Tag Archives: travel

Runaway

Exit SignThe first week of my first year at college, Friday was the only day with any classes. My parents had helped me move in on Wednesday. I had brought a bed-full of stuffed animals and an entire padlocked trunk of books, among other things from which I derived comfort. They bid me tearful goodbyes and wished me luck.

Friday afternoon, I packed a bag and walked to the bus stop; I was headed home for the weekend.

It took two buses to get to the Amtrak station, where a reserved ticket waited for me. I disembarked the first bus and, carefully referencing the route map I had printed out, confidently strode across the road to another stop. Despite never having traveled by bus before, I could do this. I was a mature and worldly college student now. In the molded plastic seat, I sat and buzzed with nervous energy.

The second bus eventually stopped at what was, I learned, the terminus of the line. We parked curbside at some diner, on a street called something cheery like Sunflower. This was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the Amtrak station. The driver, heartless, offered me neither explanation nor reassurance and ordered me off.

Cross the street, I learned, and you will be headed south. North is the only direction for me.

Close to tears, I called my parents, who in turn called me a cab. I counted the minutes on my phone, urging each mile to pass faster. Still, I arrived with plenty of time for my train. (While I was not, at age eighteen, well-equipped to cope with life’s little disasters, I at least knew to schedule for them.) I reached home none the worse for wear. I would take a cab to the station the following weekend. But after that, I learned how to navigate public transportation properly. I eventually switched to Metrolink, became one of the regular Friday commuters, and learned to both love and hate the California train system.

I spent three years going home every weekend. Like a hitchhiking ghost, all I wanted was to go north by any means necessary. Like a ghost, every Monday I would be forced to reset back south at college. In year three, I started driving myself. For the final six months, I commuted from home four days a week, three to six hours depending on traffic.

I spent a lot of time on the road. I lived on the road. I learned the road by dawn light and by darkness. Audiobooks and music were entertainment, but the road was company.

Highway at NightSometimes, all I wanted was to miss my exit and keep driving north forever. Or at least until I found a place where life as I knew it ceased, until I crossed a pale red border drawn to mark where someplace better began. This was my alternative to driving off a cliff, with much the same motivation. I wanted my life to end, to change, to pass over into happiness or peace or just blessed silence at last.

I never, to the best of my or anyone else’s recollection, made any practical attempt to run away from home as a child. Escape nonetheless became an obsessive interest. I didn’t have any practical framework for running away, but I had books. They told me that if I strayed far enough from where I ought to be, I would get lost and then… Then things would be different, which would be enough. Like Alice, I would tumble down the rabbit hole.

So I wandered into the hills, deep amongst the oak trees and sagebrush. I followed animal trails barely visible to the eye. I found roads, strange and faint and never meant for humans. I thought I would find my way to Away. Away had to be better than Here.

I have a history with suicide. Even once the attempts stopped, the impulse continued to crop up periodically. And every time, it has arrived hand in hand with the desperate, irrational desire to pack a bag and run away. Eventually, I learned to recognize them both for what they were:

Because I have never believed that I had enough control to improve my circumstances, I instead believed that if I just run fast and far enough, I could start over. If I’m miserable where I am, the only possible solution is to escape.

Powerlessness. Helplessness. Hopelessness. And yet. Mixed up with a sense that something better is possible, if I become someone new in someplace strange. A gambler’s hope, perhaps. Throw a dart, toss a coin, pick a direction. Fill the tank and drive until it runs empty. Try again in the place you break down.

Right now, I have a bad job, a mystery health problem, and not enough money. Every day when I head to work, when I drive bleary-eyed back home after my shift, I feel a ghost’s hands on the wheel, trying to turn off and away from the known.

What should a person do, though, when they’re also a homebody tied to a patch of land and a family, for whom running away from home isn’t an option, or even particularly desirable? Ignoring the impulse isn’t good enough. I believe in the value of pain, of anger, to point the way. Letting them dictate your actions doesn’t work; that’s the path of tragedy. But they are guides that tell you when something isn’t right. They tell you where the damage is.

So how do I harness this sensation that makes me want to drive into the night and never come back? How do I metaphorically change the road I’m on?
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Slow Travel and the Cult of Productivity

While advances in technology promise we can do more, faster, sometimes slowing down is the only way to get anything done. Plus, the views are better.

