NYC bike lanes

For those of us not lucky enough to live in cities where there is forward thinking transportation policy, we can but dream of things like NYC’s cool bike lanes where they are protected from the traffic by the line of parked cars. Of course this was up in leafy Morningside Heights. Other parts of the city still seem pretty scary to ride around in, but the bike share program is certainly taking off.

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Vélib’ in Paris

Just spent the most satisfying day testing out Paris’s bike hire program. It was fabulous on every level.

Bike stations are everywhere which makes it easy to pick up and drop off. The kiosks are multi lingual and initial rental was relatively painless. If you only have an American credit card, set it up online ahead of time, but with a British chip and pin debit card it was seamless then and there. I

We found the roads only mildly scary, even Boul. St. Michel. There are bike/bus lanes on main routes, although I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for anyone except confident, experienced cyclists. Tealgeen daughter, aged 11, did just fine.

The best part was that we covered way more ground than we ever would have by foot and enjoyed more scenery than being underground on the metro. Our routes were fairly circuitous, stopping to check the map and reorient only occasionally – but that, of course, is half the fun.

You don’t need anything special to ride a bike in Paris – no slinky bike shorts, loud jersey or special shoes. We just wore what we had on (and both Tealgeen daughter and I were both wearing skirts and sandals – it was fine). The seats are hugely adjustable and comfy, there are 3 gears, easy to operate, and a basket for gear.

We all came home convinced that you absolutely could survive without a car in Paris, between the excellent metro system and the bikes, and in a pinch, the electric car share program. More on that tomorrow.


Good eats for cheap

So here’s the thing.  Every now and then, someone I know, or am even related to, trots out the argument that eating healthily is too expensive for most people.  Of course they are saying this to me, in the context of my very comfortable, middle class, suburban lifestyle.  And I get that.  But that fact that I can afford it doesn’t mean its unaffordable. That kind of logic drives me crazy.

On a very small scale, here’s a perfect example.  Recently, I made some strawberry jam.  A good friend made a comment to me about how great that was, but wasn’t it so expensive.  I wasn’t really sure, so I decided to work it out.  2 quarts of fresh strawberries (from a farm stand – supermarket would be cheaper): $12.  Bag of sugar $2.89.  Box of Certo, $3.99.  A lemon, $0.49.  Washed out jam jars – free. Bear in mind that I only used half the bag of sugar and half the Certo.  So the layout cost was under $20. This made 8 jars of jam.  I just checked and a jar of Bonne Maman, the supermarket equivalent of homemade jam, sells for $4.99 (heck, even Smuckers is $3.79).  So the retail value of my jam comes to nearly $40.

Making something yourself is almost always cheaper and equally,  tastes better (after a little practice perhaps) and is usually healthier.  Jam’s a perfect example.  I can short the sugar a little and my kids don’t even notice.  What I make is literally fruit, sugar and pectin.  Tell me again why you would put anything else in it?

Now, I can extend this argument to just about anything in the kitchen.  But here’s the rub – you need some equipment, some know-how, time, energy and motivation.  Equipment isn’t really that hard. You need less than you think you do. Unfortunately, as with so many things in the states, people seem to think you need fancy, expensive stuff to cook.  I still use the cheapo stock pot I got almost 20 years ago for everything from cooking pasta to making soup to making jam.

So think how happy I was to come across a copy of Clean Eating magazine at Super Cuts the other day.  Each month, they produce a list of budget recipes and a shopping list to go with it.  They provide a list of 5 family meals for 4 people (ie 20 servings) for $50.  That’s $2.50 per meal per head people.  And they look darned good.  But you do have to put in the effort to buy the good food and actually cook it. To get the recipes, looks like you probably have to subscribe, but it makes its point.

Enough with the Stuff

Ahhhh, Christmas.  The lovely smells of baking sweet sticky things.  The dreams of sugar plums.  The sparkling lights. The joy.  The anticipation. For some, even the celebration of the birth of their considered savior. Oh yeah, and the endless rush to go out and buy lots and lots of stuff, ’cause you feel you have to.

If you have someone on your list and don’t have any idea what to buy them, DON’T.  Just. Don’t. Do. It.  Buying needless crap for the sake of buying needless crap is exactly why we are where we are in this country.  On so many levels.  On the knee-jerk consumerism level.  On the using up resources way faster than we replace them level.  On the we have lost track of what really matters in life level.  How about the old bumper sticker: The best things in life aren’t things.  Or how about the heart warming thought that what really matters in relationships and experiences.

