16 October 2011

The advantages of a long commute

Lately, it seems like I keep seeing comments, blog posts, and Chronicle fora posts about the joys of living close to campus, and how much people's quality of life improves when they move a five-minute walk away from work. Undoubtedly I am sensitive to such comments, so they may be less prevalent than I have suggested.

For over fifteen (15) years, I have commuted to a job about 60 (sixty) miles from where I live. It takes about an hour in the car, sometimes a bit more depending on traffic. I don't exactly like the commute. Frequently I add up the number of hours per week I spend in the car, realize that they are equivalent to a day of work, and remind myself that this is why I don't really have hobbies. On the other hand, I do see certain advantages, if not to the commute, then to living where I do.

1. Perspective. I don't leave work at work; I normally work a great deal at home. When I'm on campus, I'm usually in class or in a meeting, or having office hours. I have to schedule library time when I need it. But though work comes home with me, the institution recedes into the distance. I can work in my study without having anyone pop in for just a minute; I can work in a coffee shop without seeing anyone I know who wants a quick word about a paper or a committee. It's clearer to me, from a distance, which tasks really matter to me as opposed to those that someone else wants me to do. The job is a job; it's not my life. Yes, less time in the car might mean more time for "a life" as most people mean it, but I don't really want "a life" in the town I work in.

2. The kind of life I want. I like cities. My job is not in a city, but my home is. On days I don't go to campus, I can enjoy the advantages of city life, including items 3-10:

3. Quicker, easier access to cultural events. Obviously it would be possible to drive in for these from the place where I work, and when I lived there, I did. But it's nice to get home faster at night, when the show's over.

4. Good public transportation to libraries and places of cultural significance.

5. Excellent restaurants.

6. A posh gym that I truly enjoy using (and I never see my students in the locker room).

7. Better medical care than is available where I work, and a wider range of insurance options.

8. More sophisticated veterinary care for my spoiled and sickly darlings.

9. Anonymity. Obviously this does not appeal to everyone. Lots of people like being thoroughly woven into their communities, and I know that studies show this is important to happiness and well-being. Sure, if you're an extrovert. Extreme introverts like me love cities because no one is paying attention to us, no one knows us, no one expects a lot of interaction.

10. More interesting, better-stocked grocery stores. And bookstores. And other shopping. Sure, now we have the Internet, but sometimes it's fun to browse in person.

11. Decompression time. Intense interaction with people, as in teaching, somehow both exhausts me and gets me all wound up. It's like being an over-excited little kid at a party, who's really in need of a glass of milk and a nap instead of cola and cake and more games. The hour in the car alone is a good opportunity to start winding down, to debrief myself about how things went and what I might do next time, to sort out what I really need to tell Sir John and what is just stuff I need to think through on my own.

12. Warm-up time. Similarly, the drive to school helps me get my head around what I'm going to be doing for the day. I don't plunge from my house into the classroom. Now that I have usually already read (several dozen times) what I'll be teaching, I can do a lot of class prep in my head, in the car.

13. And, to make it a baker's dozen, better access to more interesting walking trails and outdoorsy stuff like that. It sounds counter-intuitive, but in an area known for farming, living in a small town does not necessarily put you in a good spot for a nature walk or bike ride, unless you want to check out the amber waves of grain while cars zip past and their occupants yell rudely.

I have many friends and colleagues who love living where they work. As the Grumpy Pair keep saying, my choices aren't judging yours. I'm weird. That's not news. But this here's my answer to the question (usually asked with obivous horror) of why I would undertake this long commute; and notice that this answer doesn't even open up the two-body issue.

6 comments:

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I just finished 3 years of a commute similar to yours (a little shorter), and I totally agree with a lot of your points. I did enjoy the warm-up and wind-down time of commuting. And when I lived in rural America, it was exactly what you say about outdoorsiness - although we were in the middle of nowhere, you had to go somewhere to find places to walk/hike/whatever, because otherwise you were on country highways in the middle of grainfields.

I think basically it comes down to where you want to live. If I had ended up working in law school town (which I didn't want to do), I'd still be commuting, because I like living where I live better. I'll confess it's awfully nice not having to commute now - because I now get all the advantages you list in a city where I take a 12-minute bus ride to work - but I would definitely take the commute if that's what was necessary to have all the other stuff. Thankfully, I don't have to make that choice now. Unfortunately, most academic jobs are in places that do require you to make that choice.

nicoleandmaggie said...

My sister keeps telling us we should move to the city and commute in to work. Many of my colleagues already do. It would have the benefit of being a reverse commute... With our current schooling situation it definitely seems attractive. For now though, we drive into the city about once a month. Really what I want is to live in a posh suburb full of liberal yuppies (and all the public goods they demand) and ethnic food shops. But Westwood and Santa Monica are pretty pricey and I don't really have a job in LA.

It does irritate me that we have to drive forever to find someplace to hike, even though we're in the middle of nowhere!

Janice said...

The nearest bigger city is about 3.5 hours drive south over a highway that's often two lanes and erratically closed due to weather or accidents (adding another 3-5 hour detour) so it's really not a good option here. A few colleagues manage it by having an efficiency apartment or basement suite here but their home in the big town.

I'm on the road too much as it is with kids and husband's job since we only have one car. I get cranky on days when I'm clocking 140k. I can't imagine keeping up your driving regime but I understand the lure of your city life. Glad that you can have both!

NWGirl said...

I have a similar commute and I agree with your points, especially 1,9, and 11. I've had a lengthy commute for the last twelve years and I doubt that I would change even if the housing market were better. Sometimes the only quiet I get is in the car. I have difficulty with the "NO" though that's changing as I get older. Having to schedule things makes it easier for me to set boundaries and offer alternative times that leave me time to work from home. In another academic position, I lived and worked in the same small town. Never, ever again.

profacero said...

I used to have a commute like that and loved it. On the way I'd turn into work mode, practice my lectures, and stuff like that, and on the way home I'd decompress, arriving refreshed. It wasn't wasted time.

undine said...

I forgot to comment before about how much I liked (and identified with) this post.