The Commuter Life: Suddenly, it Dawned on Me

Gooooood morning, Sacramento! What time is it? Oh five hundred. What does the O stand for? Oh, my God, it’s early!

No matter how you cut it, 3:30 am comes early.

That’s the latest that I need to haul myself out of bed if I’m driving into the city for another day at the job. It gives me about 90 minutes to get ready and still make it out the door by 5 am. Any later and the likelihood of availability of the one and only handicapped parking space that allows all-day parking and is close to my office rapidly approaches zero, like the curvilinear graphs I remember from calculus class.

Looking on the bright side, I get to witness God’s handiwork every morning, as the sky is brushed with purple, pink and gold. It’s an inspiring start to my day.

My morning commute destination: My parking space, when I can snag it. At least it’s under a leafy tree, shading my car all day from the 100 degree plus afternoon temperatures that we’ve been experiencing lately.

I try to balance my need to awaken in the pre-dawn hours with my desire to spend time with my wife in the evenings. Eight hours of sleep would require me to be in bed by 7:30 pm, which (let’s face it) is not terribly conducive to a reasonably normal family life. My bedtime was later than that when I was eight years old.

An approach I have been taking involves splitting the difference by taking a nap as soon as I walk in the door and then getting up later to have dinner and family time. On one level this works well, as I am invariably exhausted when I get home. But the experts warn that splitting up sleep time like this deprives the brain of its vital REM cycles and the body of opportunities to replace its supply of melatonin. I tend to compensate by engaging in marathon sleep sessions on the weekends. On Friday evenings, I want to say “Don’t wake me up til Monday morning.”

I am extremely grateful to my wife, who drives me in to work and returns to pick me up twice a week. I look forward to those days, as I get to sleep until 5 am and then nap in the passenger seat during the commute. But it means that my wife must make two round-trips, leaving a severe dent in her schedule. And it costs us twice as much at the gas pump.

No one said living in the exurbs was going to be easy.

On average, my morning commute takes about 40 minutes and my return in the evening about ten minutes longer. My previous concern was that my evening commute time would double due to the need to take surface streets out of Sacramento to avoid the harrowing experience of entering the freeway at the metering lights downtown. True, at times the two-lane merge can be nerve-wracking, but I find that I am starting to get used to it. It seems to be just a matter of signaling, making eye contact, and then muscling your way into the flow of traffic as if it’s your God-given right. There may be some so-and-so who’s determined not to let you in, but you can’t let it faze you. The attitude has to be “here I come, so get out of the way. Oh, you’d prefer to rear-end or sideswipe me and raise your insurance rates? Make my day, pilgrim.”

No, the problem is not the loonies with whom you have to share the road. As has famously been said, “we have found the enemy, and the enemy is us.” My chief adversary out on the road is myself alone.

This is not to say that I won’t end up in a wreck eventually. If I do the commuting dance long enough, the odds are simply not in my favor (particularly in light of my already dented, scratched and crunched driving record). More than likely, however, the day of infamy will arrive when I fall asleep while tooling down Highway 99 at 70 miles per hour.

I’ve tried just about everything to stay awake on the drive home. I keep the windows open, blast the music, sing, slap my face. I drink coffee in the afternoon and sip a Pepsi on the road. Sooner or later, however, I catch myself nodding off. It’s been a long day and the road is monotonous. More than once already I’ve reached my exit with little memory of how I got there. I guess my horse knows the way home.

All I can do at this point is count the years remaining until retirement and hope that, in the meantime, I’m not awakened by an exploding air bag to the face.

And with that I shall say good night. 3:30 am comes early.

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The Commuter Life: Ready, Set, Go!

Tessie, my sister’s new toy, er, commuter car.

My sister recently texted me a photo of her newest acquisition, a shiny black Tesla. “This is Tessie. Pretty no?” she asked by way of introduction. “She’s sitting in the garage sipping electricity.”

