Thursday, February 26, 2009

Walking like a Tortoise

Most of the time, walking drives me crazy. I am obsessed with efficiency, and walking is slow. I think the one-minute walk to the kitchen at work goes by too slowly. The idea of a treadmill simply boggles my mind. Yes, I know that walking can be peaceful and I'm sure I should be living in the moment, but in the race between the tortoise and the hare, I tend to root for the hare.

When I don't bike into work, I don't have a bike available for the trek from my office in Porter Square down to Lesley's
"south campus" where I teach an afternoon class. It's a solid 13-15
minute walk from door-to-door, but I can get from my office to the
classroom in just seven minutes if I bike. Just
imagine what I could do with those extra five minutes! In fact, it
would be enough time to wolf down some lunch, which I never seem to have time to do on teaching days.

Lately I'm walking much more than I'm biking. I live less than a
mile from work. When I wake up to a cold and icy morning, it's hard to work up enthusiasm for my bike with it's terrible windchill. In the last month or so, Dorea has been having problems with her legs; to give her a break I've been doing both daycare dropoff and pickup. This means that three days a week I take H to day care around 7:30am and pick her up around 5:15pm. It's much easier to walk than to bundle H up warmly enough to ride a bike, so I plod along without my bike like a tortoise.

But as a result of all this walking, I've made a friend. There's a man who commutes on foot in an exactly an opposite pattern from me. When I am headed to Porter Square around 7:45am, he's walking away. When I'm headed away from Porter at 5pm, he's walking back. Over the last month and a half we started to notice each other, then started nodding, then saying a brief hello with a wave. We now have big smiles for each other every morning and afternoon. Running into him is one of the highlights of my day. It's exactly what I love about being carfree, but I never would have met him if I was on my bike. If I don't watch out, I might get hooked by this tortoise lifestyle.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Surviving carfree babyhood

We recently got an interesting comment from Charlotte of Chic Cyclist, on the thread about how we gave up our car. Charlotte writes:
"some vestigial teenager in me clings to the 'option' of having a car somewhere, just in case. I'm going to have to read about how you handled the early months of H's life - my biggest concern is the time between a possible future baby's birth and the point where she can wear a bike helmet."
First of all, gold star to Charlotte for actually considering getting rid of the car. She's in the Boston area, so chances are she and her partner won't even miss it.

That said, she's right to anticipate that if kid(s) are on the horizon, getting through babyhood without the car can be tricky. But if you can do it, the rewards are many (not least of which is not being trapped in a minivan all day every day for the rest of your life).

On the practical front, the impact of parenting on biking and carfree living spans much more than the first year of babyhood that Charlotte anticipates. If you are pregnant, you may or may not feel comfortable biking while pregnant. Yes, yes, I know the Dutch do it, but Dutch roads have space for bicycles and Dutch drivers are probably a bit more deferential to bikers than those in Boston. So far, I have yet to meet a real life pregnant lady who has biked. I don't feel comfortable doing it, for a variety of reasons, so for now, I am T, bus and foot dependent.

Then comes biking with the kid. In the states, conventional wisdom says wait a year, and that felt reasonable to us. In reality, it took us about two years to come up with a bike setup we felt good about, but we could have started much much earlier if we'd gotten our act together. During that first year, you need to make sure that anywhere you need to get with your kid is accessible by foot or public transit, preferably by foot (it's not fun to be the one with the screaming baby on the bus, though see buschick for a mom who is serious about bus riding with a baby). Chances are, in a fairly large city, you'll be able to do this. Choose a doctor close by (there are plenty of them). Restrict to a local search for childcare. If you'll be working outside the home, you can still blast to work on your bike like the old days after you drop off the baby, though if you're anything like me, a new-found sense of mortality may lead you to become a bit more cautious. I certainly relaxed my insistence on all-weather biking once H was born.

And once you finally get the baby on the bike? I'm afraid all is not as blissful as you might hope. It is nice, yes, but you might not get the kind of toddler who wants to sit on a bike for miles at a time. You'll probably feel more cautious about winter biking. Rainy-day biking with a kid takes a lot of gear and preparation, and you may find yourself avoiding it more than you did in your pre-kid days. Once you start biking with your child, you'll also get a lot of flak, from random people on the road, but also from real life friends and family who are anywhere from "concerned" to absolutely livid that you would place your child at risk on a bike. I've written some about my take on the safety (or not) of biking with a kid, but all the thinking and soul searching in the world won't spare you the intrusive advice that you'd all be better off if you just bought the SUV and the giant carseat, and strapped your kid in 24/7.

So if it really is this hard, why do it? Why do the work of navigating pregnancy, babyhood and toddlerhood (perhaps several times) without a car? What, exactly, is the payoff? The payoff is a life in which your entire family is firmly integrated in your local neighborhood and your child isn't made to sit still, strapped in, as you drive endless mindless miles from one thing to the next. The neighbors you meet as you are out walking or regularly frequenting the local park (because it is so close, and you can't really drive to the nicer one a little farther away), become the friends that you call when your whole family is throwing up, but you are out of pedialyte and soda crackers. And if you are already a person who loves the freedom and independence of biking and minimal dependence on a car, isn't that something you want to share with your kid(s)? Life changes when kids come into the picture, but you don't have to leave what matters to you behind. Better to keep the things you love and are proud of, and include your children, even if it's a little inconvenient at first.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Small Living

We live in a small condo, about 660 square feet, 36 square feet of which is an unheated porch off of the master bedroom. We moved here from a 450-square-foot awkwardly-arranged apartment when our daughter was almost a year old. This condo with it's open floorplan and 200 additional square feet felt like a palace.

