Lifestyle column: How I went over to the dark side

Lifestyle columnist Cathy Hastie.

In the end, the decision wasn’t mine to make.

The question: would I give up a major component of my lifestyle in order to advance my career? My employer was asking me to take a long-term assignment 13 miles away, in Vancouver, Wash.

I know myself. I absolutely cannot expect that I could continue biking to work at that distance.

I have lived in close proximity to my job for the majority of my professional life. The express purpose was freedom — freedom from dependence upon a car. I bought my first home in a close-in neighborhood (ironically, the urban location ensured a low price then — that was the 90s!). Since then, I have always been in a close-in location that affords the privilege of auto-independence.

Over the years, I slowly built up endurance and all-weather gear to make biking to work an enjoyable ritual, like reading the paper in the morning. It was an expectation, the simplest and most convenient way to get to work. And it was important. Over the course of 20 years and 6 employers, the accompanying bike commute had the final say in who I would work for and where.

Working in a client’s office in Vancouver makes business sense for my employer. I will make more money for the firm. But nobody thought to ask me if I owned a car. Compensation was not offered for the extra time and expense of driving to another state every day. There was no talk of how I would maintain my health and keep in shape when my only form of exercise disappears from my daily routine.

Businesses aren’t typically founded on employee lifestyle, health and convenience. And idealism doesn’t put food on the table.

Like the big-city stereotype of cut-throat competition, today’s business model assumes that employees will do whatever it takes to earn more money, build more prestige and climb higher on the professional ladder. They assume we live the accompanying middle-class, suburban, auto-centric lifestyle. But I don’t like to drive, let alone cut throats and climb ladders.

I value my time and how I spend it, maybe even more than my money. I bet there are a lot of folks here who think the same way. A look at the numbers, however, shows that more people don’t. About 80 percent of metro area commutes take place in cars. Indeed, the majority of the Portland Metro population live in a neighborhood where biking into the urban center is difficult to say the least. Those rare few who pedal 30+ miles a day must have iron butts and a will of steel. They are definitely the dedicated elite. I admit, I don’t have what it takes to be one of them.

My dilemma was eating me up. Ideally, careers improve with time, and my Vancouver opportunity was a stepping stone in the right direction. But how much was I willing to give up now for the promise of a rosier future? If I sacrifice this pillar in my moral structure, who’s to say the roof won’t cave in as I sink deeper and deeper into a materialistic pit, swimming in money while gasping for air?

“I accept my new label: “car commuter” (Oh, the shame!) I have gone over to the dark side.”

Perhaps this pebble is just the first in what could turn into a landslide of sacrifices, eroding the hard-fought lifestyle gains of flexibility, stress-reduction and being true to convictions. Would I start traveling too much, seeing less of my family, working 60+ hours a week? In other words, killing myself slowly?

I have successfully avoided being a slave to my job so far. With this new proposition, I was grappling with how I could best serve my family, my employer and myself, in both the short and long-term. Not being a hypocrite would be a welcome bonus! As it turned out, all of the mental gyrations were for naught. I was told I could take the assignment or risk a vague, unnamed negative consequence.

Notwithstanding the decision to go to Vancouver, I still believe that lifestyle counts as much as salary. I vow to find a creative work arrangement that honors my core values. The burden of dragging a car around, the cost of gas, the time spent sitting still – somehow I will counterbalance these factors. I’ll let you know what I come up with! I am sure there are lots of readers with great ideas willing to offer advice.

So, at the risk of losing a job I love, I will trade in my hot pink pedaling rain boots for high heels on the accelerator. I accept my new label: “car commuter” (Oh, the shame!) I have gone over to the dark side. Will my pride be able to stand the transformation? How about my thighs?

—Read Cathy’s earlier columns here.

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