posts tagged with 'driving'

driving guilt

We've been driving too much lately. Monday, for example: Leah and the boys went to Lowell for an appointment, then as soon as they got back Harvey, Zion, and I headed right back out to go grocery shopping. Yesterday we drove to the farmers market, rather than cycling—for the third week in a row. The car is convenient. We can get the boys places with a minimum of whining, carry everything we might need instead of having to plan more carefully, and save travel time on busy days. But it doesn't really feel good.

You don't even need to feel that all our driving is responsible for the Syrian refugee crisis to think the car is a bad deal. Kelly at Root Simple wrote a post the other day lamenting the death of a mountain lion, killed by a car while crossing I-5; starting with a look at the obfuscating term "roadkill", she builds to a resolute indictment of car culture and its cost to animals and people alike. One million animals a day killed by cars in the US—and those are the ones people bother to count—and over 30,000 people a year. Not to mention, "climate change, air pollution, noise pollution, light pollution, habitat loss, urban sprawl, songbird harassment—all of the rest of indicators of the unspeakably high cost of the personal automobile."

As it is now, driving the car—or asking other folks to drive to us—helps us stay part of a geographically distributed community. We go to church in Cambridge, Bible study with friends in Arlington, and homeschool coop in Malden. We invite friends over from Lowell and West Roxbury. I don't want to lose any of those connections; but can I talk about changing the system if I can't make sacrifices like that myself?

Right now what we do is try to skip the car when it's easy to do so: when we're making trips in town, when we're not bringing the kids, when extra travel time is built into the schedule. But we're only trying: last week Zion and I took the car less than half a mile up to the library because it was raining. Pretty lame. Any suggestions?

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apology

I'm sorry. In a moment of weakness, I drove to work yesterday, and it was a mistake. Not only for me personally—I had fine reasons, with a touch of sickness and a fairly broken bicycle, but it ended up taking me longer in the car than it would have on the snowy bike path—but for the city as a whole. There are too many cars everywhere, and I felt terrible for adding one more to the mess! The Greater Boston area just isn't built for this much snow.

At least, it isn't built for this much snow together with this many cars. As I sat on Mass Ave, stationary for minutes at a time, and watched the cyclists braver and wiser than I roll easily past through the slop, I wondered how much better the traffic situation would be if even, oh, ten percent of the folks in cars could be on bikes instead? Or what about a quarter? How many commuters could possibly bike instead of drive? Lots, I bet... if the infrastructure were better.

Because part of the problem is that, with the tremendous effort towns are putting into clearing the roads for cars, bike paths and sidewalks are being neglected. Sure, most of the main bikeways are now cleared shortly after each storm—for which I'm ever so grateful!—but they only get one pass for every ten or twenty on the roads, which means that they often end up with a messy inch or two of snow. They're not impassible by any means, but it does slow you down a lot. That's another reason why I wimped out yesterday.

I shouldn't have. As it turns out, side streets in Cambridge are even worse, covered with several inches of soft dirty snow still and hemmed in by cars embedded in snow banks. Those cars were probably parked there after the first storm or two, so they were already squeezing in on the road; now completely buried they turn what used to be two-way streets into narrow canyons that I felt nervous about being able to fit through. And that's just Cambridge... what must Boston be like?!

So yeah, I'm sorry I drove. I won't do it again. And if you need to get around this winter, try cycling! Even if you're not a very quick rider you'll get to enjoy the very pleasant experience of passing lots of cars... and of knowing you're no longer part of the problem, but part of the solution!

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sounds louder than "easy wind and downy flake"

The boys and I walked up to the library late this afternoon, and back after dark. Well, Harvey and I walked; after the first twenty or thirty steps Zion rode in the stroller, wrapped up in blankets and a towel against the damp. It was a pleasant wintery evening: warmer that it has been, though damp and raw, and with a fine snowfall sparkling in the air. We sang "Winter Wonderland" on the way up (as well as many choruses of "Willaby Wallaby", with all the names we could think of). Nearly free of whining, it was an almost perfect transportation walk except for one thing: the roar of passing cars that made it just about impossible to hold a conversation.

You don't notice it so much when you're inside them, but cars are pretty loud—and all the more so when the road is wet. Even as slow as they're moving in town—not much more than thirty miles per hour anywhere along our evening's route—the noise of the tires was enough that Harvey and I had to just about shout to talk to each other, and Zion, talking out of his pile of blankets, didn't have a hope of making himself heard.

