It was calm on the journey there. I made it past Portland, onto I95, down to Exit 32, then along the quiet roads of this old mill town. The journey home was different.
Star Wars Head-Ph**k
I pulled onto I95 north at about 2:15pm, which is also when a swath of tractor-trailers, cars, RVs, and buses appeared on the highway. I moved into three lanes, 70 miles an hour. I found myself in the middle lane. I kept my concentration firm, but was aware of the massive trucks that were now flying past me in the slow lane, with their hundreds of parts pieced together—how easy would it be for one part to fly off right now?
Honestly, it felt like Star Wars. It felt like I was in one of those crazy Jedi fighter planes that charges through metal corridors at lightning speeds—where every second, death is imminent.
I remained calm, but the speed was all encompassing. By the time I got home, forty minutes later, when I pulled into the quiet forest stillness where my cat sleeps, I got out the car, locked it with a beep, walked in the house, walked straight into the bedroom, got in bed, pulled the covers over my head, and passed out.
I slept for 90 minutes in a kind of shock body slam.
When I first moved to the US in 2009, a friend of mine, a publisher of magazines, told me that I would be surprised at how hard life is in America. I had dismissed her comment entirely—I knew America from all the movies I'd watched. I would be fine! But yesterday, as I lay in the fetal position under my covers, I think I finally understood what she meant.
It’s been dawning on me for several years now, just how hard life is for most Americans. There is the one percent—we come across those people a lot in Hollywood movies, they make it all look easy. But then there is the huge swath of everyone else. Most of these people have to work a minimum of 40-hour workweeks if they’re lucky—and they have great demands on their time and energy from corporate America. They don’t get many vacation days at all—perhaps 10 a year? And they have to pay (in my case for a couple in their 30s) $400 a month for health insurance, and when you actually go to the doctor; it still costs you $250 per visit.
These hardworking Americans put in backbreaking days of work, and then have to drive themselves through a sea of vehicles moving at 70 miles per hour, and fight for survival on their way home. If they live in the country—as I do and am now learning—they have to drive down highways that are littered with the bloody carcasses of animals who were mowed down at dawn. All of this has a toll on our overall health and wellness.
According to the Census, the average commuting time for Americans is 26 minutes each way—and it's growing each year. An incredible 17 percent of those people are commuting 90 minutes each way. There are many studies that show the negative effects of such commuting: depression, obesity, negative impacts on the family, exhaustion. Just one drive made me see this harsh reality for the first time.
Since I moved from Hong Kong to Maine, people have often said to me, isn’t it completely different? Isn’t it so much slower here in Maine? Honestly, now that I’m actually driving, I can tell you it’s 100 times faster living in Maine than it ever was in Hong Kong. Highways are incredibly fast, and most Americans spend a lot of time on them. No-one moves that fast in Hong Kong.
So what is the solution here? Get used to it? Get a remote job? Well, I’m lucky to already have one of those. Use this as a means to develop empathy for millions of others who have to cope with this?
Yes—and maybe it's worth dreaming up a few other realities.
Maybe we could invent new ways of working, where we embrace digital technology and our ability to telework—and build up a new design of our communities, one that fuses smart tech with nature. So that the time millions of Americans spend commuting can instead be freed up for them to be with their kids, go to meditation classes, go for a walk or cook a healthy dinner.
Maybe we could find ways to somehow mix the high tech, global connectivity of the internet and our modern devices with a quality of life that is utterly local and connected to the earth—where people can grow their own vegetables, creating environments where they’re surrounded by nature so that when huge storms come, there is earth and vegetation to absorb all the floodwaters. We could have clever public transportation lines set up, so that the only people driving vehicles are the professionals. (And no, I don't think driverless cars is the solution here—let's create jobs for the genius drivers out there).
Can we build a kind of organic-digital reality, that is using the sun, wind and rain to power our lives rather than the decomposing bodies of dinosaurs dissolved into oil? Can we find a way to be less reliant on the fossil fueled life of commuting—and just change up the design of our lives entirely? I'd love to hear your dreams and visions in the comments below.
In the meantime, I'll see you on I95.
Photo copyright: Top image by Katerina Pavlickova, second image by Mike Enerio, final image by Lukas. All via Stocksnap.io and CCO.