We Made It…Now What?

Here we are now, in a stone-faced ranch house behind evergreen trees, in an oddly quiet neighborhood of Vancouver, Washington. The house itself seems ordinary enough…but there is something here…a feeling I do not recall having in other rentals. 

I smell freshly-baked bread in the morning when I wake. I know my way around in the dark. I feel as though I have always lived here, or I’ve lived here before, and I’m just now coming back. –from my journal, August 3, 2013.

“Move,” as we all know, is a four-letter word. Ours is finally done, but now comes a new challenge: finding our way around in a strange new world. Two months after moving clear across Washington state, we are in the throes of yet another transition. No longer out in the country but not quite in the city, we have joined millions of others in…the suburbs. There can be no doubt, no denial. The place I have ridiculed, criticized, and secretly feared for years is now, for lack of a better word, our home.

We may well ask ourselves how we got here. To make a long story short, which I admit is a difficult task: we had to give up some things to get some others, and there were certain things that couldn’t happen, so here we are. It’s complicated, and probably typical of many American families trying to find their place in the sun…or the shade, for that matter. The more relevant question is, what do we do now? Or, how do we do here what we do? How does one live locally in the midst of a corporate concrete jungle? When both Fred Meyer and WalMart tout fresh, local produce…what then? Is “local” just going to the closest one, versus driving 30 miles out of town to an orchard or farm? I just don’t know anymore.

Vancouver itself is a curious mixture of the familiar and the strange. While much of the strange sneaks across the river from Portland in the dead of night, much of the familiarity stems from the generic, corporate commercialization endemic to the American suburbs. Perhaps it is this way elsewhere, too; I don’t get out of the country much. Why, though, in a society which idolizes individuality and celebrates regional flavor, do we vote with our dollars for the same-old same-old? Chain stores are, like ivy or sparrows or giant carp, an invasive species. They make every place look, sound, and feel the same while undermining the stability and resilience of the local ecosystem, eventually replacing it with something rather different.

This poses some problems for the newcomer and would-be locavore. First of all, it’s surprisingly easy to to get lost in a new city when every strip mall and corner plaza looks the same. Having more than one chance to “turn at the Safeway” rather defeats the purpose.  Secondly, the idea of living locally gets reduced to a measurement of radius instead of an analysis of content. If I only have to travel a mile to the grocery store, then buy produce flown in from Chile, have I really made a difference?

I do know that living locally is not, at least for us, an auto-pilot activity. We need to think carefully and critically about so many things, from where those grapes came from (no frequent-flyer miles, please) to the management policies of the various retailers available to us (and there are plenty here!), that sometimes we get paralyzed by the decision matrix. We find a few easy solutions and stick to them, and as long as they seem to work we don’t look too closely. Actions have consequences, though, and the cumulative effect of several billion people making the most efficient choice is about to become catastrophic. We, and I mean all of us, need to slow down more and think things through.

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The M-Word, Part 3

We made it.

That part was never truly in doubt; the question was not whether, but when. There were times while loading that truck that it felt like we were moving in slow-motion, our hands and feet weighted down, our minds playing tricks on us, throwing off our perceptions, making us lose count of boxes and lose track of rooms. The house continued to disgorge its contents and we continued to act surprised at how much stuff we had accumulated in three short years, as though elves had snuck it in while we slept.

Again, from my journal:
We went from morning until morning, almost, me not getting to bed until 2 am…or was it 3?…Sleeping on an air mattress with my beloved, our last luggage strewn about us; wrinkled, dirty, sore, and confused; but together, at least. Misery’s no fun unless you can share it...I awoke that second morning, awaiting consciousness like the mail, and…I-could-not-move! Every joint in my body, from the knuckles of my toes to the knots in my neck, was locked up. I felt like a model kit, badly glued together by an incompetent child. I took close to ten minutes breaking the surface tension of my own body, cautiously flexing and cracking, rotating and loosening, before I was satisfied that I could properly move again…Nineteen hours later I took my final shower in that house, then sat down on the air mattress -not an easy thing to do- with a turkey-and-cheddar-on-a-bagel sandwich and a cold can of beer, and finally drank a toast to our impending success. The end was not just within sight, but within reach…at least, the end of the beginning.  