The thing costs almost as much as I earn in an entire year. But then again, the garage in which Tessie imbibes electrons is part of my sister’s million dollar plus home on a mountain overlooking San Francisco Bay. Tessie is now her commuter car.

Someone needs to tell Sis that she is doing things backwards. Thousands of Bay Area employees cannot afford to live there and endure hellish daily commutes from the exurbs just to keep their jobs. Sis, who has always been a bit of a firebrand, has decided to buck the trend. While she has been unable to escape the fate of the supercommuter who spends hours behind the wheel, she at least gets to do it in reverse, and on a nontraditional work schedule, to boot. She commutes from her fancy home in the East Bay against traffic to two jobs in the Central Valley. She mitigates the distance by working both weekend days and by staying over with my parents two nights per week.

I feel sorry for my parents.

Mom and Dad are well in their eighties, but that doesn’t stop Sis from upending their routine on a weekly basis. My sister leaves her junk all over the place at my parents’ house, then disappears for a week. If my parents try to clean up, when Sis returns she throws a fit about not being able to find anything. Oh, and she brings my parents food and expects them to cook it for her.

Granted, I would not enjoy living the type of commuter lifestyle that my sister has fallen into. And so, the vagaries of fate being such as they are, the commuter lifestyle went out and found me instead. It’s about to bite me on the nose.

At the improbable age of 60, my wife and I have just purchased our first home. On the salary of a public servant, we cannot begin to afford the hyperinflated prices of houses near my workplace in Sacramento. We ended up buying a newly-constructed home in a bland subdivision in an exurb requiring a commute that nearly rivals my sister’s.

I’ll have a better idea of how this odyssey will play out when I embark on this new challenge next week. What I do know at this point is that I must leave our new home no later than 5 a.m. for the 45-minute drive downtown if I am to be assured of a parking space. Coming home, however, will be far worse. The outbound commuter traffic on Interstate 5 during the afternoon rush is reminiscent of the parking lot known as the Long Island Expressway. Not that I would even attempt it. I panic at the very thought of merging into freeway traffic from the downtown streets at rush hour. I am not prepared to take my life in my hands. So I figured out an alternate route through surface streets that is likely to take me at least an hour and a half. I know, I should count my blessings when thousands sit in their cars for four to six hours each day. It’s just that it will take me some time to get used to the commuter life.

My chief concerns are the cost of filling up my gas tank every day ($4/gallon out here), the fact that my already aging vehicle will surely give up the ghost on Highway 99 one fine morning, and that I already struggle to fight off sleep on a relatively short 30-minute commute. My plan is to pull into a fast food parking lot about halfway home and take a nap in my car before hitting the freeway. This, of course, will extend my commute to encompass even more of my day.

I am fortunate that my very generous wife has agreed to drive me in and home two days per week. On those days, I can put my seat back and saw logs while in transport. As for the other three days, I’ve made contingency plans for those inevitable times when there are simply no parking spaces to be found anywhere near my place of employment. I will simply drive another half hour to a suburban shopping center and will wait there for Uber to pick me up and transport me downtown. After work, I’ll have to pay for another Uber to take me back to my car. On the bright side, my drive home will be shorter on such days.

All in all, I anticipate that the commuter life will turn out to be an expensive time suck that I’ll never really get used to. And then there’s the whole fossil fuels/carbon footprint/destruction of the planet thing. Perhaps it’s time to follow my sister’s lead and buy a Tesla. Not that I can begin to afford one now that, in my old age, I have finally become a real adult with mortgage payments.

Clearly, there is only one solution to the problem of getting back and forth to work. Beam me up, Scotty!

Sanctuary

I’ve been reading lately that President Trump has been considering transporting Central American immigrants from our southern border to so-called sanctuary cities and dropping them off there.  “They should be very happy,” Trump allegedly said, referring to those of us who believe that we should welcome those who seek refuge in our country.

