29 September 2011

Commuting Costs

Round trip by train from the World Trade Center PATH station through Newark to Long Branch: $26.
  • PATH train: $4.00
  • NJ Transit: $22.00
Some recent expenditures for my bike:
  • new headlight: $20
  • new reflective vest: $4.99 at IKEA
  • spare inner tube: $7
  • tire patch kit: $1.99
Round trip in the car:  $29.07
  • Tolls: $18.60
  • 3 gallons gas: $10.47
Or, round trip in the car, 110 miles at 55.5 cents per mile:  $61.05

Recent car expenditures:
  • Inspection: $37.00
  • Registration: $60
  • Hubcaps: $41.00
There are also psychic costs.  More on those another day.

26 September 2011

Mark Bittman wrote an interesting piece about the price of junk food in the Times this weekend.  He went to the McDonald's near his office and found:
a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28.
He further writes, and I don't doubt he's correct:
You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9.
He acknowledges that if you don't have access to a supermarket, this becomes more difficult:
There are, of course, the so-called food deserts, places where it’s hard to find food: the Department of Agriculture says that more than two million Americans in low-income rural areas live 10 miles or more from a supermarket, and more than five million households without access to cars live more than a half mile from a supermarket.
When we lived in Washington Heights, we lived four-tenths of a mile from a supermarket, in a fifth-floor walk-up.  I'm in good shape.  I've run a marathon, I've done triathlons, I've done a lot of backpacking.  While I didn't maintain that level of conditioning after my son was born, I did continue hiking regularly, walking a lot, biking, and jogging.

But going to the supermarket to do a week's worth of shopping was impossible.  I can carry two bags of groceries reasonably comfortably nearly half a mile and up four flights of stairs.

That's enough food for a couple days, maybe three.  So somebody in the household has to go shopping two or three times a week.

Now add a toddler.  Does the toddler walk?  Too far.  Does the toddler ride in a backpack?  Probably; add two bags of groceries and it becomes quite a strain.  Does the toddler ride in a stroller?  Sounds like a great idea: walk efficiently to the store, load up the stroller, roll it all home.... and how do I get everything up the stairs?

And the quality of the produce at that supermarket was terrible, by the way.  We occasionally paid the premium to shop from FreshDirect, we joined Urban Organic and had a box of good fresh produce delivered once a week, we shopped in other neighborhoods whenever we had the chance.

But still we ordered in or ate out regularly.

Before that apartment, we lived in a ground-floor apartment around the corner from a supermarket. Shopping regularly and carrying home enough for a few days was feasible, and we ate our meals at home.  Now we live in an elevator building around the corner from a supermarket. We shop, we eat in.

How many families living in the lowest income quartile live in apartment buildings without elevators?  How many of those buildings are even a quarter of a mile away from a decent supermarket? 

Mr. Bittman needs to try carrying enough groceries for a week even a quarter of a mile and up several flights of stairs and then revisit his analysis.

23 September 2011

Some Things You Can't Do At The Mall

Get shoes repaired.
Get a watch repaired.
Buy an organic apple.
Buy any kind of apple.
Buy any kind of fresh vegetables, whole-grain products, or pretty much anything healthy to eat.
Look at the view.
Unless by "view" you mean the window display at Victoria's Secret.
Sit under a tree and read a book.
Breathe fresh air.

22 September 2011

Bike of the Week

Parked in the East 70s, caught my eye with the color combination and the painted tires.

21 September 2011

Liking The Mall?!?

I drove to work instead of taking the train today because... well, because I'm tired.  The beginning of the semester is already kicking my butt, and I couldn't wrap my mind around biking, and getting wet, and biking in the dark, and schlepping up and down stairs, and sitting for hours in a train, with no control over the temperature.

(I think I'm fighting a cold.)

And on the drive in, it occurred to me I had time to stop at the mall and buy a watch to replace the Timex Ironman that got wet in the rain and went belly-up a few weeks ago, following the Swiss Railway and Swiss Army watches that have failed me in recent months, and that I don't seem to be able to find time to get repaired.

And once I thought of the mall, I thought of all the other errands I need to do. 

