Another quick four hundred mile commute between states. The path varies a bit each time we go. Lately I have been trading money for time. The New Jersey Turnpike is no guarantee of a quick commute but when it works it’s worth the tolls. When you travel this path frequently you look for the optimal path.

There are two major obstacles between Easthampton, Massachusetts and Herndon, Virginia. One major obstacle is New York City, where the choice is either to drive through it or drive around it. If you drive through it, you should drive through it from east to west because the pricey George Washington Bridge is free in that direction. The cost of congestion sitting on I-95 in the Bronx is borne pretty much any day and at any time. Which leaves your options either avoiding the city and New Jersey altogether or driving around it. Around it means either I-287 or our more recent discovery: the Garden State Parkway that conveniently connects to the New Jersey turnpike west of Staten Island.

Obstacle two is Washington, D.C. itself, with arguably worse traffic than New York City. If you have to arrive there at evening rush hour it is better to go from east to west too because more people live in Maryland and work in Northern Virginia than the other way around. There are still inevitable slowdowns but it is less hellish.

This trip to our house settlement that spanned much of our week and that kept me from blogging was at least our last one, at least for the foreseeable future. Which is why I was glad to trade money for time. We have driven this route many times now and it is getting old. When the traffic is with you it is not too bad: six and a half hours without potty breaks with NPR stations along the whole route. But traffic can easily make it eight or ten hours or more, and there is no way to know; it’s a crapshoot. I don’t feel too bad doing 80 mph on the turnpike because plenty of others are going 85. Also, much of the turnpike is eight lanes in each direction, with four inner lanes reserved for cars-only. It’s so hard to police that the New Jersey cops have pretty much given up trying.

Still, it’s a sedentary trip and all the gear shifting (we were driving my wife’s manual car) and micro changes in speed to accommodate traffic dynamics hurt my feet. From bucolic Mount Tom in the morning to traffic soaked Reston, Virginia in the afternoon, but not to end up at our house in Herndon of 21 years. We ended up instead in a friend’s spare bedroom. Outside a Virginia spring told us we were going to miss the area. Dogwoods and ornamental cherry trees were in full bloom. The grass was a green as an Irish spring. And the temperature, at least this week, was ideal.

Also ideal were those last hours at our house before we said goodbye. Both our front trees were flowering, as were the flowers along the porch and in the main garden. The house was largely clean when the movers left. All that was left was some final sweeping and mopping of floors. Our buyers paid top dollar for our house. They deserved to walk into a house that sparkled. With almost everything outside blossoming, moving in should be a joy for them.

Last moments at our house
Last moments at our house

But for us this was an ending, not a beginning. Empty of our belongings our house looked surprisingly small, but it also felt lonely. Its future inhabitants will include a man named Rajkumar, his pregnant wife beginning her third semester and shortly after the baby arrives, her mother from India. Raj probably targeted our house for the mother in law suite in the basement, but also for its proximity to Washington Dulles airport. Years of working with Indians made me realize that they see themselves as part time inhabitants. At least once a year, sometimes more often, they jet half a world away to be with their real family, always very extended. Our modest house with the one car garage will doubtless seem palatial by Indian standards. In short, while we have departed, Raj has arrived, both figuratively and literally.

We arrived at the settlement a few minutes early to discover that they had beer in the fridge and plentiful snacks in the waiting room. I guess the writer’s cramp goes easier when you are mildly intoxicated and as long as it is just one beer, you are less likely to dispute items on the HUD-1 form. The settlement experience is much different when you are the seller. Within thirty minutes we had signed all our forms, turned over our keys and the remote controls to the garage door and a stack of manuals and had left, while an impressive stack of forms remained for Raj to sign. While settlement turned out to be the event that drew us back to Virginia, my wife had two medical appointments to keep. And there were family obligations too: a drive to Silver Spring to see my aging father and his wife, one final visit to Lake Anne in Reston to take a friend out to dinner and a six a.m. wakeup call on Wednesday to rendezvous with our daughter for breakfast. She works nights and goes to bed around 8 a.m. The trip back from breakfast had us sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic along traffic clogged Route 28 in a 75-minute trip that should take twenty minutes.

Yes, Virginia traffic taxed us to the very end. It was literally taxing, as we were forced to pay $768 for a “congestion relief tax” as part of the house settlement. Doubtless the money would only cause more congestion, as 35 years had taught me that in Northern Virginia developer money talks and politicians will figure out how to accommodate all the extra traffic and people when hell freezes over. Speaking of traffic, it was stop and go much of the way from Sterling, Virginia (where my wife had an appointment with an eye doctor) to Columbia, Maryland where we spent our final night with my sister Mary.

