Thursday, December 20, 2012

Motivated By Freedom

Low automobile usage can mean fewer miles traveled, fewer trips taken by car, or just less time spent inside of one. We all get to define it for ourselves based on our motivations. Some people strive to save money. For them, fewer miles - and less of that $3.98 per gallon gas - may be the incentive. Others hate feeling boxed up inside of a machine or are scared of erratic drivers and have no patience for traffic jams. Limiting the time spent driving might be their motivator. Then there are folks who are inspired to live an earth-friendlier life. Any of these metrics could apply to them.

But me, my motivation is freedom. It might seem counter-intuitive here in the United States, where open roads and a Ford convertible symbolize youth and liberation. My low-car flame was sparked when I was 12 – too young to drive - and I saw it as just the opposite: a burden. Riding in a car made me dependent on things outside of my control.

If Mom drove me to softball practice, it meant waiting for her to get home after work. Getting a ride meant pacing impatiently, being late and missing warm-ups. It meant corralling my baby sister and strapping her writhing body into a seatbelt (I grew up before children’s car seats), then suffering her flailing limbs and stinky diaper as I sat next to her in the car. It meant listening to the inevitable bickering between my two teenage sisters, if per chance Mom had chosen to combine my drop-off with delivering Shawn to ballet class and Liz to a friend’s house.

Luckily, softball practice was held at a playground only a mile away from my house. I discovered early on the many benefits of using my own two legs to get there. They far outweighed the traditional benefits of driving.

One – I got to leave when I was ready, not when the last slowpoke in our 7-member family finally dragged herself off the couch, fished her missing shoe out from behind the TV and remembered everything she needed for whatever endeavor she was off to.

Two – Being a stickler for punctuality, I arrived early and stayed off the coach’s naughty-list, simultaneously reaping the full rewards that warm-up drills, gossip and brown-nosing had to offer.

Three – I could vary my route to pass conveniently by the house of whichever boy I had a crush on that week. Fantasy chance-meetings filled my head as I calculated the timing with the highest probability of me passing his front door at exactly the same moment he stepped out. I would imagine our interaction. Him: “Oh, Hi Cathy, What brings you around this neighborhood?” Me (innocently): “Oh, me? Shucks, I was just going to softball practice!” Him (suspiciously): “Doesn’t your team practice at that park 3 miles from here? Are you lost? This is the third time I’ve seen you walk by this hour.” Me: “Uhhh…well…ummm….”

Four – I got to be outside, in Portland, in the summertime – what could be better than that?

Five – I usually ran to practice. Running built my muscles and endurance and made me a healthier kid. And I killed two birds with one stone, combining transportation and exercise. My teammates thought I was weird. They would ask me why I ran everywhere. “It’s just like walking, but faster,” I said. Truly, running to softball practice as a 12-year old set the stage for a lifetime of fitness and multi-tasking.

As a kid, eschewing the car when possible served as an important building block of growing up for me. The number of engagements I attended on my own slowly grew. I ventured out from our house, the centerpoint of larger and larger circles, and my arsenal of transportation choices grew to include a bike, Tri-Met and occasionally two roller skates. By transporting myself to important events, I learned responsibility and planning and I got to know my city in walkable chunks. My mom was relieved of some of the hardship of ferrying yet another kid around. But best of all, getting around without a car – or a grown-up - brought independence.

As my sisters waited around for our softy father to drive them to school, I stuck my nose in the air and walked, whatever the weather. It became a point of pride that I could take care of my own travel needs. As I hit my teens, I found myself easily running home at midnight after underage house-parties, 6 beers in my gut and flip-flops on my feet. Being self-reliant allowed me to avoid the high-school drama of begging friends for a ride and the shame of having my mom, decked out in curlers and bathrobe, pick me up from the scene of the illicit gathering. Sucking air as I ran converted my beer-breath to a natural, fresh-air scent and the wind whipping through my hair cleansed away any lingering clove-cigarette smoke. It also sobered me up a bit. Most important, however, was the fact that I never once had to ride home with a drunk teenager.

