Wednesday, May 09, 2007

commuting my sentence

I’ve joined the rest of you commuters.

Just in the nick of time, the April 16th issue of The New Yorker featured an Annals of Transport article titled There and Back Again. Nick Paumgarten started his piece by reporting that the Midas Muffler Company gave their award for America’s longest commute to an engineer at Cisco who drives 372 miles each day to San Jose and back home.

Do you know the way to San Jose? Bert Bacharach apparently believed that you drove there once and stayed.

Got that? You only need to know the way to San Jose. And that's that.

I don’t drive nearly 186 miles to get to Mountain View (which is not far from San Jose). It’s only 35 or so miles from my house to my office down scenic California Highway 101.

Not far at all by the standards of the people described in the New Yorker article. And unlike them, I’m not “pumped up, ready to go” when I get to work. No, nothing of the sort. I’m by no means invigorated, nor am I ready to evangelize the commute. I’m stiff and groggy when I get to Mountain View. I’m not tempted to understate the length of time I spend in the car.

And I’m thinking, I could have been blogging. Napping. Walking. Working.

I could’ve been brushing and flossing my teeth in preparation for some kind of dental hygiene award. I could’ve been exfoliating until my skin was as smooth as a baby’s behind. I could’ve read several chapters of a Richard Ford novel—stopping to ponder over the semantics of larky-farkying—or written this post.

I could’ve investigated what happened to the bees. Both mine and everyone else's.

Instead I’ve read cryptic billboards about Ask’s algorithms, envied the pampered youngsters who work at Google (tap-tapping away on their laptops while the Bauer’s Limo service delivers them door-to-door), yelled “Get off the fucking phone and drive, assmunch!” to my fellow commuters, screamed in fear as an inattentive DeSoto cab driver changes lanes to occupy the same space as my little white Honda, and gasped as a Yahama 600cc sport bike splits lanes 3 inches from my right door (and a half inch from my right mirror).

I’m not a commuting lightweight either. I came of age—motor vehicle-wise—driving on the 405 in LA. It’s no accident that after I’d spent a few years wrapped up in one of these cross-city commutes, Pasadena to Santa Monica, I decided to look for my first job out of graduate school close to home. Close enough to bicycle. In fact, close enough to bicycle in the rain. I didn’t care what I did or whom I worked for; I just wanted to be able to bike to work.

I didn’t violate this principle until recently.

Highway 101, the spine of Silicon Valley, is a pistol, a real pistol. “Race track rules,” Mark tells me.

The primal urge is to react with anger, to yell “Fuck you, motherfucker! Fuck you!” each time an Audi or Beemer cuts you off, parallel parking between you and the white panel van ahead of you. Parallel parking at 80 mph. The white panel van has a Wild 94.9 bumpersticker. The Audi is fresh from the dealer and doesn’t have license plates yet. The Beemer has a $5000 crunch on his left rear fender.

You can get carpal tunnel syndrome giving that many people the finger. Really you can.

Just calm down.

I’d like to be more like David Byrne. Remember the beginning of True Stories? Where David Byrne—as the Narrator—said in a dreamy voice:

Well, I suppose these freeways made this town… and many others… possible. They’re the cathedrals of our time. There are names for the various kinds of freeway drivers. The “slingshotter”… the “adventurer”… the “marshmallow”… the “nomad”… the “weaver.” It’s fancy driving… Things that never had names before now are easily described. It makes conversation easy…

It’s hard to feel that calm, that surreal, that absorbed. It’s hard to resist giving someone the finger.

True Stories is a movie. David Byrne is a narrator. This is life. I’m a salaryman.

Wild 94.9 brings me back to reality. Is that Steven Seaweed playing AC/DC on 107.7 The Bone? AOR. REO. Time has stood still on decency-loving Clear Channel stations. Dark Side of the Moon is still number one. Didn’t I have not one, but three, Dark Side of the Moon posters on my dorm room wall when I was a freshman? I feel myself ossifying even though I’ve just listened briefly. It’s dangerous to tune in too long; someone might see you singing along with “Walk This Way.”

Some people, people who are otherwise reasonable and pleasant, would suggest that I listen to KQED, 88.5, National Public Radio and drive on Highway 280, which advertises itself as the “World’s Most Beautiful Freeway.”

Yeah. Yeah. Both have their moments.

I remember listening to Terry Gross interview a writer who’d written a book about suicide bombers. The writer was talking about the changes of heart that unsuccessful bombers sometimes experienced. “What about the successful bombers?” Terry asked him. “Do they ever have similar changes of heart?” I remember the writer as being very polite. Possibly more polite than I was, there in my white Honda.

“Think about it, Terry,” I said back to my radio. “Think about it very carefully. For godssake!”

And of course Highway 280 has honest-to-god sights, not just the carpet of California poppies in the spring.

Junipero Serra, monkish symbol of repression of California’s indigenous people, points the way along the curvy part of the freeway just north of the Highway 92 junction.