Yesterday we did the trip all in reverse, but at least we started near Baltimore, which kept us from more hellish commuter traffic, easy to see from the solid mass of cars and trucks going south on I-95 toward Washington. The New Jersey Turnpike did not disappoint us. While we were making our journey home, $415K in settlement funds was making its way electronically into our bank account. We gave up a beautiful house with a gorgeous lawn with trees and flowers in bloom for a tiny two-bedroom apartment in Easthampton. But at least we were debt free for the first time in more than thirty years.

Back in Easthampton four days later, our apartment did not feel like home to me, but home it will be for a few more months. Our real home is under construction in nearby Florence. It will be built almost entirely from cash from our settlement. While we have yet to actually purchase and occupy the property, in a way we are already part of our neighborhood to be. Sunday we attended services at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, and we almost immediately introduced to three people from our new neighborhood. We’re already booked to attend a party there later this month, and my wife has been invited to join their book club. Nearly everyday we pick up our mail from their mail kiosk, and our days are often spent with vendors nailing down the details of this new home to be.

So we are home-ish. I am wrung out from the last eight months, but with most of the hassle and work of relocation behind us I now have an opportunity to begin to recharge now and ponder what new adventures await us.

My Hum Drum but Remarkable Workweek

Something amazing happened last week at work. On the surface it was just another workweek. I came into the office every day, did my duty and went home. In that respect it was no different than any other workweek in my federal career.

The amazing thing was what didn’t happen getting to and from work. I wasn’t up before the crack of dawn, as I have been for the last 23 years of my employment. I wasn’t trying to get my sleepy headed daughter out of bed, pushing her to get her to eat a piece or two of toast, then running her out the door so she could meet her 6:45 a.m. bus. I wasn’t tearing out the door at 5:53 a.m. as I did for most of 1999-2003 to meet at some cold commuter lot in a predawn bleakness. I did not jump in a passenger van and end up at my office at 6:45 a.m., bleary eyed, still half asleep and trying to focus my mind on the day ahead.

Similarly in the afternoon I was not waiting to be picked up by my vanpool. I was not crammed into a tight seat and elbowed by my fellow commuters. We were not fighting traffic on Constitution Avenue. Where the van would normally unload, I was not there. I was not waiting three minutes for the light to let me out of the commuter parking lot. I was not navigating the back roads to avoid the crushing press of traffic on the Fairfax County Parkway. I did not arrive home drained of all energy and wanting to curl up somewhere and go to sleep.

Instead it was Spring Break week. My daughter had no school and got to sleep in. So I didn’t have to hassle with her in the morning. And since I now work three miles from my home this meant that I could choose to get up when I wanted to. I could choose to go into the office when I wanted, without the mad morning constraint of trying to beat the overwhelming Washington area rush/gridlock hours.

I slept in until 6:40 a.m. every day of last week! I arose then because that’s when my wife gets up. I could have slept in later but her up and moving around would have been enough to get me up anyhow. But it didn’t matter. Rising at 6:40 a.m. on a weekday seemed decadent — almost sinful. So I dressed, ate an unhurried breakfast, drove leisurely to work and was fully awake and at my desk at 7:30 a.m. I left work around 5 p.m. and was home ten minutes later.

In the evenings I was not getting the yawns about 8:30 p.m. I was not half into bed reading by 9:30. Instead – oh the decadence – but I stayed didn’t bother to get ready for bed until 10 or 10:30 p.m.

Each morning I woke up feeling well rested. Each evening I had plenty of time to relax and putter.

I don’t know how many of you have jobs close to home. I think long commutes during rush hour tend to be more the norm now than not. This is a circus I have spent my adult life trying to escape. My new job at the U.S. Geological Survey let me escape this madness, at least partially. Rising at 6:05 a.m. was a huge improvement over rising at 5:15 a.m.

But last week I rose at an hour that accommodated my natural body clock, instead of at a time dictated by the demands of a modern urban society. It was not quite as good as my Dad’s work life, which consisted of being at the office at 8:30 after a three mile commute to work.

But perhaps I will sample that life this summer and see what it is like.

It is wonderful to do things at a time of my choosing. Life is good.

Thrown into the deep end of the job pool

Monday I began my new job at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. It’s been a very fast first week for me. I moved from a lackluster GS-14 job with the Administration for Children and Families, which is headquartered near L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. ACF is an agency where even “casual Friday” meant dressing up like the rest of the week (but it was okay to leave off the tie). I always wore dress pants, dress shoes, a nice shirt and tie working at ACF. I kept a sport coat in my cube for those times when I needed it. One of our contractors required their women to wear dresses and hose. We called their men the “Men in Black” from their dreary utterly black business suits, white shirts and dark ties.

In retrospect ACF was a very dressy government place. At USGS though every day is business casual. My boss, a GS-15, shows up in cords, sandals and an earth mother shirt. Everyone knew I was new because for the first couple days I wore a shirt, tie, my best dress pants, patent leather shoes and my sport coat. In other words I was a fish out of water. It wasn’t until yesterday that my boss told me I could dress down. This will be a big change. I might need a whole new wardrobe –I don’t have enough business casual clothes to get through a workweek!