Morning came with a sigh of relief. The truck finally loaded, the house swept again and the keys turned over to the rental agent, we headed out of town shortly after 10 a.m. for the six-hour drive across the great state of Washington. Naturally, it took us just a bit longer; eight hours, door-to-door, which for us is pretty good time. My Dear Wife and I once managed to stretch that trip out to 12 hours, but this was no time for dawdling.

Driving a 26-foot moving truck without air conditioning across high desert in summer is not for for the faint of heart, but it’s fine for the hard-of-hearing. My ears rang from the wind noise, as shutting the windows meant certain suffocation. My son and I, riding together, could barely hear either one another or the tinny radio. We managed to work out communication through pointing and gestures; he also had my mobile phone for contacting the rest of the party. Those pioneers on the Oregon Trail never had it so good!

We arrived at the new house that evening, met by two excellent friends who already lived in town. We all proceeded to empty the truck’s contents into the garage, to be sorted at a later date. Two moths later, it feels as if that process is still ongoing, but in fact we have settled into the house quite nicely. Settling into our community? I think that is going to take a while.

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The M-Word, Part 2

As we had reserved a moving truck months prior for pickup and mere blocks away from our house, it got crossed off our “worry about it” list, replaced by getting the carpets professionally cleaned, filing a change-of-address with the post office, and transporting a 15-cubic foot chest freezer loaded with perishables.

When we finally got down to Week Zero, things changed. Our living room looked more like a storage unit, piled end to end with randomly-sized boxes. The contents of our basement were spilled onto the backyard, baking in the eastern Washington sunshine. We had to eat only takeout, lovingly delivered by our wonderful church pastor, in order to get the kitchen packed. We were making multiple thrift-donation runs. It was time to go, or at least start going. It was Wednesday. We needed that truck.

Then we got a call on Wednesday afternoon from the truck-rental company.You know, the orange-and-white trucks that let you haul it yourself…anyway, the message was that the only 26-foot truck anywhere around was 15 miles north of town, not actually in town. But, we could pick it up the next day. Probably. The rental agent would call in the morning to confirm the pick-up time.

Well, shut the front door! How wonderfully convenient! Not that we have anything better to do the week we’re moving out of our house of three years, when the temperatures are in the 90s and our tempers are in the 100s, than wait for an early phone call so we can drive out of town to pick up the truck. That…sounds…just…about…perfect. Your sarcasm detector should be pinging like an Oak Ridge Geiger counter right now…Fine, fine, that’s okay, Thursday morning will give us a good head start, let’s just keep schlepping and sweeping until then.

At 8 am on Thursday we call…and are told to call back at 3 o’clock. We do so. Three-thirty, he says, absolutely. We make ready and head out, getting to the small-town garage by 4:00. And what do you know? There it is; cleaned, gassed, and ready to go. We fill out the requisite paperwork and make the requisite small talk with the guy at the counter, mostly about how bad moving is, especially in the mid-summer heat. The shop is both cool and dark, a welcome contrast to the painfully clear sky and temperatures in the 90s that await us outside.

Dear Wife heads home in the old minivan as I climb into the big truck’s cab and go over the controls. Signals, wipers, radio…all check out. I fire it up and ease into traffic, windows open while the ventilation system clears out, and turn to go around the block. I switch the climate control to the air-conditioning mode and SWEET MOTHER OF JERRY BROWN THAT AIR IS HOT!!! I mean HOT! I could make toast with that air!

Back around the block to the garage I go, where the guy is sorry to say that he can’t help me, but maybe it will kick in on the way down to Pullman. It doesn’t. The air temperature does fall somewhat, but never dips below Uncomfortably Warm. At least the windows open. She and I discuss what to do, but it seems obvious that we need to contact the company and have them remedy the situation. Of course, we can’t start loading the truck yet, since we might switch trucks, so I make the call.

