Driving yourself crazy? Sell your car

I have structured my life so I can live without a car. That choice may seem impossible, and, at times, it is impractical. Like any counter-cultural behavior, it initially requires effort to adjust.

I can attest, however, that car-free living is a healthful, fiscally responsible and even joyful pursuit in later middle age.

When I travel for work to Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and other big cities, I never rent a car. I stay in the heart of downtown and use mass transit, and my feet. That discipline is doable in the Twin Cities, too, even if you practice it only on certain days.

Discipline? Practice? Some people shrink from those words. Certainly, I make use of my husband’s vehicle — a 9-year-old, manual-transmission pickup — when I want to get to my weekend yoga class or my favorite suburban dog park. It also helps that the two reasons for my old Soccer Mom van have grown and gone.

My purpose is not to suggest that you never drive again at all. Nor do I intend to sermonize or gloat. My hope is to convince you that driving less — and using alternative forms of transportation more often — is a calming, community-minded, Earth-conscious habit that, like mindful eating, becomes easier and more self-sustaining over time.

Five benefits of a car-free lifestyle

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Benefit 1: I exercise more. I seldom post in the 10,000 Steps Facebook group I joined because, unlike the other participants, I rarely struggle to achieve that goal. Between walking to and from work, having a job that requires me to move throughout the neighborhood, and riding the bus or train to my appointments — which generally involves some walking — I have my feet on the street an average of 4 miles a day.

A Metro Transit ad in the still transit-lacking Twin Cities claims that people who commute by bus or train walk 20 percent more than do those who drive to work. More than 76 percent of Americans commute to work in their own cars, a 12-point jump from 1980.

Having access to your own vehicle is more convenient and saves you time. I hear that often from over-stressed workers and working parents. Even if they changed their commuting habits only one day a week, they would recognize how physical exercise can actually help them unwind and relax.

Benefit 2: I save money. My older son, who now owns my red Toyota Prius, pays $1,150 a year for car insurance. I routinely spent $200 a month on gas during the years I commuted from Northfield to St. Paul. My transit card, by contrast, costs about $30 a month, and my employer reimburses me for any work-related rides.

Granted, I am planning to invest in a high-end bicycle for my big birthday in July — a purchase I haven’t made since my college senior was a baby — but I can justify the expense now that I’m no longer servicing a car for my commute.

Benefit 3: I am part of my community. Living in the urban core makes a multimodal lifestyle both easy to navigate and an adventure. I am a 12-minute walk from the Green Line train to the north, a Whole Foods store to the east and the charming Grandview Theater to the south.

If I drove to these locations, I would lose the opportunity to observe architecture, peruse Little Free Libraries, and smile at barking dogs and blooming trees. I also would miss the chance to greet my neighbors. “In yesteryear’s compact, pedestrian-friendly communities, people walked to church and corner stores, and talked with friends on front porches while kids played in streets and alleys,” writes Katie Alvord in Divorce Your Car! (New Society Publishers, 2000). “Making communities walker-friendly can bring back that lifestyle.”

Each of us has the ability — and the authority — to take back our streets from the growing dominance of cars in our fast-paced culture. The City of Minneapolis has a pedestrian advisory committee. St. Paul Smart Trips, in my town, sponsors “St. Paul Walks.” Go online to sign a pledge that, as a driver, you will always stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, whether marked or unmarked. See it as an opportunity to catch your breath.

Benefit 4: I have time to think and read. As a hyper-scheduled person, I need enforced alone time. I use my bus and train rides to read the news on my iPhone, to catch up on e-mail and, sometimes, just to rest my eyes. Leave the driving to us? Happy to do so.

Benefit 5: I mingle with folks outside my middle-class bubble. Charles Zelle, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, spoke at a recent Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce luncheon about concrete and bridges, the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, making the state’s transportation system “work for the next generation” and the inherent class bias that underlies the resistance to mass transit.

We have to deal with “the identity politics of transit,” Zelle said, “the notion that ‘those people’” ride the bus or train, that “we don’t take transit.”

We, of course, is the professional middle class, people who see their own car as their birthright. As a Caucasian, I am often a minority on mass transit — except for the Blue Line when it is heading from the suburbs to a Twins game or the express commuter bus between Uptown in Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.