I don't have any hope of improving the situation, or any idea of what could even be done in a perfect world. At least living where we do we always have the option, when we want to be able to talk while walking, of heading out to the woods or fields. But that way we don't get anywhere useful. I can't even claim any moral high ground, since this winter I've been driving around town at least as much as I've been walking, and our new car has giant wheels that are probably even louder than average.

There's probably a broader point to be made about externalities here, but I'm too sleepy to come up with it. When it comes to driving, maybe it's just that it's hard for people behind the wheel to remember that anything external to their vehicle even exists. I'll try and fight that as I drive, and while I can't do much about the noise I'll be careful not to splash pedestrians with water from puddles, or honk my horn where it could startle someone. That—and trying to drive a little less—might make the world a tiny bit better.

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the car, the suburbs, the feminine mystique

We've done a lot of driving this summer. Sometimes I feel like my radical parenting impulses are torn in two directions. On one hand I want to be homesteading, showing the kids how to sew and make jam, raise animals, be content playing in the woods and, I don't know, some idealized version of childhood that doesn't actually work with my children. Because the home is where they hit each other with blocks, so my other impulse is to present my children with exciting new adventures. Sans blocks. To that end we find ourselves hopping in the car every day to scoot off to God knows where, some museum or farm or beautiful river where I pretend like I didn't know they were going to swim.

the boys swimming in the concord river

golly gee, passers by, if I'd have only know I would have brought their swimsuits

I love adventures. I love the way I can't be distracted by chores and I'm forced to pay attention to my children. Sometimes I play with them in the river or at the museum and it's just fantastic. THIS is parenting! i announce to myself. Sometimes I merely facilitate the transportation of kids, diapers, clothing changes, and one thousand pounds of snacks to and from various exciting locations. On this trip to the river I carried a bag of beach toys, a bag of snacks, the bag with the diapers and towels, the stroller and the dog, and I SHOULD have brought the Ergo with me because Harvey broke down at the end and refused to use his legs to make any forward progress towards the car. And there's everyone, all the thousand tourists and park rangers at the Concord bridge, looking concerned in my direction and asking, "Is he hot? There's a water fountain over there!" As if I wasn't keenly aware that I'm carrying not one but THREE water bottles — indeed that's the reason I can't PICK UP MY SCREAMING CHILD all the stupid bags in my hand. And I just felt like, well, my mother used to say she felt like a "beast of burden" and I wouldn't go that far but I did feel like an ass.

harvey swimming in the concord river

Harvey swimming happily before mama ruined his day

The problem at the river was that the dog was barking because HE wanted to go home. Or sometimes it's the baby crying because HE wants to go to sleep. Or sometimes it's me who's bored because I don't have a smart phone. Because paying attention to my children is lovely but oh my word I do it for many many minutes a day.

The problem is, Harvey has a longer attention span for staying somewhere than anybody else in the family. And Harvey gets to make A LOT of decisions about what we do, but duration isn't one of them. So there are tantrums. Which, I don't know, when my kid is having a tantrum I enter this horrible place of mental redundancy where I think: haven't we done this before? Haven't a million parents done this before? And I have to sit through this AGAIN? Like, why isn't the tantrum problem solved for all humanity?

Which sounds remarkably calloused to the emotional needs of my children. Sometimes I think I'm a working mother in an attachment parent's body.

Once I had my kids at the mall food court (crappy hippy that I am) and there was a kid at the table next to us throwing a tantrum about his meal and his caretaker said, "This is the food we have. You can eat it or not but you need to sit in your seat until everyone else is finished." Which is a perfectly reasonable thing to say, I would say the same thing, but in my head came the phrase, "A thousand little prisoners and a thousand little jailers."

But I got off track. I had wanted to write a post about driving.

We have done a lot of driving this summer, and the thing I notice in between beautiful playgrounds and swimming holes (that we feel very blessed to visit, don't get me wrong) is miles and miles of sprawling suburbs. Another house with another lawn over and over and over again. All made out of ticky-tacky, all watered with underground sprinkler systems. And I've just felt like, Oh God. I've got to get out of here.

I'm reaching a point with the suburbs and the cars and it's fight or flight.

