Saturday, April 18

I'd use a more colorful word than "squeezes."

Money wasn't the main reason why I went car-free. But after a year and a half of watching my finances improve by leaps and bounds after giving up my vehicle, money's a big part of the reason why I don't plan to go back.

The graphs in the blog post "How Car-Reliance Squeezes the Middle Class" say it all. The middle class in the United States is weirdly, uniquely burdened by transportation costs.

And I think most middle-class car owners know how burdensome it is. Most can't afford to pay cash for a good car. Most get thrown off track financially by major repair bills. Most probably know how little of their monthly income they're saving and investing. Most know their lifestyles are too sedentary and that it will come back to bite them later. They just don't believe that there's an alternative.

(Most probably don't know how much their vehicles are enabling their general spending habits—I certainly didn't—but that's a different story.)

The thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. We could refuse to buy houses in neighborhoods that aren't on bus lines. We could refuse to buy cars that are increasingly expensive just because they have more bells and whistles. We could refuse to work for employers that are accessible only by car.

We could stop living in places that claim to be green and socially conscious (but actually are catering to people with high incomes who ride bikes just for recreation), and start living in places that aren't as fancy but actually make it possible for people to have a good quality of life without owning cars.

Could all of us make all of these choices, all of the time? No. But we could do it often enough to drastically bring down the average cost of transit for the middle class. We could do it enough to get the ball rolling so that city planning improves and more people would get on board with a car-free or low-car lifestyle. We could do it enough to move more middle-class families into urban neighborhoods (improving the funding and diversity of our schools as a result).

The reason I feel so strongly about this is because middle-class Americans—envied by millions of people for our opportunities and freedoms—aren't taking advantage of that opportunity and freedom. Most of us will be working—whether we want to or not—or else worrying all the time about money, well into old age.

For all of our education and privilege, we're not in control. We've settled for paying the bills every month, putting a little bit in retirement and savings, and getting by. (A lot of us have settled for far less than that.) A big part of our problem is that we're sinking money into car ownership, an expense that for most people doesn't pay off.

Thursday, April 16

Worse than middle schoolers

They were as obnoxious as it gets. Several ran (screaming) out into traffic to cross the street. After a few minutes of talking (screaming) with their friends, the whole hoard ran (screaming) back across the street, against the light, again blatantly stopping traffic and coming within feet of being struck by cars.

I wanted to slap them all. I mean, groups of middle-schoolers aren't known for their intelligence and maturity, but this seemed over the top. Long before I was in middle school, I was self-possessed enough to refuse to run into the street if a friend tried to get me to do it. There's no excuse.

Then, in a second, I went from shaking my head disapprovingly to busting up laughing. Because I realized that this same intersection is where, on a near-daily basis, I used to see cars deliberately blow through the red light—sometimes while I was already standing in the crosswalk.

I saw a group of eight ridiculous teenagers put people in jeopardy today. But I've seen dozens and dozens of full-grown adults do the same thing, in the same spot. Just with less screaming.

Saturday, April 4

Questions

On Thursday at the bus station, a cop sits down next to me on the bench, says hello, and immediately asks:

"Where do you work?"

First: thank you, officer, for assuming that I work.

But you might be shocked, reader, to hear that I didn't tell him where I work. Not because he was the po-po, but because I don't share details about myself with people who ask without any kind of lead-up.

I think most people who don't ride the bus would be surprised how often this happens. You're sitting/standing there, someone says the word "hello" or "how's it going" and if you respond, they immediately follow up it with, "'Where are you from?" "Do you go to school at Duke?" "Where do you work?" or some other personal question that wouldn't seem so very personal except that the asker is someone you didn't know existed five seconds ago.

I'm actually not all that difficult to get information out of. Pretty easy, in fact. If someone makes conversation for 60 seconds about the weather, the bus, the book I'm reading, or some other neutral subject before they ask my name, my place of employment, etc., I always tell them. It's just the out-of-the-blue inquiries, from people I haven't even had 10 seconds to size up, that strike me strangely.

