Friday, January 30, 2009

Making Choices: Frugality, the Environment, or Social Justice

I stumbled into the carfree lifestyle because I'm a cheapskate. I'm allergic to spending money, and cars drink up a lot of money. I get to feel overly proud of not owning a car because I'm being environmentally responsible. Living without a car brings two of my core values together. But those values are often in tension, particularly around things that I consume on an ongoing basis. Do I buy local, organic produce (expensive but environmentally sound), or do I buy cheap produce trucked up here from Mexico (cheap but environmentally costly)? And I'll throw one more value into the mix -- social justice. Is that cheap broccoli I buy in the winter picked by someone being paid far less than a living wage?

I've been thinking about the choices I make with my time and money and where they lie on a matrix of social justice, environmental responsibility, and frugality. Wherever I am on that matrix now, what changes do I want to make? I'm particularly interested in making changes that move me in the direction of satisfying all three core values -- these will be the efficient choices that get me the most payoff for my efforts.


Buy Less. Buying less is usually environmentally responsible (remember, everything you purchase will be trash someday) and frugal. There are exceptions -- for instance buying weather stripping may help you reduce your fossil fuel waste and save you money. I think that buying less is generally socially neutral. If you don't buy something, then in particular you aren't buying something from a corporation that exploits cheap labor overseas. But you also aren't buying something from a local merchant who employs people in your community at a fair wage. In other words, you aren't putting your money into building and sustaining a socially responsible local economy.

Buy Used. You are not making new waste, you are probably saving money, and you are likely giving your money directly to someone else in your community. The real challenge here is that buying used often takes more time than buying new.

Dumpster Diving and Trash Picking. Like many of you, I do the occasional neighborhood curb crawl for discarded treasures. Since we have a very small space, we are limited in the amount of junk we can bring in, and as a result our use of curbside goods has diminished over time. Mostly we just don't want to bring stuff into our house, period, whether it's cheap stuff or free stuff. However, inspired by Amy Dacyczyn's review of John Hoffman's book on dumpster diving, I'm interested in increasing my trashpicking skills and expanding the types of things I'll consider picking. Rescuing usable items from the trash keeps things out of the landfill and it's free. Two social justice issues surface here. Many people trash pick as part of their livelihood, and since I would consider it more of a hobby, I wouldn't want to interfere with others' ability to get their basic needs met. Also, dumpster diving behind a store might deprive the store of sales (you give your kid the "My Little Pony" set in the crushed box with the missing whip and bridle instead of buying a new one at the store) which could have a negative impact on your community.

Conclusions so Far?

After writing all this down, it seems clear to me that I need to focus on purchasing things used whenever possible. It meets all of my big goals, so it's a very efficient action to take. If I really take that on, I'm going to need to be more organized about the purchases I make, since getting something used takes more time that running into a store or ordering online.


The big thing I haven't yet tackled here is food. The options I mentioned don't necessarily work well for food. Yes, I can buy less food and perhaps I should. Yes, I can get perfectly serviceable food out of some dumpsters, but I just don't see myself being willing to go that direction (and I don't think the rest of my family would be happy about it either). So I'm going to spend a couple of weeks trying to buy used, and then I'm going to do some blogging about the food issue and try to determine my most efficient options there. Suggestions are very welcome!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Toddler commentary on Red Line delays

At the ripe old age of 2 1/2, H's T-riding prowess continues to increase. She now regularly walks to our station (Alewife) in a relatively timely fashion, and rides sitting in her own seat. Yesterday, she and I needed to get downtown and back. Coming back to Cambridge on the red-line at 5:30 with a non-napped toddler led to some interesting moments (especially in light of ongoing outbound red-line delays North of town):

1) After asking (politely) for help removing her coat, H begins to proclaim in a chirpy toddler voice, "I'm naked! I'm naked!" The train was dead silent, due to it being rush hour when no one speaks or looks at each other, and the train being stopped between stations (see above re: delays).