In this respect the USGS seems a much more relaxed sort of place. But the underlying tensions seem to be pretty much the same as I’ve encountered elsewhere in Club Fed. My new job is three miles from home but my pay is the same. However my responsibilities are much greater than those I had at ACF. I don’t know whether if at ACF we suffered from civil service grade inflation or whether USGS suffers from grade deflation. Being a GS-14 at ACF was no big thing. It’s a big thing at USGS. For one thing, I get an office. But not just an office: an office with a view. And a door that locks. My boss says I can have my office repainted if I want. The furniture in it is rather 70ish and was not meant for personal computers, so she is encouraging me to purchase some computer furniture. This is quite a contrast from ACF where we lived lives of cubicle gypsies. In my last two years I had relocated three times. Sometimes at ACF your cubicle was near a window, and while it was almost always larger than those given to contractors it was nothing special. I feel a bit spoiled at USGS.

Heck I feel catered to. I arrived in my new office to find my name already on the door and the help desk configuring my computer. My speakerphone arrived shortly thereafter. Next was the lady to help me configure my voice mail. Everyone is pleasant and low key. When I looked out my fifth floor window with a southwest exposure it seemed if I could extend my hands far enough out the windows they would touch the Shenandoah Mountains.

But make no mistake: this job demands a lot more responsibility. I am now officially a supervisor and what a strange team I lead. I have two employees who work locally, but also one in Montana, one in Alaska and a number of half time employees working for me in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Oregon. Since Alaska is 4 time zones away we have biweekly conference calls starting at 2 PM. This helps a lot, but a couple times a year the team must get together face-to-face, and that means agreeing on a city to meet. And as boss I guess I can pick the city. My boss said I could basically travel anywhere I need to pretty much anytime I wanted. I am sure our travel budget is not unlimited but it’s a weird and empowering feeling.

It’s also a strange feeling being a supervisor. There is a deference that comes from your employees by default when you hold power over them. It’s hard to tell sometimes when they are being sincere and when they are sucking up. And yet my boss doesn’t seem the least bit like my supervisor. She makes working there feel more like a social club and gossip hall. And if there is no time during work hours to gossip there is lunch hour club (in which I am already a charter member). I won’t be reading the paper much during lunch anymore; it has become that part of my job that seems to involve necessary social networking.

My commuting almost doesn’t exist. My 60-75 minutes commutes in each direction now are 10-15 minutes in rush hour. I haven’t parked at work in more than a dozen years. I’ve forgotten how cold it can be to walk into the office at 7 AM from a distant parking lot. But this is about the only part of my new job that is a detraction. The USGS campus is gorgeous, still looks modern (for being 30 years old) and is surrounded by woods. It is arguably the prettiest federal campus in the nation. Perhaps I am in federal worker paradise. The National Science Foundation has prettier workspace but their space is leased. At USGS in Reston we inhabit real federal office buildings.

Starting any job is at first a little like being thrown into the deep end of a very cold pool. You wonder if you will sink or swim. If you start swimming you wonder how long you can keep going. And it’s been that sort of week. It felt overwhelming at times because the data dump came fast and furious. It was difficult for me to associate names with faces and roles. At the same time I had to learn a new information system and come up on all the jargon and acronyms that were tossed around so freely. But by the end of the week I was not just swimming, I was doing a great backstroke. Thanks in part to my boss who gave me the things I needed to read in the order I needed to read them, and who made herself freely available to answer questions I feel, if not up to speed, at least a good part of the way there.

My job is to be the chief of the National Internet Data Systems Unit. Basically we are the folks that provide the real time water information for the USGS web site. If you have a hankering to know the number of thousands of cubic feet of water moving across a local stream per second we likely have the latest real time data and can serve it up to you in a variety of formats from the convenience of your web browser. (Surprisingly this is a lot of people; you should see our web site statistics!) I am blessed with a talented staff, half programmers, half hydrologists who can aggregate and format vast volumes of real time satellite fed data into something for public consumption. It’s an amazing feat of engineering that inspires something like awe in me. It’s an honor and a bit humbling to be selected as the person who has responsibility for this system.

It is a challenge but one I needed. This job also feels very much like a gift. It feels like the gods decided to smile on me and fulfill my heart’s desire. I hope I continue to feel this way. I sometimes feel a little overwhelmed and scared, but mostly I feel energized and excited by the job. I hope I can continue to feel this way when the inevitable plain of disillusionment sets in. I hope I have the wisdom to make sound choices. I hope I can demonstrate people skills I sometimes have lacked in the past. I hope I live up to the trust that others have placed in me. I believe I will.