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:[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/samplereality/statuses/33364830542893056″]

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]

Joking with weapon-like toys

Warning Sign at Dulles AirportA few days ago I posted about the absurd attention the FBI has shown in a computer science student who created a fake boarding pass generator.

The true threat of a simulated boarding pass is not that it would allow terrorists to board a plane (and get an exit row seat, no less). No, the true threat of a simulated boarding pass is that it reveals that an actual boarding pass is meaningless when it comes to security. The fake boarding pass destroys the alibi of the real boarding pass.

It’s a crisis of simulation. And now I’m thinking that there’s no better space to analyze the anxiety that surround simulations than airports and airport security.

Consider the photograph above, taken at Dulles International Airport. “Weapon-like toys” are just as prohibited as real weapons.

I’m reminded of something the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote years ago, wondering which is more threatening to the state: a real bank hold-up or a fake one? Baudrillard suggests that “a real hold up only upsets the order of things, the right of property, whereas a simulated hold up interferes with the very principle of reality” (from “Simulacra and Simulations”–the same Baudrillard essay which inspires Morpheus in The Matrix to say, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real”). To those who doubt his claim, Baudrillard says, “Go and organize a fake hold up.” And you’ll find out that a fake hold up is treated exactly the same as a real one. “You will unwittingly find yourself in the real,” Baudrillard warns.

So it is with airports now. There is no room in the system for simulation, even in play.

So what’s a terrorist to do? Perhaps the answer is right there, in the message on the sign. If “weapon-like toys” are banned, why not turn to toy-like weapons?

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?

Moving Hell

Moving is hell. We’re moving after a year in the D.C. area, back to Nascar country in North Carolina.

But when God–and there’s a lot of him around in this part of the country–gives you moving, you make yummy movingade.

So, we’re looking at this as an opportunity. We have all these dozens of cardboard boxes of stuff, packed up and ready to…

…throw out!

Yes, now is our opportunity to throw out those bottles of vitamin E from 1993. Bye bye to those handfuls of Tupperware lids without containers. Those hundreds of plastic shopping bags we’ve been holding on to for years? Gone.

And forget recycling.

It’s as if I hold a personal grudge against these things. They’ve made my life miserable for so many years. They’re the reason why I’m depressed, stressed, afraid of terrorists, untalented, getting older, dying. And they deserve nothing less than the trash heap.

It feels good, for a change, not to recycle. Reduce, reuse my ass! Throw it all away! Screw the planet! Hurrah for the great globs of polystyrene polymers glowing forever in the nuclear haze of tomorrow’s future!

Google Mapping Spain

I’ve been experimenting with a good way to incorporate a dynamic Google Map into this blog, specifically one that plots key points in our travels in Spain. Don’t ask me why. I really don’t expect anybody to ever look at this thing, but I’ve been inspired by the possibilities of geomapping memories (see the Center for History and New Media’s September 11 Digital Archive map of “Ground Zero” to see the most evocative use of the same tools I’m using).

I’ve only charted one point so far, trying to test the map while I figure out how to have the map appear “live” on my front page (in this very space). But for now, the beta version is available at Google Mapping Spain.

Puzzling over the flight home

How many passengers on a transatlantic flight play Sudoku?

Apparently all of them.

Another observation from the flight…One of the in-flight movies was The Dukes of Hazzard. I assume this movie was supposed to appeal somehow to the retro-seeking, nostalgia-desperate Gen Xers like myself, who spent many Friday nights in the eighties watching The Dukes and The Incredible Hulk. Like other attempts to create new franchises from recycled television shows, the movie was, well, I can’t say a disappointment, because I didn’t expect anything at all in the first place. But the spirit of the movie was all wrong, fundamentally misguided. Bo and Luke Duke, the good guys, were buffoons, played for laughs, while the bad guys–Boss Hogg, Roscoe–were played straight. This is the opposite of the original series.

Of course, I’m overanalyzing a movie that is obviously meant to be taken lightly. Still, I think it’s worth pointing out that this inversion of the comical and the serious seems to happen a lot in the adaptation of seventies and eighties television shows for the big screen in the new millennium. It’s as if the old shows–Incredible Hulk, Starsky and Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard–weren’t campy enough, so the remakes have to be in camp-overdrive. Or rather, as if to prove we once took the originals seriously and didn’t conceive of them as camp at the time, we have to produce remakes with even greater camp value.

The single exception to this trend seems to be the Sci-Fi channel’s remarkable reimagining of Battlestar Galactica. In this series, what was once camp is now deadly serious. And that’s what makes Battlestar one of the best television shows around right now.

Guernica, through a child’s eye

The Museo Reina Sofia is Spain’s modern art museum, and my son and I went there yesterday to see one thing and one thing only: Picasso’s Guernica, depicting the brutal aerial bombardment of the Basque city Guernica by the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War.

Showing the painting to my son was an antidote to our trip to the National Air and Space Museum in D.C in October.

Of course, an eighteen-month-old can’t be expected to have a sophisticated reaction to a powerful work of art about the monstrosities of the twentieth century.

But he comes close.

My son pointed at the mutilated bodies lying fallen on the ground and he said, “Uh-oh.” And then he made the hand sign for fall down.

