Measure of a Faithful Friend

“Should we get a dog?” We’d been married for a few years. I’d loved our family dog growing up, so it seemed natural to me. And yet, I was hesitant. The main reason I gave for not wanting a dog was the fear of having to one day say good-bye.

It’s 16 years later, and that moment just came.

Our dog Moby

We got Moby in 2001 as a puppy. Years before we had any children, he solidified his place in our family. On Friday, we gathered as a family to say good-bye. He was having repeated heart failure episodes, and unable to breathe.

I expected it to be hard, but not this painful. Looking back at all of our memories, it’s easy to see why. Do you mind if I share a few?

Moby Memories

Moby protesting his crate
Moby protesting his crate

When he was first eating food from a dish, he was top-heavy. When he’d lean over his bowl to eat, his head would weigh him down and he’d do a face plant into his food.

About the same age, he would spend the night in a crate to help with his house training. Each morning after breakfast he’d head straight to the crate, open the door, and pull out his blanket in protest.

Moby waits patiently while we wash the dishes
Moby waits patiently while we wash the dishes

When we first met Moby, he was fully black, with a splash of tan just around his eyes. His coloring was beautiful, and he seemed to lighten a bit as he grew. Then came his first haircut. The black coat was shed with his first grooming, only the black tips remaining. Everywhere else he was now a beige color.

Moby attacks the flowers
Moby attacks the flowers

Speaking of haircuts, the first time we brought him to the groomers they asked if we wanted his head rounded. Fearing he’d end up with a military-style flat top, we said yes. As it turns out, they sculpted his head into this huge helmet-shaped dome. When he came home, you could literally see the disgust on his face as we couldn’t stop laughing. Since he was part poodle, the groomers had shaped his head like a traditional poodle. We didn’t make that mistake again.

To demonstrate his fierceness, Moby would plan sneak attacks on the flowers in the yard. Seriously, they never saw it coming. He was also afraid of house flies. You could always tell when there was a fly in the house, as he’d be cowering, tail between his legs, looking for a place to hide.

Moby always like to walk right between us
Moby always like to walk right between us

Being small in stature, Moby somehow managed to make descending a single step something of an occasion. Instead of stepping down from one level to the next, he would launch himself off the step with all four paws in the air. While taking a walk one day, going off the curb to cross the street, Moby did his usual leap. A stranger saw it from across the street and yelled over to us that it was the cutest thing he’d ever seen.

Speaking of walks, Moby loved the smells of the outdoors. Whenever he came across something good smelling (think geese poop, dried worms, rabbit pellets), he would lower one shoulder and attempt to roll in it. When he wasn’t shoulder-diving into something nasty, he would position himself right between us. He’d look around as if to say, “That’s right. We’re out on a walk, folks.”

Moby perched on back haunches to elevate his view
Elevating his view
Couch adding extra height
Couch adding extra height

In our first house he wasn’t tall enough to see out the front window, but he wanted to keep an eye out for squirrels. To get around this he used a begging posture he’d learned as a trick to elevate his view. He’d sit on his back haunches and balance with his front paws up in the air. That gave him just enough height to keep an eye on Squirrel in the front tree. They frequently had stare-downs.

Speaking of houses, Moby was with us through every major life change: changing jobs, the family expanding, and moving 6 different times. During one move, we had a 13 hour drive between states. Moby spent the entire drive standing so he could keep an eye on things and provide input as needed.

Moby as a backseat driver
Backseat driver

Before we had kids, we’d occasionally eat something while watching TV. During a meal of Macaroni and Cheese, Moby thought he could crawl on his belly on the floor between us and the couch, come out between us, and get our food. This became the Moby Macaroni Maneuver.

cat behavior
Head tilt and cat behavior

Speaking of couches, when Moby was excited about getting a treat he would climb onto the back of the couch and leap off. It was part of his pre-treat routine. That carried over into other aspects of life, when he just wanted to hang out with us, too. Thinking he was part cat, he’d hang out on the back of the couch.

Moby and his toy crabs
Moby and his toy crabs

Speaking of other kinds of animals, his favorite toy of all time was a squeaky crab. He’d take a hold of it with his mouth and shake it for all he was worth–over, and over, and over, until he was convinced it was dead. Oddly enough, these toy crabs didn’t last long. For fear that Meijer would stop selling them, we eventually started stocking up to make sure he never ran out. We still have a couple to this day.

