Tag Archives: commuting

Might As Well Read

During my recent travels I had a layover at Sea-Tac Airport. Since I don’t get out much, I always find a walk through the airport a way of measuring what other people find important. At least in a circumscribed way. When you’re traveling you’re limited in your options. Most airlines have addressed passenger ennui by offering devices with electronic entertainment. Instead of an in-flight movie, you’ll have choices of what you want to do, courtesy of the endless magic of in-flight wifi. So the thinking goes. Airports, it would stand to reason, will offer plenty of travel-size diversions. The kinds of things you’re allowed to take onto a plane but which won’t or can’t be used to harm others. A sign at Sea-Tac reads “Books. Food. And yes, beer. Just ahead.” An interesting choice of offerings.

I was strangely heartened by the pride of place given to books. Yes, people still find the book on a plane satisfying. Stories have a way of drawing us in. Making us forget that we’re in a cramped space filled with strangers and recirculated, pressurized air. Books have the ability to take us far away. It’s a magic that movies can’t always achieve. Books leave more to the imagination. I recently rediscovered this on a solo trip across the Atlantic. I used the opportunity to read a novel cover-to-cover. The impact was incredible. For those six hours I was on the ground, following the adventures of young people caught up in the liminal zone of adventure and love. It was a powerful experience.

On my daily commute I tend to read non-fiction. Perhaps it’s the result of earning a doctorate, or perhaps it’s the stigma of enjoyable reading being “fluff.” The great majority of books I read this way teach me a lot. I read about many different subjects, and have recently learned to make commuting time a type of research exercise. But then, a cross-country plane ride is different. While an evening commute from New York City can stretch to three hours or more, that’s fairly rare. Instead, air time is unbroken time. I look forward to it with the prospect of a good novel. Airports are one place where hoi polloi don’t mind hanging out in a bookstore. Yes, the fare will be mostly bestsellers, but anything that gets people to read is a good thing. And, of course, if that doesn’t work for you there’s always beer. Just ahead.

Ammonia Avenue

It’s 7:00 p.m. I’m still sitting on a bus, in unmoving traffic a mere three miles from home. I stepped out of my front door over 13 hours ago and I have only another hour before retiring to start it all over again tomorrow. My phone’s down to a charge level that the effort of getting a non-wifi connection will only drain it completely. I have no idea why I’m being rerouted. Later I’ll learn that we’ve been instructed to shelter in place because of a N-Aminoethylpiperazine spill. Better living through chemicals. I’m sheltering in place, all right. This bus is my ark.

There’s much about this complex world that I don’t understand. I readily admit that I don’t know much. One thing I do know is that I live my life trying not to impact others negatively. I’m reminded of this every time someone blows a cloud of smoke into my path, plays their music so loud that even they can’t really hear it, or spills Aminoethylpiperazine all over the place. I don’t haul corrosive chemicals (beyond what may be trapped in my gray matter) through anybody’s hometown. I think of that scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind—a dangerous chemical spill. Evacuate Devil’s Tower. There’s nothing to see here, folks. It strikes me that this is a larger ethical issue. The right to use, and potentially destroy, somebody else’s space. If you inhale Aminoethylpiperazine fumes, it can be fatal. It may take longer, but the same is true of second-hand smoke. The things that go beyond our own personal self-abuse into the realm of harming others. Somebody call an ethicist!

Commuting isn’t really a lifestyle choice. There may be a few stalwarts on this bus that really enjoy it, but from hearing the weary conversation of the regulars somehow I doubt it. We’ve been rerouted to New York City for our jobs. Our free time is consigned to an aluminum lozenge on wheels. Sometimes it actually moves. Have you ever tried to read a book when the head of the snoring guy next to you keeps falling into your lap? I think about those animals on the ark. Life is more than eating and breathing. You’ve got to have some space to move about. Even when I wake up I’m not in the same position as when I went to sleep. Of course, ethics demands I look at it from the other’s point of view. Someone needed a truckload of Aminoethylpiperazine, and they’re disappointed that it never arrived. Just don’t breathe too deeply. This flood can’t last forever.

System Reboot

I think Steve Bannon has already taken over my computer. How else can I explain everything stopping in the middle of a word, fingers flying, building up to some rhetorical flourish and suddenly the screen goes blank. Windows that I’d forgotten I had open reappear only to shut down. A brief message appears telling me that an “update” is being installed. I don’t mind do I? After all, it’s the middle of the night. Who’s watching in the middle of the night? We all know who the real president is, but why he’s interested in my muddled musings is anybody’s guess.

