Category Archives: Work & Commute

Tingly Toes – Or, Goodbye Heels

I just assumed I’d spend all my adult years wearing heels. After all, I’m not that tall, and that’s what women do, right?

Over time, I’ve built up quite a collection of “grown-up” shoes, in colors from black and pink to red and lime green. When I lived in Chicago proper, I wore stilettos for my standing commute on the El, walking blocks, sometimes miles, in heels and never thinking twice.

Since then, I’ve lived my theory of commuter shoes, which stipulates that the easier the commute, the more comfortable the shoes. I typically wear a relatively comfy pair of atheleisure shoes or sneakers for my commute, then switch at the office.

But this fall, I’ve encountered a couple big obstacles.

First, now that I’ve started grad school, my work bag is stuffed beyond capacity. By the time I haul my laptop, giant packet of readings, lunch and dinner, travel mug and notebook, I have no room left for leisure reading material (not that I have time for such a thing!) or shoes. And in my own vanity, I don’t want to wear the ugly commuter shoes to class. So I’ve been stupidly wearing pretty shoes for walking to the train, to the office, around all day, to class, to Union Station, and finally up the hill to home.

Second, now that I’m running, my feet just can’t take the heels anymore. This week made that especially apparent. After an eight-mile run last Saturday, I developed a small blister on my toe, and my feet were sore. Fair enough. Then Tuesday, I wore relatively low heels all day, including to/from the off-site meeting a few blocks away. Normally, this wouldn’t be any big deal. But the combination of already-sore feet, a blister, and more walking than I intended left me limping by the time I got off the train late Tuesday night.

Wednesday, I woke up with feet that were downright numb. They screamed as soon as I put weight on them. The numbness persisted through a five mile run that evening, all day Thursday, and finally began to ease a bit by mid-day Friday – just in time for today’s long run.

A couple years ago, I sprained my ankle and had to go out and buy flats. I wore those two pairs daily for about three months, then returned to heels. I’ve been wearing those two pairs again (and again) and think it’s time to expand my collection.

Plus, even my old shoes – the ones I’ve worn faithfully for years – suddenly cause problems. They almost feel too small – as if my feet have grown since I started running.

I won’t swear off heels entirely. Sometimes I like the boost of height, and for special occasions, they just seem right. (And what if I meet a really tall guy?) But I’ll start treating my feet – and myself – better.

Besides, thanks in part to running, I feel taller than ever before. So goodbye, heels. It’s been fun.


Chilly-Willy the Commuter

Why is it so damn cold on Metra trains?

I’m not talking about that momentary blast of cool when you step from the hot sidewalks into the house, or the comfortable 77 degrees I set my thermostat at when I close up the house and turn on the AC.

I’m talking about see-your-breath, numb nose and toes, where’s-the-coffee cold. The cold that prompts everyday riders to carry a jacket, a hoodie or a scarf  to brace against the inevitable cold.

After spending all day working in my meat locker cubicle, the four block walk to the train is just far enough to thaw out my arms and legs. That initial step outside from the icebox to the heat is divine, as the warmth washes over my body.  I start to enjoy the summer weather, to remember why I like being outside.

Then, I board the train, and the cold is a slap in the face as I walk through car after car, trying to find the least cold spot to sit, passing other commuters wrapped in pashminas or wearing fleece sweatshirts more suited for November.

Over time, I’ve identified trends in my usual trains: which cars are even colder, which ones may merit gloves and a hat. A friend and I often referred to these cars as “penguin cars” and joked about seeing polar bears and eskimos rather than Chicagoans.

Occasionally, a car’s AC will go out entirely, rendering it insufferably hot. You can always tell these cars as you come through the train by the absence of passengers. For awhile, one car on my usual evening train had a faltering AC system that only worked about halfway. This was my favorite car, as I could leave my pashmina in my bag and ride home in relative comfort.

A couple weeks ago, this car was suddenly as cold as all the others. In the vestibule, a sticker proudly read, “This car’s HVAC system was repaired with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” Once again, the good intentions of government have gone awry.

Perhaps I should stock up on pashminas.

Sluggish Posting

I’ve been very very bad at posting lately, but I have excuses!

First and foremost, it’s National Novel Writing Month, that glorious, caffeine-fueled time when, to rail against the increasing darkness, you set out to write 50,000 words towards a novel in just 30 days. I participated – and made the goal – in 2006. Last year, I couldn’t get an idea developed well enough to do anything with, but this year, I’m on top of things. I’m about 16,000 words in, so just a hair behind goal (1,667 words a day keeps you on goal, so I should be at about 18,000, but who’s counting?

