Category Archives: Health and wellness

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.

Becoming a non-drinker in a drinking world

Imagine that you’re a successful, middle-aged career person who has contracted late-onset diabetes.

Your new dietary regimen requires you to quit eating cake, formerly your favorite way to unwind after a long day at the office (with more frequent indulgences on weekends and vacations). You work hard to give up cake. You examine your character and compulsions, and you seek support from other diabetics to rid yourself of this once-satisfying habit that you recognize now as a fatal disease.

And yet, everywhere you turn — whether at Target or Cub Foods, at company parties or celebrations — cake is available. Cake is glorified. At work, cake is pressed on you as a key to networking, getting ahead and building relationships.

Welcome to the world of the high-functioning alcoholic — or problem drinker, if you prefer. Except that cake is a vodka gimlet and a glass or three of Chardonnay. Cake is the monthly “happy hour” your employer sponsors for exempt staff, the event you skip because you don’t want to feel removed or resentful. Cake is the predictable reward and the requisite joke (“man, do I need a big piece of cake”) after a project is completed, a deadline has been met.

Every adult eats cake. It is assumed. It is a given.

Shaken and stirred

For those of us who have chosen to quit drinking at middle age — due to addiction, long-term health or other reasons — the linkage of alcohol with work success and socializing can be daunting on the bad days, and merely tiresome on the best.

How do I explain my irregular attendance at the aptly named “Afterglow,” a convivial gathering at various local watering holes after the daylong meetings of Leadership Saint Paul? Billed as “a unique opportunity to connect with other leaders,” LSP is a competitive and prestigious program sponsored  by the Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce whose value can be traced as much to informal relationships as to the formal curriculum.

Informal business relationships often are constructed around alcohol’s power as a social lubricant. I get it. I remember how freeing it used to feel to drink with colleagues after work, to laugh and share our stories. Drinking was a lot of fun until it ceased to be fun, until it became a solitary escape from the pressures and perfectionism I placed upon myself.

Now, after six hard-won years of sobriety, I have less tolerance for the artificial connections and amped-up conversations that alcohol inspires. I don’t want to be the square, sipping a club soda or Diet Coke while others soften their edges with beer and wine. Neither do I want to seem standoffish or disapproving. So, with rare exception, I stay away from alcohol-infused business functions — or I make a token appearance and slip out.

Sometimes I contemplate a return to that bubble of instant warmth where walls melt and insecurities wash away. But the temptation is a siren song. I can’t go back there. I can’t have my cake and eat it, too.

Shaken and stirred

That chemical dependency runs in my family, and that I reached a point in middle age where my drinking scared me — those facts are my story, my reality and my problem. “I understood that it was not the world’s job to understand my disease,” one of the venerable recovery books says. “Rather it was my job to . . . not drink, no matter what.”

Few ordinary abstainers or normal drinkers realize, however, how much practice and commitment sobriety really takes.

This journey began for me at age 43 and consumed a lot of mental energy throughout my 40s. Finally, at 52, I conceded. I gave up and began the halting process of starting to define myself as a nondrinker.

It’s easy enough to stay away from bars (though I miss going out to hear music), and I enter liquor stores only when I want to buy a special gift. What’s harder to avoid are reminders of drinking in a society where alcohol is both romanticized and ubiquitous.

  • On Facebook: “Opened a bottle of wine and a can of Pringles,” writes a former colleague about her Memorial Day weekend at the lake. “If I am not careful they will both be gone in one sitting. Loving the day at the cabin!”
  • At my yoga studio: Two of my teachers at CorePower Yoga are recovering alcoholics. All of my instructors tout the physical and emotional benefits of yoga. Yet, no one sees the contradiction in the “Yoga & Wine” events that the studio markets to women, especially, as a way to pamper themselves and get away from it all. I thought yoga was about the discipline of being present.
  • In the media: The Star Tribune recently featured a collaboration between a yoga studio and a craft brewery with a headline claiming that “studies” confirm “exercise and drinking go together.” The journalist quoted no fitness experts and cited no academic evidence. Instead, she interviewed the young participants whose bodies still can take abuse and dressed it up as medical research. “Research suggests,” she wrote (emphasis mine), “that both activities can give people a feel-good buzz that gets stronger when they do them in succession.” Like hitting your head with a hammer after sex?

A better path

I recognized the weight of navigating a booze-soaked culture when I encountered an alcohol-free bar at the recent Great River Gathering in downtown St. Paul and breathed a sigh of joy and pure relief. “To promote a more inclusive environment this year, we’ve established a dry bar,” the program read. “No alcohol will be available at this location. Soda, coffee, and water will be available for purchase.”

Sold! How hard was that? Did my ability to get a club soda without staring at glistening bottles of wine impede the rights of drinkers lined up at the three other bars?

