Thursday, February 2, 2017

Rambling, barely-coherent treatise on being a flexible commuter

Humans have historically been mega chill about travel plans. A few generations ago, uncle joe would be expected to come give you a ride to town in his carriage sometime between the months of march and may, and sometimes he wouldn’t show up. Before then, humans tried their luck on trains if they were bad ass or walked for miles in mud and feces to buy sketchy eggs at the market. Even great migrations, like across continents, took forever and there was equally as much chill time as actual moving time. All this to say, flexible traveling, slow traveling, and the patience needed, is written somewhere in our genes.

So what happened?  I have no fucking clue but manifest destiny and Ford had a baby and now it’s every American’s goddamn given right to operate a thousand pound hunk of metal so that they can drive blocks to get Chipotle. Me too. We all inherit this legacy without trying. It's not even our fault. Its part of our solemn American march through young adulthood--16 years old? License! Car! Now you can drive to Taco Bell instead of walk or get dropped off.  Air travel has also become a right. It’s gotten to the point that if the security line is long at the airport, we think Jesus fuck i have to wait an extra 20 minutes to make a journey to a place my great grandparents didn't know existed. Through the air like a boss.

It's dizzying and obscuring and hard to recognize as something we should challenge, not only for the planet but for our own mental health.  

This treatise on alternative/slow/flexible transportation is for the able bodied, the childless, the spouse-less, the unburdened, the progressive, with full respects for those who cannot afford/manage the luxury of disavowing car ownership or alternatively commuting, perhaps because of obstacles and barriers in place.  I am, however, unencumbered, relatively, and so I have the time and lack barriers.  I believe the onus is on people like me--privileged---to challenge themselves to not be car-dependent, especially for environmental reasons. There’s a blind spot that exists among environmentalists, in how to engage with marginalized communities who often lack the choice that more privileged due in terms of how they can be a consumer/commuter, etc.  But if you are someone who drives their cars to a natural food co-op, or drives their car to yoga, it’s you I’m talking to.  If you can afford to do that, then you can certainly afford to rethink your commute. There’s room in your life for more flexibility, for a slower commute.  

Enough shaming. Let’s talk about reclaiming your commute, about slipping into a delicious and longer expanse of time on your way to and fro work (or volunteering, or fun, or errands).  You know how mornings go so fast when you drive to work?  Since it takes such a short amount of time to drive to your place of work, or to school, you press the snooze button more often, you give yourself less time to get ready, and invariably, you end  up rushing.  You forget to pack your lunch, or gym clothes, fumble with your keys, your car is uniquely freezing, the traffic is horrible, you get a sub-par parking spot, you almost forget to lock your car.  It’s utterly unzenful.  You are fully in charge of a gigantic lump of metal every morning, and you haven’t even engaged with your normal work duties yet.  And, the traffic!  For 15-60 minutes, you are angry, frustrated, stressed.  Little children need to be avoided as you make turns, you almost hit several cars.  Driving creates road rage.  And all this, nearly folded under the semblance of ‘convenience'.  We Americans are happy to prize convenience over peacefulness or health.  The convenience comes at the expense of high blood pressure, fear, and stress.  Those saved minutes aren’t saved, really, since the actual commuting time is swallowed by negative emotions.

 Now, let’s consider the more flexible, slow alternatives to commuting by car.  Buses, for example.  Buses run counter to AMERICA in many ways. They require you to share your space with others.  For the common good, you have to endure the bus stopping and starting for other passengers.  Buses are insanely amazing.  Are you scared of fast moving vehicles, like I am?  The bus must be the safest form of transport.  It lumbers, stops all the time, never picks up great speed.  In buses, or in light rail, you get to sit in a nice little chair, stare out the window at pretty trees, and read books.  I really can’t imagine a happier situation.  You rely on a really nice bus driver to pick you up and drop you off in appropriate locations, and they do, without fail, and you are suddenly a pleasant walk away from your work place/destination.  Also, you are out of your bubble---ripped outside of the sealed-off one-human one-car scenario and forced to look at the people around you.  You meet people when traveling on buses!! I once met a guy who waited at the same bus stop, and we ended up dating for about 6 months.  