Apparently, a truck with broken air-conditioning in late July in eastern Washington is not a very high priority. Roadside Assistance bounces me back to Customer Service, who bounces me back to Roadside Assistance, and someone finally calls me back (and this is all on my prepaid cell phone, by the way, and nibbles away my minutes like a rabbit in a lettuce patch) with a plan. We can bring the truck up to Spokane (75 miles north and in the opposite direction of our destination), as early as 6 am, to get fixed or be replaced.

No. Not going to happen. I would take another truck in trade if someone drives it down to us so that we can continue to pack and clean the house…I get put back on hold, which is the menu of caller options-very confusing-for several minutes, then someone picks up. The connection is bad; I only know I’m on the line with someone because I don’t hear the recording any more. I can barely hear the woman…but she is talking…about pizza toppings!!! WTF??? They can’t hear me, whoever they are, so I disconnect. To heck with them, then.

We shall press on.

We shall endure.

We shall prevail.

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The “M” Word…Part 1

You might think, after fifteen moves together in twenty-one years, that My Dear Wife and I would be better at it than we are. Moving is, to paraphrase Friedman, always and everywhere a traumatic event. Then again, things could always be worse, and often have been. We were fortunate this go-round in having not only time but funds enough to do a semi-proper job…and it still came down to the wire and was still fraught with peril and error.

From my journal, July 27:
“We have now spent our last night in the old grey house on State Street, and our last night in Pullman. How we ended up abiding here longer than anywhere else may seem like a mystery, though I’m sure there is a perfectly logical explanation somewhere. But that wouldn’t make a very good story, now would it? This very thing has happened to us before, on a different scale. Usually it’s just the dwelling that’s sketchy and somewhat inadequate, grabbed out of desperation at the last minute, that holds us for years at a time.”

Written at the end of a long, hard day, this excerpt reflects our feelings about the town as well as the house where we lived for the past three years, and makes reference to similar events in our past. So much led up to that moment, and so much followed.

A three-year sojourn on the Palouse was ever the plan, so in that sense the move came as no surprise. I gave proper and sufficient notice at both my jobs, started gathering boxes months ahead of time, and we started sifting through our belongings, packing what we wanted to keep and giving the rest back to the many thrift emporiums whence it all had come.

Why did we allow ourselves to settle in so deeply and accumulate so much stuff? That’s been a pattern as well: binge and purge. We’re stuff-bulimics. I’ve written before on the perils of cheap consumption, but it seems I have yet to learn the lesson. Suffice it to say that we reserved the biggest truck we could, 26 feet long and over 1400 cubic feet in volume. We would need all of that and then some.

I was able to take off an entire week from paid work to focus on the move, and that was a blessed thing indeed. Two weeks would have been even better. I wanted this move to be organized and efficient! I wanted to inventory every box on an index card and tape the card to the box; I wanted to pack all the food and clothing in clear tote boxes for easy identification; I wanted to group everything by destination room with color-coded tape.Sorry, Charlie. Not this time. I was doing well to get things boxed, period. Most got labeled, most of those got labeled with either a room (“kitchen”) or a name (“Luigi”), and most of those got some content identification (“books”), and that was as good as it got.  Time to go; more to do.

Part of the problem was that, having packed all these boxes and disassembled the beds, we were running out of space to put the packed things. We couldn’t finish disgorging the contents of the house until we had a place to put it. We needed the truck. Right, the truck! Well, that was easy-peasy. We had reserved one three months prior, to be picked up right down the street. Maybe we could pick it up a day early, Thursday instead of Friday, Couldn’t hurt to ask, now could it? After all…how hard could it be???


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Eye of the Beholder

I’ve been using my Samsung Chromebook for around 6 months now, which has given me time do do several things. I’ve gotten to find my way around the “Chromniverse” and figure out how to do what I do; I’ve learned to appreciate this little computer’s many virtues and begin to overcome its deficiencies; and I’ve had the chance to consider its existence, the fact and meaning of it, in a real-world context. I’ve also gotten to watch a new user (My Dear Wife) adapt to a MacBook Air, and to compare the two machines. Guess which one I think is the better value?

