Monday, January 21, 2013

Car-less 2013

Since moving to Chicago in 2009, I’ve been introduced to a new way of life. Not owning a car is relatively common among my friends and acquaintances in the city. Some don’t even have driver’s licenses. Where I grew up in rural Kansas this was, of course, unheard of and impractical if not impossible. Now, I walk two blocks to the grocery store. There? Ten miles.

Though exceedingly grateful for my car as I traveled to church by 9 am on Sunday mornings or as I journeyed to my weekend babysitting engagements on the other side of the city, I also did a lot of walking those first couple of years here: to class, to the gym, to my part-time job.

Slowly I got used to using public transportation. With practice riding my comfort level on the buses increased, and I stopped experiencing anxiety that I would miss my stop. I became better at standing and walking on moving trains without tipping or tripping. Using the Chicago Transit Authority system, it turned out, I could get anywhere in the city that I wanted to go and didn’t have to worry about finding (and paying for) parking. In 2011 I invested in a bicycle and used it to commute to my summer internship in the Loop.

The gradual lessening of my dependence on a personal vehicle was good, but I remained skeptical about whether I, too, could go car-less. Even as I marveled at the small carbon footprints and the complete disregard for no parking signs and gas prices of those without vehicles, I enjoyed the ease and comfort that my car provided.

Every time Sylvia the Silver Saturn broke down, Jason and I had a conversation about whether this was the last straw. And every time, we paid for the repair. Last summer we even set a limit: if the repair was over $200 that would be it. It cost $175.

When the car wouldn’t start this past Thanksgiving, we figured it was the battery and got it replaced. When the car wouldn’t start again a few days later, it turned out that the alternator was the problem and our favorite mechanic shop would repair it for $365, parts and labor.

This time, as part of our discernment process, we pulled out a thick folder of receipts from various auto shops. We got out a calculator and started figuring. The water pump, the starter, the radiator. The series of electrical failures including the one at the rest stop in Iowa that resulted in a 60-mile tow to Des Moines and an overnight stay there while we waited for the fix. Not to mention the price of gas, regular oil changes, registration, city stickers, insurance, and those pesky street-sweeping tickets. The time had come and the $365 alternator repair—as it turned out—really was the last straw.

We’ve been car-less for two months now and are doing well. We signed up for a car-sharing program and have done a little cold weather biking. We don’t have to scrape the windshield or dig the car out when it snows. We don’t have to worry about the coolant light that came on at inconvenient times, and we won’t have to get an emissions test in the spring. Best of all, the car owner’s guilt that had been growing in me since I first learned about the car-less lifestyle has vanished completely. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Cattle and Cantaloupe

“Start a blog” being one of 41 things on my 30 Before 30 list, it seems as if my first entry should be epic. A brilliantly crafted piece of prose that delves into existential questions of meaning, perhaps. Or, more personally, a thoughtful and summative reflection on the past three and a half years of full-time graduate studies. Instead, the interesting occurrence that will mark my inaugural post is a report on a recent dream:

The family was gathered on the farm in Kansas, celebrating a holiday or a homecoming or maybe just some lovely late spring weather. Grandparents, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and siblings milled about the yard and—in particular—the orchard and garden area east of the house. Uncle Blair was in workout clothes, jogging around the barnyard to get some exercise. Some cattle also milled about, friendly and unobtrusive guests. Also a source of sustenance in unexpected ways.

It came time to prepare dinner, and I was tasked with cutting the fruit. My fruit-loving status is well-known in the family, and this duty is a favorite of mine. Little did I know the horror that was to come. Cantaloupe—a summer favorite—was on the menu, but instead of cutting into a store-bought stash of melons I picked up my knife (the one with the wooden handle that mom always uses) and began to cut off the tails of the cattle. These tails, so it seemed, were slices of melon. This was a horrific realization. Though the cattle didn’t protest, I was deeply impacted by the visceral nature of the task.

I filled a basket[1] with bite-size pieces of cow-tail cantaloupe, and the family gathered in a half-circle to pass the basket around while we blessed the food. The prayer was a beautiful song, sung in parts. The words were unfamiliar but the tune was the same as “Great God the Giver.”[2] I desperately wanted to participate in the sung blessing, but I couldn’t grasp the strange words.

In the end, after the cantaloupe had been passed and the blessing sung, I busied myself repairing a nearby fence, attempting to prop up different parts in order to reinforce the structure of this cow pen. My mind was preoccupied with a conundrum: I had been so disturbed by my earlier encounters with the cantaloupe cattle that I was working to convince myself that becoming an honest-to-goodness vegetarian was a necessity. There was only one serious problem with this proposal: would that mean I could never eat cantaloupe again?

[1] The basket, a play item from my childhood, was pale yellow with chipped paint and many rusty places. Maybe a half-bushel in size, it was made out of wire and had a handle for carrying. It was a totally impractical object for holding cantaloupe slices of any kind. 
[2] Great God the Giver is a song that I’ve heard and begun learning in my Chicago church community. Generally an “insider” when it comes to church music, with this sung prayer I have experienced what it is like to be the person who can’t follow while everyone around is clearly in the know.