One of our favorite mannerisms of Moby’s was how he’d always tilt his head sideways when hearing his name. It was as if to say, “Yes, you called?” He did that faithfully until he lost his hearing late in life.

Corncob holder swallowed
Corncob holder swallowed
Recovering from emergency surgery
Surgery recovery

Speaking of health issues, he had abscessed teeth which had to be removed. He had a heart murmur that ultimately led to heart failure. He tore the ACL in his knee. The highlight had to be when he swallowed a corncob holder. At the age of 14 he had emergency surgery, and was good to go. The vet didn’t believe us and took x-rays to confirm he had actually swallowed the whole thing, spikes and all. While they were removing it, they also removed a huge hair ball from his stomach. Did I mention he sometimes acted like a cat?

He also had skin allergies his whole life, with various treatments not doing much to help (us giving him injections, special shampoos). At one point we had him wear a white wife-beater t-shirt to keep him from scratching himself raw. Even in his health issues, he made us smile. A few months before he died, his vet’s office even referred to him as a “perpetual pup,” always bringing a smile to your face.

Tolerating the Santa hat
Tolerating the Santa hat
Moby burrows through the snow
Snow burrowing

Speaking of things we made him wear, every Christmas he donned a Santa hat and had to endure a photoshoot by the Christmas tree. He tolerated it, but his disdain was obvious.

Speaking of winter, Moby loved the snow and cold more than heat. There were times he’d have to burrow through the snow it was so deep. At the other end of the temperature spectrum, when it was hot while taking walks Moby would wait until we were passing a patch of shade and would plop down in the lawn. He’d pant and smile at us, tail wagging. He’d refuse to go on.

Moby resting in the grass
Resting in the grass

When we were saying our final good-bye to Moby, my wife used this as an analogy with the kids. She explained that his body was shutting down, and didn’t want to go on any further. I immediately pictured him sprawled on the green grass with the tongue flapping.

Moby Window watching
Window watching

Speaking of snacks, we didn’t often (intentionally) give him people food. That didn’t stop him from trying to get some, however. One infamous tale is when he ate my mother-in-law’s special Dutch dried beef, and chewed off the corner of a recently autographed book. In Moby’s defense, they were sitting on the floor together, as if to say “eat me.” To this day, I think that was the only book he ever chewed.

Moby with my parents
With my parents

My mother would frequently spoil him with treats and snacks. “These eggs are good for his coat” she’d say. We tried to be firm, but secretly enjoyed seeing him spoiled. On Sunday mornings, when I made eggs for the family, he’d be there beside me hoping for a drop of shredded cheese, or ham, or anything. He seemed to know when it was Sunday morning before I entered the kitchen.

He was quite adept at eating apples. He would gently nibble the apple off the core, and knew not to dig too deep. When he was younger, he’d help lick out yogurt containers after we were through. His entire face would be hidden inside the small carton. It was quite adorable.

Moby was always with me reading
Always with me

We often said Moby was a pup of routines. (I have no idea where he got that from.) If I didn’t wake up early enough in the morning, he’d scratch at the side of the bed to wake me up. Later in life, when he could no longer climb stairs, he’d smell the coffee first thing in the morning, timed to brew the same time I’d wake up. He’d be up and watching for me to come down the stairs, the first to greet me every day.

Moby requesting bedtime scratching
Requesting bedtime scratching

At night, after we got the kids in bed, he’d be standing in the kitchen waiting for us to come down. It was his favorite time of day, when he had us all to himself. He’d attempt to share our popcorn, or have a treat of his own. We’d sit on the floor together and read or watch a show, and he’d snuggle in or stand in front of me until he received a sufficient amount of attention.

Speaking of nighttime attention, for most of his life Moby slept in our bedroom. As we’d settle into bed, he’d come to my side of the bed, sit down, look up at me, and wait for me to give him a good scratching. It was his pre-bedtime massage, I guess. Many nights I was tired, or cold and wanting to stay under the covers, but then he’d look up at me with those big brown eyes. How could I resist?

Worth The Pain?

Moby with his paw on the Marley & Me book
A book more similar than I ever wanted

Everywhere I go in the house now, I’m faced with the thought, “Moby would have been right here with me when I’d do this.”

