Sunday, August 24, 2014

Quads of Steel: Biking to Work

Since moving to Turlock, I've noticed a distinct difference in culture compared to what you see on the coast. It's probably always that way. Coasts have traditionally been the first to encounter new products, industries, people, and ideas. It's just surprising what a noticeable difference a 2-hour drive still makes today.

For example, in Monterey, there's no styrofoam or plastic bags (with some exceptions). Here, almost every single restaurant we've tried uses styrofoam for their to-go boxes, and we've had to specify multiple times to cashiers not to use plastic bags (we bring our own bags, but they're trigger-happy).

I was beginning to think that I was going to have to lead a one-woman charge into 21st century environmentalism in this town, but since I've started work, I've found some like-minded folks and feel better. I learned, for example, that the head librarian doesn't own a car and bikes everywhere, and two other faculty members I've met are bike enthusiasts. When I heard all of this, I felt validated because I too wanted to bike to work or at least give it a good try. 

I've biked twice so far (classes started Thursday last week), and I think it's something I can keep up at least until I start losing daylight and warmth in the mornings. However, it hasn't been a totally smooth ride.

First, my biggest concern beforehand was the sweat and bad hair factor. Remember the episode of The Office where Jim rides his bike to work? That was a very real concern for me. I bring a change of shirt, and I get to work at least 25 minutes before I have to see anybody, so I can cool down, catch my breath, and freshen up. People overestimate how much they sweat, how stinky they are, and how much other people notice. A few feet of distance usually makes a little body odor go unnoticed, but I really haven't felt gross or unclean. My hair gets a little disheveled from the helmet, but I'm not the first faculty member to be slightly disheveled; at least I have a good reason for it. 

My bigger concern has turned out to be my route. Here's a Google map of the area I'm traveling in with the bike routes highlighted in green (the solid lines are dedicated bike lanes and the dotted green lines are "recommended" roads for cyclists even if they don't have lanes).

There's a lot of green here, which looks promising, but let's look a little closer:

In trying to figure out a safe, smooth, and efficient ride for myself, I've had to get creative. Would I rather travel on a low-traffic but bumpy road with no bike lane or a smoother, wide road that takes me out of my way? Should I risk riding on a high-traffic main street with a gap in the bike lane or snake my way through residential streets with lots of turns, traffic lights, and four-way stops? I'm going to try a new route next time, one that includes fewer turns than my residential route but busier streets with fragmented bike lanes. 

The easier answer? Drive.

Of course I'm choosing to ride my bike. It's not a necessity. But having my car just sit in a parking lot all day isn't a good exercise in utility. If I drive it to work, my husband goes without a car for the day. If he drops me off and picks me up, then it ends up being more driving, and it's less convenient for both of us.

If I choose to bike, it gives us more freedom. There are very real inconveniences and safety concerns, but the tradeoff for my creative planning is that I never have to worry about parking, I don't feel like I need additional exercise for the day, I arrive feeling energized, I get fresh air, and I have some me time while riding.* 

We've been talking about getting a second car so that we both can come and go, but obviously buying, insuring, and maintaining two vehicles is a big expense. Even if we can afford it, there's a freedom in saying no to that and a unity in discussing our schedules and options. By refusing to believe that every person who can drive needs to drive, I'm exercising a powerful component to living my life on my terms. That's freedom.

All right, so cycling to work is pretty great. But here's a little secret: I don't actually enjoy riding my bike very much. I'm not a very competent cyclist, and bike riding makes me nervous. If given the choice, I'd rather walk. But my commute is a little far to walk considering how early my classes start. I say this because I want others to know that it's normal to be scared, especially if you're riding with traffic and relying on humans to not run you over or abruptly open their car door while parked on the street. 

In the end, though, I do it despite my fear because it's something I believe in. If I want to see more solid green lines on that Google map, I have to use the lanes that are there. I have to support other cyclists and future cyclists. I have to be a good role model to my students and not only tell them to push past their own boundaries but also show them what that looks like. I have to not only dream of a greener community but also participate in making that happen. It's not a one-woman charge, but one woman can certainly do her part. 

*The Energy Project has researched the effects of having a transitional activity after work. For example, someone coming home from a stressful day of work benefits from a walk around the neighborhood before jumping into family duties at home. I find that transitions are good before work as well, and having a walking or biking commute helps me transition between work and personal life.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Project 333 and Smart Shopping

"Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes." - Henry David Thoreau

For my entire adult life, I've had a slight obsession with my clothing. I'm on a never ending quest for the perfect wardrobe: If only I could buy that one perfect thing, my life will be complete!

It's strange because when I was a kid, my mom would buy me exactly four pairs of pants and four shirts during our annual back-to-school clothes shopping. I'd sometimes get clothes for Christmas and then I'd get shorts for summer, but that was it. I had outgrown the clothes from the year before, so my wardrobe was literally four pants and four shirts, and I was quite content. When I was older, I started buying my own clothes and succumbing to the pressures of fitting in.

Since then, I've had colleagues and professors who've worn the same two or three outfits every day. Although I noticed it, I never thought it was weird. In fact, it just seemed practical and, well, very professor-like. In other words, I think I've always admired people who could adopt a signature style and keep their wardrobe minimal, but I haven't been able to do it for myself.