Let’s talk about walking.  Walking is about as healthy and natural as you can get.  You use your legs, and you swing your arms, and you walk by flowers and trees and adorable dogs, and get to reach out and touch things.  This is great training for being a human.  On days when I feel like an alien, I walk around, and remember how to be a human better.  When walking, you can usually listen to music on ear phones and still be a reasonable human, unless you don’t look both ways.  Actually, as long as you look both ways and take up an appropriate part of the sidewalk, walking is one of the best things you can do.  Whenever I see a walker, I say to myself, “Hello there, walker!  I like that you are walking.” and then smile at them weirdly, which they often don’t return, because they don’t need any validation, they are fucking walking like a champ.  Sometimes, I regret delivering such winsome smiles, when the walker abruptly takes out keys and enters a car.  It’s not like I dislike them then, but I’m a little less impressed at the longevity of their walking.  If you can walk to work, I commend you.  If you combine bussing and walking, you are a modern day saint.  This is really cool, because it’s flexible, healthy, and also social.  

Now, let’s talk about biking.  My personal bias is towards biking, as it’s what I do the most.  Biking, at its best is meditative.  When you have bike lanes, paths, bike-friendly streets, biking is a dream.  You are both outside and also peacefully yet rather vigorously exercising.  You can watch the world go by at a totally reasonable pace, but also get to your destination in a not absurd time frame.  Sometimes, and often in urban areas, it’s a faster alternative to driving!  Biking looks cool, too.  You get to wear dorky specialized gear that makes you look like a Manhattan bike messenger, rather than a teacher on their way to school.  If you are conservative, this is quite a benefit.  For a half hour a day, as you bike, people might misjudge you as a liberal or progressive, which might do wonders for ones’ self esteem.  Not only do you get to wear cool bags and skinny jeans and combat boots, you also develop fairly awesome leg muscles and lose a bit of a beer belly.  Yep, biking makes you sexy.  You also get to enjoy a quiet yet strong sense of moral superiority as you roll by pick up trucks during rush hour.  Some bikers are total asshats and make the rest of us look bad.  I’m not here to talk about them but only to quietly condemn them and get passive aggressive when I see one flagrantly and unsafely disobey traffic rules.  Another cool thing about biking is that it becomes somehow acceptable to attach small radios to yourself and suddenly develop personal soundtracks...this is something that wouldn’t be cool as pedestrians or public transport people.  I guess biking is just fast enough that by the time someone hears The Flaming Lips blasting, you have already passed them, and they are left with a strange sense of wonder and appreciation, whereas if you were walking around like that, people would hate you and your stupid, slow moving body.  Also, you learn how to pack like a boss.  You got a backpack or messenger bag, and you Merry Poppins that shit so craftily that you not only have a change of underwear, but sunscreen, a book, a journal, your laptop, winter gear, and snacks.  

So, here’s the big secret of being a flexible and slow traveler: You actually get time back.  Owning a car sucks up time and resources and patience and love.  The extra time you need to give in order to walk or bike or bus to work actually rewards you.  You reclaim those minutes as yours, since they become sacred, peaceful, healthy.  A commute isn’t a hated, rushed part of your life---it’s just part of your being and is as important as everything else.  The time ends up nurturing you, even if it means leaving for work 30 minutes earlier than you would have to if you drove.  That’s the secret of it all.  On my commutes, I wander through the corridors of my brain and say, “hey ilse’s tranquil mind, how are you doing?” and my brain responds back with all kinds of weird shit that I sometimes don't want to hear but other times, I welcome as I would a new and bizarre friend into my life.  “Hi ilse, I think that trees are messengers of the wind and that you should eat more pickles-” and then a wonderful conversation will ensure, as I fly peacefully and respectfully past pedestrians, merrily alerting them to my presence with “on your left!”, the sentence going up a bit in the end, so that it sounds less like a command, and more like a polite request.  OR I may muse on a friendship, or a conversation I’ve had recently, if i”m lucky, my brain will stfu and I shall sink dreamily into a revelry of nature or life or my breath.  That commute, those long minutes, are long, and they are mine.  