Perhaps the first question to answer is whether or not the Chromebook is worth buying in the first place. In a word…it depends. The lack of a traditional operating system and on-board storage vault, plus its limitations on what programs it can run and platforms it can use, might be a deal-breaker for a lot of people. My advice there is to do the homework: find out what the thing can and can’t do, and think hard about how you use a computer. If after all that you decide you can live in the cloud and want a tough, cheap, light, fast little notebook, you need to give the Chromebook an audition. Those folks who have specific platforms or programs to run will need to go with those stipulations and get something that satisfies those requirements.

I was a bit harsh in my first review, but with experience has come knowledge and an increased comfort level with the device and its ecosystem. First of all, the Chrome OS is really quite solid. In my Office Job, I have to use three browser windows at a time, and Chrome is the least troublesome. In addition, the number of cloud-based computing solutions (thank you, Netflix!) has either increased dramatically in the last six months or I’m getting a lot better at finding things. Either way, there seems to be less and less you can’t do on the Chromebook. There’s even a way -two, actually- to install a Linux desktop environment.  To me, then, the Chromebook has turned out to be a worthwhile purchase, especially for the modest sum of $250.

Comparing the Chromebook to the MacBook Air might seem unfair at first, but too bad. That’s what people do when shopping; they compare things. And, by most objective measurements, the Mac is a superior product: aluminum versus plastic; backlit keyboard; dazzling display; familiar environment; and a history of good product development and support. The Mac also enjoys a level of brand prestige that, while sometimes over-the-top, is undeniable.

The next question, then, is both awkward and inevitable: is the MacBook Air worth the money? Now, I realize that for a lot of people, $1,000 to $1,300 is not an unreasonable price for a notebook computer. That’s nice, really. I’m happy for them. I’m not one of them, though. Faced with such a decision, I have to ask myself if Product A is five times better than product C, since it costs five times as much. That’s an easy one: no. Is the Mac Air nicer, lighter, brighter, and just a little more shiny than the Chromebook? Sure it is. Is it five times so? I think not. I’d call it 30 percent better. Yet it’s not merely 30 percent more expensive. Strange, how economics works (or doesn’t). But cost and value are two different creatures. One is on the bottom line, and one in the eye of the beholder.

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“Town Crier” Hits the Presses!

My newest essay is in the local paper this morning and, as promised, here is the text of it for all of you who can’t buy or don’t subscribe to the M-P-D-N.

Don’t let the cold and snow dissuade you from believing that spring is around the corner. Pitchers and catchers have reported; gardeners are perusing their seed catalogs; backpackers are prepping their gear for the next adventure; and the cyclists of the Palouse are replacing tires, inspecting chains, and keeping an eye out for clear days- and roads- for an early-season ride.

Institutions are making plans, too. Washington State University has hired ALTA Transportation, a professional consulting firm, to work with them on an updated bicycle route network. An enterprising Civil Engineering student named Andrew Stephenson has come up with a plan to adapt campus bike routes to the contours of the landscape. He envisions lifts or elevators at critical junctions to help mitigate the difficulty of the hills. The city of Moscow is  looking ahead as well, its “Moscow on the Move” program dedicated to implementing the vision of the city’s Comprehensive Plan of 2009.

The city of Pullman has a plan, too. It was just updated…in 1996. I think it’s fair to say that the city has changed somewhat since then, considering that the population has risen by some 5,000 people. Still, the plan is both an interesting glimpse into the recent past and a potential blueprint for the future. It’s worth dusting off, updating, and using as a springboard to launch Pullman into a new era of bicycle accessibility that could put the city on the map as an example of how to enhance alternative transportation.

As WSU moves forward, the city of Pullman needs to pick up and move along with it. The campus cannot be left to become an island, cut off from its surroundings, for city and school grow best when they grow together. The border between city and campus is so permeable as to be nonexistent in some areas, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. As I discussed in my previous essay, open borders make for easy migration and dispersal, while barriers don’t have to be large to be effective. Something as mundane as a gravel-covered street or a bumper curb in the wrong place can ruin an otherwise good bicycle route, to say nothing of streets without bike lanes or multi-use paths that ultimately lead nowhere.