You see, I live a regimented life. You have to when your bus arrives before 6 a.m. I crawl reluctantly from my bed at 3:30 for one purpose only—to write. The commute and work take about 14 hours of the 24 I’m allotted every day, and I’m told that 8 of the remaining should be for sleeping. That doesn’t leave much time. So I skimp on the dozing part and get up to scribble my thoughts when, traditionally, demons are a-prowl. I need my computer to be with me on this. Kind of difficult to post on a blog without it. Not that I enjoy my early morning violence to the soft fabric of dreamland. My fellow early morning commuters know what I mean. Every day there’s a car just pulling up to some bus stop as the driver’s put on his blinkers, indicating he’s pulling out. I know some folks roll out of the bed, into the shower, and onto the bus. Some continue their sleep on the bus. I can’t blame them. I’m Manichaean about my day. It’s either asleep or awake. I don’t nap, so I need to write when I’m most awake. Just after 3:30 a.m.

How do I know it’s Steve Bannon? It’s only a guess really. I’ve heard that Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates keep a piece of opaque tape over the camera of their laptops. Why anybody’d want to see a confused, morning-headed, middle-aged guy with his mouth hanging open, wondering what’s just happened to the blog post he was writing is beyond me. But then I’m no expert in national security. In this year of 1984 we’re all threats to the powers that be, I guess. Thing is, I can’t remember what I wanted to say once the laptop restarts half an hour later. And that’s probably the point.

Image credit: Nirwrath, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Nirwrath, Wikimedia Commons

Samaritans, Good and Otherwise

It’s the coldest day of the winter so far. I’m noticing this because I’m standing on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike counting the NJ Transit buses that are flying by at highway speed. It’s been a morning of irony so far, which explains why I’m standing out here instead of sitting inside the broken down, but still warm bus right next to me. I felt the cold while waiting at quarter to six for my bus to show up. Thankfully on time. It’s very empty this morning; I’m maybe the fourth passenger. Somewhere along Route 22, miles later, the bus gives a distress cry. Ironically, the engine is hot. The temperature outside is in the single digits. Also ironically, the radio on our bus isn’t working, so the driver has to call dispatch on his smart phone. Meanwhile, the engine cools down enough for him to try it again. We’re fine until we pass exit 15 on the Turnpike.

While I try to think of others before myself, I sit near the front of the bus—the first or second row. That way when it’s time to get off I don’t have to wait for dozens of people to wake up, stretch, and slowly shamble into the aisle. (If you think that’s an exaggeration, you don’t commute by NJ Transit.) “The first shall be last,” the Good Book says, and I believe it. I lost count of how many of the company’s buses have zoomed past, but when one finally stops, I’m person number 8 off the bus. The Good Samaritan driver stops me outside his bus. “Sorry, no more seats. No more standing room.” No room in the inn. My driver urges the long line behind me to get back on the bus, where it’s warm, to wait. I was first, now I’m last. That’s why I’m standing out here in the cold. As I approach the bus I see all the first several rows are filled by those first back on the disabled bus. They will be the first to be offered a ride by the next driver along this road to Jericho.

winter

The guy behind me, now in front of me, comes to the same conclusion and waits outside too. At least we both have beards. I’m thinking of Jesus’ words about the end of the world. “Pray it won’t come in winter.” Out here, all prayers are frozen. At least thirty NJ Transit buses buzz by creating their own wind chill before another stops. I want to be first because I paid more for my ticket than those who sat further back on my bus. In fact, I could rent a small apartment in many places in the country for what I pay a year for a bus pass. I wonder if that’s what it means that the first shall be last. Or maybe my brain’s just frozen, since it’s the coldest day of the winter so far.

Lap of Luxury

How terribly rude. I was right in the middle of a sentence when my word processor shut down. Then my computer. A system update. It’s 4:00 a.m., the time I usually upload my blog post. You have to understand that I get up at 3:30 so that I have time to write. My laptop assumes nobody is working “in the middle of the night.” I would’ve thought my fingers on its keys would’ve given it a clue. Now it tells me I’ll have access, new upgraded system installed, in 25 minutes. Doesn’t my laptop have all my personal details when it comes to shopping? You’d think it would know all my personal habits by now. I mean, this is the way I do it every day. Right now my concerns are secondary. This system update can’t wait. I wasn’t even given a choice. Power nap for Apple.

What disturbs me most is that my computer reads every word I type, yet it still thinks I’m just like everybody else. Who’s awake and writing at 4:00 a.m.? And I thought we had a rapport, my laptop and me. I was the Skipper to his Little Buddy. The Agent 86 to her 99. The Will Robinson to its Robot. I guess I had it backwards all the time. The brain on my lap doesn’t agree with the brain in my head. If I can’t get my writing done now, it won’t get done at all because at ten minutes to six I’ve got to be on that bus. New Jersey Transit doesn’t offer working overhead lights much of the time, let alone wifi. It’s now or never. My coffee’s already gone and the next thing on my daily agenda is the shower. I always come up with ideas in the shower—I need my Little Buddy waiting for me when I rush out to write them down.

newchair

Who’s sitting on whose lap? How could I have gotten something so very basic so terribly wrong? In ancient times the one sitting was superior to the one standing. When the computer’s sitting on the one sitting we know who’s really in charge. Let the one with eyes to read understand. I’m a busy man, but my Little Buddy—my Skipper—is busier. When’s the last time I read a paper map? Opened a phone book? Wrote an actual letter? I can hear those bus wheels rumbling. Excuse me, but my master is calling.