Here in California, we appear to be at ground zero for this proposal.  Not only do we have plenty of asylum-seekers showing up at the San Ysidro-Tijuana border crossing, but former Governor Jerry Brown declared California to be a “sanctuary state.”  Furthermore, Los Angeles, San Francisco, my own home in Sacramento County, and ten other counties have declared themselves to be sanctuaries.  I am quite pleased with this.

My understanding of a sanctuary state, county or city is one that refuses to summarily turn over undocumented immigrants to the feds for deportation.  This humane treatment of immigrants who are already here is vastly different than opening the door to those who have not yet entered the United States.  I believe that our president is an intelligent man who understands the difference between the two, yet chooses to pretend otherwise for the purpose of creating maximum drama while seeking to emphasize his prejudice toward Latin American immigration.

Still, I say bring it on, Mr. President.

Those who belittle the fact that we care about our fellow man say that sanctuary cities should not expect any assistance from the federal government as we help our newest neighbors to establish a new life in our communities.  Fine.  All we ask is that you grant asylum to our brethren from the south so that they can lawfully obtain employment in the United States.  We’ll take it from there.

Some have suggested that our fellow Californians Nancy Pelosi and Gavin Newsom should take in several immigrants to their gated mansions.  Ignoring the implicit sarcasm in such remarks, I actually think it’s a fine idea.  Let our leaders lead by example.  But if our elected officials choose to pass up this opportunity to show their mettle, no worries.  The rest of us will step up and set the example for them.

It’s no secret that we have plenty of jobs in California that are going unfilled.  It is difficult not to notice the “help wanted” signs in nearly every retail establishment.  There are so many physically taxing jobs, dirty jobs, low-paid jobs that American citizens don’t want to do.  Those who have walked more than a thousand miles to reach our borders, those who have spent their life savings to be transported here, those who have risked their health and their lives to make it to the United States, these are the immigrants seeking entry whose valiant efforts should be rewarded by a welcome with open arms and an opportunity to fill our vacancies and to become productive, tax-paying Americans.  As for those immigrants who become unable to work due to age or disability, we have state income maintenance benefits available to provide them with the basics of shelter and food.

Turning away those born elsewhere who are desperate to join us is un-American. How can our president say “turn around, America is full?”  We are not full!  To many throughout the world, the Statue of Liberty is a welcoming symbol of the United States.  The famous Emma Lazarus poem at its base says it all:  Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

So once again I say, bring it on, Mr. President.  You claim to be a Christian, so surely you can understand our welcoming position.  You know, that stuff about loving your neighbor as yourself?

The Easter and Passover season has arrived, reminding us that we, too, were once strangers in a strange land, relying on the kindness and humanity of others.  Remember, faith without works is dead.  This is our chance to step up and show what we’re made of.  So let us swing open wide the doors of our churches, our synagogues, and our homes.

We’ve got you covered, Mr. President.  And you can count on us to do you proud.

 

 

The Notebook

Notebook

My wife and I visited my parents shortly before Thanksgiving.  “I don’t want to make you sad,” was how my mother opened a conversation at breakfast one morning.  I knew what was coming.

My father just turned 85 and my mother will be doing likewise about three months from now.  Dad is nonchalant about getting older; his philosophy has always been that “it’s better than the alternative.”  My mother, on the other hand, seems a bit obsessed about her funeral arrangements.

Mom has a notebook detailing her last wishes, and on this occasion, she wished to inform me that she has updated it.  And also that she’s made a second copy in case something happens to the first.  It’s starting to feel a little creepy.

Now, I know that many will find my mother’s initiative admirable.  I would tend to agree if her instructions had something to do with, say, disposition of her assets (she says she doesn’t have a will) or even what type of casket to use or what music to play at her funeral.

No such luck.

My mother doesn’t care about any of that stuff.  She says that no one but immediate family would attend her funeral anyway, so there’s no sense in spending money for a lot of worthless nonsense.