The 1996 pedestrian/bicycle plan does a good job of identifying the high-traffic areas where conflicts are likely to occur, and while there has been notable improvement (the Grand Avenue Greenway, for instance), some notorious tangles remain (like crossing Stadium Way on said path). Comparing the ideas in the plan to the reality on the ground, it is easy to see that the plan has been followed only partially and sporadically. It seems reasonable to expect more progress after sixteen years, especially considering how many other ways the community has grown. We have to ask ourselves, and our representatives in city government, why.

Perhaps the answer lies in the truism that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and other wheels have squeaked more loudly. Is it because cycling is still seen more as recreation than transportation? Has it to do with revenue? I noticed a fee-based registration proposal in the plan, yet I have never heard of it elsewhere. Maybe it is best, then, that WSU is leading the way on this issue. We need to make sure that the city follows closely. To that end, there is an open house this Thursday, March 7, in the WSU CUB Junior Ballroom (210 East) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., featuring the transportation consultants the university has hired for its  Bike and Ped plan. Considering that the world is run by those who show up, I intend to be there. But first, I have to fix my bike chain.

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I Had Forgotten…

…That I was sharing my essays for the newspaper with you all. Here is the one I wrote in December.

As the daylight fades, the winds pick up, and we prepare to settle in for another long Northwest winter, readers may find it an odd time to think about bicycling. I will reluctantly admit that the riding season may be winding down, and snow-covered streets may soon end it altogether. But, as gardeners and baseball fans can attest, winter is the time to argue, plan, and dream about next year. So, let’s start the conversation about what we want our community to look like and how we can get there. The “hot stove league” is just warming up.

Viewing the world from the seat of my bicycle, as I often do, puts me in a different frame of mind from most folks. I often compete for access and space with powerful, multi-ton behemoths possessing minds and agendas of their own. Sometimes I feel like a very small animal indeed. In fact, I often look at human activity as though I were studying a complex, exotic species; for isn’t that what we are? Part of my undergraduate studies included wildlife corridor ecology, and I find it a useful lens through which to view personal transportation. In the case of commuting, let us argue that we are examining human migratory and dispersal patterns through a mixed-use landscape.

One common trait with animals, and in this humans are no exception, is the tendency to take the easiest route possible between two points. The needs to conserve energy and save time are prime directives in the wilderness, and serve to guide animal behavior. Obstacles and impediments are to be avoided, and helpful resources like food, water and shelter should be nearby. No wonder, then, that valleys and riverbanks have been such popular travel routes since time out of mind. It’s not just the scenery; it’s the convenience. The “path of least resistance” is the shortest, safest, and healthiest way to go. This is part of the reason why wildlife corridors and “critter crossings” have become a popular solution for reducing human-wildlife conflict and loss.

The same principle applies within the human sphere too. Sidewalks, crossings, and multi-use paths are pieces of infrastructure designed to provide safe access points and travel options. However, it is all too easy for auto-centric thinking to dominate city and highway planning, choking off vital avenues for alternative transportation. Asking a pedestrian or cyclist to cross four unmarked lanes of traffic is like asking a deer to swim a river. They’ll do it once or twice if they have to, but it’s not likely to become a habit. Study after study reveals that the number-one impediment to people getting out on their bicycles in their own communities is their concern about safety.

“But wait!” you say. “What about the bike paths? Why can’t riders just stay on them?” I’m glad you brought that up. The Grand Avenue Greenway and the Bill Chipman Trail are both wonderful assets and get their fair share of use, but they don’t always go where they are needed. Try going from Terre View Drive to Bishop Boulevard on a bike sometime and you’ll see what I mean. There are a few of us who are fearless or foolish enough to navigate the narrow streets and dicey intersections along the way, but most recreational riders I know prefer not to play in traffic. Getting around the WSU campus is more of the same story. Bike lanes appear and disappear randomly, multi-use paths shrink into sidewalks with no warning, and the sheer density of automotive traffic is rather intimidating.

I intend to address specific trouble spots in a future essay. My point here is to put the issue into a different perspective, and to try and get interested parties thinking “outside the lines” when it comes to the future of transportation in Pullman.

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