It’s HARD to resist.  I remember so vividly the anticipation and excitement of Christmas morning and the unbridled joy of seeing the HUGE mound of presents under the tree.  Sometimes it didn’t really matter what was actually in the packages.  It was the cacophony of color, the pure volume of stuff in a mostly non-materialistic childhood.  But these days, for many families, even when they don’t really have the means, stuff, lots of it, at a constant flow, is just a normal part of life.  Christmas (if it’s your chosen holiday – sorry everyone else, I have to write what I know) is just the crowning glory of a life filled with stuff.  Thank you Walmart.  Thank you Target.  Thank you TV advertising that targets children’s young, impressionable minds and uses their pester power to wear down their parents.

The irony is that it’s pretty clear that in addition to trashing the planet, all this stuff isn’t actually making us happy.  If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of it, you can read a scholarly paper here.  The bottom line is that personal connections and spending time with other people and experiences make us happy.  All that stuff just gets in the way.  [See my review on the Economics of Happiness for more on that].

So here’s a suggestion.  Think carefully about the whole present thing.  Consider making it just for the kids. Forgo the crazy gift giving among adults.  Instead make the gift of each other’s company, a good meal, time spent together, a family game, a walk in the woods, home-made soup, jam, cookies, pie, bread, wine, whiskey, whatever (anything you can eat doesn’t count as stuff in my book).

By the way, if you’re looking for recipes of yummy things to give as gifts, here’s my new favorite cooking blog: Joy the Baker.  But there’s also no shame in giving something bought if you do it thoughtfully.  No huge box of choccies for the friend who’s always dieting – how about some gourmet soup or fancy spreads to go on her melba toast!  Consider booze only for those you know well.  Deliver things in reusable containers (pretty mason jars aren’t just for jam) and gift boxes – I have some I have been using for years.  They are pretty and fun and I change the ribbons from year to year.  They have become like old friends in the family.

Capitalism vs. the Climate | The Nation

This article is awesome on so many levels I don’t even know where to begin.  It confirms so much of what I already know but says it so cogently I just want to cut and paste and quote endlessly.  It’s long….way too long for our attention deficit riddled society, but persevere and read the whole thing.  You may not like what you see, you may not agree with everything she says, it’s well written, level-headed and should be a game changer for those on the left.

TO THE SOURCE: Capitalism vs. the Climate | The Nation.

Easiest Way to Reduce Your Environmental Footprint? Eat.

Yeah right.  Eating will reduce your environmental footprint?  Really?  What about all the noise about how much water and carbon it takes to make a hamburger, a fish fillet or even a salad for that matter.  Well here’s the rub.  Eating as a way to reduce your footprint means you are not throwing food away.  Let’s face it, eating a little less is probably a good idea for an awful lot of us.  But wasting less is a good idea for every one.  Dana Gunder from NRDC details some shocking numbers in her blog (as always, the emphasis is mine).

  • The average family of four in the U.S. throws away $175 of food per month.  In fact,  around 40% of edible food (not counting peels, bones, etc) in the US gets thrown away.  Beyond the financial cost, the environmental implications are staggering when you consider all the water,  fertilizer and pesticide that went into growing that food.  Consider the following estimates of resources dedicated to food that never gets eaten:

25% of all freshwater
4% of all US oil consumption
$90 billion in losses to the US economy (over $40 billion from households)
$750 million a year just to dispose of the food
31 million tons of landfill waste

Holy cow.  $175 a month?  At over $2 grand a year (yes, I do math every now and again), that’s sounding like a pretty sweet vacation to me.  Or donation to your local environment group.  Or deposit into your kids’ college fund.

