Rhetoric | The Zen of the Commute

The Zen of the Commute

Or How to Survive the Commute, and Life’s Frustrations Too

©2021 by Vernon Miles Kerr, VernonMilesKerr.com

I live in Modesto, California, a decent community of 200,000 with a hell-acious hot summer, a gloomy, moldy, London-like winter and a pretty nice spring and fall.  I forgot to mention also that it’s surrounded by thousands of dairies, pig farms and huge chicken-raising operations (and trillions of acres of almonds and grapes) for hundreds of miles in all directions — and that, in our local county of Stanislaus, your home mortgage comes with a covenant that you agree to be barred forever from complaining about, or bringing legal action against, any of the “sights, smells or sounds normally associated with agricultural operations.”  In other words, Big Ag rules, and on any given day, all one can hope for is being upwind of the local pig farm.

Modesto seems to have been originally transported from Kansas or Ohio by the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railway in the late 1880s and pllopped down in one piece — no assembly required.  It had to be, because, aside from a few Canary Islands Date-palm trees, (Phoenix canariensis.) Modesto looks like, feels like and has the same street names and politics as some of those Prairie-places.  

The only three superlative things Modesto has going for it is location, location, and location.  If you don’t like the cold gloomy winter or the blazing summer, you can escape for a few days by driving 100 miles West to the coast where it’s perpetually springtime, or drive 100 miles East to the Sierra Nevada range and get up above the gloom or heat into the cool dry, sunny air of alpine altitudes.  And, most importantly — for this discussion: if you’re not satisfied with the economic prospects offered by our mid-western agricultural economy, you can drive 100 miles to work over in the San Francisco Bay Area every day.   As stupid as that sounds, there are more than 20,000 people who do it.  I used to be one of them.

Modesto is on the Eastern edge of a greater metropolitan area that’s effectively 200 miles tall, from Fresno in the South, to Sacramento in the North, and 100 miles wide from San Francisco in the West to Greater Modesto in the East.  As a software consultant working on projects in Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Peninsula or the East Bay I could often be found within the twice-daily migration of herd animals streaming back and forth across the two mountain ranges that separate the Great Central Valley from the Bay Area. Of course, we would rather have you refer to us by the more romantic (and chauvinistic) name “Super-Commuters,” but each of us probably suspects, deep down, that we are just plain dumb sheep, squandering 4 or 5 hours of our time each day, wearing out new cars every couple of years and risking our lives, so that we can own a three or four bedroom house that doesn’t require a “jumbo-mortgage” to finance.  At any rate, our moving to one of the more exciting, more culturally chic and prettier Bay Area towns is presently not an option for any us, or we’d be doing it.  

That being said, barring the remote possibility that California will rise to the level of civilization enjoyed on the East Coast, Europe and especially Japan, by creating some viable public transit, we Super-Sheep have only one option toward bettering the quandary stated above:  We can’t avoid wearing out cars and we can’t cut down the commute time, it’s only going to get worse as the population grows.  The only part of the equation we can improve on is our chance of surviving those extra 40 or 50,000 annual miles of exposure to serious injury or death on the way back and forth. Whether you are a member of our local herd or one in another city, in another place, this piece offers a few pointers that should better your odds of surviving the commute. 

This is not a how-to-drive piece.  Go to the DMV for that. California has a very good publication printed in several languages.  As a matter of fact, let’s make that book or the one in your state or municipality a pre-requisite for this course.  No, this is a work of philosophy, driving-philosophy.  I didn’t make up its philosophical precepts I merely observed some positive behaviors out there on the Ninety-nine, the Two-oh-five, the Five-eighty, or the Six-Eighty; the One-oh-one or the Two-Eighty. (We don’t put the “I” or the “U.S.” in front of highway names in “Cali’. ” And I just gave you the formula for reaching Silicon Valley from Mo-Town—not the Detroit Mo-Town.)   By meditating on those observations of positive behavior, I realized that if they were emulated by everyone, and the philosophy that seemed to unite them was adopted by everyone, we would all be safer and more protected from the physical, psychological and economic disaster that a car wreck can produce–and maybe have our lives transmuted into a more spiritual, Zen-like experience.  By the way, I didn’t even think of writing this until I had to work on a Friday overnighter in San Jose and had to drive home amidst the “recreational” drivers headed for Tahoe and other points East on Saturday morning.  The entire 80 miles was barely contained chaos, with drivers cutting back and forth between lanes, and coming dangerously close to other cars in doing so. Horn-honking and obscene gestures were both in abundance.  What a difference from our lot during week-day commutes.  We are the professionals, they are the amateurs.  Following, is what made the difference.