Bad Theology

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Perhaps the most overused simile for a real mess is that it’s “like a train wreck.” No doubt this is because train wrecks are messy, and deadly. Few things speak to human vulnerability more than airborne hunks of heavy metal flying in indeterminate directions. Trains don’t stop fast. If they do people get hurt. No, I wasn’t on the train that crashed into the Hoboken station yesterday during the morning commute. I’m just one of many thousands of people who make their way into the city every day, but I go by bus, which is more affordable. Still, there’s something in every commuter that mourns a tragedy like this. We’re not in competition for getting into New York. It’s only after we’re off our conveyances that we compete. The stories after the crash, however, emphasized something I’ve always known—people are basically good.

A strain of Christian theology makes the extremely dubious claim that people are “totally depraved.” Assaulted again and again with this misanthropic theology in college, I was bound to fight back. Some guys with minimal psychological training decided, in the early modern period, that God had created the vast majority of people for Hell. Because we share the primates’ evolved taste for fruit, we participated in “original sin.” It wasn’t exactly sex (since God had declared that good) but it was a consequence of it. We were born fallen and had to be redeemed. These theologians declared, however, that very few ever would be. Most of us were Hell-fodder and deserved to be since we’re so naturally evil. A few centuries earlier Jesus had said you’d know the righteous by their fruits. There’s no getting away from the fruit.

Life in the big city is impersonal. Commuters share their conveyances each day with many strangers. After the wreck, however, as my wife pointed out, those in the cars far enough back that the injuries weren’t grievous first turned to everyone else and asked if they were all right. If they need help. If they could walk. Strangers helping one another. Good Samaritans. It doesn’t sound like total depravity to me.

Our economic system thrives on hyped-up competition. When we’re taken out of that context and placed into a human one, we cooperate. We want to help one another. Perhaps it’s not the people who are totally depraved, but the system they’re forced into. No, I wasn’t on that train. My bus had pulled into New York an hour and a half earlier. But even from a distance I could see what I’ve known all along. People are basically good.

Read Long and Prosper

“Live long and prosper,” Mr. Spock was (or will be, depending) known for saying. Many of us know the regimen for healthy living: don’t overindulge on the food and drink. Get some exercise. Try to eat the right foods. Sleep once in a while. When we go to the doctor’s office, it’s generally a physical cause that we want explained or treated. It seems, however, we might have been overlooking a way to live longer. Reading. An article from last month’s Tech Times explains that book reading—sorry folks, reading this doesn’t count—correlates to longer life, according to a Yale study. The article by Alyssa Navarro explains that concentrated reading for three-and-a-half-hours a week can be connected to living longer. Those of us who read may not have that fringe benefit in mind, but it does stand to reason.

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Since people love correlates that sound alike, the way that we describe aspects of our lives is often quantity verses quality. In terms of quantity, consciousness seems to drive us to claim as much life as possible. It’s hard to let go. Connoisseurs, however, often prefer quality to quantity. While there may well be other options than these two q’s, it seems to me that those of us who read tend to do it for the quality issue. Quantity may be a fringe benefit. My job requires a long commute most days, and I bury myself in books. If I pick one that really captures my interest, I’m amazed at how quickly even an intractable commute can go. On those days I work at home, I have to admit, I miss the reading time. I try to read with the same level of concentration when I power the laptop down, but there is something about being in a situation where you’re forced to read that somehow enhances the level of concentration. It’s training, I suppose. We often think that once we’ve figured out how to read then it’s just a matter of doing it. To really get into a book, however, requires effort.

If I’m at home and I sit down for a marathon reading session, I inevitably get sleepy. Since I awake quite early this isn’t something I think I need to see my doctor about. Of course I get sleepy on the bus, but I’ve seen how ridiculous most people look when they sleep in public, and I don’t want to be one of those. If the book I have is a good fit, I barely notice how tired I am, surrounded by my aluminum walls and the wheels that go round and round. Maybe that’s because my mind is elsewhere. I don’t commute for my health. On the days when I don’t take the bus I try to get out and jog. My healthcare regimen, I think, could use a little more book reading. At least that’s as good an excuse as I can come up with for what many people, ironically, consider a kind of illness. May we “bookworms” read long and prosper.