And in one stop, I was able to buy a watch, some birthday presents for The Offspring (eight next week), the basketball I promised him months ago and the lap desk I promised weeks ago, Offspring-sized underwear, a cup of coffee, and a handful of other items I've been needing.  AND a lot of it was on sale.

In the city, this would have required several errands, or a single trip encompassing several bus and/or subway rides, or a long loopy multi-stop journey by bike.  In my mall-less home town, it probably would have required a drive to the next town, and maybe a couple of different next towns.

I've always thought of malls as horrible places, earth-destroying in their sprawl and soul-destroying in the homogeneity of their ostentatiously manufactured indoor environments.  But today I experienced the mall as a place of personal and environmental efficiency.  In fact, had I not run out of time, I could even have gotten more errands run.

Worth thinking about some more....

Recalibrating Goals

Lunch today: home made baked beans, home made applesauce (thanks to The Mate), organic carrots (cooked), organic celery (raw). Dinner: chinese take-out (bean curd and broccoli with curry sauce; no extra charge for the hair).

I've been trying to bring my own lunch to the office.  Less salt, less fat, less money, less throw-away plastic.  But I've decided not to beat myself up if I don't succeed every single day.

I've also been trying to work a weekly swim into the schedule.  Ha! I've decided to try to swim once this month.  If I can do that, maybe I can do it again next month ... and maybe eventually I can work up to twice a month.

I've been trying to take the train and the bike to work as often as possible, to avoid the various ecological and personal stresses of driving 55 miles each way to work.  Yesterday was a long day; The Offspring is sick; I'm tired.  I can't get my mind around carrying the bike up and down all those stairs at the PATH station.*  I'm driving.

In other words, I'm lowering my horizons, reducing my aspirations, giving in to overwork and over-scheduling.  And I'm trying to cut myself a break about it.


* There's an elevator, and escalators, from street level to turnstile level at the WTC PATH, but I haven't found one from the payment level to the train platform.  Maybe I just haven't looked hard enough -- I can't really imagine that it's actually not accessible.  Actually, I can, but I don't want to.

20 September 2011

Could I Live Without A Car?

Last week I worked from home on Monday.  On Tuesday morning I drove to the office; I then commuted back and forth by bike and by train until Friday afternoon, when I drove back home.

Over the course of the week, I spent twelve hours in PATH and NJ Transit trains; biked 27 miles; and drove 110 miles. 

I averaged just under eleven hours a day away from home.  Twenty-four hours in the office, 14 hours working on the train, three hours biking, an hour waiting for trains, and nearly four hours driving.

I got up early every morning to check my email, and checked it again after I got home, to make sure I hadn't missed anything important or interesting during the time in transit.

Downside: it was tiring.  Given that I was pulling ten-hour days, including time spent working on the train and time spent checking email morning and evening, it's probably no wonder.

Upside: I got ahead on reading and writing assignments for my classes, so when the papers start to come in next week, I'll be ready for them.

19 September 2011

Foraging and Farmers' Markets

At the farmer's market yesterday I bought some concord grapes to share with The Offspring.

When I was a kid, on the footpath to school, there was a crabapple tree, and a concord grape vine had twined itself up the trunk and along a branch.  In late fall, I'd climb up there, slide out along the branch -- I wonder if my parents even know this? -- and, suspended eight or ten feet off the ground, eat the grapes.

We've spent enough time hiking where blueberries, blackberries and raspberries grow wild, and picking strawberries and peaches and apples at farms and in orchards, that The Offspring does know how to forage.

Eating grapes, even concord grapes, on a bench in a playground in a park in New York City, just isn't the same.

18 September 2011

Is "Vegetarian Friendly" the Same as "Vegetarian"?

Burnham and Morrill have been making beans in Maine since 1867.  Recently, The Mate came home with this can:
Wait, what does it say in that little green strip?
That's right, "Vegetarian Friendly."  Is "vegetarian friendly" the same as "vegetarian"?  I hope so.  Here's the ingredient list:
The B&G Foods web site doesn't include this product.  I wonder what "spice and color" are made out of.  I've written to them to find out if the product is vegetarian, or, in fact vegan.  I'll let you know if they tell me.