My friend Jo said something so poignant to me the other day. "I feel like my kids are going to ask me, 'Why did you keep driving when you knew it was unsustainable?' And I don't have an answer to that question." It kind of hit me like a ton of bricks, because it's true. Why did you keep ruining the environment, mom and dad? Because we lived in the suburbs. Because you and your brother kept hitting each other when I tried to do stuff in the house. Because you loved new playgrounds and ponds and museums.

Our generation's equivalent of "Why didn't you stand up to the Nazis?"

harvey standing up at the river

Harvey in a disposable diaper because he outgrew the cloth ones and potty training dash the environment is less important than getting them to stop hitting each other

This isn't really a coherent argument about anything other than my general malaise with living in the suburbs. Which really might just be general malaise about parenting. Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique: I ask women about their lives and they give me a list of tasks. Get up, load the laundry, feed the baby, on and on. There is no substance to these women's lives other than their chores. (I'm paraphrasing here because I can't find the actual quote. I don't own the book and google isn't smart enough to deliver it to me based on my vague searches.) Obviously Friedan wasn't a Marxist. Of course our labor defines us. To put it in more obvious terms, our life is pretty much made up of what we do all day. But that's an argument for another day. What I'm trying to say is, I'm starting to feel like Friedan's housewives, with a problem that has no name, and I'm trying to name it "driving" or "capitalism" or "living in the suburbs," when Friedan might have been wrong it might just be that life with young children is sometimes tedious.

Maybe it's just tantrums. Dear Lord, I see where Harvey gets it from.

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auto adventures

Leah and Zion coming down the giant slide at Robbins Farm Park

whee!

We don't just adventure out of state—we do plenty of fun things around here too. Yesterday we met the Stevens family at Arlington's Robbins Farm Park, and we all had a great time at the playground. True, the giant slide wasn't for everybody: Harvey didn't mind climbing the steps, but he wasn't so sure about the sliding down part. Luckily he found another way.

Harvey walking down a clover-covered hill

in clover

After that we got some ice cream.

I was all set to, in this post, write about how happy I was to have rediscovered automobile transportation. When we were in Maine we all really enjoyed being able to range widely and stop whenever something caught our attention—or when someone needed a break from the car. Now that we once again have two working motor vehicles and two legally licensed drivers, I figured we could have some of that same freedom in the metro-Boston area: why not drive all over the place and, say, find a new playground every day?! But then I read this article, and never mind—we have to get back to human transportation. That's alright, I need to be getting more exercise anyways.

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societal breakdown

Twice in the couple days I've had occasion to drive on Rt 128 southbound down below Rt 9, where four lanes become three and "breakdown lane traffic" becomes legal from 6:00-10:00am and 4:00-7:00pm. It's terrifying.

Most obviously, folks driving in the breakdown lane means you have nowhere to go if your car actually breaks down. With my '97 Subaru with a non-functioning gas gauge, the possibility is always at the back of my mind so I like to keep my escape routes open! Beyond that, the road simply isn't designed for high-speed travel in that lane. It's about two feet narrower than the actual travel lanes, and it has no white line on the right-hand side—nothing between you and the barrier. This is especially bad when exits and on-ramps are involved. You have to be a special kind of person to just drive right over the lines designed to corral you onto the road, at high speed.

And high speed is really the big issue. In stop-and-go traffic I can maybe understand the value of another lane, especially for folks who are exiting soon. But that's not what I've seen the last couple days. Instead, traffic has been moving fine and a few drivers are treating the breakdown lane like another fast lane. Nothing like getting passed on the right just as you're about to exit! Even worse is trying to merge onto the road: with cars moving along the far right of the road, the designed merge area is a danger zone. Instead of having time to check the traffic situation while driving straight, you're forced to merge immediately—like those terrible Rt 128 on-ramps up north in Peabody and Danvers but with four lanes instead of two and faster traffic.

I didn't enjoy it. I suppose if you do it every day you get used to it?

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street legal

It's kind of a cliche at this point, but I have trouble with getting my car inspected. I fail at many things in life, but none so dramatically and disastrously as making sure my vehicle passes the standards set by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Besides the two instances recorded above, I also drove for over a year with an expired sticker after we moved back from California (and got caught; the only time that's happened, yet) and had another instance of failure in 2009. I'm surprised I didn't write about that one; now I can't remember the details.

So you won't be shocked to hear that it happened again. In fact, since I got my last sticker in May of 2009 (I actually got it in July or something, but I got a May sticker cause that's when my first—failed—test too place), I haven't darkened the door of the testing facility... until yesterday.

