2011-02-10: The New Commuter

I changed job in October 2010, which resulted in a couple major adjustments.  In the previous 11 years, I worked in the commercial industry where the working hours are very flexible.  Only on Monday mornings when I had to come in “early” for the 9 o’clock Schedule meeting.  My wife used to tell friends about my (bad) work habit – no alarm clock, long lunches, and banker’s hours, etc.  My commute was easy - virtually no traffic, just the traffic lights in local roads that slowed the drive to 20 minutes each way.

The new job location now is at a federal government agency in Washington D.C.  I live in the western part of Fairfax County in Virginia, so my commute (in terms of distance) is now tripled what it used to be.  The work hour is strict and we have to run our fingers through a biometric measurements machine to “clock” in and out.  This is not driven by security but it provides a better time accounting system.  This agency is one of a few government agencies that make a lot of money.  Contractors will get paid for every hour that we work, when not under budget constraints and with prior approval.  Federal employees receive size-able bonuses each year, partly based on the number of hours they put in.  So what do people do?  Only some people, I should add.  They abuse the system!  Hence, the best way to fight it is by using technology.  Biometric measurements ensure you are who you are, and the time you come in to and out of the buildings are on records.  The machine will automatically subtract 30 minutes for lunch if you work 6 hours or more.  So in order to claim 8 hours a day you have to have 8.5 hours in the system.  When it was first implemented the machine only took the reading of one finger and people still found the way to cheat it.  So now it takes reading of all five fingers of your right hand.

It’s further exacerbated by the fact that I cannot drive by myself on a section of the highway (I-66) leading to or out of the city due to HOV restriction during rush hour.  So my only choices are using public transportation or carpooling.  Lucky for me that Chinh, my good friend for a long time, has been working in the city and carpooling for many years.  Chinh’s office is only 2 blocks from my new workplace so it’s convenient to carpool with him.  The timing is also perfect that there is a slot available in his group because they prefer to share ride with only Vietnamese.

Notwithstanding all nuances, I am the kind of glass-half-full (optimistic) person so I took the changes in stride.  Life is full of ups and downs; as long as you realize that and accept it you will be okay.  Of course, I need to adjust and get used to the new routines of getting up early (5:45AM) everyday to get ready for work.  That is still a drag, though!

Carpool Ltd.

I am glad that Chinh, Hiep and Nghia welcomed me to their fraternity.  Thank you guys!  So in honor of our new friendship I have to write a few words and maybe spill some secrets about them, right?  All three are federal government employees.  I am the sole contractor in the group.  In terms of employment benefits, I am on the bottom of the totem pole.  For example, during inclement weather, the government may delay the arrivals or grant an early release of the federal work force.  Well, that only applies to the federal employees.  Contractors can come late or leave early for those days, but we have to either make up for the hours (if allowed) or have to take leave.  In other words, we don’t get paid for those hours that we don’t work. 

We are all men but our conversations are clean.  We do talk about women, especially Thuy Nga Paris’s and Asia’s singers, their beauty (or lack thereof for some), but no R-rated materials.  We share many good laughs and conversations that seem to help shorten the commute time significantly.

Chinh has been my friend for 30+ years, and is an easy-going guy.  He manages our driving schedule.  I am not sure what got into him, but after his recent trip to Vietnam, he expresses more interest in cooking than he ever did before.  I, on the other hand, often tell my wife that I will start cooking when I retire, so I am still honing my skill from watching the TV chefs, like Emeril Lagasse (bam!), the Iron Chefs, and Andrew Zimmern (Bizzard Food.)

Hiep is normally calm but is the “enforcer” of our Carpool Ltd.  We defer to him for decision whether or not to wait for anyone who is late but does not notify the group in time.  He seems fluent in French and is a good singer.  He once emailed Thanh Lan to correct her phrasing on one of the songs she sang in French.  Thanh Lan did write him back, admitting the mistake.  Chinh & Nghia confirm this is true.  I am very impressed that Thanh Lan responded to Hiep.  Hiep has recorded a number of songs; maybe I will ask him for some sample and post them on my web site.  He is also single, has never been married, so he often is the subject of our conversations. 