Of course, I never lived completely free of cars. Like most young people, I bought one for myself as a college student. Cars are very useful when you live 2 hours from Mom’s Thanksgiving dinner or when you get the urge to go to Mexico for the weekend. But something about my experience as an adolescent had set. Cars meant gas and repairs, tickets and parking spots. Driving felt like schlepping a large backpack into a crowded party – I always had to arrange for the car’s safekeeping (and pay for it). Although the car carried me to where I wanted to go, I felt the mental weight of it pressing down on me as if it were I doing the hauling.

Those rudimentary lessons from when I was a child still color my attitude and my lifestyle choices today. Yes, I drive. But whenever I can escape the burdens of bringing along my 2-ton, 4-door anchor, I choose another way. I choose freedom.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Pros of Chemotherapy

Every cancer patient’s chemo treatment is different - different drugs, different doses, different effects. But overall, I think chemo gets a bad rap. The general public is horrified and frightened upon hearing its name, imagining Holocaust-era victims looked haggard and starved by its application. That isn’t the case for the majority of recipients, including me. In fact, Chemo has its advantages. I believe some education is needed, so here are a few of them:
  • No more shaving. Body hair tends to thin during chemo. I don’t have to shave my armpits, and my legs remain smooth for months at a time without the application of a razor blade.
  • Frizzy, fly-away hairdos are a thing of the past. With less hair on my head, my hairstyles tend to be sleeker and flatter, a boon for those of us with kinky, tangled fros.
  • Women at least will appreciate this one – Pubic hair coverage shrinks to a small and dainty triangle, making me feel younger and more feminine. The normally unkempt swatch marking my genital area is all of a sudden cute again.
  • Better nutrition. Cancer elicits a sense of loss of control. As a result, patients take control where they can, which in my case involves an improved diet. I have real incentive to eat healthier because – well, it might help.
  • Weight loss. The fact is that most Americans are overweight. Chemo tends to cause nausea. Patients are unable to eat normally for a day or more during each chemo cycle. This, combined with chemo’s tendency to deplete muscle mass, leads to weight loss.
  • Chemo reduces stress.  Because infusions take all day, it makes me slow down. Cell phones are forbidden in the infusion room, so I am not clinching high-powered deals or negotiating multi-million dollar contracts on chemo day. I am forced to relinquish myself to a more relaxed state. Sitting still for a long period of time reminds me, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The stresses of work, children, spouse and bills fade in comparison.
  • Chemo grants me a vacation day once every three weeks! That’s almost as good as the Swedish government!
  • I could be mistaken for a teenager because of all the chemo-related zits on my face. Who wouldn’t want to be carded at 45?
  • I have a valid excuse for not exercising – the ‘hand and foot syndrome’ caused by my drug regiment leaves my feet red-hot and sore when walking more than a mile. I really do have to sit on my ass and eat (sugar-free) bonbons.

    But the number one advantage of chemotherapy, a ‘plus’ that cannot be beat by aspirin, anti-coagulants, or caffeine? I get to live.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

I Don’t Get Around Much

I know next to nothing about Getaround – an experimental, private car-sharing service being piloted in Portland. But I typed in their website to see what it was all about.

I will start with this disclaimer: I have two cars, and they are both old and ugly. The first is a 14-year old mini-van that grows mushrooms in the carpet; the second, a 4-door sedan with a back seat full kids’ crumbs and dirt clods (and possibly a shriveled french fry or two). I hardly use either of them, but I doubt anyone else would want to use them either.

Both have body damage. Both appear distinctly un-cared for and un-loved. They are not stored under dust-proof covers. They are not buffed and polished once a week – heck, they might get hosed off once a year! My cars are not pampered California cars, sipping premium oil concoctions while getting their tires brushed and rotated at the corner auto boutique. Being a native Portlander, I don’t treat my cars like dependents or pets. They are not members of the family. I don’t identify with them, nor do they convey to the world my personality or my desirability by their make, model or accessories. I may be the coolest chick in town (ask my friends), but you’d never know it from looking at my rides.