Uh-oh is right.

I wonder if right now, somewhere in Falluja or Najaf, an aspiring artist is painting a successor to Guernica, honoring the 30,000 Iraqi civilians killed so far in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

If so, I hope my son sees that painting and is just as aware of suffering then as he is now.

Two Old Women Eating from a Bowl, Goya (1821-1823)

Two Old Women Eating from a Bowl, Goya
(Larger Image)
Posted to Flickr by samplereality.

Yesterday, while my wife was digging through national archives in Spain, my son and I went to the Prado, one of the great art museums of the world.

This was my third trip to the Prado, and every time, I make sure I visit a few key paintings. The Prado has, fittingly, the greatest collection of Goya work, and I am always haunted by his “black paintings.” His Saturn is enormously evocative, and I’ve referred to it before on SampleReality to talk about The Sopranos, of all things.

As long as you don’t use a flash, you may photograph the works in the Prado. I learned this the hard way, when I was almost thrown out a few years ago for accidentally using a flash on Velazquez’s Las Meninas.

So, with my son patiently watching from the stroller, I snapped a few shots, and you can see my Prado stream on Flickr.

Niko and Quijote

Niko and Quijote (Larger Image)
Posted to Flickr by samplereality.

Don Quijote was on our street again, much to my son’s delight. I snapped this photo as my son was dropping some change into the “statue’s” chute. Moments later, Don Quijote was galloping in place and my son was in awe.

I was surprised to find on Flickr, in addition to my own photos of this particular Don Quijote, another visitor to Madrid had taken some snapshots of the very same street performer, a few weeks earlier.

Lo Mejor de Elmo

After much grave, serious debate and heart-wrenching soul-searching, we finally bought Lo Mejor de Elmo from the media megastore FNAC in Madrid.

This was a major decision.

Our son has watched maybe ten minutes of television in his whole life. And we plan to keep it that way. But Elmo is so tempting. Despite never having seen a single minute of Sesame Street, our son knows all the characters by sight and can name them as if they were family. Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, even–and this is eerie–the long-dead Mr. Hooper. It’s as if Sesame Street were in the air, or maybe there’s just something in the water.

Don Quijote “Statue”

Or “Donkey-te” as my son says. This is another street performer on Calle Postas in Madrid. Drop a few coins in the chute and he bounces on “Rocinante” or jousts at imaginary windmills (i.e. pedestrians).

My son goes crazy everytime he sees Donkey-te, and he woke up in the middle of the night last night asking for him. It took a while to convince him that Don Quijote was asleep and he should be too.

Christmastime Crowds in Madrid

The holiday season in Madrid is still full swing and doesn’t wind down until after Kings’ Day, January 6th. Spanish streets are always teeming with people, and even more so in Christmastime. And I don’t mean simply crowded. I mean crowded in the fullest sense of the word: packed with crowds. From Puerta del Sol to the Plaza Mayor, a distance of a quarter mile (with my apartment exactly in the middle), the streets are essentially one surging mass of people.

So I’ve been thinking about crowds lately.

The French poet Charles Baudelaire meditated upon crowds, and the German critic Walter Benjamin used Baudelaire’s reflections to highlight the difference between the manic man of the crowd and the leisurely flâneur, who idles down the sidewalk. In a witty aside in his essay on Baudelaire, Benjamin remarks that Parisian flâneurs often walked through the arcades with a turtle on a leash, nonchalantly allowing the turtle to set the pace.

A turtle on a leash is precisely what walking through the crowded streets of Madrid during Christmastime is like when an eighteen-month-old boy is holding your hand and leading the way.

Our pace was ours alone.

Every interesting piece of rubbish on the sidewalk, we stopped. Every store window with either a soccer ball or Nativity scene, we stopped. Every scooter or motercycle parked, we stopped. Every street performer, mime, or busker, we stopped.

It’s a new way to see the city. A revelation.

Pictured here (Larger Image) is one street performer on Calle de Preciados that particularly drew my son’s attention: a man who, despite the windblown action pose, is standing completely stationary until someone drops a few coins at his feet. Then he moves mechanically like a Disney Hall of Presidents animatronic, only to “shut down” again in a few moments.

It’s the Man of the Crowd as a living statue.

Live Blogging at the MLA

I half-heartedly had wanted to live blog the MLA convention last week, but it just didn’t happen. The last time I live blogged was the 2004 presidential debate, and I guess, in comparison, the MLA just wasn’t worth the effort.

That, and the fact that less than 24 hours after my own MLA presentation I began the first leg of a journey which eventually brought me across the Atlantic to Madrid. So far, things are going better than my last trip to Spain, just sick six months ago.

To make up for the lack of live — blogging at the MLA (as if anyone would care), maybe I’ll try to squeeze in some mobile blogging here in Spain. Full-out Christmas isn’t celebrated here until King’s Day, on January 6, so there are a lot of festivities around worth taking in…

One Year Later…

Back from Spain, where, toward the end of our trip, our son celebrated his first birthday. What a difference a year makes! On the left is a picture we took in the hospital, two days after our son was born. On the right is our son, “calling” on the in-flight phone on our transatlantic journey from Spain, one year and a day later.