Working in the office? Yep.
Cooking? Yep.
Coming home? Yep.
Waking up every morning? Yep.
Eating a meal? Yep.
Exercising? Reading? Yep, and Yep.

My sadness now could have been avoided had we never gotten Moby. But the level of pain demonstrates the absolute joy he brought to our lives, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Rest well, Moby. You enriched our lives more than you’ll ever know.

Moby sleeping after one of our moves
Sleeping after one of our moves

Meet Door of Faith Orphanage

The last morning of our trip was sunny, but brisk. I sat at the picnic table, clutching my warm cup of coffee, watching the handful of sheep grazing down the dirt road. A couple local construction workers hauled wheelbarrows full of tools up the steep hill past our cabin, all the while offering a smile and a cheerful “buenos días.”

Mountain View of Door of Faith Orphanage
Door of Faith Orphanage, nestled in the foothills of La Misión, Baja California, Mexico

This was our family’s first visit to Mexico. Looking for ways to stretch ourselves and our children, a couple good friends recommended visiting the Door of Faith Orphanage (DOFO) in La Misión, Baja California, Mexico. With the promise of a good local taco stand accompanying it, how could we go wrong?

Surveying the mountains surrounding the orphanage, I used those few quiet minutes that final morning to read that day’s Scripture in my devotions.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth. — Psalm 121:1-2

I smiled at the relevance of the imagery and knowing it is a favorite passage of my in-laws who were on the trip with us. Psalm 122 and 125 continued describing the walls and mountains providing refuge:

Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers! — Psalm 122:7

As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so the Lord surrounds his people,
from this time forth and forevermore. — Psalm 125:2

How appropriate for this orphanage, surrounded by a front gate and mountains, providing shelter for the precious lives within. Psalm 127 closed out the section reminding us that “children are a heritage from the LORD” (Psalm 127:3), and the critical need for God to be the foundation of it all:

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain. — Psalm 127:1

Our family’s visit to DOFO was a wonderful opportunity to meet the children, volunteers, and staff personally, and to experience a slice of their culture and daily lives. We were under no illusions we’d be helping in any lasting way the few short days we were there, but the orphanage welcomed us all the same and appreciated our desire to learn and spread the word about the work they’re doing.

Meet Door of Faith

Gymnastics with Door of Faith

We stayed in one of the small campgrounds at the orphanage, which they use for housing missions groups and visitors. Maggie, one of the American volunteers, was our gracious host, showing us around, ensuring we had answers to all our questions, and making us feel welcomed. The DOFO staff is comprised of both paid Mexicans and American volunteers. There are currently about 28 Mexican staff members on site and seven American volunteers. The American volunteers raise their own personal support, and receive no financial compensation from Door of Faith. During our visit we saw groups from both the U.S. and Mexico there for the day volunteering.

Much of our time was spent hanging out with the children on the playground. The kids wasted no time in classifying us as playmates, grabbing our hands and inviting us to play. I was grateful my woeful Spanish wasn’t a huge barrier. When a boy sitting on a swing yells out “Amigo, faster!” it’s fairly easy to pick up on what he’s looking for.

From toddlers to college-aged, DOFO currently supports 65 children. They have capacity for up to 120, including facilities for newborns. While it is an orphanage, a number of the DOFO children do have parents. However, the parents were unable to care for them for one reason or another (e.g., drugs, abuse) and either willingly gave them away or had them removed. In some cases, the Mexican government brings the children to the orphanage, though DOFO receives no government funds.

Jump Rope with Door of Faith
Jump rope

A top priority of the orphanage is to provide a family atmosphere for the children. Children live in small dorms based on age, with a dorm parent primarily responsible for their care each and every day. Each dorm is uniquely designed and decorated. Bright colors, art, and landscaping are prevalent throughout the homes and campus. The children all have chores and responsibilities, as with any family, helping with things such as laundry and cleaning.

Pasteleria at Door of Faith
Bakery for birthday cakes

One of my favorite buildings was a small bakery that was recently built. With each child’s birthday, a themed cake is prepared. Given the sheer number of cakes that are made each year (one per child), they built a small bakery dedicated to the making of birthday cakes for the kids. If you’re interested in contributing to their baking, keep an eye on the bakery’s Amazon wish list.