Eurostar on CTRL
How much are you seeing? (photo by Dave Bushell, via Wikimedia Commons)

Since the first of the year, there has been some talk about the California High-Speed Railproject. I will admit that I’m not even sure what was said about it. However, in the current political and economic climate, I can assume it was something along the lines of, “blah blah budget blah jobs blabbity funding.” The project promises to cut travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to 2 hours and 40 minutes. Amid my childlike enthusiasm for the project, however, are some misgivings about our continued obsession with maximized efficiency and productivity.

I know very little about the financial realities of this project and so you should take it with a block of salt when I say, I like this project. I’m a reluctant veteran of public transportation. I commuted by train and bus, in various combinations, for most of my time at college. I also spent six months commuting by car. The big difference is that on public transit, I have the option of reading, working, or napping. All of the above are still frowned upon while driving, though I can attest that not all of my fellow humans seem to observe those restrictions.

The prospect of taking those two to three hours and getting from LA to San Francisco, rather than just from Ventura to Irvine, delights me. I have some very romantic ideas about rail travel, which even two years of regular use could not stamp out of me. If nothing else, the rail system would make Ghirardelli Square and more chocolate than you can shake a wallet at just a day trip away. Who doesn’t like the sound of that? But I suspect there is a less sweet side to this debate and one which I have had to struggle with in my own work.

Projects like this are part of the broad category of “faster is better,” wherein the primary goal of any technology or tool is to let you do a task more easily and faster. This has been the selling point of everything from washing machines to computers. Your regular chores will only take half the time. Insert the picture of someone blissfully relaxing with nary a soiled shirt in sight. The truth has proven to be less lemonade-sipping and hammock-swinging. If that budget projection takes you two hours instead of four, your boss will be only too happy to find something to fill up the free time. “Do more, faster” is all too often applied only to work, with work hours just as long and just as stressful.

What happens, though, when you are your own boss?

The impulse is to be just as demanding, if not more so, and to constantly pursue maximized productivity. I’ve found myself gripped by a kind of manic terror, afraid that I might be wasting my precious time. Afraid that I am not doing as much as I can. But if my goal is to get done all the projects and plans I have in mind, is it true that faster, more intense work is the answer? Is it possible that slower and shorter will give better results?

When I sit down with the intention of spending six hours working, I find I get very little done. I tell myself the story that a long work session will let me really engage with my work, reach a flow state, and finish large sections of projects. What actually happens is that, like a passenger on a train moving too fast to see the passing countryside, I disconnect from the work. I become overwhelmed and even familiar tasks start to loom like Herculean trials. In my zeal to finish everything, right now, I start nothing.

I’ve started breaking my work into smaller chunks. I’ve started to err on the side of small and easy. When in doubt, try to break something into smaller tasks. In planning for the A to Z blog challenge in April, I’ve made myself a list of tasks to be done. For example, one task is to write concept sentences for each post, prior to outlining them. This time, however, I’ve gone further. That task gets broken down into a checklist for each letter. Each one gets ticked off as I write it. I’m no longer looking at sitting down to write concept sentences for 26 posts. I’m looking at just one, the next letter on the list. I know how many I need to do in a day to stay on my personal schedule, but even that stops mattering when I sit down to work. It’s just one sentence. It’s so easy, I do a few without thinking about it. Fifteen minutes later, I can check those letters off my to-do list and move on to something else.

Work becomes painless. Each project might get only ten, fifteen, or thirty minutes of attention at a time. I might come back to it several times in a day or I might move on to other projects I have going at the same time. I’ve slowed down. I’m not looking at an entire project to do today. I don’t have to fill up my whole day with work time, hoping that I will find I’ve gotten something done by the end of the day.

One sentence at a time, one chunk at a time, I can mark my progress and  know that I’ve gotten something done. Slowly. Less efficiently. And also more easily. More happily.

Under three hours to cross the better part of this large state may well be a wonderful thing, when the rail project is completed. I anticipate any number of new efficiency demands to crop up with it. Travel farther for a good job. Arrive to work earlier just because you can. Work on your way there, because you won’t be seeing much out those swiftly-moving windows. Someday, perhaps teleportation will by the commuting technology of choice. Consider, however, that easing off that breakneck pace might be the trick to truly getting something done. Get less done right now and watch your to-do list become your done list. Sometimes slow is the quickest way.

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