I have seen homeless people on the Green Line lugging everything they own. I have sat amid boisterous Somali-American boys who disrupted my reading. I have quietly changed seats when a mentally ill person began to spout obscenities. I have never felt threatened or afraid.

This is the world. This helps me recognize my privilege and inspires me to work toward a greater understanding of why mass transit is essential, for all of us.

Happy New Year? That’s up to you and me

Nothing is more over than Christmas when it is done. I feel that as I begin this New Year’s greeting the morning of December 26. We spent too much money. We ate too much food. All of it was an investment in people we love: our grown children, our siblings, and the friends and colleagues we are blessed to have.

But now the wind is blowing strong. A Christmas Day storm has left the streets rutted with ice. We are back to daily life, still facing the real-world problems that we briefly escaped over the holidays.

My neighbor’s empty house was nearly vandalized on Christmas Eve, because some desperate soul — perhaps addicted or unemployed — lacks the empathy to recognize how his criminal, intrusive actions will haunt this family for years to come.

A man chastised me on a neighborhood Facebook group the other day because I complained about the slippery sidewalks at the soon-to-open CVS drugstore near my house. “Caught in a war zone in Syria. Living in such poverty [that] starving is the norm vs. sidewalks aren’t shoveled where I like to jog. #FirstWorldProblems.”

Sanctimonious, to be sure (or, as my son said, “what a dick”), but I see the man’s point. Looking beyond my relatively privileged life to the real burdens some people face seems especially important at the end of 2016, seven weeks after an election that dashed my hopes for a more inclusive, benevolent society.

Counting blessings is the surest antidote to the inevitable post-holiday letdown. It also is a positive start to 2017, a year when my primary intention is to figure out how to contribute my time and talents to the causes I care about.

Blessing No. 1: A middle-class safety net protects my family.

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My husband lost his job barely three weeks before Christmas, and I earn significantly less than I was making in a previous management position. Paying our mortgage and monthly bills on my salary alone will be a stretch.

And yet: We own property that brings us income. We have savings we can tap. My husband is able-bodied and employable.

Born and raised in what is now the declining middle class, my husband and I were taught not only how to save money but to invest it. Modest inheritances from deceased relatives have helped put our sons through college. My job provides health insurance and a generous retirement plan. Because we have maximized those privileges, we will make it. The uncertainty is scary, but we will be all right.

Blessing No. 2: Having less money is helping me discover who I really am.

We hosted three different Christmas celebrations this December, and the one where I recognized what I truly value was at a potluck gathering of working-class people whom I had never met. The mother and grandparents of my older son’s girlfriend, our guests talked about their jobs as a means to an end, not as some noble calling or an integral part of their identity.

That notion that the professional is personal — that title and salary confer self-worth and justify self-importance — has gnawed at me for the past two and a half years, since I sidetracked my career and stepped into a job that affords me less income but more time for résumé-enhancing activities such as blogging and going to graduate school.

present_2Having less money this Christmas forced me to give presents of homemade food or inexpensive items that required thought and creativity. Similarly, spending an evening laughing and talking with people for whom work is not their lives helped me, finally, to quit apologizing for my unconventional career choice and to reacquaint myself with the reasons why I made it.

Blessing No. 3: I have learned the practice and necessity of gratitude.

Back in 2011, a spiritual adviser asked me to exchange a gratitude list with her by email every night. The practice helped me notice and recognize blessings such as good health and strong friendships, the ability to support myself, and the dogs who bring me companionship and joy.

The discipline of that gratitude exercise carries on in my ability to seek perspective when I’m upset, to respond rather than react to disagreements or unpleasantness, and to remind myself daily of all that is good about my life.happy-new-year

“You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestation of your own blessings,” writes essayist and novelist Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s a modern take on an ancient Biblical passage: To whom much is given, much will be required. 2017 can be a Happy New Year but only if each of us, individually, thinks and acts communally — and has the grace to share what we’ve been given.

Hillary was too perfect in an imperfect race

I cast my vote on Tuesday, November 8, with tears in my eyes, a bounce in my step and a broad smile cracking my aging face.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, for me, was no compromise candidate. She was “amply qualified” to be president, as the Washington Post and many other old-media outlets declared. I supported her over Barack Obama in 2008. I supported her over Bernie Sanders in 2016. Turns out, she was the right woman at the wrong time.hillary_mic

Weeks later, her stunning loss is doubly difficult. Our country fell back into the dark reaches of protectionism and fear with the ascension of “the Donald” as our president. But I also can’t shake the reality, the awakening, that Hillary brought this loss upon herself.

