Living in northern Virginia, just outside Washington's infamous Beltway, I experience the torture of the Commonwealth's wretched traffic congestion, which has palpably worsened each of the nine years I have lived here.
Travel times between my home and office, short in comparison to many who travel much longer distances, are 45 to 50 minutes. If an accident occurs or a drop of moisture falls, it is well over an hour. Virginia is for lovers but not for the impatient, which I am.
There are two basic coping strategies available to the hapless commuter. First, don't go-at least until after the lane restrictions are lifted on single-occupant vehicles at 9 a.m., after which time you can hop on the interstate and scoot into work pretty quickly. But timing is everything. If you wait until, say, 9:30 a.m., then you are back in the soup because everyone from Arlington to the Shenandoah Valley has the same idea and immediately jam up the highway all over again.
The other option is the "Dawn Patrol." Simply leave the house before 6:30 a.m. and get a jump on the great unwashed who sleep in late. The really ambitious can beat the imposition of HOV (High-occupancy vehicle) requirements that kick in at 6 a.m. If you don't want to skip breakfast or feel compelled to read the paper in the morning, as I do, this means reveille at 5 a.m.
Listening to the news or music is always a means of passing the inordinate amount of time in the automobile, but the news is such a downer these days. And sometimes a violin concerto or a rock anthem just doesn't quite fit the mood.
It dawned on me that I should start a regular program of listening to audio books in the car. After all, I am a "reading man," as one of Patrick O'Brian's fictional characters might say. Moreover, I have enjoyed audio books on cross-country trips. On one trip I was able to get through most of Shelby Foote's classic history of the Civil War, narrated by the great writer himself.
I recall "reading" or listening to a superb rendition of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, read by an English actor who could differentiate the various characters in the novel by class, gender, geography, and moral stature with precision and drama. Dorian Gray may be the single best of description of the evil that can entangle the human heart that I have ever read, excuse me, heard.
Back-of-the-envelope calculations of my total time trapped in a vehicle was a shock to my system. Take five days per week, twice a day, 48 weeks per year. Multiply that by 45 minutes (a conservative time estimate), and you get a lifetime down the drain. Okay, maybe more like a couple of weeks per year. Still, at my age, that ain't hay. Tempus, as they say, is fugit-ing.
I was getting excited about this new self-improvement plan until I was informed by various friends that they no longer produced audio books on cassette tape, which is all my 1992 sedan could handle. This was a crushing blow since I would need a new car if I was to beat the ennui of commuter existence.
Do you know how much those things cost, cars I mean, even in a recession? What happened to the magic of the marketplace my economist friends keep telling me about? Isn't Detroit going broke?
Yet, good can come from evil. Virginia has a nanny-state program that requires all vehicles to pass safety inspections each year. That thig-a-ma-jig which allows me to raise and lower my automatic window, the one inside the door on the driver's side, was kaput. I would have to spend a small fortune for a new one to pass inspection.
Please understand: my old car had close to 170,000 miles on it. It was time to call Purple Heart, make an in-kind donation of this clunker and buy a new car complete with standard-issue compact disc (CD) player.
With the help of a zero interest loan from now to infinity, I was back on the road to self-improvement. I had a new car, but more importantly, a nifty new CD player that can handle audio books. I was off to the bookstore to see what kind were available.
Do you know how much those things cost? Ouch. You can easily spend forty or fifty bucks on just one audio book, a single-volume one at that. This drove me to the mail-order catalogues, the public library and to family members who might be so kind as to give me birthday or Christmas presents.
What kind of books does one listen to in the car? You certainly don't read or listen to technical or professional works, which require careful reading, yellow highlighter in hand, and a cup of caffeinated coffee nearby. Also, if you really treasure a book, you will still want to buy it, take it in hand, read it and put it on your own bookshelf until you die and someone else has to dispose of it.
Yes, this is a retro view given the rise of digitized publishing. But look how long it took me to migrate from cassettes to CDs. I am not exactly an early adopter. In fact, I did not get a CD player for the house until a visiting in-law called out to his children one Thanksgiving: "Hey, kids! Did you ever see a turntable?"
There are a lot of topical or contemporary subjects that make for good audio book listening. These are books you don't need to master, but you just want to have a general appreciation of their content. Politics, management, the Wall Street meltdown, a guy who like to climb Himalayan mountains to drink tea with tribesmen -- that sort of thing.
Books of classic fiction are also good, but contemporary fiction is usually pretty depressing. I am presently listening to one about a 61-year-old guy who gets fired, mugged, is widowed and divorced and alienated from his children. He suffers from partial amnesia and is drawn to a young woman who is a sympathetic, if pathetic, figure. Hmm. I am not sure I am going to get through this one.
Maybe I should start learning a foreign language.
G. Tracy Mehan, III, is a consultant in northern Virginia and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.
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