Second, I’m traveling, in London this week for work. I had visions of writing the whole way over, but after about three hours of work-work, I cranked out about 2000 words before I couldn’t bear to be hunched over anymore. Last night, when jet lag wouldn’t let me fall asleep until 2 AM, I managed about another 800 words.

Hopefully on tomorrow’s flight home, I’ll be able to tackle at least another 2000 words.

It’s all at the expense of posting… but I’ll be back to my semi-regular routine in December.

Coming home

I’ve been traveling a lot lately for work, and it’s always good to get home. I love flying into O’Hare at night, especially coming from the east coast, since the typical flight path follows the Lake Michigan shoreline. I can pick out the landmarks starting around the Museum of Science and Industry and follow them all the way up to Wrigley Field before we bank towards O’Hare itself.

I always watch for Elgin – you would think with the river and casino it would be easy-ish to spot – but no luck so far. I’ve got a couple more trips planned for the next month, so I’ll keep my eyes peeled.

I’ve also been heavily window shopping. More details on that soon.

Commuter Shoes Revisited

I was at the suburban job for about two months before returning to my old company downtown in a new role. The experience taught me a lot about what makes a good job and a good company. Meanwhile, I expanded my commuter shoes theory.

My current (new-old) job is at an urban office full of a very diverse workforce who live all over Chicagoland and commute via public transit. At lunch, there are dozens of nearby places – all within walking distance – and the area is very amenable to head-clearing lunchtime strolls.

Other Company was in a suburban office park. There was an attached parking garage, and (nearly?) everyone drives. (One of the IT interns often had a bike helmet on his desk, but that could have been a red herring.) Schaumburg has a seemingly great network of bike routes, but they don’t connect with Elgin’s nor those of the towns in between, and sometimes end mid-block, answering the question of where the sidewalk ends. My window cube overlooked the forest preserve, and I could watch hawks soaring around, looking for lunch.

However, working at Other Company added a new dynamic to my Commuter Shoes theory. For the uninitiated, my theory of commuter shoes holds that the easier the commute, the more likely you are to wear practical shoes.

When I lived in the city, I took the El to work, which was usually standing room only. Not only were the cars overflowing, but you were pressed up against strangers, and the lightweight cars would sway and jerk violently from side to side, throwing you into your fellow commuters. Yet, despite the difficulty in staying upright and holding your balance (which, with time, became a skill), the majority of the women commuted in impossible shoes – stilettos, tall boots, heels of all flavors, etc. Even in the summer, with a nod to “comfort,” you would see a flotilla of flip-flops, which offer no support for walking any real distance. Yet, women who commute via the El likely walk the most and spend the greater part of their commute standing on their feet than those who commute with other modes.

While making the suburbs to city trek, I commute on Metra. I bought my house in part because it was an easy walk to the Metra station, so I knew I wouldn’t need to drive at all. In fact, nearly half of my 7-minute walk was through the Metra parking lot itself. Probably 95% of my fellow Metra commuters drive to the train. In the morning, everyone gets a seat – though in the evenings, as gas prices have risen, it has become more difficult and strategic to guarantee a seat – and then we walk to our downtown offices. In my case, it’s about 7 minutes on the Chicago end, too. Even so, despite the much more comfortable, seated commute and the reduced walking, most Metra women wear what I termed “commuter shoes” – comfortable sneakers or, increasingly, the new athleisure shoes to carry them through the commute before changing into “work shoes” at the office. (I periodically purge the accumulated shoe collection from under my desk – at one point this spring, I had eleven pairs lined up.)

In an office where everyone drives to and from work and to and from lunch (as there’s very little in walking distance – and I got crazy looks when I walked the 15 minutes to the nearby strip mall for coffee), many women wear comfortable shoes all day. Many never have to step foot outside at all during their commute, yet Nikes seem to be the footwear of choice.

While at Other Company, I usually wore my work shoes (sandals with heels) to and from work. I did discover one important caveat – the grocery stop. Where I don’t pass anything on my Metra commute, while working in the suburban office park, I passed nine, count ‘em, nine grocery stores on my normal route home – more if I deviated from the path. It was great to run in and grab a couple things or heck, even do my full shopping trip for the week – the stores are much less crowded on a Tuesday evening than on a Saturday afternoon. But high heels are not designed for grocery store power-shopping and can be dangerous in the slippery produce aisles. So I threw a pair of old flip-flops in the car to slip on when I need to snag strawberries.

When I made the decision to return to the city – albeit with more opportunities to work at home, or WAH – I happily dusted off my commuter shoes. It’s great to be back, though I’m not looking foward to the icy days ahead.