Consider this less a political analysis than a primer for women well into middle age who need to step up, speak up and shake up a system that continues to marginalize and overlook us, both in politics and at work.

Lesson 1: Be real.

Bernie Sanders was wrong when he told Clinton, in October 2015, that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” Instead of smiling and nodding and declaring, “Me, too,” Hillary needed to explain.

Why did she set up a private email server as secretary of state? Why did she delete 30,000 messages that she deemed to be private? Nothing is private in the digital hemisphere, and this bright woman is smart enough to know that.

Why did she not explain the logic behind the “zone of privacy” that she first made public back in 1994? The suspicions about her then never entirely were erased and may have obliterated her once-promising campaign.

A communications professional and the daughter of a onetime politician, I badly wanted to get inside the Clinton war room and advise her to drop the façade. To be real! (It’s advice that a female vice president once gave me, in commenting about my outsize work ethic: “You need to let your direct reports see that you are human, Amy.”)

“I made a mistake” with the emails wasn’t good enough, not even (or especially) for this diehard supporter. I wanted to know why. I wanted to understand her better. “That would require Hillary to look inside herself,” a friend and Clinton supporter told me days before the election.

Lesson 2: Be bold.

Perfectionism is the self-defeating disease of too many girls and women — evidenced by our obsession with looks and weight, our cautious tendency to play by the rules, our earnest efforts to be the hardest working participants in any venue, from the classroom to the boardroom.

Damned if the astonishingly accomplished Hillary Rodham Clinton — the woman who came closest to breaking the nation’s highest, hardest glass ceiling — isn’t hobbled by perfectionism, too. It may have cost the race for this candidate who can’t seem to be herself in public.

Straight talk, plainly and imperfectly delivered, played well in this election cycle. Hillary — ever the student — instead favored nuance and the latest talking points from her data-driven campaign. “She’s a policy wonk, and I like that because I’m a scientist,” a neighbor said the day after the election. “But she isn’t a politician.” She didn’t have to be.

  • When Trump paraded Bill’s former female conquests before a national audience at the second debate (two days after his own lewd behavior was revealed), Hillary could have squared her shoulders and declared that she was no more responsible for Bill’s behavior than Melania was for Donald’s.
  • When Sanders hammered on the Goldman Sachs speeches, which later revealed her reasoned preference for free trade, she could have explained global markets in terms that the average worker would understand.
  • If coal jobs and auto manufacturing are never coming back, she could have won over millennial voters (and scientists, like my neighbor) by talking about the environmental and economic benefits of wind energy, solar power and mass transit.

She could have helped us as Americans see beyond ourselves and come together as a nation for our common good.

Lesson 3: Be yourself.

Reportedly a charming and plain-spoken woman in private, Hillary could have risked speaking the bold, brazen truth in this “wild west” race. If it cost her the election, at least her supporters would have felt more pride in her defeat. At least then, I could have squared my own shoulders and declared: She lost, but she did not fail.

Too often, I felt Clinton was running for president rather than telling me how she would serve. “Make America Great Again” proved to be an irresistible tagline, and she didn’t articulate what she stood for in the face of it.

I supported Hillary, who is 10 years older than I am, for her lifetime of consistent service to women’s rights. I wanted her to play the woman card in 2008 — when instead she got caught explaining her 2002 Senate vote to approve the Iraq war.

Then and now, I wanted her to run as who and what she was: a path-breaking woman who naturally has been a target since her days at Wellesley College. I wanted her to talk about her evolution in the 1960s from a so-called Goldwater girl to a liberal activist. I wanted her, as an attorney, to talk about this president’s potential to appoint two to three justices to the U.S. Supreme Court and about the reality of what life will become — for poor women, for rural women — if women’s reproductive rights get reversed.

Instead, in long discussions with my Bernie Sanders–supporting sons, I came to wonder if Hillary would say anything to get elected.

And so, the final lesson: Be of service. Action and involvement are the only options left for those of us who believed in a future that did not come to pass. Hillary will go down in history as a courageous woman whose caution overrode her conviction, who — in the face of bigotry and misogyny — consulted her poll numbers and played it way too safe.