2) After about the 3rd time the train stops dead between stations, and the lovely PA announces that there are "delays due to a previous switching problem at Alewife" H says, "We're never going to make it! We're never going to make it!" Again, dead silent train. That one got some smiles. Fortunately, H was wrong. We did, in fact, make it home. Eventually.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Winter with a Toddler and No Car

Being a carfree parent in the wintertime makes me want a minivan and easy access to a McDonalds PlayPlace. Dorea posted last month about the difficulties of being a carfree pregnant parent and those difficulties are exacerbated by the winter.

In the summertime, we can walk to several parks and to the pool, or just enjoy playing at the end of our alley, but in the wintertime the park tends to be cold and empty, the pool is closed, and the alley just doesn't seem that exciting anymore (which doesn't stop H from wanting to play in it, but it does stop me from wanting to watch her play). As Dorea noted in her post, when you factor in snowfall and a toddler's limited walking range, winter can get damn challenging. So we decided to brainstorm about good winter activities.

What can we do in the winter without a car?

  • The library. The library isn't a great place for active, physical play, but many of us in cities have branch libraries within walking distance (ours is the O'Neil branch just a half-mile away). There you can read books together, draw and sometimes play with a few toys, and enjoy library programming for kids such as story hour. It might even be worth a bus trip to get to a main library which will likely have a large children's section
  • The subway and commuter rail. A few weeks ago H's grandma took her on a subway ride down to South Station where they looked a toy train set up for the holidays and then had a snack while they watched the commuter rail and Amtrak come and go. It was a great outing that we'll be repeating this winter. South Station even has concerts! Commuter rail outings are also a possibility -- hop on, travel for a bit, hop off to have lunch, and hop back on again. We can go from Porter Square to West Concord, or for an even shorter trip, just down to North Station. The train trip itself is the attraction.
  • Museums. Many of these are convenient to public transportation. Getting a membership means that you can visit whenever you like. We have a membership to the Science Museum (which H calls the "baby chicks museum" because of, you guessed it, the baby chicks on display on the second floor). We plan to get library passes for the Children's Museum. Dorea is a Harvard postdoc and so we can get into the Harvard Museums for free.
  • Going outside. Of course, we can still get outside, even when it is cold and snowy. Snow is a fun activity in and of itself, and just yesterday H spent a long time riding her tricycle around the neighborhood. We can still do all of our favorite park activities, only we're all cold and there aren't any friends to play with. We have to keep a close eye on H as she tends to have a big meltdown when she gets too cold, so sometimes it's nice to have a short trip to the park followed by a trip to Verna's or Good Food Cafe. Walking is also a good outdoor activity.
  • Videos. We sometimes get videos from the library for H to watch, but a more fun excursion is to walk to someplace like Good Food Cafe that has free wireless and look Google images of animals and watch videos on Youtube. You don't feel like such a couch potato at a cafe.
  • Indoor gyms and playspaces. There are a number of these in the Boston area but none is particularly convenient to us unfortunately.
  • Playgroups. The Center for Families in Cambridge and the Somerville Family Network both have a variety of playgroups for infants through preschoolers. These give you friends to play with, new and exciting toys, some run-around time, and possibly even a snack or a circle time. You can find similar playgroups in other towns as well.
  • Friends and playdates. We do more playdates in the winter than in the summer because in the summertime we have the park, which is like one big playdate. In the winter we are forced to be more strategic. If you need to find potential playmates, try a play group or a parenting listserv.
That's it -- I'm all out of ideas. But we still have four months of winter to go, so please please please give us some more ideas in the comments.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

In appreciation of polite T-riders

I'd like to give a quick thank you to the surprisingly large number of Boston T-riders who will stand on a crowded train even if there are still one or two seats available. As someone who is not yet obviously pregnant, but still exhausted sometimes, I really do appreciate having a seat available.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Taking the bus against medical advice

Yesterday, I went along with Angela for her first ever endoscopy, but this post isn't about digestive troubles (as exciting as such things may be--and yes, everything is fine).