Actually, that's not quite true: I darkened the Gulf Station on Bedford Street in Lexington, but they wouldn't even look at my car once they noticed that the front license plate was off. They wouldn't even fail me! That license plate was actually the same issue that bedeviled me back in 2009, and you'll notice I did manage to pass that year without fixing it.

In any case, this year saw yet more problems. Already three months late for inspection back August, I had two errands I needed to accomplish before going back to work: the inspection, and getting some lumber to hold up a new clothesline. Disastrously, I chose to do them in the wrong order and when the lumber—2 10-foot long 4X4 timbers—cracked my windshield, all hope of a timely passing grade disappeared. Oh well, I wanted to bike to work anyhow.

I actually thought all was lost, but at some point in the winter it was suggested to me that the broken windshield might actually be covered by insurance. Hey, maybe I can actually get something for all that money I give them every month! But first, I had to make sure the car would even start after, oh, four and a half months sitting neglected in the driveway (it was actually the need to pick up the mattress for Harvey's new bed that motivated me to get it running again). It did, and a couple hundred dollars at the oil change place saw it running as smooth as new.

Then the insurance folks were remarkably compliant, as were the ladies and gentlemen at JN Phillips Auto Glass in Burlington, and the windshield was repaired while I waited (with my family at LL Bean) at no cost to me. Then a thousand dollars or so on new brakes etc. (thanks to a very kind birthday gift), and I was ready to go. Oh yeah, the brake and alignment guys also put my license plate back on for me.

After all that, the inspection after work on Thursday was positively anti-climactic. Less than 15 minutes in and out, no problems. Though I do admit that, having lived outside the law for as long as I did, it'll take me a little while to stop scanning the roads for police cars and picking my routes to minimize likely encounters with them. I even took the highway home instead of going through Lexington, for that very reason, with the beautiful new sticker right there on my windshield! It's orange again.

So yeah. Do I have to do that all again next year?

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stopping by woods every morning

Yesterday on my way to work I was stopped by a cop for totally not even pausing at the stop sign at the end of the street by our house. It was totally deserved, so I was glad to hear that living around the corner meant I got a warning rather than a ticket. It made me think, though, about the logic of stop signs and the enforcement thereof. After all, the intersection in question has great visibility for folks turning right, as I was. There was no danger, then, from my not stopping; unlike the situation today, when I did stop (of course!) and then decided I could make it out before the oncoming car got there. Which I did with no problem, but still: unless you get in a wreck, there's no penalty for poor judgment in pulling out, as long as you stop first. What does this mean for America? I don't know. But it really makes you think.

road work season

We were driving in Lexington yesterday when all of a sudden the pavement ended. Well, Leah was driving, and I was sitting in the passenger seat ready to yell "look out!" when we descended abruptly from the 21st century to the 19th, street technology-wise at least. She had things under control, though, and didn't really need my warning. The "Road Work Ahead" sign was, usefully, around the next bend.

The lack of pavement is apparently catching, because today they took the top layer off South Road by us here. The Bedford construction crews give much more warning, however, both in space and time. Not only is the work well-signed, but the DPW or whoever left three messages at our house letting us know they were going to be tearing up the street. And even if I weren't alerted, I couldn't complain too much: with all the blacktop missing the road is now rather smoother than it is ordinarily.

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baby I can drive my car

I have driven my car very little over the past two or three months. There are two reasons for this, and as it happens they reinforced each other to form one unstoppable super-reason. Briefly, when I stopped student teaching I didn't really need to go anywhere that required a car more than once or twice a week, so consequently I neglected to renew my inspection sticker or change my oil for rather longer than perhaps was prudent. With a sticker that had expired in January and an oil tank (or whatever it is) that should have been refilled at about the same time, I was even less inclined to take to the roadways. And when I was forced to by circumstances, it was a nervous time, what with fears of being pulled over or having my engine leap out of the car like in those commercials for motor oil. You know the ones I mean.

However, the situation is now reversed! I got my inspection sticker (with considerably less drama than last time) and my oil, and I celebrated by driving 30 miles round trip to get new boots. The call of the open road, baby! Actually, I felt kind of bad about that. Shouldn't there be a bootery located more conveniently close to Bedford? But there is not. Still, now whenever we go anywhere I'm all like, "I'll drive! I'll drive! Let's take my car!" It's nice to have it back.

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