If You’re Pessimistic, You’re Never Disappointed. (Thoughts on Frequent Travel.)

I just did four states in ten days: Illinois, New York, Michigan, and finally Florida. Even for me, that was either one state too many, or five days too little.

I travel a lot. I know that mostly because people constantly remark upon it. Besides commuting 220 miles each way for my annual teaching, I do a lot of travel for speakingresearch, and outreach. On top of that, my family is scattered about, so visiting them usually requires travel. And sometimes my son and I travel with my mate when he needs to travel for work. (They do the same with my work travel.) On Northwest Airlines alone, I have logged 363,341 to date, and I have five other trips already scheduled with Northwest (and another on Continental). On Amtrak, I now have 10,482 miles to my name.

Sometimes my academic friends, weary from what counts as minor travel for me but major for them, ask me how I stand it. The truth is, I no longer can stand not traveling. Being home for more than about three weeks straight starts to make me a bit nuts.

So I thought I would share here ten insights I’ve gathered about how to stay happy as a traveling academic:

1. If you’re pessimistic, you’re never disappointed. This is an aphorism coined by my mate who has become quite used to hearing me worry about being delayed by bad weather, fretting about the possibility of having the kid come down with norovirus the day we’re all supposed to get on a plane, and dreading facing a trip to a country where, because of food patterns and language barriers, it is almost impossible for me to avoid being exposed to milk and thus to a severe allergic reaction. He finally realized this is a coping strategy I’ve developed. You see, I really hate being disappointed, and if I set my expectations really low, then it is unlikely I will be disappointed. Especially when traveling on Amtrak or with multiple airline connections, or during thunderstorm or blizzard season, you should set your expectations as low as you possibly can. If you expect your flight to be canceled and it turns out it is only three hours late, you feel pretty good.

2. “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to us.” This is a phrase I learned from my good friend Tod, who exclaims it every time something goes wrong, whether it is a delayed flight or a pickle leaking juice on what would otherwise be crispy potato chips. It’s amazing how much perspective you gain when you use that phrase for whatever has gone wrong.

3. Bring something to read. My mother taught me this as a child. Whether we were going to the pediatrician, the dentist, or on the train, her feeling was that you should always have a good book in your back pocket. Don’t bring something you are obligated to read. Bring what counts as mind candy for you. This makes time “stuck” somewhere feel like a moment of delightful indulgence.

4. Bring something amazingly good to eat. Don’t just bring granola bars. Bring good sliced meat and cheese, fresh fruits and vegetables, and a real dessert. If you’re stuck in an airport with a slow connection or a delay, treat yourself to a glass of wine or a cold beer. I especially like to bring a fresh orange and a bar of dark chocolate. There is nothing like a juicy slice of orange combined with a bite of bittersweet chocolate to make me feel like I’m doing just fine.

5. Watch other people get increasingly annoyed at the delays. Congratulate yourself on how you are like the Buddah, recognizing that struggling with Northwest Airlines is what causes the suffering, not Northwest Airlines itself. While you watch, eat the good food you packed: dinner and a show.

6. Pack light. I’ve learned that not a soul in the universe will fault you for wearing the same pants, the same suit, or the same skirt twice or three times while traveling, nor will they fault you if you dump coffee all over that one skirt. Packing light also gives you the ability to go walk, even when going carry-on, when you’ve got a delay. Walking will make you feel much better than sitting at the gate waiting for a delayed flight. The Minneapolis airport has that wonderful big loop, just made for walking. Ignore the security people who look at you funny when you pass them for the third time in an hour.

7. Have a separate set of (always ready) toiletries just for travel. This makes repeated packing and unpacking much, much less painful.

8. Do not attempt to get anything else done while traveling. Don’t try to grade, to write or edit new papers, etc. For one thing, doing so will cause you to over-pack. For another, it’s just not realistic and it adds to stress, because when you come back, you have the added guilt of having gotten “nothing” done on your trip. The purpose of your trip is the trip. Focus on the trip.

9. Don’t feel obligated to go see everything, taste everything, etc. There is no point in feeling guilty when you find yourself in Paris just wanting to eat a ham and cheese sandwich in your hotel room. No one is going to quiz you on your way back into the country about the art at the Louvre or the taste of snails. It’s your life. Don’t let the fact that you’re in a new city make you feel obligated to act like someone else might. Feel free to slum it.

10. Enjoy being home. What counts as ordinary at home (your old familiar grocery store, your oddest neighbor, the evening bedtime ritual with the kid) all feels extraordinarily wonderful when you’ve been on the road.

I think some people look at me and wonder how I can seem reasonably peaceful when I travel so much. The funny thing is, traveling a lot makes me appreciate everything more. It makes me realize how little stuff I really need,  how much I value the company of smart people, how privileged I am in being able to meet interesting new souls and see things I otherwise would not. It also gives my mate and son wonderful one-on-one time together, which dads and kids need. And it makes my mate appreciate all the stuff I ordinarily do for the household, since he has to take over when I am gone.

I would elaborate, but I have to finish the laundry and pack.