Nghia holds a director position at the agency he works for.  I call him “Slacker Director” because his work schedule is so flexible.   Like that snow day fiasco, he decided to work from home.  It’s good to be him!  A few weeks after I joined the group, he took us for a tour of the city on the way home, because we could not get onto I-66 West.  We still are not sure whether he missed the exit or it was closed by police, for some emergency.  But for the peace and harmony of our Carpool Ltd., lets just say it’s the latter!  We had to detour through D.C. via Massachusetts Ave but it gave me an opportunity to look at residences of foreign country ambassadors; I believe they call it Embassy Row.  But Nghia had good sense of direction and calmly found the way out.  The trip took us 2 hours (rather than the normal 45 minutes to 1 hour) which I thought at that time would be hard to top.  Well, until the Snow-Jam day when I was the driver.

Two Wishes for Genie

Speaking of the Snow-Jam, I forgot to mention in the other blog that during that dreadful commute we also listened to a Christina Aguilera’s old CD my wife kept in my car for our long trips before.  The very first song in that CD is “Genie in a Bottle.”

If you wanna be with me, baby

There's a price you pay

I'm a genie in a bottle

You gotta rub the right way

If you wanna be with me

I can make your wish come true

You gotta make a big impression

I gotta like what you do

When I listened to that song, I actually had two wishes then.  The first was that my genie would take me to some beach in the Caribbean where it is warm so that I can take a walk early in the morning or have a private conversation with the ocean and with the waves like I have written in “Biển Yêu”, “Thì Thầm Với Sóng”, and “Bến Mơ Đợi Chờ.”

The second dream was, even the genie does not name the “price” I would go through this traffic jam ordeal three times over if, in the end, the real genie Christina would sing her hit song “Hurt” to me in person.   She mesmerizes me with that song before.  But I can really relate to the lyrics since my mother passed away in November 2010.  It brings tears to my eyes every time I hear that song - tears of being touched by a good song, with powerful lyrics and performed by a beautiful singer.  Tears of sorrow, and tears of many regrets!


Would you tell me I was wrong? Would you help me understand?

Are you looking down upon me? Are you proud of who I am?

There's nothing I wouldn't do to have just one more chance

To look into your eyes and see you looking back


There's nothing I wouldn't do to hear your voice again

Sometimes I wanna call you but I know you won't be there

I don’t know if you notice that songs set in E minor (mi thứ), in slow melody like this song tend to bring out emotions in people.  They also easily fit the vocal range of most of us.  Some of the popular and my favorites are “Như Cánh Vạc Bay”, “Tháng Sáu Trời Mưa.”

The Metro Ride - Scenes from the movie Unfaithful

The other benefit that Chinh, Hiep, and Nghia enjoy being federal employees is they have every other Monday off.  For those days I have to take public transportation, which involves driving my car to the bus stop, taking the bus to Vienna metro station, and then boarding the metro train to D.C.

Not having ridden a train to the city to work before, I was kind of excited at first.  In fact, for some reason, it reminds me of the scenes from the movie Unfaithful in which the characters played by Richard Gere and Diane Lane ride the train into the city to meet each other.  [No, I am not looking for romance, nor do I want to have the same fate as that character played by Gere who is later killed by the jealous husband, and the very woman with whom he has an affair actually helps cover up the crime.]   But those train riding scenes in that movie did give me some ideas about a romantic story for “Mắt Em Và Mùa Đông.”

But I would soon find out that it is not so romantic about riding on the train early in morning when everybody is still sleepy, and some even look grouchy standing in a packed train.  So now I just “zone” out and stop finding things to write about while I am on the train.

Overall, my commute to work in D.C. so far has been pretty good except for that Snow-Jam experience.  I am looking forwards to the spring when we will be driving by the cherry blossoms on the way to work.  In fact, even in the wintertime now, some days the Tidal Basin looks real gorgeous!