Over years of riding the bus, I've learned to respect my comfort level and simply not answer questions when I don't feel like it. Even if the person asking is the police. (Unless they're asking for my driver's license and they mean business!)

Wednesday, April 1

It had to be done, I guess.

Well played, Apartment Therapy!

I totally got April Fooled.

Via Apartment Therapy:
KÄT has normal cushions for human comfort, but its unique base is made from corrugated cardboard. It's perfect for felines who want to sharpen their claws....without ruining your furniture.

Sunday, March 29

Car-free driveway

You never know how handy that extra space is going to be until there's not a car in it.

I walked out my door this morning and found the lady up the street sitting in my driveway, drawing the neighbor's tree.

Thursday, March 26

Who is Susan on the bus?

I've been mistaken for a UNC undergrad, a UNC grad student, a Duke undergrad, a Duke theology student (specifically), and a student from a technical school whose name I didn't recognize or remember.

Twice, weirdly, I've sat down near someone and they've immediately said that they're my classmate in ____ class. Nope, sorry. (Both were women, so probably not a pickup line.)

One time this guy walks up to me at the bus stop and immediately asks where I work. Bless you, guy at the bus stop, for immediately concluding that I am a full-time working person...

Monday, March 16

Great This American Life this week about the gap between high schools

Three Miles:
I keep expecting there to be news—like she's about to get her big break or something, and things will happen for her. But nothing has happened for Melanie for 10 years.

I think it's some special brand of American, pathological optimism that so many us believe the story has to turn out to be happy. And that if it doesn't, something unusual has happened—not just, this is what happens all the time. That the supermarket might be full of Melanies.

Monday, March 2

Some days it just all goes wrong.

My morning city bus was late (unusual) and I missed my connection. Then, in the evening, there was a big traffic jam and I missed not just my usual connection, but the one after that.

All told, my door-to-door total commute time today was about three hours. If every day were like that, I'd change something about my situation so it wouldn't happen anymore.

But here's the weird thing: even on days like today, I don't wish I had a car. It just doesn't seem worth the hassle—and I completely understand how weird it sounds to say a car is a hassle compared to a three-hour round trip commute.

On days like today, I just accept that I'm going to spend more time than I would have otherwise reading my book and listening to my podcasts. Even though, before I gave up my car, I would have been horrified to imagine spending three hours getting to and from work.

Occasional days like this are worth the tradeoff.

Four hours on, four hours off.


I am way, way past ready for this. Next year, the ceiling-mounted rock-climbing desk.  ;)

Monday, February 23

Less bus

The first six months or so that I was car-free, it was all about the bus. I spent a lot of time pouring over schedules, trying new routes, learning the way they changed from the week to Saturday to Sunday.

But since then, I've found myself using the bus less and less. A lot of weeks, I don't ride at all outside of going to and from work, plus any errands I tack onto that daily commute.

Partly it's the awkward, anxious timing of trying to catch a bus that comes once an hour on the weekend. Partly it's wanting a little space—squeezing in next to strangers on the bus day after day wears on you after a while.

And partly it's just figuring, hey, I'm not getting any younger or thinner over here, and at age 50 or 60 I'm not going to thank myself for having gone easy on the physical effort when I was 30. The time to not slack off is right now.

Thursday, February 19

I don't own a car. Neither do thousands of other people in my city.

This post about a city with a bus system not as good as Durham's sums up perfectly how weird I started to feel about my whole car-free thing 6 or 12 months in:
We're not the ones who have to do this. We could always change our mind. Our voices are not the ones that need to be listened to...

...I'm uncomfortable because we're the de facto voice for a group for which we shouldn't be the ones to speak. Why is it not enough that 7% of people in Oklahoma City - or over 15,000 households - live without a car? Almost 3/4 of bus riders do not have access to a car, and many of them live below the poverty line...

It shouldn't take middle-class millenials like us who want to take the bus to and from a bar on Friday night to get people behind this idea. 

Tuesday, February 17

The trunk of the car

One thing I didn't think about when I gave up my car was losing all that extra space. Yep, I'm talking about the trunk of the car. (Plus maybe the back seat, if you're a childless person.)