Odes to Commuter Shoes

Bad job close to home
Better job, commuter shoes
I’m back on Metra


Suburbs nice to live
City better for working
Back to commuting


Morning drive to work
Quick, easy come, easy go
Job sucked – had to leave

Commuter Shoes: The End of an Era

Friday was my last day as a Metra commuter. When I bought my house, I drew a one mile radius from the three Elgin train stations. My goal was to live within a mile – easy walking distance – of a train to ease my commute downtown as much as possible.

After living in Chicago for seven years, moving to the farthest reach of the suburbs was a shock to the system. My commute grew to an average of about 80 minutes – ten minute walk from the house to the train, 60 minutes on the express train, and about a ten minute walk to the office downtown. Another 25 minutes could easily be tacked on if I deigned to work late or go out after work, stranding me on a non-express train, watching the freight trains breeze past.

I learned a lot from my train commuter days, though. The train becomes almost like family, in a way, with the same characters sitting in the same seats five days a week. You learn the rhythms of the train, the cadence of the conductors and what it means when you slow down through Franklin Park. In November, you pass the Ringling Brothers’ circus train, nearly a mile long, parked just west of the city. In the dead of dark winter evenings, the strategically set fires light the night like fireworks, keeping the switches from freezing. Passing just south of O’Hare, there’s a steady stream of planes landing and taking off – you can see them queued up for miles off toward the horizon.

You learn that if you typically finish the main news section of the Chicago Tribune around Itasca, though on Mondays and Tuesday, it may be as soon as Schaumburg. By Friday, when the paper is larger, the Elgin Courier may not get read until the train ride home. Occasionally there would be entire weeks where nothing sounded appealing, so I’d do the crossword puzzle and Sudoku from the morning papers. If I had work to do – especially editing – I’d tackle it on the way home, since working on an express train was preferable to staying late at the office and then taking a slower milk train home.

At first, entertaining yourself for the commute is almost fun. Finally, a chance to read, uninterrupted, every single weekday! I got into the very comfortable routine of bringing coffee and reading both newspapers in the morning. In the evenings, I would usually read for pleasure, either a novel or magazine (National Review or Verbatim). Over time, though, I would grow antsy with the sheer length of the commute, especially when nice weather beckoned. In winter, it didn’t seem to bother me as much, since regardless of when I got home, it was cold, dark and miserable. In summer, though, with beautiful sunshine rapidly diminishing, I couldn’t wait to get home, and the train would seem to creep through suburb after suburb.

Overall, I like Metra. It’s clean, safe, relatively quiet and usually on time. Since I live out in the boondocks, I always got a seat in the morning, often on the upper deck where I could sit in a single seat and spread out with my newspapers. Coming home, especially lately since gas prices have been rocketing up, it’s been increasingly difficult to get a seat, but leaving work five minutes earlier helped.

Plus, my years commuting fueled my first (and thus far only) novel, Commuter Shoes. It was written for National Novel Writing Month in 2006 and comprises a series of vignettes about fictionalized characters I saw on my daily commute. The title comes from my observation that suburban women who commute to the city often have a pair or two of commuter shoes that they reserve for the trip, carrying dress shoes with them or having a stockpile at the office to change into. Commuter shoes are often tennis shoes or the newish athliesure shoes, allowing comfortable walking and the occasional sprint to the train. I recently had a whopping eleven pairs of shoes under my desk at work.

But over time, I was nagged by a voice in my head, whining, “Are we there yet?” I never really slept on the train, always afraid I’d sleep past my stop. But I’d stare out the window in bored exhaustion from my day, anxious to just be home.

As I hunted for a new job, I pondered whether I wanted to stay downtown and remain a Metra girl, or if I wanted to be driving distance. I ended up finding one in Schaumburg, about a 35 minute drive from home. I accepted the offer, hoping that the drive wouldn’t hurt. There appear to be a different possibilities for routing myself that I’ll have to explore and time. Even though it will likely be relatively heavy traffic – as it was the morning I interviewed and clocked the drive at 35 minutes – I’ll still be home sooner in the evening and leave later in the morning. And that’s appealing to me. I envision going to more City Council meetings, finally joining the book club at the library I’ve eyed for the last year and doing more with my evenings without having to dash out of work early or plan ahead and work from home.

I would commute on Metra again, but maybe not from the far reaches of a line. If I could afford to live closer to Chicago and could buy a place near one of the closer stations – say no farther than zone D (vs H, as Elgin is), that might be okay. But for now, I hope I’ve made the right choice.

We shall see. The driving era begins Monday.