I’m not pushing for Prohibition. I don’t need you not to drink. In fact, I still serve beer and wine to guests in my home. I am simply asking you to acknowledge that not drinking, for me, takes effort — that a work-sanctioned “happy hour” is work.

So, join me in a soft drink, as my friend and colleague did at a financial-planning event for women, generously claiming that she was counting calories. Understand why I leave the party early or sometimes don’t show up at all.

Please don’t pity me. I’m not suffering. “I want to see life at its own speed,” NBA great Bill Russell once said about his refusal to use drugs. It’s an accurate explanation for my late-in-life sobriety; and life has never had so much clarity, or felt so good.

Note: Journalist and author Andy Steiner published a follow-up story in MinnPost about this blog post on June 15, 2016.

#30DaysofExercise . . . and Live to Tell

Like half of all Americans, I live less than five miles from where I work.

So, no excuses during National Bike to Work Week — except for Thursday, when I have to dress up for a volunteer recognition lunch and attend a fancier work function in the evening.MayisBikeMonth

Exercise-challenge programs such as National Bike to Work Day on May 15 or Run 2,015 in 2015 (whoops, too late now!) are effective motivators — except when they’re inconvenient. I learned that the hard way during the 30 Days of Biking challenge in April.

On the face of it, my mere seven days of biking during the cold, rainy month were a failure compared with the hard-cores who rode their bicycles to bakeries and tweeted throughout the month or posted grinning, thumbs-up photos on Instagram.

What I did instead is what I do every day, every month, every year: I exercised. The particular daily movement that I chose — biking, running, fitness yoga, walking — depended on the weather, on my schedule or on my mood.

The #30daysofbiking challenge did inspire me to log the experience. I kept a daily record of my exercise, and that’s proven to be fruitful now that warm weather is here and I really want to up my cycling miles and train to run another half-marathon.

My daily logs are both instructive and inspiring. I note the excuses, but I see also that I managed to move every day. The journal entries reinforce my midlife exercise mantra: Something is better than nothing. Any exercise counts.

30 Days #2

EXCUSES ARE EASY to come by. It’s harder to sidestep #30DaysofExercise, however, than daily cycling because it allows you to be more a generalist than a specialist.

On April days when it was too windy and cold to bike, I could easily walk the 1.2 miles to work. Likewise, on a day after my running partner had pushed me to run farther than I would have on my own, I could stretch my aching quadriceps and hamstrings in a yoga class.

But the exercise log’s purpose was to record, specifically, whether I had biked. And it revealed more than anything why I failed to get my seat on the saddle for 23 of the month’s 30 days.

  • April 1: Blew it on the first day of the bike challenge! Warm but really windy and then had horrendous rainstorm this evening. Oh, well.
  • April 9: Pouring rain today, 40 degrees. Going to Core Power at noon.
  • April 17: Went for a run with Lou Anne. No energy for more exercise today.
  • April 21: It snowed today. Enough said.

30 Days #4

WITH MY LONG LEGS and short trunk, I seem built to ride a bike. It’s an effortless exercise.

And so it’s easy for me to combine biking with errands, which feels more healthful — and less stressful — than other forms of multitasking.

Movement has more meaning, my cycling log has taught me, when there’s purpose behind it.

  • April 12: Rode to Rainbow Chinese and back to meet friends. As we get more serious about becoming a one-vehicle family, it will become essential to bike.
  • April 16: Still not feeling well so working from home. But I felt well enough to bike to work for meetings. Nobody seemed to mind that I was wearing spandex bike shorts, with bad hair and carrying a helmet.
  • April 26: Rode around the neighborhood and then went to Mom’s. I like combining biking with appointments. It’s a twofer, the equivalent of walking to work.

30 Days #3

CYCLING MAKES ME SMILE in a way that running never has. I love the sweep of scenery, the sense of being one with the natural world.

“You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy a bike,” I read on a cyclist’s T-shirt one sunny Sunday when I was biking home on Midtown Greenway.

Discovering the joy in the simple act of riding was an impetus behind the founding of 30 Days of Biking by Twin Citian Patrick Stephenson, whose idea has gone viral and international. He describes the practice of daily cycling as “transformative.”

  •  April 4: Wore my runner’s mask to bike this morning. Legs and fingers froze. No wind, gliding through the streets. Hills felt good after sculpt class yesterday.
  • April 14: Woke up with sore throat and sniffles. Hunkered down and got tasks done at my desk. Rode the six-mile loop along the River Road after work: 60 degrees, sunny, little wind. I felt better afterward.
  • April 28: Thirty-minute ride at 7 p.m. through the neighborhood. Not enough but it was something. Like any exercise or art or behavior at which I want to get better, biking has to be a practice.