Education is a huge goal at DOFO. There is a preschool onsite, and the older children attend local schools. The day we were leaving, even the staff and volunteers were preparing to attend a parenting class as part of their ongoing education.

As if caring for the needs of 65 kids wasn’t enough, DOFO also emphasizes community service. Their mission statement priorities say it forthrightly:

We strive to love our neighbor as ourselves, teaching our children to give back through both word and action. By allowing and encouraging our children to serve others, both on site and in our community, it brings restoration. Our children are taught that they are NOT what’s been done to them, they are made in the image of God, designed for good works, they have a purpose in this life. Service to other brings healing.

Part of the outreach even includes training other orphanages. The day we arrived, DJ and Lynette, administrators at DOFO, were participating in the dedication of another orphanage in the area.

Our Eternal Family

We also had the privilege of attending a worship service during our visit. Each Sunday the whole orphanage attends the Templo Cristiano Elim de México church. What an enriching time to study Scripture and sing praises together. DJ participated by providing English interpretation during the service. The congregation was so welcoming. One of the Mexican girls from the church even took it upon herself to make sure our daughters had flags to wave and were able to participate fully. After the time of worship, they invited us to join them for homemade sopas and soup (delicious!). Frequently church members will prepare a meal after the service to raise funds for their missions.

Worship with Door of Faith
Worship with Templo Cristiano Elim de México

The church visit provided a powerful perspective for our trip that I didn’t anticipate. I loved hearing worship songs I knew being sung in a language I didn’t understand, knowing the passion and praise was glorifying the same triune God. In some ways, it helped me avoid simply going through the motions and instead forced me to focus on who we were praising: our Creator.

It reminded me that we are all part of the same Body, and that we have a responsibility to each other: “But God has so composed the body … that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Corinthians 12:24-25). Romans goes further explaining that, “in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5), and that we are to “be devoted to one another” (Romans 12:10).

God, being the “father of orphans, champion of widows” (Psalm 68:5 MSG) repeatedly directs us to care for the fatherless, to protect them, and provide justice (e.g., Isaiah 1:17; James 1:27).

Before God our Father, we all share the same status through faith in Christ, and that is as adopted sons and daughters of God (Galatians 3:26; Galatians 4:5). No matter our family status on earth, we can share the same heavenly Father. For God has, “predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:5). We have, “received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15). In promising His return, Christ even says, “‘I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you’” (John 14:18).

Be Devoted To One Another

There are so many ways you can learn more about the orphanage. Subscribe to their newsletter, email or snail mail. Follow them on Facebook or Twitter. They also post some adorable pictures on Instagram.

Door of Faith Logo Mosaic - Blue Hands
DOFO logo mosaic

If you’re able, I highly recommend scheduling a visit. Don’t shove this off as something only for youth groups to do. Are you in Southern California? From there it can be a single day trip, driving down and back. A church from California was doing just that one of the days we were there. They drove down, served a meal for the children, played and enjoyed time with the kids, and drove back. What a precious opportunity to serve together as families!

Door of Faith Logo Mosaic - Red Hands
DOFO logo mosaic

Prayer is essential, whether it’s for increased awareness of their ministry, growing compassion for this part of the Body, the needs of the children (physical, emotional, spiritual), the volunteers who raise their own funds, the staff, or the local church where they worship.

And certainly financial support is needed. They provide a number of ways to give online, whether a one-time gift or monthly.

And so we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons” (Romans 8:23), and use our time to act justly and love mercy. May God bless Door of Faith Orphanage as they continue to do just that.

Commuting Commemoration

A Look Back

Not long ago, I held a contracting job within the Federal government. Despite its boasting of telework initiatives, the ability to work from home was an elusive privilege pursued in a Sisyphus-style struggle, filled with training courses, paperwork, management whims, prolific policies, and yes, even politics. In spite of numerous managers fighting valiantly, by the end of my tenure, teleworking was expressly forbidden on our contract (unless the government needed our help during off-hours, in which case it was demanded).

And so, mine was one of commuting to the office every day in what’s considered to be some of the worst traffic in the country. Based on some quick calculations, it’s possible I spent an estimated 3,100 hours commuting to and from work, or 129 days of driving. The length of my daily commute put me in the top 8% of American workers!