My cars get me from one place to another on rainy, dark nights, or when the hills are steep or the distance long. I drive them to retrieve heavy things, to move family members to and from appointments and to get things done when I’m in a hurry. They are purely functional.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a responsible car owner, changing the oil on schedule, fixing whatever clanks or hisses immediately. I count on my vehicles, and make sure that they are there for me when I need them. These two vehicles, as dinged-up and ungainly as they are, are assets, tools in my toolbox that deliver convenience and versatility at a reasonable cost. However, our four-person family puts less than 12,000 miles annually on the two combined (we’ve driven the van about 40,000 miles in 12 years). This is why Getaround piqued my curiosity. These cars could be more productive, generating a small income for me and allowing someone else cheap mobility without a big down payment. It seems environmental and efficient. But what about the risk?

When a friend uses my car, I am always aware of the potential liability I bear. I have never done the research to determine exactly what I could be sued for, but have counted on my friends to be responsible drivers and trustworthy human beings. There is always the possibility that someone could get in my car and end up killing someone, or being killed. This was forefront in my mind as I tentatively browsed the Getaround website. Unfortunately, the site didn’t give many details about their insurance policy other than stating, “Coverage includes liability, collision, property damage, and uninsured motorist protection.” If someone rents my car and slams into a school bus, or loses control in the McDonald’s drive through, can I be sued?

The answer is unclear. In fact, the Getaround website doesn’t spell out much on any topic. The website’s “Tour” uses only 258 words to explain the entire concept. The creators seem to assume that users are either lawyers or simply lacking in prudent curiosity. So, hesitantly, I clicked “Sign up”, reminding myself that I could always back out afterwards if anything seemed unsavory, loose or sketchy.

Registering my car felt like dipping my toes into the dating pool – I felt simultaneously self-aggrandizing and exposed. The app connected to my Facebook account, and my profile picture popped up on my Getaround account so that renters would know what I look like. It asked for the exact address where the car is located, pinpointing my house on a map so that renters can find the car. Finally, it encouraged photos of the car so that renters will know what they are getting. If I had never heard of serial-killers trolling the internet for victims, I would have felt naively safe with the straight-forward process. As it were, I felt extremely uneasy with the fact that my face, my address and photos of my house and car would be available to any random renter. Here I was, purposefully compiling the perfect set of data for lunatic misogynists. All that was missing were my measurements.

The website assured me that Getaround maintains rigorous standards to verify users’ identities and driving histories, but it didn’t mention criminal backgrounds. Can they guarantee that a ‘casual renter’ isn’t just casing me, my home and my family? I felt vulnerable and worried, but in the end, I figured that I could escape at any moment by deleting my account. Or at least that is what I hoped – the website wasn’t very forthcoming about how to delete an account if you changed your mind.

I decided that a good hauling vehicle was something the carless public might appreciate, so I started with my 1989 Plymouth Voyager. I described it honestly and depreciatingly – noting the smell, the moisture, the six-foot scrape along the passenger side. While these kinds of details might deter Happy-Faced-Killer-types (I hoped), they spelled out clearly what kind of a car I was offering. My automotive honesty was the equivalent of telling members that I was fat, stupid and had bad breath.

“If that doesn’t quell the complainers, I don’t know what would,” I thought to myself.

Next, I had to decide on how much to charge. I wanted to make its occasional absence from my driveway worth the trouble, yet price it commensurately with how it would be used. College boys would not be cruising for girls in it. Moms would not choose it to drive the soccer team to the beach. Primarily, it would be used for hauling left over garage sale items to Goodwill, picking up furniture from Ikea, or maybe transporting grandma’s Great Dane to the vet. If it were me, how much would I spend to be able to check those kinds of items off of my to-do list?\

I decided that $9 was about how much I would pay to avoid the unsightly, post-yard-sale, “Free” pile outside my house. Nine dollars was less than a quarter of the $47 cost to have bark chips delivered, but the entire shipping cost for a single sheet of plywood from Home Depot. I shrugged and clicked “Continue”, still holding open the possibility of cancelling the whole thing if it didn’t suit me. I entered the car’s VIN and license and downloaded some photos – I didn’t bother to wash it first. Finally, I was satisfied with the scrappy promotion of my little-ugly-duckling-that-could. Someone, somewhere in Portland would surely find value in a cheap, hauling vehicle that they didn’t even have to clean afterwards. I clicked “Save”.

The website considered my submission and, after a few seconds, responded, “Hey, your car doesn't meet our eligibility criteria—we can only insure cars made in 1995 or newer with less than 150,000 miles. We're working with our insurance provider to offer more options in the future. Stay tuned.”