Mom’s funeral notebooks are primarily devoted to the minutia of how to have her body transported from California to her family burial plot in New York City.  I’m talking about which airline to use, which funeral home to call on this end, which funeral home to call in New York, how to contact the cemetery to have them open a gravesite.

Sigh.

When I try to make sense of this, I remind myself that there is plenty of precedent going back millennia.  After all, the Children of Israel honored Joseph’s wishes to bring his bones up from Egypt to be buried in the Promised Land.  And that involved forty years of wandering in the desert, not making a reservation with United.  But still.  Is this really necessary, parents of mine?  Yes, I know, Mom, you want to be buried next to your mother.  I get it.  Um, I think.  Uh, why exactly do you insist on staying in California if you wish to spend eternity in New York?

I’m glad that my parents no longer have to deal with the winter weather that they so dislike, but really, why would an octogenarian elect to reside nearly 3,000 miles away from his or her final resting place of choice?  To me, it’s simple.  I have resided in California for nearly a quarter of a century, and here I will be buried.  If California is good enough for me to live in, it’s certainly a good enough location for my headstone.  I doubt that I will ever move anywhere else, but if I do, then just bury my carcass there in the local cemetery, please.  Don’t even think of transporting my decomposing corpse on a final plane ride to a location thousands of miles away.  That’s both insane and insulting.

As for my parents, they made New York their home for the first sixty years of their lives.  In my opinion, if they want to spend eternity there, then they had no business moving to California.  I think my uncle got it right.  He lived down the street from us in New York, and at the age of 92, he’s still there.

What’s even crazier is that Mom has mentioned more than once that, were she terminally ill, she would attempt to travel to New York City so that she could breathe her last in close proximity to the cemetery.

There just isn’t a lot I can say when Mom starts in with this kind of talk and her notebooks.  Yes, I assure her, I’ll honor your final wishes.  Yes, I know it’s paid for.  Yes, I’m glad that you have informed my sisters (since they will likely be doing most of the heavy lifting anyway).

Arguably, my father goes to the opposite extreme.  When Dad is asked about his final wishes, he often says something about stuffing his body into a sack and throwing it in the river.

Maybe he’s on to something.

 

When Wildfire Comes to Town

And still the Camp Fire burns in Butte County, California. Four days after walls of flame that seemed to appear out of nowhere roared through the community of Paradise, destroying homes, melting cars and even burning residents alive, the fire remains only 25% contained.

I live near Sacramento, 90 miles south of the inferno, a safe distance from the scenes of tragedy, but close enough to be reminded just by stepping outside. The persistent smoke that has blanketed the area has made the air dangerous to breathe. The local fire department has begun distributing face masks free of charge.

Smoke blankets the area on Saturday. Photo taken on Interstate 80 heading west into Sacramento County.

The sun glowed an eerie iridescent orange as the sky became covered by smoke on Saturday in Placer County, east of Sacramento.

 

Some of the evacuation shelters are now full. Many taking refuge there are elderly, disabled or both. Free food and clothes are being distributed in the Wal-Mart parking lot in nearby Chico, while houses of worship, Goodwill, the Salvation Army and generous volunteers all assist in providing for the immediate needs of the displaced. Everyone is doing his or her part.

It is so encouraging to see a community come together in a time of crisis. And yet I wonder about who will see to the long-term needs of those wandering about like dazed zombies, having narrowly escaped the conflagration with only a car or a pet, or in some cases, with only the clothes on their backs. What of the victims six months down the road? Think about it. Who can afford to buy a new trailer? Who happens to have a down payment on a new home just hanging around waiting to be spent? What happens to the victims when the spinning news cycle moves on and everyone forgets?

And what of the homeless in our area who were lucky enough to be outside the fire zone, who were not burnt out but who have resorted to living on the streets for years as a result of a variety of other unfortunate circumstances? Where is the community outpouring of support for these people?