Looking back, it provided plenty of memories, some wonderful, some amusing, and some downright awful. Before time and age have their way with my memory, I thought I should capture some of those memories lest I never forget.

Looking back on The Merge
Looking back on The Merge

The Audible

When enduring dreadful commutes, having something good to listen to is often the only escape.

  • Early on, I did not own an iPod or any sort of podcast player. My solution? I burned podcasts to a Read-Write CD-ROM the night before, and listed using a portable CD player. (Did I forget to mention the car didn’t have a built-in CD player?)
  • Playlists and podcasts were a must. By the end, I had it down to a science, knowing precisely how many of my favorite podcasts I could listen to during a typical commute, some of which required listening at 1.5x speed in order to fit in a full episode.
  • While carpooling successes ebbed and flowed, the successful commuting collaborations were an opportunity to expand my musical horizons. One fellow commuter, in particular, could spin up everything from Flo Rida to Johnny Cash. I am indebted to him for my love of the Man in Black.

The Unexpected

When commuting every day, there are bound to be some surprises along the way.

  • It's hard to "move that bus!" when you're stuck in D.C. traffic
    It’s hard to “move that bus!” when you’re stuck in D.C. traffic

    Deep in thought one afternoon on the way home, methodically stopping and starting in the bumper-to-bumper traffic, I suddenly realized I was staring at the back of the Extreme Home Makeover bus. They had just finished taping an episode in D.C. I have to assume the regulars on the show were smart enough to fly to their next destination rather than parking on I-95 with the rest of us.

  • Occasionally some of us would forget that carpooling wasn’t everything it’s cracked up to be, and would go through the hassle of coordinating schedules to achieve the magical 3+ people needed to take the HOV lanes. One morning, we fell short by one person (no doubt due to a last-minute back out), dooming us to the regular lanes for the commute. And yet, as the HOV entrance approached, my fearless co-worker merged on, and there we were enjoying the wide-open freedom of HOV … illegally (and let’s assume unintentionally). It didn’t take long before he realized the mistake. However, these lanes are separated by jersey walls and once you commit, there is no off-ramp for more than 10 miles, a stretch littered with State Police enforcement points. More than a few prayers were said (did I mention he’s a pastor now?), and in the end we made it through unscathed.
  • Google Maps Cards, waiting to be unleashed
    Google Maps Cards, waiting to be unleashed

    One commute home I drove alongside a trailer full of Google Street View cars. It reminded me of a Multi-Troop Transport, ready to unleash its battle droids on some unsuspecting town.

  • On a rare morning drive when traffic was actually flowing smoothly (it must have been a delayed departure), I noticed a white bird flying alongside my car. I was easily traveling at 60 mph, and the bird not only kept pace, but also course, flying in the lane next to me for at least a couple miles. It was quite surreal, and I half expected to see Roma Downey appear in the passenger’s seat.
  • When cold weather AND precipitation were in the forecast, VDOT’s massive salt truck plows would appear in pairs, parked along I-95. Yes, I said parked. They strategically chose locations along the highway … and would wait for the first few flurries to fly. At first I found it silly, but I suppose it made sense. If they waited for the weather to arrive, they’d be faced with the same traffic woes as the rest of us, with no hope of actually reaching the highway now in need of clearing.
  • While at first unexpected, I eventually grew accustomed to seeing rather large motorcades usurping one direction of I-95, either for a military funeral procession or official transport of some sort.

    Start of motorcade

The People

Oh, the people. Have you ever gone to the mall and people watched? Commuting in bad traffic can be similarly entertaining, but on a whole new level. People somehow think they’re alone when they are sitting in their car, exposed by clear windows on all sides. The things people do when they think they’re alone. Of course, others are only too aware they are stuck in a mass of vehicles and people, and seek help, assuming surely this congestion isn’t normal.