Oh. I see. Car-sharing is more like online dating than I had thought.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Mysterious Signals

The water-glass windows in the 100 year old homes that align my bike route contain almost imperceptible patterns of undulating waves, formed during their production in turn-of-the-century glass making plants. As I rode by, the beautiful imperfections refracted infiltrating light and sent out magical, miniscule rainbows when the early morning sun hit them at just the right angle. The Willamette River surprised me with a surface just as smooth and enchanting.

In fact, the entire morning was shrouded in mysteriousness. But it only dawned on me in increments. The first oddity was a new lightness in my bedroom at 6:30 AM, due to daylight savings time, no doubt, but also represented in a feeling of lightness in my body. My shoulders felt strangely normal, unlike the past two months of waking to swollen tightness and discomfort. My intestines were at peace – gone were the typical reactions to my daily prescription and poor digestion. My skin was warm as I lay there nakedly enjoying the feel of soft flannel sheets and the tawny heat emanating from my own personal heater, my husband. His smooth skin touched me at places – his arm thrown across my waist, his legs intertwined with mine – and connected me to something plain and visceral, yet representative of an emotional grounding that maybe had been missing in the past. I awoke feeling well-rested. I felt good. After two and a half years of a gradual build-up of the opposite, the sensation was disorienting.

I lay there in bed, slowly noticing and taking in the change. Another anomaly: although it was November, the house was warm. I was able to turn back the blankets and rise from my resting place without so much as a shiver. I didn’t hunch my shoulders against the chill air that would usually bite at the back of my neck this time of day, this time of year. I walked upright, leisurely, naked, to the bathroom. I didn’t even need slippers as I stepped onto its shiny tile floor.

The sense of otherworldliness continued as I easily dressed, ate breakfast, took my pills and gathered my things for the day. The family was on auto-pilot. There was not a hitch. Both daughters calmly took care of themselves, without bickering or fighting, getting out the door easily on time and in good cheer. The newspaper sat squarely on the door mat, greeting me with thankfully benign headlines. The neighbor cat who sleeps on our front porch accepted pets without biting. The yellow leaves from our Tree of Heaven floated down gently and rhythmically. The day glowed hesitantly grey, but promisingly.

I kissed my husband goodbye – his face was pleasantly smooth from a fresh shave. The absence of disagreements and negative interactions between us over the past few weeks seemed to culminate in the kiss as a new symbol of simplicity for our relationship. It was easy to kiss him, to be genuinely concerned for his recently hurt back, to wish him a good day and mean it. This day, suddenly, was a day without resentment or struggle between us. Goodwill and the simple courtesies of a life shared had, overnight, replaced less noble motivators of the past.

On my bike, the ride to work felt as though it was aided by an invisible hand. I glided along effortlessly, circling my legs in a rhythm that brought pleasure, not strain. The sky, while full of high heavy rainclouds, somehow also shone brightly, giving the day a luminosity like underwater fluorescent creatures that mysteriously glow in the deepest of reaches. The humble yet solid design of the neighborhood, with its 2-bedroom bungalows and small, unkempt yards, welcomed passers-by with its damp but genuine hospitality. Fifty-foot deciduous trees slowly bathed the streets, leaf by leaf, in hues of auburn and gold. The peacefulness permeated residents who stepped calmly through their morning rituals wearing raincoats, although it wasn't raining. Moms walked tussle-headed kids to the school bus stop; high school students crossed the street in ones and twos at the crosswalks; cafĂ© patrons sipped their steaming paper cups of caffeine.

There was no wind. As I pedaled closer to the river, the stillness became clear. The silver surface of the water looked smeared on, like a finger painting done with oils. The texture was luscious instead of choppy, clean and beautiful like a young salmon, gliding and melding slowly with the surrounding colors, without sharp edge or frayed border. Car traffic was light. A quietness gently filled the space between buildings where typically engines clanked and droned. People along the way seemed relaxed. No one hurried. Even the bikers were less aggressive coming up the incline to the Hawthorne bridge.

