security (as Andy Bowers illustrated in Slate nearly two years ago); and anyone can easily use two boarding passes to not only get past security, but to board the plane under a false ID.

What’s most amazing is that Soghoian is simply revealing flaws in a system that desperately needs fixing. But the federal government is treating him as a terrorist.

Who’s to say that millions haven’t already printed their own fake boarding passes and done what Soghian is only suggesting?

Who’s to say that I, who travel every week from Charlotte to Dulles International Airport, haven’t used Photoshop to doctor an online boarding pass copied from usairways.com to get through security?

I have.

It’s simple, and any idiot can do it.

You take a screenshot of your real boarding pass (right before you print it) (and most airlines allow you to “check in” online, meaning you can call up your boarding pass right in your web browser). And then you edit that screenshot in Photoshop. Substitute your seat assignment, your flight number, whatever. As long as it looks vaguely like US Airways real online boarding pass, you can get right through security.

I did this.

Even though I was a paying customer and had a real boarding pass, I generated a separate fake one. I forged one. Just to test the system.

I got through.

I boarded and flew and landed home.

Now I’m worried. Is the FBI going to come after me? Seize my computers and flash drives and scanners and printers? I did what the terrorists could do. Does that make me an enemy of the state? I broke federal law (DHS Code Title 49, Volume 8; October 1, 2004 rev. [Page 302]. I knowingly lied to a federal official. Security fraud. I committed it.

Or did I?

What if I didn’t print a fake boarding pass. What if I only thought about it. What if I’m lying right now. Who’s to say that I haven’t printed fake boarding passes. Who’s to say that I have.

My lips are sealed.

Except they’re not.

I did this and you should too.

Fast Food, Homeland Security Style

Here’s a placard (larger image) on a parking shuttle bus at Dulles International Airport, outside of Washington, D.C.

I’m very appreciative that they let me know, well before I enter the terminal, what I can eat, and whether it’s “pre-security” or “post-security” dining. So I can plan in advance such critical traveling strategery as, do I buy my double mocha skinny latte here, by ticketing, or there at Gate B, after I’ve been body cavity searched?