We think about the car primarily as a means of transit, but it's also part of the home's storage system. Most people I know whose houses are two or three times the size of mine still use the trunk of their car for storage.

Mostly I used my trunk for stuff I borrowed from people. Makes sense. Whenever you see your people, you just pop your trunk and magically their stuff is there, ready to give them!

Instead, I now have an awkward pile near the door of my house, consisting of a candy tin, someone's Tupperware, a DVD, a medical accessory, a sweater, a book, and an iPad. Stuff that I may or may not remember to bring with me when I go out and see the people who are the true owners of the stuff.

I realized how ridiculous it was when I caught myself thinking about actually buying a storage object to put all this temporarily-in-my home stuff in...

I want to write about

being an atheist, and to what extent that means being "antireligious," and how I felt on the day when I found out that an atheist murdered three young Muslims in my community.

But it's complicated. It's even more complicated, for me, than I could articulate—even if I were willing to be fully honest in public on my blog.

I'm an atheist who spends lots of time reading the work of religious people, and very little time reading the work of atheists.

And I'm an atheist who could be described accurately, to some degree, as "antireligious."

And I'm an atheist who often feels more at home with Catholicism, the religion I was raised in, than I do with other nonreligious people.

And I'm an atheist who has worn a headscarf hijab-style in public more than a few times, an atheist who got mistakenly assalamu alaykumed at a bus stop just a few weeks ago.

And I'm an atheist who sometimes worries about the religious divide between me and my parents, who have gotten more observant as they age, and who read this blog.

And I'm an atheist who works in a communications position in the area where the three young people were killed.

In short, it's complicated for me, as it is for many of us, to figure out what my role is in being part of the solution.

I don't hate any religion, or the members of any religion. But not-hating seems so inadequate when there's so much violence in the world and in the news.

All I can say is that I think we can disagree and still love each other. I think that I, as an atheist, can criticize religion, and I think that religious people can criticize atheism, and stay well away from hatred, or from inciting hatred.

I think that in the future, we'll find that the greatest differences of opinion aren't between religions, or even between the religious and the nonreligious. I think the primary disagreements will be between those who view humanity as one, and those who haven't yet learned to see that unity.

Let's not miss the opportunity to recognize each other.

Thursday, February 12

That cat owner

I finally did it—I bought the one gadget I was never going to own, that is, the little drinking fountain for pets.

I didn't feel I had a choice. Kai has been doing well overall, but hydration was still an issue. It got to where he was completely refusing the water dish, which was unacceptable, because dry food is still the only thing he'll consistently eat. He has kidney disease. He has to stay hydrated.

I was almost grudgingly okay with getting the fountain—I was even excited about how much water I knew it would get Kai to drink—but then I opened the thing and there was a little insert so you can grow aquaponic cat grass in part of the fountain.

I almost cried.

Wednesday, February 11

So sorry and so sad.

It was hard to even get up and go to work this morning. I'm still sort of in shock.

If it's hard for me, I can't even imagine being in the minds of the family and friends of the students who died right now. I'm so very sorry for their loss.

Monday, February 2

So cute

After exchanging pleasantries with me for approximately one minute, my bus seatmate asked—with clear concern for my welfare—"So, does whatever you do for work keep you intellectually stimulated?"

I laughed and said that I am very fortunate and my job does, in fact, provide me with some intellectual stimulation.

Saturday, January 24

Black hair/white hair

As a white person, you hear your whole life that black hair is completely different—it's nothing like white hair and never the twain shall meet.

Well, the twain met in foster care, and I learned a lot. I was semi-prepared for some of the differences but I was unprepared for the similarities.

My own wavy/curly hair probably would have been better off if I'd treated it my whole life like "black hair" rather than "white hair." Less washing, fewer harsh products, and for heaven's sake no wet cuts.

I've suffered a lot of bad haircuts at the hands of white stylists. I ended up with a stylist who's black, and I used to think that was a coincidence, but obviously it wasn't. He's the only stylist I've ever had who's aghast at the idea of women getting blowouts before corporate job interviews.