Homelessness is an equal opportunity scourge and we need to take a no-fault approach just the same as we do with auto liability insurance. The love that I see expressed in so many ways toward the victims of the Camp Fire warms my heart. Now we need to extend it to all those in need. Not just at Christmas and when wildfire comes to town.

The Rules

I graduated from college nearly forty years ago.  So it was with a bit of trepidation that, late last month, I began a Saturday morning Spanish course at Sacramento City College.

Honestly, I thought it would be over before it began.  Even one four-credit course is costly, once you consider tuition, books, parking permit, supplies, and gasoline at $3.16 per gallon.  My hope was that perhaps my employer would pay for it.  Keep in mind that I work for the state government, where red tape is the name of the game.  I was surprised and grateful when I was able to obtain the proper signatures and the paperwork went through.  If I get through successfully, I plan to make the expense well worth the taxpayers’ while.  I hope that this will be the start of an adventure in the Spanish language that leads to certification, enabling me to assist with Spanish interpretation and translation whenever needed.  And I look forward to never again being flummoxed when I answer the phone at my desk and the voice at the other end begins to plaintively ask me for help en español.

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.  For starters, I knew I’d be bidding adíos to lazy Saturday mornings sleeping late.  (Or “sleeping in,” as most people say in California.  I hate that phrase.  Is sleeping in an alternative to sleeping out, as in camping in the backyard?  Even after all these years in California, my first reaction upon hearing the phrase “sleeping in” is always “sleeping in what?”  My PJs?  My skivvies? Hmmm.)

More than hauling myself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. after a week of early rising for work, however, I couldn’t help but wonder what college is like in the new millennium.  I fully expected to see my fellow students arrive in class with their mini-laptops.  That doesn’t faze me.  While I am far removed from the Twitter and Snapchat generation, and lack the depth of tech savvy of my younger peers, I feel confident enough to hold my own in a Spanish class with my old school looseleaf notebook and hard copy textbook.  I planned to study, study, study to pull off that coveted A and make my employer proud.

Surely class participation, tests and homework couldn’t be that different than it was in the 1970s, right?  Pay attention in class, copy down what the professor writes on the board, memorize all the stuff you need to know for the tests — surely the rules haven’t changed that much even since my elementary school days.

Let’s just say that I was in for a bit of a surprise.

First, there was the syllabus presented by the professor on the first day of class.  It was 30 pages long.

One of the pages of the syllabus informs students that a loss of class participation points will result from any of the following in-class responses to questions from the professor:

  • I don’t have the textbook
  • I did not get that far.
  • I did not do that one.
  • Can I do a different one?
  • I did not understand the assignment.
  • The library did not have an available textbook copy.
  • Incoherent/unrelated/random answer.
  • Answers in English/failure to use Spanish.
  • “I don’t know.”
  • I am trying to connect to the eBook.

The last time I recall trying any of these was in sixth grade.  Why is the professor doing this?  Surely no one who has made it to college would stoop to such depths?  This professor must just be trying to show that she’s strict, I decided.  There are always some teachers who like to lay down the law on the first day, right?  Surely such grade school style micromanagement is unnecessary at this stage of education.

During the second class session, I was sadly disappointed.  Nearly every one of the excuses listed in the syllabus was uttered by someone in the class.  With twenty years of teaching experience, clearly this professor knew exactly what she was facing.

What really surprised me, however, was the list of rules I found posted on the wall when I sat down at a study carrel during the class break:

PANTHER PRIDE

Keep your voices down.

Do not sit on the tables.

No sharing chairs!  Only one person per chair.

Offensive language and bullying is unacceptable.

I was shocked that the college has to call out potty mouths and, um, bullies?  Like on an elementary school playground?  So, like, should I expect a fellow student to shake me down for my lunch money or kick me in the balls?  Whoops, I don’t think you can say “balls.”  Sounds like offensive language to me.  And, um, sharing chairs?  I don’t even want to know!