The philosophy, in a nutshell:

  1. We are not in a NASCAR race.  You and I are not Dale Jr. or Danika Patrick: a mile gained by a half-hour of risky lane-changing will get you to work less than sixty seconds sooner.  In a real race, that minute might mean the difference between winning and losing, but it doesn’t mean much in the art of commuting.  That extra minute is certainly not worth the risk of bashing your car or someone’s body.
  2. We are not waiting in a line at the bank.  An extra person cutting in front of you in a line of stop-and-go traffic does not mean you will get to the teller ten minutes later.  It means you will get to work 32/1000 of a second later.  (I made that fraction up, but you get the idea.)  Moral of the story: leave some space between you and the car in front of you in order to minimize the risk to yourself and others caused by people violating precept number 1, above.  And resist the temptation to respond in kind when some of your fellow commuters express discontent, either by word or gesture, with your act of allowing someone to “cut in line” from your leaving such a space.  (I have witnessed this.) Just have pity on them because they have not yet been enlightened.
  3. The freeway system is just a gigantic conveyor-belt. Especially, during rush-hour traffic, the freeway is nothing more than a gigantic canvas conveyor belt.  For a while, it moves very slowly.  Later it moves a little faster, but fast or slow, you can never move any faster than the belt.  Even if the lane next to you seems to be hurtling along at this moment, pick any vehicle in that lane and just see if you don’t go hurtling past them a few minutes later.  You can’t get around precept number 3.  Frenetic and risky lane changing to gain the best hurtling rate is about as hopeless as rearranging the deck chairs on the proverbial and over-used Titanic.  So stay in your lane, stick another CD in the slot and meditate on something nice while the big, old conveyor gets you surely (albeit, slowly) to work.
  4. While commuting, we are members of a temporary community. (Amazing how “to commute” and “to commune” are so similar, eh?)  Your new community has only one mission:  and that is to get all of its members where they are going without them injuring or killing themselves or each other.  As members of the community we are on the same team, pursuing the same mission.  We are NOT competitors: we are a temporary family. 

Of course, just as in all families, each of us eventually does something that inadvertently offends another family member.  Please try to remember that my dumb move that forced you to take evasive action is probably more due to my stupidity than my lack of manners.  In my opinion, this is probably true with the majority of such incidents out there on the freeway.  Giving the other guy the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he or she just made a stupid mistake, goes a long way toward quelling the bile of road-rage that might be rising in your throat. Few of us out there are intentionally or professionally rude except California truck drivers, and they wouldn’t need to be if we allowed them to drive in the same lanes as the cars and meld with the flow of traffic like other states do.  

As I write this first draft, I am currently working on a project in St. Louis, Missouri and it took me several months of commuting on the Two-seventy — excuse me, I mean “the I-270”– to realize why the traffic seems to move so much more smoothly here.  The trucks are right out there in the flow, blending in with everyone else rather than being a dangerous 55-mile-per-hour impediment in a Number 2 lane whose belt-speed is moving at 75 or 80.  You almost don’t notice those big-honkin’ semis.  The point of this editorial digression is that our commuting family also has big, old oversized family-members that, depending on the dumbness of the laws controlling them, sometimes require special understanding and accommodation. Therewith lies the reason I created the next philosophical precept toward a more transcendental experience on the highway. The other reason is that you don’t want to tick-off a guy controlling a 60,000 lb. projectile that could easily squash you…and your Lexus.