It was a huge pain getting two kids to sleep in their satin caps every night, but more than a year later I've gotten enough perspective to start wearing one myself. Oh my goodness, it is the most fantastic thing and my hair is five times happier. Why is it that people only recommend satin pillowcases (slippery and uncomfortable) to white women, and never satin caps??

Saturday, January 10

Why credit cards don't work for my budget

When I was a kid, I made a decision. I was never going to have credit card debt.

It took me until after I graduated from college to get my first credit card. I'd like to say this was because of great financial planning, but really it was because of fear. I was terrified of credit cards, and I got one only very reluctantly, because people told me I'd need credit to qualify for a mortgage someday.

Actually, even when I finally screwed up my courage to get a credit card, I was too scared to touch it. I never activated the card, and months later I had to call up my credit union and ask them to send me a new one.

But it didn't take long for my fear to subside. The math was simple: don't spend more than I could pay off at the end of my billing cycle. And I never did. All through my 20s, I paid my bill in full every single month. My new promise to myself was that the first month I had to pay interest, I would stop using credit cards.

Of course, I never accrued interest. I earned cash back, I drove up my credit score, I ordered six pairs of shoes and returned five. Each time I paid the bill in full, each time all the shoes made it back to Zappos, it reinforced my belief that I could "handle" having credit cards. My proof was in the fact that credit card companies never made a dime off of me.

Here's what I didn't understand when I was using credit cards: it was never about me versus the credit card companies.

I didn't know this when I got my first credit card, but it was a given that I could "beat" the credit card companies. I'm a healthy, intelligent, childless person who is fortunate enough to have a steady job. Of course I can avoid credit card debt if I want to.

The real fight was about me versus consumerism. And, all through my 20s, I lost.

Credit cards kept me focused on paying the credit card company, rather than on paying myself. Credit cards encouraged me to buy things impulsively, because I could figure out how to make the math work later. Credit cards complicated my budgeting, because the dollar amount I had in my checking account was almost never identical to the amount I had available to spend.

Credit cards are for consumers—that is, they're for people who are going to go out and spend money. That's the only way to earn a significant amount in rewards: spend a pile of money. The credit card was like an invitation, opened every time I opened my wallet, not to save money, not to pay down debt, not to build assets.

Sometimes people try to talk about the lower rate you can get on a mortgage if you're an enthusiastic user of credit cards. They calculate out how much less you'll pay in interest over the life of a 30-year loan if you're a good credit-card user.

All I can do is laugh, because, 30 years? If you buy wisely and don't spend impulsively, you don't need to have a mortgage for anything remotely close to 30 years. The habits created by not using credit cards—habits of budgeting, planning out purchases, and waiting and saving up for things—more than make up for the money you can "save" with a lower mortgage interest rate.

Is it possible to spend exactly the same amount of money using credit cards that you'd spend using cash, and reap the rewards and the better mortgage interest rate? Is it possible to truly game the system?

Yes. Of course it's logically possible. And I will never, ever be disciplined enough to do it.

Even if I had it in me to be that amazingly disciplined, I wouldn't try. It isn't worth the constant tests of willpower, the constant reining in, that I'd have to put myself through just to gain those small, logically possible benefits of spending with credit cards.

Instead, I'm just living my life, enjoying the freedom created by budgeting and spending only what I've got in the bank. I don't have to exercise a lot of self-restraint. I don't have to think about what I'm spending all the time—either I have the money budgeted, or I don't.

And if in a moment of weakness I try to sign up for something credit-related—oops. My credit's frozen. Guess I'll just have to keep living the simple, credit-free way.

Thursday, January 8

Buses are for other people

Via /r/urbanplanning:
Michael Manville, an urban-planning expert at Cornell, found that increased spending on transit in the early 2000s had no discernible effect on levels of ridership a decade later. “People go and vote for these systems, and it seems they feel like they’ve done their part,” he says.

Sunday, January 4

Discovered while walking

A very socialist-looking sign advertising a "people's library." Take books, leave books.

Took books, left a note promising to bring back more. Only on foot do you end up getting random interesting books on the way home...