My junior high school was known as the Panthers, and the similarities are not lost on me.

Just when I thought I’d seen it all, fate conspired to play “Can you top this?” during Saturday’s class.  It was rather warm in the building, and the professor had kept the door propped open to allow air to circulate.  About halfway through class, a skinny young man strolled into the classroom and sat down two desks away from me.  He was wearing no shoes and no shirt.  Kenny Chesney notwithstanding, all of us immediately knew that there was indeed a problem.

“You’re not in this class,” the professor said calmly.  That’s when I noticed that the young man was holding his T-shirt.  It looked filthy.  His body began jerking and shaking as he struggled to put on the shirt.  “Yeah, I am,” he responded.  “I’m late.”

It was fairly obvious that this kid was tweaking.  When he finally got the shirt on, he jumped up out of his seat and ran out of the room.  The professor had to stop the class to call campus security.  I suppose we were all lucky that he didn’t have a weapon.

Welcome to college in 2018.

 

 

Pit Toilet

ON THE SEAT OF A PIT TOILET AT A TINY REST AREA OFF U.S. 395 IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

My wife was driving. We were on the way home from yet another work-related trip to a remote corner of California.

“Ha-ha, laughs and giggles,” I told my wife.  “This is funny but I really, really need to stop and use the rest room as soon as we see one. Funny, I know, because there’s no place to stop.”

We were in the middle of nowhere, amidst hayfields on both sides of Highway 395, 65 miles south of Alturas CA, 116 miles north of Reno NV.  Luckily for me, a sign appeared on the horizon, “Rest Area 1 Mile.”

Sure enough, we came upon said rest area and I toddled off to the side of the building marked “Men’s.”  Happily, no one was occupying the premises.

To my chagrin, as I bolted the latch, I found myself in the dark.  I felt around for a light switch and found none.  By the bit of sunlight coming in through three small grates, I stared deep into the filthy bowels of what I vaguely recognized as a pit toilet.  Perhaps it was the lack of a flush handle that gave it away.  Or perhaps it was a flashback to a camping trip with my family when I was eleven years old.  Six of us crowded into a tent, and my father would wake up to ferry us to the latrine in the middle of the night by flashlight.  The venue was a campground near the tiny town of Gilboa in upstate New York.  I had no idea that the place was named after the location of a Biblical battle, but I did develop an impressive case of butt rash.

I hope I avoid that ignominous fate in my current situation.  In my urgency, however, I was left with no choice but to grit my teeth and sit down.  I count my blessings, for there is not one, but three rolls of toilet paper at my disposal here.

I brought some trash from the car to dispose, but no trash basket is in evidence.  Worse, however, is the fact that there is no sink.  So, after squatting over this putrefying hole, I won’t even be able to wash my hands.

Oh, gee. Some poor soul is rattling the door handle, desperate to get in.  I hear a slight moan, and then what can only be described as a retch.  Listening to the wretch retch, I can only feel sorry for this poor person.  “Look,” I privately reason with him, “you can puke your guts out on the lawn of this rest area, making a horrible mess in the process, and everyone will take pity on you.  I, on the other hand, do not have the option to drop trou, grunt loudly, and violently defecate in the sunshine without being promptly arrested for indecent exposure and summarily hauled off to jail in the CHP paddy wagon.  And what would I tell my boss when I call out from work tomorrow?  You, my friend, can call in sick.  I, on the other hand, will have some splainin’ to do.”

Back at the car, my wife gripes about finding a similarly disgusting situation in the women’s room.   “Do we have any hand wipes?” She asks.  “Ah, we have one left.  There should at least be a place where you can wash your hands!”

We share the single remaining pre-moistened towelette as we fly down the road.  We need to find someplace to stop for lunch.

But first, we need to wash our hands.  With lots of hot water and soap.

Ick.