Monday, November 20, 2017
Human Interest

From podcasts to singing, finding small joys in commuting Tampa Bay

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There are some things to get out of the way. Before you finish the wine, you have to do dealbreakers. I killed a man in Cincy. I collect clown socks. I have a lower back Gwar tattoo.

For this conversation, here's what needs getting out of the way:

Commuting is mostly terrible.

I drive 25 miles each way, five days a week, from home in Dunedin to work in downtown St. Petersburg. There are many reasons, but it boils down to this: I love my home and my job. There is road between us.

Driving is a special treat here in Tampa Bay, where the word "transit" is part of an ancient incantation locked in an amulet stored in a government drop ceiling. It's rough for the environment. It's stressful. It's expensive. And having the ability to commute by car at all is a privilege.

The feds have a hot-or-not list to rank which major metro areas do public transit well. In most categories, Tampa Bay ranks 29 out of 30. In the others — wait for it — we're 30. Public officials have worried openly about what might happen in a mass evacuation, say for a hurricane. Some people spend five hours a day navigating the bus system just to get to work. In May, a bill passed both Florida's House and Senate chambers to move toward easing our gridlock.

For now, though, reality amounts to at least 450 minutes a week in my car. That's 7½ hours. That's a long time to sit still and basically do nothing. It's also a heroic amount of time to be alone with yourself.

I've lived around here more than 20 years, and have always driven for jobs and school, from Clearwater to the University of South Florida to Carrollwood to downtown Tampa and beyond. Back in what historians call "the day," commute entertainment was relegated to drivetime DJs, or that very cool stripcase of compact discs on the visor.

NPR is a good gateway, but smartphones and auxiliary inputs have opened up new avenues to attaining wheel Zen. There's something for every mood now, whether a wonky dissection of policy or a Broadway hip-hop spectacular.

In the past year or so, I've embraced the drive as therapeutic and educational, because the other choice is total lunacy. So now that the bad stuff is out of the way, let's continue in the spirit of positivity. This is the kind of positivity not found when you're late to work and someone is running o'er highway holding several cats.

Herewith, the silver linings of commuting:

Reading

Not actually reading. No one ever looks at words instead of the road, ha, ha, ha. I'm talking audiobooks. On a 30-45 minute drive, you could potentially "read" near a book a week, which is a nice option to stay literate with a busy lifestyle. I use Audible, which starts at $14.95 a month.

This is an opportunity to become the smug one in your group of friends, when they start talking about the latest TV series, like Big Little Lies, or a movie, like The Girl on the Train. "I wasn't sure how the book's three unreliable narrators would translate to a film context," you can say, very smugly, over tapas.

I've used the commute to encounter new authors, work through a series or brush up on classics like Pride and Prejudice and The Handmaid's Tale. Listening to Claire Danes describe the horrors of Gilead while staring down the barrel of US 19 was instructive.

Learning

A steady diet of podcasts has taught not only useful bar trivia, but also deep truths about the human condition. For example:

Do you know about the 1963 Chicken Tax and how it impacts the American automotive industry? (Planet Money, "The Chicken Tax")

Do you know nobody expects you to put on a happy face, so you shouldn't expect yourself to? (Dear Sugar, "When Your Loved Ones Just Don't Get It")

Do you know that some people, in a feeling of stress, respond with panic that quickly becomes counterproductive, and you're within your rights to politely shut them down? (Dear Prudence, "The Workplace Politics Edition")

Do you know Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick were victims of Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, but hold no bitterness in their hearts? (Death, Sex and Money, "Kevin Bacon Shows Us His Cash")

Do you know how to speak French? (I don't either, but a commute would be a great time to learn.)

Binging

It's not just for television or raw batters anymore. This spring, I was so excited to get in the car every day and devour the next chapter of S-Town, the epic southern gothic podcast from Serial.

When Beyoncé released her album Lemonade a week before her show in Tampa, everyone with tickets flew into a panic about not knowing lyrics. Thanks to drive time, I was solid with every word at the concert.

I can't talk about Hamilton. I'm still healing from 64 consecutive listens.

Thinking

Don Draper once said, "Just think about it, deeply, and then forget it. An idea will jump up in your face." Don Draper also stole another man's identity, but let's focus on the first tip. Fellow commuters know, if you're having problems at work or in life, there's no time like the drive to really concentrate on it.

Commutes, maybe with gentle jazz in the background, are a great time to whip out dialectical behavioral therapy techniques and replay a heated conversation. Maybe Kyle was a little out of line, but what did you say to Kyle? Are you Kyle? Is Kyle even real?

Some people take time on the commute to pray. I've worked out problems with newspaper stories I'm editing, and also mentally outlined a five-book dystopian YA series, and who will play characters in the movie (Zac Efron).

Time to yourself

This could be the only time in an otherwise jammed day you find yourself truly alone. No work, no kids, no contractors in your home telling you they "did all we could for the sewer line."

Take your personal temperature when you click the seat belt, and select accordingly. It's all about you. Monday evenings, for example, I prefer the dulcet tones of a celebrity reading a gentle love story on the Modern Love podcast, a virtual there-there hair stroke. Friday mornings require Springsteen-style car concerts.

For you, this could mean singing top volume to Gwar, tattoo or no. It could mean passing through Starbucks and trying the latest Red Fraggle Frappuccino where no one can see your shame. It could mean turning off all the noise, and drinking in 25 miles of silence. Only then can you fully ponder how that woman got a peacock all the way in the median.

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