Cue Project 333.

Project 333 works like this: Pare down your everyday wardrobe to 33 items and wear only those 33 items for 3 months. Mostly, this project is about de-cluttering closet space and simplifying the morning routine. It's also helpful with saving money on clothes shopping.

I tried starting this project way back in March. I quickly saw my biggest problem was that my favorite items didn't go together, and I had very few favorite items. If I got rid of everything but my favorites, I wouldn't be able to get dressed. As it was, if my favorite shirt was in the laundry, it would throw everything off. Frankly, I don't feel comfortable giving a t-shirt that kind of control over my life.

You think I'm joking, but I had to contend with the fact that I'm quite a bit heavier now than I'd like to be. That by itself isn't a crisis, but when I have to see a pair of pants I really like that I used to wear all the time that don't fit me anymore, I feel like crap. I've worked really hard over the years to accept the various shapes and sizes I come in. Giving pants the power to deconstruct all of that is unacceptable. Those pants had to get out of my face.

Obviously, this was going to be more difficult than I had anticipated, so I put the project on hold for a while. My wardrobe was already pretty small, but it wasn't functional. I needed more versatile, good quality clothing. Since I'm moving to a different climate and starting a new job, I figure now is a good time to start fresh. So much for Thoreau.

I did it in a planned way. I made a list of the items I definitely wanted to keep in the daily rotation and what went with what. Basically, for every top, I wanted to have two bottoms that would match, and for every bottom, I wanted to have two tops, so I wrote down, what if anything I needed to buy. I stuck to the list, and everything I bought served a purpose in the wardrobe.

At first it was frustrating to shop with a list because I couldn't just buy whatever looked pretty and was on sale. In the end, though, it was supremely gratifying. I only bought about six new pieces, and I knew I had found the right items because I had such a clear picture in my mind of what I needed and how I would wear it. It just required patience. 

My favorite outfit (left) and what I happen to be wearing today (right). 
I did stash away a few winter items and those stupid pants that don't fit. When October rolls around, I can revisit both the weather and waistline situation and adjust accordingly. Everything else was donated.

Exceptions: I didn't count underwear, workout clothes, loungewear/pajamas, leggings, shoes, and accessories. These are not things that have much effect on my daily clothing choices, and I don't have a habit of collecting a lot of them. I also freely give myself permission to replace items that I truly can't wear anymore such as my favorite jeans that now have a hole in them (yes, I can patch them, but I still need a decent pair of jeans that I can wear to work and a patched hole on the inner thigh means I won't be wearing them in front of students).

At last count, I had around 27 items (it's hard to know if I should count this or that item because it's something I wear so rarely), which gives me some wiggle room if I feel I need a couple more seasonal items. 

At some point I realized it wasn't about having exactly 33 items. Eventually, I'd like to get down to about 15 really great, everyday items and a handful of accessories that make me feel like I can play. You know, old school: 4 pants and 4 shirts (plus 3-4 dresses and 3-4 cardigans because I'm a grownup).

So it's not a magic number, but it's a structure to work with. I don't even know if I would still call what I'm doing Project 333, but it was a starting point to smarter shopping habits and a healthier relationship with my self-image.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Lately, I've been thinking a lot about my time living in Owego, New York, in the rural, southern tier of the state, where I lived before moving to Monterey. I'm romanticizing it, as we're all prone to do when our memories get fuzzy, but it's on my mind so much because it's the kind of place that people make their home.

Not a temporary stop on the way. A home.

For the past five years, I've been living in a transient place fueled by students, military, second-home vacationers, and tourists. I started writing this post a day before we moved, surrounded by boxes, wondering what's in store for us this next leg of our journey. It's no wonder that I'm feeling nostalgic for an "in it for the long haul" kind of place. 

One of my friends from New York posted pictures of a front porch he finished building on his home. It was beautiful, but more importantly, I thought, That's the kind of place where you take the time to build a porch on your house. I'm remembering the locally made soaps and preserves, small farms, home gardens, summer barbecues, and fairs. Then there was my old neighbor, Herman, who would snow-blow my driveway without asking for anything in return. And my first teaching job, fall leaves, and spring blooms.

I never wanted Owego to be my permanent home (mostly because winter lasts far too long there), but it was the kind of place where people settled in for generations. That could be bad, of course, with some people not realizing there's a world outside to be explored. It was also bad because the area was economically depressed, meth production was high, and there wasn't much room for growth.

Still, though, that sense of longevity appeals to me. My students would talk about leaving the area to finish college or have some adventures but then returning to raise their families. Although some people did want improvements (to themselves and to the area), no one seemed to be chasing the next big thing. Trends were drowned out by the necessities.

By contrast, most people I met in the Monterey area were either just arriving or just leaving, comparing it to the place we had just left or where we were headed next. It never felt like we were just there, committed to our surroundings. It's hard to make friends or be invested in anything. It's like writing in the sand: cute and fun while it lasts, but what are you really going to say when you know it's just going to disappear soon? 

I want to settle in. And I want to feel like the people around me aren't just counting the days until they leave. 

I don't know if we'll find that in our new place, or if we'll even want to call this place home, but I'm going to give it a shot anyway (the old college try?).

Only time will tell.