Now, without preamble, I shall launch into a short explanation of why car ownership sucks:

Car ownership sucks because :

Cars explode or can be torched
Air conditioning comes out warm always
In the winter, cars are incubators of antarctica
They are.impossible to find in target parking lots
They smell like dogs or gym shorts
Because you can fit literally everything you need in your car, you forget almost everything you need (worse of than the well-packed biker)
Maybe you lost your virginity in a car, so everything after that is a let down
When any maintenance light comes on, ever
Changing tires, who the fuck knows how to do that anyway
Scary things happen in cars, just watch any horror movie
They have all your stupid old irrelevant condemning bumper stickers
They break
They need gas
They are literally so expensive that people have to have payment plans
You have to worry about them
Horrible car alarms go off when you try to open them sometimes
Trunks are scary and hard to open
You can’t pick them up
You have to carpool with people and give your biker friends rides to suburbs
If you day dream when operating a car, you might kill a dog
Road rage

Dough, Cheese, Cash, Mulaaa

My old friend, Laney, just wrote a fantastic article for The Bill Fold, that really got me to thinking and reflecting about my relationship with money, and what aspects I want to change, and what aspects I want to stay the same.   In this article, Laney charts her rather sudden move into the middle class with a new job and a higher salary, and how this initially changed her habits of spending, and eventually led her to reexamine what she wants to do with her money (her approach).

Everyone has a different history with money, and I think much of it starts with how you grew up, and whether you were financially secure as a family or not.  I grew up in a financially secure household, and didn't have to worry about money in a serious way as a child or young person.  That of course has  had a significant impact on the way that I interact with and conceive of money (whether symbolically or literally).  Fashioning and fancying myself as a free spirit, I metaphorically disavowed myself of an interest in money, although in reality, this was more a testament to my privilege than my idealism.

Outside of my upbringing and family, I've further developed my own idiosyncratic relationship to money through what has been a fairly nontraditional decade following college--when as a young adult freshly matriculated, I first took financial matters into my own hands.  The first three years of my post-college employment were spent as a volunteer (AmeriCorps, Peace Corps), where it seemed like even the small amount I received was more than enough, likely due to being a completely unburdened person who happened to live in small Ugandan villages.  Right off the bat, I was confused about what a good salary or 'enough money' meant or looked like: the bar started off majestically low.  Then, I moved back to the states, and suddenly found myself working full-time at a non-profit and earning more than I ever thought possible (in this case, about 30,000/year).  At the time, I lived with my best friends for an impossibly low rent, and barely spent money on anything, out of habit and perhaps misplaced idealism.  Then, I went to Lao for two years, confusing myself again with a new foreign currency, and losing all sense of orientation for what financially solvent in my late twenties might/should look like.  I somehow moved back to the states with a lot of money saved up, which was confusing.  From making an average of $1,300 over two school years, I had $10,000 in the bank.  In my present situation back in the states, I'm still all mixed up, but the difference now, is that I make less money than I did the last time I worked in the states (3 years ago), in addition to paying more for rent.  If I hadn't been dealing with Lao Kip and Ugandan Schillings and AmeriCorps stipends for much of my twenties, I might be freaked out right now. Or maybe not.