14 September 2011

Blogging While Thankless

My friend and inspiration Julia wrote about thankfulness over at her blog, Lotsa Laundry, the other day. She wrote this:
And so I am struck by this irony: for all the times I've cried, I need a break! I still do not appreciate the respites when they happen. I take 'normal' days as entitlements rather than as answers to prayer. 
I have that problem when it comes to illness.  I was finally able to get out for a run the other day -- first time in eight weeks, after Lyme disease followed by a cold that turned into bronchitis.

Lyme disease has, of course, nothing to do with chronic illness; that I caught it was just a fluke, or a cosmic joke, or an accident, or something.  And after two weeks of antibiotics, I was starting to feel well enough for exercise again.  And two weeks of down time isn't fatal to an exercise plan, even if it's an exercise plan with a half marathon at the end,

Where I got bogged down was with the cold, that left me short of breath on its own, but then turned into bronchitis, which left me really wiped out. 

And that run left me with a big dose of bitterness.  Shouldn't I be thankful that I'm able to run at all, to cover a distance of 2.5 miles, albeit with lots of walk breaks? Shouldn't I be thankful that I'm not worse off?

Instead, I'm angry.  Angry that after gaining fitness for the first half of the summer, I'm back to where I was in the spring, coming off all the winter illnesses.  Angry that I won't be able to do that half marathon -- not this year, and maybe never.

And afraid of what the winter will bring, yet again.  Somehow, I had hoped that being well conditioned would help stave off the winter illnesses.  Not only did that not succeed -- I came down with a "winter illness" in August.

I'll conclude with Julia's closing question: "Is that normal?"  Yes, I suppose it is.  But I wish I could muster something different.

Irritation Is Not The Right Word

My environmental commitments collide with my lungs every time I take a ride on New Jersey Transit.  (That's okay; don't try to picture it.)

I have to stand around on the platform waiting for a train, and almost invariably, some other passenger lights up. And smokers are a particularly suggestible bunch, so as soon as one lights up, others follow. Sometimes I point out they're not allowed to smoke, or ask them if they're aware that smoking is not permitted.  This is always a mistake: they get hostile, they keep smoking. 

Other passengers peer at me. I can never tell if they think I'm a jerk for challenging other people's liberty to pollute the air whenever and whenever they want to, if they're worried that I'm going to go postal next, or if they secretly agree with me but they're worried the smoker is going to go postal.

Sometimes I tell my impromptu audience that I have asthma triggered by cigarette smoke.  This is also a mistake: the smokers get hostile, they continue smoking, and they insist that it can't possible be harming me.  Meanwhile, I feel like a jerk for standing around telling everyone about my health.

I'm taking the train because I want to reduce my environmental impact, and the fact that I ride my bike at each end of the journey is good for my health.

Inhaling cigarette smoke is not good for anyone's health, but it's particularly not good for my health, because it sets off constrictions in my lungs that make it difficult to get oxygen in, and through to my muscles and my brain. It's not just an annoyance.

Try explaining that to the person puffing away under the "No Smoking" sign?  Nahhh.

12 September 2011

Another Thing About Public Transit

Another thing I've discovered I really like about commuting by bike and by train is it forces me to think about what I can carry back and forth, and about what I can accomplish en route.

When I drive a car back and forth to work, I tend to pile in everything I think I might need at the other end.  I end up moving huge piles of stuff home for the weekend, or to the office for the day, and then end up cranky because I didn't have time to deal with it all.

On the bike ride, there's a real limit to how much I can manage, especially since I need to fold the bike up and carry it, and whatever I'm carrying on it, up or down stairs at various points on the journey.  I can't comfortably carry more than about 45 pounds (including the bike) up and down stairs.  25 pounds of bike; 20 pounds of books, papers, water, food, repair tools, waterproofs, helmet, lights and reflectors.

So I take time to think: what can I do on the train?  How much time will I have to get work done at the other end of the train ride? What's most urgent among the pile of stuff I have to get done?  And I've been getting my work done more efficiently and with less guilt, because I have to think very hard about what I can get done and what needs to get done next, rather than shoving everything I might want into the car.