As with so many things, this waste is part of a bigger systemic issue.  Some of it is lost in the supply chain.  The upside is that because of the financial cost of that, food suppliers are always trying to improve this and of course, the more you buy local, the less of a problem this is.  But inside our own kitchens, it becomes a social issue.  Families have 2 working parents who don’t have time to keep a constant catalog of what’s in the fridge at the top of their mental agenda; people have lost the art of cooking and the knowledge of  how to use leftovers to make a delicious meal, not something your kids will complain about — I’m thinkin’ chicken soup after that pre-roasted bird you bought on five buck cluck Thursdays down at the market.  But you have to know how to make the soup.  You have to know what veggies keep and what go bad quickly, how to shop wisely to make it all last through a week so it’s not all just a wilted mess by Friday that you end up throwing away because you didn’t have time to cook it on Tuesday.  And it’s also a question of ridiculous, changed social relationship with food.  We look at the package and use someone else’s definition of what’s “ok” to determine if we can eat it (I’m talking about sell-by dates here).  If you’re so removed from your food that you can’t use your eyes and nose to tell if that broccoli is OK, or the milk or cheese or ham for that matter, you’re probably going to chuck it if you’re just not sure (ok, ok, I’m like that with chicken, but that’s ’cause it’s chicken).  But if the cheese has a little white bit on the edge, for goodness sakes, cut that bit off, give it to the dog, or the cat or the chickens, or just chuck it.  But don’t chuck the whole thing.  It makes a difference.  It really does.  Go back and re-read those bullet points.  That’s a lot of natural resources consumed for something you didn’t consume.

Easiest Way to Reduce Your Environmental Footprint? Eat. | Dana Gunders’s Blog | Switchboard, from NRDC.

The Slippery Slope

Eight years.  I’ve lived in the States as a fully certified adult for eight years.  I did grow up America, but then spent my formative, early young adult years (post college to age 35)  in Europe, so think of my life in terms of how long I’ve been “back in the States.”  It was a strange thing returning after so long away.  I left as a recently graduated college kid and returned, married, with 2 kids and a mortgage.  So although culturally, it seemed like coming home, things felt incredibly foreign in some unexpected areas.  I didn’t really know the ins and outs of “grown up” life – how to establish credit, get a mortgage, run an old, New England, wooden, house (my god, the houses here are made of ant food, and need SO much maintenance).

But the surprises went far beyond the practicalities of how to navigate the logistics of adult life.  What I found was that culturally, although on the surface it felt like coming home — I have the right accent and even say wicked and talk about the Red Sox – in so many ways, I am no longer comfortable with the status quo in American social norms.  So imagine my horror when the other day, I found that I ran 3 errands within 1/2 mile of each other, moved the car between each on, and didn’t even think about it….until I was sitting in the car after the third one, and it hit me.  It’s not just that I’ve slipped down the slope, it’s that I didn’t even feel the wind in my hair on the way.

Over the last several years, I have been disheartened by the lack of awareness of Americans of their impact on our planet.  And even now, eight years later, there’s much more awareness, but slim evidence of willingness or even desire to do anything about it.  My tendency to see the best in people and empathize makes me think that as people become more aware, behaviors will change.  But watching my own behavior and the tendency to slide to the “norm” of what’s around me, makes me pretty despondent about our hope for change.

When we arrived back in the States, it would never have occurred to me not to walk or ride my bike on any journey of up to about 5 miles unless it was pouring rain (forget about drizzle).   Now those journeys are done regularly in the car, or there’s definitely discussion about the logistics of not doing them in the car.  Our heating would never have been above 68 – and yet our thermostats’ default was 72.  I had few clothes that I wore until they were dirty, washed and rotated, for many years.  I now find myself feeling the need to buy more stuff, just because I can. The pressure I feel to have a lush, chemical, water sucking lawn is palpable – to not do so feels like a cheat on the neighbors and their property values.  Even though I feel pretty passionate about more sustainable landscaping, including growing my own food, given that we have a fair amount of open land, I feel the sting of bucking that status quo.  I find it easier to act where the results are private and I can still give the semblance of “fitting in.”

Intellectually, I know what’s going on here.  It’s pretty well documented that people tend to drift to the norms around them.  On the whole, this is a good thing; it’s what makes societies function effectively.  Knowing when to shake hands, what kind of tip is expected at restaurants, how children are to behave in public, etc all be useful.  But what happens when many of the social norms are found by a large minority within a society and by the world beyond, to be fundamentally flawed or harmful?  What happens when on an abstract level, sensible minds agree that the norms we have need to change, but on a practical level, people just want to carry on as they always have?  How do we make that happen?  That’s where we are with changing behavior in a more environmentally friendly direction.