It's out of this mixture of privilege (not having to worry over money in the past), some stubborn idealism (I really can't help it), and general financial confusion, in which I'm now sitting-completely at peace- with my salary and financial situation- even though the dollars are disappearing much faster than they did in Lao or even the last time I lived stateside.  Additionally, I have found that I've been giving away my money in much higher quantities than I did in the past, including charitable donations and also via casual gifts or help to friends/family.  Yes, I know- there are arguments why I should be more worried about my retirement fund/ROTH IRA/mutual something/savings account.  I realize that and highly admire my friends and family members who wisely attend to this; I also recognize that it is a privilege not to be worried about this.  However, as my friend Laney writes:

"The more money you make, the more you'd like to keep your money, it seems.  Paul Piff, a psychologist and researcher at UC Berkeley who studies generosity and class, said in an interview with The Atlantic: "the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people...[they are] more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes."

I don't think this is true of all wealthy people, but I do recognize that it seems truly human to always be wanting more (and the more you have, the more you want).  My friend Laney's resolution this year is to not get rich.  She wants to step up her charitable giving since she now has more disposable income than before.  This is her resolution because she noticed that she was actually giving LESS with her significantly larger salary than she was before when she had a lower paying job).  I'm not immune to disaster or old age or health costs, and of course, I'd ideally like to have enough money set aside to take care of any issues that come up.  What I don't want, is to find that I need more and more money.  If I can live comfortably on my current salary (less than $25,000/year), unencumbered by children or loans or car payments or other financial obligations, why shouldn't I?  If I can still be generous in supporting organizations and helping the people I love, why shouldn't I?- even if these actions (or non-actions) require a certain broadness of mind in which my privilege, idealism, and life circumstances somehow mix, complicate, and play off each other.  In other words, I think it should be okay that I prioritize my current modest lifestyle over long-term financial goals deemed appropriate by others as long as I'm conscious of what I'm doing and aware that not everyone is able to do so (or even finds value in such an approach).  This approach seems all the more relevant when I reflect on how much I have been financially helped throughout my life; I graduated from college and grad school without any loans due to my grandparents' and parents' assistance

Right now, a modest lifestyle and generosity (including charitable giving) are what I value, although I realize that this could change or evolve over time as my life circumstances shift.  For now, I'm trying to come to terms with my inherent complexity, contradictions, and compulsion to be 'good' or 'appropriate' or 'on track', and follow the current of my soul as it flows down the shifting banks of what I hold to be beautiful.

I too, follow Laney's admirable lead of resolving not to get rich.

Life- a fluid, protean dance.

Posting this, quite belatedly, from September:

Life changes; moist green leaves flush into a shocking red overnight.  You take a deep breath, somewhere on a freeway in Wisconsin, and then realize that your current life is unrecognizable from 3 months ago.  What am I doing on a freeway in Wisconsin?  In the forest flying past me, there's bright peeks of fire red leaves, that flash at me every few seconds, sending out SOS to me as a fellow shape-shifter:  change, change, change... And, mid-breath, I'm suddenly breathless, because I'm finally accounting for all that is suddenly different.

Lao.  This word is soft and expands inside of me.  The meandering Mekong, the sunsets, the people.  It is this persistent, glowing warmth.  I rolled away from it, just as gently as I had once come to it.  It's farewell a gentle thing, that still ripples gently, not a black and white goodbye.  Maybe that's why it's hard to accommodate for the black and white changes that have happened since then.  "Just home" became 3 months, and now suddenly there's occasion for me to be sitting in the passenger seat of a car that is returning from a small town in Wisconsin.

If there's anything I can black and white believe in, it is that everything is fluid and always changing. Including me.  I respect this and resonate with so deeply.  I've always felt like a very grey and protean individual.  Sometimes when asked a question, I can find myself changing my mind midway through an answer.  My body itself seems to undergo a myriad of changes throughout a week, or even a day.  I wake sometimes, a strong, glowing creature with wings.  Other days, I am heavy and fatigued.  We swell and recede with breaths.  We grow beautiful in our confidence and shrink when feeling weak.  Yet, I'm still blown away by the speed at which I adapt to a totally different context.  It makes me feel far away from who I was just a few months ago.