The Flintstone house, that famous blobby 1970s architectural experiment. Tasteless? Yes. Likeable? Even more so. Look: it could’ve been avocado green or carpeted with shag on the outside. Instead its only crime is formlessness.

Compare and contrast these concrete loofahs on the peninsula’s burnished hills with Berkeley’s scruffy Whale House. It’s no contest.

But these two high points, the Flintstone House and Terry Gross’s disarming interviewing techniques, are only recognizable as such because the rest is so darned boring.

KQED and Highway 280 just aren’t for me. No controversy. No billboards. No bumperstickers. The Audis and Beemers weave through the slower traffic with balletic precision, but there are no white panel vans, no Camrys with outsized JC Whitney spoilers. Just rich people, wide lanes, and German engineering.

KQED and Highway 280: boring, boring, boring.

You know I’m going to eat my words, don’t you?

There’s but so long the billboards and signage can keep you entertained. For awhile, sponsored a horrible advertising campaign that even mystified geeks whizzing along high tech commute routes like 101. Stuff like “THE ALGORITHM IS FROM JERSEY” and “THE ALGORITHM KILLED JEEVES” and “THE UNABOMBER HATES THE ALGORITHM.” Huh? Talk about in-jokes.

Then there’s the IKEA sign that’s just a little too high tech for its own good: it regularly promotes the Internet Explorer error “The page cannot be displayed.” Certainly not an appropriate message for an IKEA sign.

Perhaps it should say instead, “Do not despair. There are often parts left over. Your Flarb will still stand sturdily.” or “Leftover parts present a choking hazard to children and small dogs. Dispose of carefully.” or even “Here are five project ideas that involve hex wrenches and broken pieces of particle board.”

So, yes, I did get tired of reading the signs. I’ve never felt tempted to Thrive at the behest of my HMO or use Blinkx or go to the thoroughbred races at Bay Meadows.

But you don’t really get bored on 101 when you get tired of the signs and the radio; you get angry. No-one, the reasoning goes, knows how to drive anymore. Either there are geriatrics (everyone older than oneself) clogging up the fast lane with their moralistic 65 mph pace-setting, or there are testosterone fueled Type A drivers (everyone crazier than oneself) buzzing and zipping imprudently close.

I would go crazy if I didn’t find something to do besides attending to how everyone else drives.

Some people talk on their phones. Other people talk to themselves. I’ve discovered the wonders of podcasts.

This is not to say that all podcasts are wonderful. It seems to be all too easy for terminal bores to adopt the medium. You can include as many pointless details as you desire in a podcast: an hour talking about a first date where you feel the need to account for subway stops, coffee shops, and poker games.

I was lucky. The first podcast I found was Gem’s Misadventures in Taiwan. Gem is an art student studying animation at the Tainan National University of the Arts. And she’s got stories to tell about the night market, about tiny crabs, about the sights and sounds of the Taiwanese countryside. She talks very fast and she’s very funny. I burned through her podcasts during the first couple weeks of my commute.

And here’s where I eat my words. I’d listened to This American Life before, but not regularly. It’s on at some time I never listen to the radio. Sunday at noon or something like that. So I’d only caught snippets.

I’m hooked.


Sure: at times it’s maudlin. But no-one sees you weeping in the car. It’s more discreet than picking your nose.

Like heroin, the first This American Life is free for the downloading. It’s only $.95/dose thereafter, which would be a fine price. Except they’re not MP3s. They’re instead M4Ps, Apple’s DRM-protected iTunes format. Dyslexic people refer to them as MP4s.

Curse you, Apple!

I’m certainly willing to buy This American Life. And I promise not to distribute it. But I want to play it on a device that doesn’t run the iTunes codec.

Curse you, Apple! May hackers eat your lunch! And steal your lunch money too. You and your smarmy hipster corporate branding army. If you were *really* hip, I’d be able to listen to This American Life on my non-standard non-iPod device. Apparently the only solution is to burn and re-rip it. Or trust one of those DRM removal tools.

But I’ve been mollified by Slate’s numerous podcasts. June Thomas with her subtle accent (is that a hint of Glasgow? According to the web site, June hails from Manchester) is the foreign correspondent who records the Explainers, questions from the day’s news. Those are fun. Emily Bazelon, who’s part of the political gabfest, has a reassuringly girlish voice. Not the voice of a radio announcer. She’s my new best friend in the car. I can picture these podcasters crammed into their tiny, dingy conference room, eating potato chips left over from box lunches consumed during an earlier meeting.

Podcasting doesn’t require many resources.

I’ve picked and chosen among recordings of my favorite writers. There’s not enough David Sedaris nor Amy Sedaris: to the microphones, my favorite functional/dysfunctional family members! To the microphones! Richard Ford reads Raymond Carver. Jeremy Irons reads Nabokov. But, in general, writers don’t seem to read much and often it isn’t even their own stuff. You’ve got to fight with the DRM of books on CD.

It’s a long drive from San Francisco to Mountain View.

A penny for your thoughts.

Especially if you podcast them for me.


Blogger g said...

hi, thanks for linking to me. =)


11:38 PM  

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