  • I was stuck in the usual Thursday-afternoons-during-the-summer traffic nastiness. A honk from the car in the lane next to me grabbed my attention. I looked over, and the driver clearly wanted to talk with me. I paused my podcast, and rolled down my window, and this happened. Welcome to Virginia.
  • Other interactions while parked on I-95 included people asking me, “Is it always like this?”, and “Where’d you get that bumper sticker? I’ve been looking for one of those.”
  • As for the people who thought they were alone, there were plenty nose pickers, and women applying makeup or aerosol hairspray, but one efficient mother wisely spent a portion of her commute using a breast pump. Yes, you can get a ticket for texting while driving, but I guess lawmakers hadn’t considered that possibility yet.
  • Slugging was sometimes a decent option when heading into D.C. Think of it as “Instant Carpooling” or “Casual Carpooling,” where you meet up with total strangers and combine forces to achieve enough passengers to use the HOV lanes. The majority of time the people were helpful, cordial, and friendly. There were, however, some people that violated etiquette and shared their wacko thoughts on anything and everything. My brother’s been slugging daily for over a decade. I wish he’d write a book.

The Strategy

Many techniques were used to try and get around the horrendous traffic. For months I tracked each day’s commute: departure time, weather conditions, day of the week, length of commute. Surely I just need to leave early enough, and exercise or eat breakfast once I get to work. There was never an early enough. Then there were the traffic cameras, available real-time on mobile devices, as long as you didn’t consult while driving. Maybe I can time things just right. Or maybe if I take public transportation, driving the wrong direction to get to the train station, which takes me to the bus, which takes me to work.

In the end, this was the only strategy I found to beat the traffic:

  • [footage not found]

The License Plates

I-95 is the only thoroughfare along the East coast, so there are many out-of-staters just trying to pass through every day.

  • Some of my friends played license plate games. Not the usual “see who can find all the states first” kind, but the “let’s make up a mathematical formula using all the numbers on a license plate” kind, and would see who could do the calculation quickest for each plate. “Oh, there’s another 19,” they would say.
  • One summer day on my commute home, I saw plates from ID, FL, MS, IL, OK, NC, MD, MA, NJ, NY, MO, TN, MI, PA, CO, and UT. That’s 16 states, in a 30 mile stretch, in 1 commute.
  • With the tens-of-thousands of commuters taking the same route each day, it was amazing to me that I started recognizing individual license plates. Apparently we kept similar schedules.

The Sights

Virginia is a beautiful part of the country, with gorgeous changing seasons, rolling hills and mountains, and towering trees. On occasion I was able to look beyond the congestion surrounding me, and take in some awe-inspiring sights.

  • Leaving early in the morning provided some incredible sunrise views. Often, if you timed it right, you could be parked on I-95 at one of the higher-elevation points with a clear view East. A brief interlude to the madness.
  • National Museum of the Marine Corps
    National Museum of the Marine Corps

    Each day I was fortunate enough to drive by the magnificent National Museum of the Marine Corps. It’s not only a wonderful architectural site to see, but a fabulous museum to visit, if you ever have the opportunity.

  • While I-95 is the only main thoroughfare, it was possible to take residential back roads through Occoquan and around Quantico, and avoid the highway all together (though not always its overflow traffic). I took this route infrequently enough that maps were in order. This alternate approach home was an automatic doubling of my “normal” commute time home. When traffic reports indicated above average problems (there were always accidents, so they needed to be severe or numerous enough), then I’d do the math as traffic reports emerged and diverge if back roads showed the potential for saving time. Once I accepted the additional time I’d be driving, those back road commutes (when I didn’t get lost) bordered on the enjoyable. The rolling roads, the landscape, the rural farms and white picket fences, were refreshing to see, especially compared to the asphalt and bumpers of a normal commute.

The Sustenance

When you’re settling in for what could easily be a multi-hour drive, you want provisions. Be careful, however, lest you end up triggering the need for a pit stop whilst stuck in traffic. You’ve been warned.

  • Coffee, black gold. It was a must. Once a week I’d treat myself with a stop at a local filling station, either Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. If I was looking for straight-up coffee the choice was Dunkin, but the Americano fix was SBUX. All the other days it was a travel mug. Eventually, I began using a Stanley Classic Field Green Thermos. You know the kind. It was less convenient for use in the car, but worked great with the coffee mug in my cube.
  • Beverages while driving are tricky. Have a large stash of napkins in the car, and a Tide stain stick waiting for you at work.
  • Coffee was a must, but the rare food purchase was  extravagance. The Breakfast Burrito from Anita’s New Mexican Restaurant for $1.69 was enough to make the commuting misery (almost) melt away. More common was the free donut that came by doing the survey on my Dunkin Donut’s receipt from the previous visit. Amazingly, the cycle was never ending, and the survey was becoming nearly automatic.

