The two body problem reconsidered (or what I learned while being a #fifoacademic)

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Australia is a big country. You can fit almost the whole of the UK into Victoria, one of our smallest states. Maybe that’s why the folks at ANU didn’t blink when I told them I wanted to commute the 512km between Canberra and Melbourne for a year while Thesiswhisperer Jnr finished primary school. They provided me with a bach pad on campus during the week and worked with me to establish a routine.

In Australia the ‘Fly-in Fly-out (FIFO) worker is surprisingly common. Most of them, like my step brother, work in the mining industry, but a surprising number of people in academia are forced to commute. The most common reason is the notorious ‘two body problem’ which The Slate describes as:

… an inelegant term for the difficulty that couples have in finding good jobs for both people that are geographically close enough that they can continue to live together. Given the shortage of full-time academic jobs, couples are frequently put in a position where they have to choose between serious underemployment for one of them and living separately.

A couple of weeks ago my colleagues over at the Research Whisperer published a post from Kati Mack which discussed some of the practical problems the need for ‘hyper mobility’ amongst academics can produce (including whether or not you should own a pet). There’s so much that can be said about these lived aspects, the problems caused by a constant transplanting of the self – and the living separately from your partner and family. So I want to focus here on living well while suffering the 2 body problem.

I’m coming to the end of my year as a FIFO academic now and a question from @Siobhan_ODwyer about how to manage working across multiple campuses made me think that some of the stuff I’ve learned might be useful for that situation too.

During the year I’ve talked to quite a few people about what they did while they commuted and it seems to me that we can learn a lot from each other’s stories about how to cope with the myriad logistical, practical and emotional aspects of this experience. Naysa Bafren has wrtitten a blog post and I thought I could add another. So here are four things I’ve learned while being a ‘hypermobile’ academic, complete with apps, ideas and tips for those who are experiencing the Big Commute now, or contemplating it in the future.

1. The airport is another country – learn its ways

When I started the Big Commute I picked an airline (Qantas) and stuck with it, even if it was more expensive. The Qantas lounge provides me with free wifi, food, clean toilets and a place to park my bottom on a chair for up to 5 hours a week. Membership has its privileges of course, and Qantas sent me with a smart card to swipe in at the gate and smart tags for my bags, which means I don’t have to interact with a single human on the way through the airport if I don’t want to, thus avoiding queues.

Here’s some other things I have learned while haunting airports and planes this year, in no particular order:

The best time to fly anywhere is between 12:15 and 3:30 in the afternoon. At all over times the airport is a nightmare hellhole of tired children, confused tourists and rude business travellers intent on walking right through you.

Always book an aisle seat – clouds are actually kind of boring after the first 10 times. Take off your coat before entering a plane (makes organising yourself at your seat much quicker). Pick up stuff flight attendants drop because they might give you an extra chocolate bar as a reward (another way to get extra chocolate is to refuse lunch – I’m not sure why).

Plane coffee is exceedingly vile.

Planes make weird noises all the time. Some of these noises convince you that a wing has just fallen off or an engine is about to explode (it probably won’t). That slight ‘elevator feeling’ you get part way through take off sometimes does not mean you are about to crash, it’s just the plane levelling off a bit. Turbulence is best faced stoically by repeating under your breath ‘just potholes in the sky, la la la!’ and imagining yourself in your favourite happy place (for me it’s a Waitrose supermarket, not sure why).

Don’t lie to yourself that you will finish that paper on the plane, or read that dull, but worthy book because you have nothing else to do. You will probably end up reading the inflight magazine. Unaccompanied children always sit in the back last row and airline attendants have told me that they just love to ‘sugar them up’ (use this information as you will).

Never strike up a conversation with anyone until just before you are about to land – unless they are carrying something really interesting, such as conservative political party propaganda (long story). You can get through a surprising number of emails on your phone while waiting for luggage to reach the terminal.

2. Your phone is your best travelling companion

I have the following apps in my phone, bunched in a group called ‘out and about’ for easy access:

  • Lost on campus (and iANU for funding people’s offices)
  • Qantas frequent flyer app for checking flight details
  • Google maps, for obvious reasons
  • Flightaware so I can see where all my planes are at
  • Skybusapp for buying tickets to the airportv
  • Kindle for portable reading on the move
  • Weather
  • Alarm clock
  • Sleep pillow (brilliant for the inevitable anxiety related insomnia)

Enter the flight numbers and booking reference in the phone calendar entry at the time you book them. This saves hunting frantically for paperwork or emails at the gate. Oh – and don’t list your desk phone in the university directory unless you want to be fiddling endlessly with voice mail. Better still read this great post by Joyce Seitzinger and don’t list it at all.

3. Buy multiples of (almost) everything

I have a small apartment on campus and my aim was to do a ‘handbag commute’ each week. Despite this I found I was struggling up to Canberra and back every week with a canvas shopping bag stuffed with extraneous ‘stuff’ – books, cosmetics and extraordinary (yet strangely inadequate) collection of i-thing cords. My Thesiswhisperer got sick of watching this and took me to a department store to pick out a hard shell, lightweight carry on bag. Although I initially staggered about clutching my chest at the price of this item, now I LOVE it.

While a good bag helps, so does buying multiples of everything, especially cosmetics. Same goes for technology. I now have three of every power cord I need (one for each office and a ‘traveller’). The only exception to this rule is shoes – you can live with less of them than you think. @GoonerDr recommended keeping textbooks in each office and buying ebook copies of same if possible (a very good idea). As Zaana put it in one of her #fifoacademic tweets: “that moment of realising you have an overdue library book & you are in one state & the book is in the other.”

4. You will learn new things (not of all them good).

While doing the commute, partly to amuse myself and my followers, and partly out of sociological curiosity, I recorded my impressions of the experience in a series of tweets, all with the hashtag #fifoacademic. As I hoped, so others joined in and you can read a selection of them on Twitter, but here is a list of things I noticed, again in no particular order:

  • The only food that is reliably in my fridge when I do not have a child to feed is cashew nuts or chocolate with cashew nuts in it.
  • I can be very organised.
  • I can be remarkably and dangerously disorganised.
  • All these years Mr Thesiswhisperer has been doing much more housework than I thought he did. I am the weak link and Creator of Clutter just like he has been telling me.
  • I love my husband and son even more than I thought I did. The pain of being absent so much cannot be soothed away, no matter how much chocolate with cashew nuts in it you eat.
  • My mother in law is a saint (thanks Barb)
  • My neighbour is a total legend (thanks Heather)
  • With social media, much of the interaction with my friends and family is pretty much as it was. Which probably means I should visit them more.
  • Most problems can be solved with a phonecall and a credit card. The rest can be solved with deep breathing.

Well that’s it. I could say more, but I need to stop because this is the longest post I have ever written. In summary, The Big Commute is really difficult, but everything gets easier with time and practice. The first two weeks I thought I was going to die and cried a lot. The overwhelmed feeling passed quickly and I even found some measure of enjoyment in it. I might even miss it a bit when it ends.

I hope some of the above helps for your logistical and other commuting problems. As usual, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments – I’m sure I haven’t included all there is to say and share about this topic!

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