  1. Give the Truckers a Break. The commercial semi tractor-trailer combination carries several realities that we must face.  They are extremely heavy especially when loaded.  The width of the trailers makes backward-visibility very poor.  The momentum from all that weight makes them extremely difficult to stop. In the best conditions, they cannot stop in the same distance that a car can. Never cut in front of an 18-wheeler while traffic is braking.  The circumstances might be perfectly safe for a car to stop but tragically too short for a tractor-trailer rig.
  2. Don’t be a speed vigilante.  When the traffic finally is clipping along at or above the speed limit, stay out of the fast lane unless you are willing to keep up the pace that the wild sheep are setting out there.  Don’t drive in the fast lane doing the “speed limit” while expecting all those scofflaws to go around you on the right.  This does not make you a righteous enforcer of the law; it makes you a dangerous obstacle that increases risky lane-changing behavior and road rage in the commute community. It’s not our duty or responsibility to enforce the speed limit by camping out in the fast lane.  The entire conveyor flows so much more smoothly if you let the Mercedes, the Audis and  the VW Jettas do their Autobahn-routine out there in the fast lane and let the Highway Patrol or State Troopers worry about it.  Sensibly, California has a statute that prohibits blocking the fast lane.  And saying that you were driving at the speed limit is not a defense and will not get you out of a ticket.  Use the fast lane for passing, then move to the right.


I was propelled into writing this piece by an experience I had while carpooling from Modesto into San Jose on a daily basis for awhile.  Every time it was my partner’s turn to drive I was arriving in San Jose a nervous wreck and couldn’t settle my emotions down until around noon time.  It wasn’t dangerous speed that had me so wrung-out; it was his constant and continuous war-like attitude during the entire ride.  First of all, he was continually making risky lane changes to try to gain a few seconds here, a few seconds there.  His jerky driving method while doing this caught a lot of fellow commuters off guard when they filled the space he was aiming for. 

Apologia to Modesto

Any town or city has it’s pluses or minuses.  I threw around a bunch of the minuses, quite truthfully by the way, for comedic effect and to put a light airy slant on a very serious subject.  In reality, while Tony’s heart may be in San Francisco, mine is pretty-well interred in Modesto.  My wife and I have been coming, going (and coming back again) to Modesto for exactly 40 years as of this revision. We have had a child and a grandchild, and have lost two children while living here. We still have best friends whom we met on the very first day we arrived in Modesto.  The real identity of any municipality boils down, not to its physical attributes, but to the hearts and souls of its people—and Modesto has had some very kind hearted, generous and humble people residing there through the years.  As a matter of fact the very name “Modesto,” meaning modesty in Spanish, is in honor of the A.T. & S.F.  Railway land-agent, who originally parceled out Modesto, a Mr. Ralston, who then refused to follow the common practice in those days of naming a new town after themselves.  Nearly a hundred years later, when Mr. Ralston was no longer around to protest, the city named its gleaming new 15-story (tallest ever at that point) senior-citizen residence building, “Ralston Tower.”  Ralston Tower sits at the center of Modesto’s traffic flow, at the convergence of the A.T. & S.F. street grid that ran Northwest and Southeast – Southwest and Northeast,  parallel and perpendicular  to the railroad, and the1900’s grid re-set where the city reverts to the North-South-East-West schemas of Kansas City or Columbus. 

At the base of Ralston tower, by-the-way is a bronze monument to another Modesto superlative George Lucas and his first commercially successful film, American Graffiti, which was based on George’s teenage years in Modesto. There are so many other superlatives like the Gallo Center for the Arts, conceived and partially funded by several million dollars of personal wealth from Bob and Marie Gallo of the family who owns the E. & J. Gallo Winery empire, headquartered in Modesto and the largest winery on Earth.  Modesto has many other superlatives but I add these important ones as an apologia for the down-right mean thing I said about my favorite town to hate (and love) having no superlatives but “location, location and location.”

Vern Kerr, On a Project for the State of Ohio, Columbus, Spring 2013.