(The people who tell you how to manage your time want me to have asked myself and answered those questions years ago.  And I'm generally fairly good at prioritizing the things I need to do.  The problem is I tend to haul lots of extra stuff in case I get the other stuff done more quickly than expected.  Then, see "cranky.")

The bike/train trip takes just over two and a half hours.  Five hours, round trip in a day: seems like a brutal commute. (If I drive, it's three to four hours, round trip.)  But nearly an hour of that is biking, broken up into four nice little chunks at either end of the train ride.  A half hour is waiting for trains and making the transfer from PATH to NJ Transit or back.  The other three and a half hours is work time.  Uninterrupted work time, with no internet access, no phone calls, nobody coming to my office or my desk at home to ask me for things.

Good work time.

11 September 2011

I Buy Too Many Bags

I buy too many bags, backpacks, messenger bags, purses, waist pouches, computer bags. I always think the next one is going to be the perfect combination of weight, comfort, storage capacity, and organization options.

Francine Jay, also known as Miss Minimalist, has an idea I think is finally going to get me off that treadmill: One in, one out.  She's written several books, and the one I got my hands Kindle on is called Inspiration to Downsize, Declutter, and Simplify.

Her suggestion for managing the accumulation of stuff is that if you're going to buy something, it actually has to replace something that's already in the house, and that will leave the house when the new one comes in.

In other words: Is the bag I want to purchase superior to something I already own?  Is there a bag in the house that I'm willing to get rid of, if this new item I'm contemplating purchasing comes home?

It doesn't sound particularly revolutionary, but in fact it's a whole different way of thinking about stuff. We tend to think in terms of constant addition and accumulation, with the idea that we'll always just keep getting more stuff (and then a bigger house or a bigger storage facility so we have room to keep it all).  Capitalist economy and culture depend on constant new purchases.

Miss Minimalist suggests, though, that we assume that we can own only a finite--and relatively limited--amount, and purchases need to replace things we already own.

The idea has served me well this week.  I own two pairs of shoes that are old, beat up, and uncomfortable, but I've kept them around for way too long with the idea that I might want to wear them some day.  Some day came, and now I have sore feet.  So I've just bought a new pair of shoes, and not one but both are now on their way to the recycle bin.*

Still need to work on the bag problem, though.


*Yes, the recycle bin.  On Sundays, you can take your old clothes, towels, shoes, sheets, and other textiles over to the Greenmarket at Tompkins Square Park.  Other Greenmarkets in New York City** also accept textiles. If the items can still be used, they'll be sold; if not, they're recycled for rags, car seat padding, or insulation.   
**Don't live in New York? Check your area for clothing donation bins and keep your unused clothing and shoes out of the landfull.

10 September 2011


I will never be able to forget.  For me, that day was lived in real life.  A mile away, a building with a hole the shape of an airplane.  A sudden cloud of dust and smoke where a moment ago the building had stood.

Silence.  A stream of silent, shocked witnesses walking uptown.  Military helicopters overhead.  Cars, buses, subways, el trains, cabs, planes -- everything silenced.

Phones dead, internet dead (it was all dial-up, then) and no one knew; would electricity go next? water?  Rumors flew.  I lined up with hundreds of others to give blood for which, it turned out, there was no need.

A day later, my university reopened, and I had to leave the city.  Carrying a small backpack, I walked to Penn Station -- no buses, no trains running. All the bridges and tunnels closed.  New Jersey Transit was running out of the city, but not back in; I didn't know when I'd be able to return.

Eventually, I tracked down news of various friends and family members.  In personal terms I was lucky, because no one I knew died, but that sentiment is no good to those who did lose loved ones.  I had a student whose father was one of the 343 firefighters.  I read about him in the paper.  Somehow, she made it through the term.

Today, I know it's an important commemorative weekend because of the police boats on the river and the helicopters overhead.   A red seaplane taxi-ing around on the East River near 30th Street. Police cruisers with lights on parked at odd spots all over the city.

I didn't have television then; I don't have television now.  Then, I became obsessed with the news; these past few days, I've been carefully avoiding it.  I don't want to see the pictures and the videos, I don't want to relive that day and the days that followed.