Angela was specifically instructed that she would not be permitted to leave the hospital by herself, since she would be fairly drugged up for the procedure itself and might still be loopy when they sent her home.

I had the following conversation with the nurse who admitted Angela shortly after we arrived:

Nurse: "You have your car parked down in the garage, right?"
Me: "No"
Nurse: "How did you get here?!"
Me: "We took the bus?"
Nurse: "How will you be getting home ?!?!"
Me: "Well I'd thought we'd see how she was doing, and either take the bus or call a cab."
Nurse: (suspiciously) "Hmm...a cab...I guess that's OK...but she CANNOT ride the bus. You HAVE to take her home in a cab. She might fall or something on the bus."

I took her admonitions seriously, and expected a seriously loopy Angela once they finally released her. As I waited in the appropriate location for her to be released, having secured sufficient cash for a cab ride home, I was surprised when a fairly perky Angela was delivered to me by wheelchair. She popped right up and we headed outside to address our transportation options. She very vociferously insisted that she was perfectly capable of riding a bus and there was no need for a cab. The nurse wasn't looking, so I decided we could risk it.

Um. Yeah. She was completely fine. I'm pretty sure we've both ridden the bus more impaired by, say, a couple beers, many times in the past. What did the nurse think would really happen on a quiet mid-day bus? It's not like Angela was driving the bus.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Walking in the Winter with our Toddler

We have made a lot of progress on walking with H since we posted about it five months ago. H has gotten older and is more physically skilled and she's gotten a lot of practice at walking. Some credit for this has to go to her grandma who is more likely to walk with her than we are because she doesn't like using the stroller.

H can now easily walk a half-mile or so (without driving us completely crazy). This means that she can walk to the closest subway station or the bus stop and back, which makes trips without the stroller a possibility. She can make it longer distances, but gets tired coming back, so we still aren't walking to Davis Square (about three-quarters of a mile away) without bringing the stroller as backup.

We also aren't walking to daycare because we want to get there quickly, so on snowy days I usually take H to and from daycare in the Ergo which makes my back pretty unhappy. However, I neglected to bring the Ergo during the last snowstorm and we walked to Porter Square which, in the snow, was a major accomplishment. We then did some shopping and took the 77 bus up Mass Ave and walked the quarter of a mile or so home. H was a trooper, but she did get tired by the end and I carried her some of the way.

This morning Dorea and I were thankful for our YakTraks as walking was challenging on the ice. I'm really wishing they made them for toddlers, so if you know of a ice traction device for toddler, please leave a comment.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Finding the Perfect School

Recently, Dorea and I have been worrying about school. We live a little more than a quarter-mile from the Peabody school and plan to send H there in a few years when she starts kindergarten (yes, I know -- we worry way too much). We know a number of families in the area who have kids at Peabody and some of the reports from them have us a little worried. I won't repeat any of the specifics (and I will note that we have heard positive things about Peabody as well), but I think our response to the concerns we've heard is interesting.

We talked a little about the content of the concerns, but both decided pretty quickly that Peabody is probably our only option. It's the only public school that is easily walkable (although there is a charter school, Banneker, that is also very close by and we'll have to research). There are other schools that we could get to by bike, bus, or a longer walk, but selecting a school that is further away means that we'd be less like to go to events and meetings at the school and less likely to find friends within walking distance to play with. Honestly, I have to say that H being able to walk to school is among my top priorities in educating her.

So we'll go with the closest school and make it work. This will likely be some combination of becoming involved with the school, becoming forces for change where necessary, and living with things that aren't perfect. H won't be entering kindergarten until 2011, but we hope to find ways to start connecting with the school community before that so that we can feel prepared. Apparently, City Sprouts has some open gardening times at Peabody, so perhaps when the spring comes we'll start with that!