The Grind

While commuting had its moments, more often than not it was a day-to-day battle.

The I-95 Merge
The I-95 Merge
  • Early on, as I was still becoming familiar with the area, before I had a GPS, I would venture off the beaten path. “There must be a better way that these tens-of-thousands of suckers sitting on I-95 don’t know about,” I’d say to myself. The result? A call to my personal OnStar service, otherwise known as my wife. Invariably, the conversation would end with us trying to figure out how the same two roads could interest at 5 different points. Only in Virginia.
  • Getting lost or being stuck in traffic is frustrating. Remembering you are paid hourly in those situations, and are therefore losing income with every passing moment, is absolutely infuriating. Occasionally I’d be shaken from the monotony of the commute by a work-related phone call requesting assistance with the escalation of an issue, or have the good fortune of a scheduled conference call during the commute home. While both meant being paid for time on the road, I eventually grew to value the time alone and preferred not having the calls.
  • One particular stretch of the drive home that was always enjoyable was the backup where the highway “merged” 2 car pool lanes and 1 on-ramp into an already full 3 lanes of traffic … at the bottom of a hill so the tractor trailers had to start from a complete stop. This spot is referred to simply as The Merge. There’s nothing quite like inching along in a 2 mile backup on hot asphalt in 98 degree weather. Memories of the merge are enough to make my stomach churn and palms sweat, even to this day. Since you’re likely to stay awhile, you can even check-in at the I-95 HOV Merge on Foursquare, if that’s your kind of thing.
  • Virginia summers are hot. And humid. Virginians also care about the environment, and what better way to demonstrate that than to declare Ozone Action Days! One particular steamy summer afternoon, the traffic congestion was worse than normal and continuing in spots where there was generally some relief. I wasn’t too surprised, as anything can cause this volume of traffic to slow down (e.g., a parked car on the side of the road, a new sign, rain, too much sun, not enough sun). This day, however, the additional slowdown was caused by one of the electronic overhead traffic signs. On it was a flashing alert that we were under an Ozone warning, encouraging us to reduce traffic by carpooling. Keep in mind we’re already on the highway. As soon as we passed under the sign, traffic resumed to normal speeds. In an effort to help the environment, a law was passed requiring VDOT to display these signs. The end result? Tens-of-thousands of cars idling on the highway for 30 minutes longer than usual because of a pointless sign. How is that helping the environment or keeping traffic moving?  It seems to me it’s doing quite the opposite.
  • After driving the same route for long enough, you get a feel for traffic patterns. It became second nature to change lanes at certain points along the commute, anticipating the normal congestion points. Certain lanes flowed better than others at some of the backups, whether due to the configuration of merging traffic, or the driving behavior of the majority hoping to avoid an upcoming merge. The key is knowing when to change lanes, ride out the benefit as long as possible, and switch back before you’re stuck with newly merging traffic. Countless hours of my life were no doubt reclaimed with such deft maneuvers. So ingrained were these lane changes I began to find it hard to ride with others who either didn’t share this crucial life skill, or simply didn’t care about commuting efficiency. As a corollary, it is almost never worth changing lanes on the spur of the moment simply because one lane appears to be moving more quickly than another. Such lanes will suck you in with their appeal, and immediately grind to a halt the moment you join. Don’t fall for it.

The Enjoyable

Commuting was not all heartburn. Looking back, I have plenty of wonderful memories, as well.

  • Traffic alerts on a vacation day.
    Traffic alerts on a vacation day. Bliss!

    It was imperative to receive traffic alerts. There were few things as enjoyable as receiving those traffic alerts on vacation days. I might as well confess, I also checked traffic reports during rush hour on days off. It was a guilty pleasure.

  • During one stretch of work, I was able to telecommute for an hour or so each morning before hitting the road and driving into work. This allowed some flexibility in trying to allow some traffic to clear. But it also allowed me to wake up my children before I left, say a prayer together as a family, and drive away with them all standing at the window waving. There’s no greater send-off when leaving for the day.
  • In all my time commuting, I was never involved in an accident. It was not uncommon to see at least 2 or 3 accidents in each direction every day. There were so many distractions, and times I was nearly asleep or lost in thought. I’m so grateful for God’s protection during all of those commutes.