I will never forget, I can never forget, the images that remain seared against the backs of my eyeballs.  Do I wish I could?

09 September 2011

I Had To Take A Cab!

I thought I was thoroughly kitted out for biking to and from work in any conditions.  Lights for front and back of the bike; waterproof jacket and pants, gloves, helmet, reflective vest.

And then yesterday I was on Fulton Street on my way to the World Trade Center PATH station, and my front tire felt squishy.  And a moment later, it was flat. And a moment after that, it was most definitely completely flat, entirely out of air.  Fortunately I was close enough to the station to hop off and walk, and still have time to make my train.

On the train, I dug out my glasses and checked the tire, and found several pieces of brown glass still wedged into it.  Thanks, whoever tossed a beer bottle onto the pavement....  One good sized gash in the tire told me there was no way the tube was going to hold air.

And I have no spare tire, not even a patch kit, and no tire levers on me.  And no time to walk the two miles at the other end of the train ride.  I had to take a cab to campus.
Back at home, I bought a new patch kit from the bike shop around the corner and dug out the tools.  First time I've ever needed glasses to see what I was doing while patching a tire. Also the first time I've needed six patches to fix one blow-out.  (Next time I'm down to the rims, maybe I'll hop off the bike faster.)

08 September 2011

Summer By The Numbers

1 family reunion
1 night camping on an island
1 tick bite
1 wedding celebration
1 expired passport
1 article accepted for publication
1 conference proposal turned down
1day at Coney Island
2 articles finished and sent out
2 marmots eating carrots and peanuts out of The Offspring's hands
3 suitcases lost misplaced by the baggage handlers at Heathrow
3 countries
4 nights camping next to a field of sheep
4 weeks of antibiotics
4.5 weeks of vacation
5 gondola rides up Swiss mountains
5 days without luggage
6 European cities and towns
8 hours flight delay
15 train stations
20th anniversary
82 assorted relatives at the family reunion
3 million Borrelia (give or take)

All in all, a good summer, despite the unexpected developments.

07 September 2011

Cyclist of the Week

This is Andrea Diodati of electric love light. I asked her if I could take her picture because I loved the way her dress was billowing out around her as she rode along Bleecker Street.  She told me that her bike has been her primary mode of transportation around the city for the past five years.
 I also love these awesome platform shoes.  Just wish she had a helmet ... maybe she'll design one to match.

Ride safely, everyone!

06 September 2011

Props to the Commish

At the beginning of the summer, I rode my bike from the Lower East Side to the New York Public Library -- the research branch on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue.  It was a hair-raising ride accompanied by aggressive cab drivers, city buses disgorging passengers going in all directions, and in fact vast numbers of pedestrians doing all kinds of crazy things.  I kind of felt lucky to get home alive.

So I emailed the Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, to tell her the city needs more bike access to midtown.  Since she was appointed to the position by Mayor Bloomberg in 2007, she's been a huge advocate for cyclists.  Eventually, between responding to criticism of new bike lanes, she had a chance to get back to me with an email message that was mostly boilerplate about how many new miles of bike lanes the city has installed in the past half a decade, but concluded by acknowledging that Midtown ... needs work.

On the plus side, I recently cycled from 181st Street all the way down to West 10th Street.  The last time I did that ride, there were parks along sections of the river, but between them, you had to go out into the street or through a parking lot, or you could choose between street and a dirt path a couple feet above the water.

Now, it's a wonderful, uninterrupted path from one end of Manhattan to the other.  What a great ride.

05 September 2011


Turns out it was in fact an even dozen trees that came down near us during Irene.  Seven in the courtyard between the next building and the FDR drive; two in the sidewalk just north of the courtyard, and three more in Corlears Hook Park, across the street to the south.
Those would be historic bricks, the remains of a dockyard on the location until the land was cleared for park space at the end of the nineteenth century.
Part of the fence by 455 FDR Drive. The workers cleaned up the bus shelter nearby with a shovel -- the glass was pulverized.
This one was 75 years old, give or take.
There was a bench here. Thankfully, there weren't any people under any of those trees, and given the number of trees down and the amount of flooding all up and down the eastern seaboard, it's a wonder more people weren't hurt.