In the nearly two years we have lived here, it's gotten smaller. Perhaps the suburbs are attacking us with an evil shrinking ray. More likely, we have been adjusting and accumulating a lot of junk we don't need.

Of course, we are not just accumulating stuff; we're about to pick up a whole new person. In June, a new baby will be arrive together with a mountain of gear. We just moved our daughter H up to a twin-sized bed so that we can move the crib into our room for the new baby (if you saw our room, you'd ask us where it will fit). Her twin bed is really the bottom half of a bunk bed which seems like it will fill the entire room. While we were rearranging furniture, we started to wonder how we are going to fit baby clothes and diapers into dresser drawers that are now packed with our daughter's shirts, pants, and sleepers.

We plan to stay in our current condo for at least five years (and we'd prefer to stay even longer), so in the interest of our continued sanity, we are trying to liberate ourselves from some of our junk. We started in the porch, which was the place that we threw anything we didn't know what to do with. Now it's a much tidier room that is holding the contents of our spring garage sale. After the garage sale, it will hopefully become an indoor garden.

Next, we moved into the kitchen. We had big plans for a kitchen renovation, but our dreams are bigger than our tolerance for chaos or our willingness to put forth serious effort. We still hope to buy a portable dishwasher, hopefully used (although I have to say that buying heavy used things is difficult for a carfree lesbian couple). Right now, we are focusing on streamlining our kitchen and making it  as usable as possible.

We also have plans to clean out H's room and put in additional storage. We have a large number of clothes handed down from other kids. Those that are too small or too large are organized in bins in the basement (that's the only organized part of the basement), but we are swimming in things that are the right size for H that she just doesn't wear (H, like her mothers, wears the same 2-3 outfits repeatedly).

Then there's our room, which needs both purging and additional shelving. Of course, our clothes need an overhaul (whose don't?), and we have to repeatedly excavate the top of our dresser. After that we have to tackle the back porch (or the trash pit, as some would call it). Finally, we must wrestle with the basement. I don't know where all of the stuff down there came from or how to convince it to go back. If you ever want to feel completely powerless, just go down and look at the stuff in your basement. You don't want any of it (if you did, it wouldn't be in the basement), but it all seems impossible to get rid of (what if we need that window AC or the paint or the old plastic dishes?) and the pile grows each month as you move stuff that you once thought was important down into the subterrainean clutter pile.

Honestly, all of these complaints are exactly what's great about small-house living. Humans have a bad habit of collecting, and a small home gives you a natural limit on that tendency. We have to be serious about getting rid of stuff that isn't important for us, because soon we'll be down to 165 square feet per person. That also makes us serious about not bringing new things into our home and thus helps us live a sustainable life.

Small houses and condos are cheaper to buy and cheaper to maintain. We have a small space to heat, illuminate, and cool. We can furnish the place cheaply, in part because we can't buy too much furniture. We don't buy too many toys for our daughter because we don't have any place to put them. That helps our wallet and gives us a refuge from material culture.

A small house is also much easier to clean. Even when our house is a
wreck, we can get it into passable shape in an hour or less. If we have
two hours, we can give it a really deep cleaning. Having a small house gets us outside, even in the winter. This keeps us healthy and connects us with our neighbors.

So we love living little, but we still have more junk in our house that we need and we still get frustrated with the confinement. Here are our strategies for living cramped but happy.
  • Purge repeatedly. Each time you can dig deaper and get rid of more. For instance, we had to purge books about five times before we got ourselves down to the 110-120 books we have now. That number seems outrageously high, so we're due for another round of shedding. You also need to shed repeatedly because despite your best efforts, clutter will creep into your home.
  • Have a place for everything, and keep everything in it's place. We tend to have a pretty bare and sparse house (for instance, we just put up our first pictures on the wall after living here for almost two years). However, we have some neighbors that have a place just as small as ours that feels comfortable and homey and contains many more objects and knickknacks. Their secret is simply having a home for each object. This is not our strong suit, but we're working on it.
  • Pickup and clean daily. For instance, we clear our dining table every night of the clutter that has accumulated during the day. We spend much more time on daily maintenance that we do on deep cleaning, so if you come into our home you will hopefully be able to sit down at the table to eat, although you may notice that the carpet if full of mashed peas.
  • Don't bring new items into your home without getting rid of old items. We're not always very good at this, but we're working on it.
  • Folding furniture is your friend. We have folding chairs that we can stash out of the way, a dining room table that folds down from large to medium to small, and a folding table that doubles as a play house for H. Non-folding furniture may look beautiful, but it is much harder to deal with in our space.
Now it's your turn. How do you keep your small space livable? Do you love your small house or hate it (or both)? Do you aspire to shrink or to grow?