The plethora of harmony awed me, yet disconcerted me. It was in the air and in the water, on the faces of the people I passed, and on my skin, in my bones. Why was today different than any other? I thought, “Today represents a new normal, a relaxing starting place for peaceful healing within me and around me. I have turned the corner and am getting well.” I also thought, “These signals are the quiet before the storm - harbingers of a raucous, tumultuous time to come.”

Today is November 6, 2012 – election day. I am curious to see if I was right.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Respect Reverse

I used to have a 100% human-powered commute. It was a point of pride to say I had made it 365 days without driving to work or even riding the bus: I ran the seven-mile round trip to and from my downtown office for a year straight. I would finish up my workout at the elementary school where I picked up my kids. I would casually mention my unbroken record amongst fellow parents as we stood on the playground watching our children play. When it rained, I entered the after-school program looking like a drowned rat, boogers and water dripping from my nose. I flaunted the obvious unpleasantness of my commuting experience like an in-your-face victory lap for all of the other families to see. I was dedicated to my lifestyle and proud of it. Maybe a little arrogant.

Then, in 2010, I suddenly and painfully fell ill. The doctors diagnosed me with a serious illness, something that could affect me my entire life. I immediately underwent a difficult surgery. Multiple surgeries and procedures followed. I started periodic treatments that continue to this day. Needless to say, my life changed dramatically. But once my stitches healed, I was able to return to work.

Today, no-one can tell that I am ‘sick’. I look the same, even better than before the illness. My medical condition doesn’t preclude me from running to work like I had been doing off and on for the last 13 years. In fact, I still run, just not to work. I bike. And occasionally, when I’m feeling particularly uninspired, I ride the bus.

It’s not that I can’t run to work. I could load my work clothes into my backpack the night before, get up at 5:30 AM and change into my lycra and tennis shoes in the dark, tiptoeing out as my family sleeps. I could don my wool hat and gloves and set out into that silent, private place that darkness creates. Solitary, fresh, exuberant: I could still do it. I could still enjoy it. But I chose to move away from that once idealized transportation option. I consciously chose to regress.

At first, I wasn’t completely happy with the change. Guilt lingered. My pride suffered. My identity as a tough cookie sagged as if I were wallowing in spilt milk. Then, one day, I was sitting on the bus as it carried me towards home, watching listlessly as traffic moved around us. I noticed a semi truck out the front window. The driver was awaiting the best moment to make a difficult move. As I watched, that moment came. He quickly executed an elaborate reverse turn into a tight loading dock that let out onto the busy street where we all waited. He decisively took the opening in the traffic and backed in fast and smooth, maneuvering his enormous cargo into the tricky slot with the ease of someone who knows exactly what he needs. I was impressed with the speed and confidence he exhibited. His bold reverse earned my respect.

As the bus started up again, I thought about my own reversal, going from avid running commuter to slow cyclist and sometimes transit rider. Heck, I even drove to work a few times when appointments dictated it. When I decided to give up my running commutes, I somehow knew it was the right decision. Although I couldn’t put a finger on why, I simply knew what I needed: less responsibility, less bravado, more flexibility in my Type A ideas of how I was going to save the world.

My personal ‘bigger picture’ had diminished the importance of a perfect commuting score, of out-suffering my friends and neighbors in the name of sustainability. Living with the weight of something as serious as not living had made me realize that bragging rights were solely for braggarts. Doing something for the sake of saying that I did it was not enough for me anymore. I recognized my choice to downgrade my sustainability quotient - to backslide - and I honored it.

When it comes to my commute, I am doing what feels good for me. I realize that most people do what feels good to them. And regardless of how that materializes, we have to be OK with that. Sometimes sitting in a dry, warm car feels pretty good. If we want commuting habits to change, we have to offer choices that feel better.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

They Go Together, Music and Motion

For some reason, music always seems to accompany humans as they transport themselves from one place to another. Consider the Norman Rockwellian scenes in old movies, books and magazines of a man clad in suspenders and a straw hat, hands in pockets, whistling while he walks along. Walking is rhythmic, just like dancing, and it uses the same major muscle groups. Hands and feet are coordinated when transporting ourselves along a path, just as they are on the dance floor, shifting our balance and weight in our own private groove. Next time you find yourself walking for any sort of distance, take note, are you humming a little tune to yourself?

As humans have devised more and more complex ways of moving from point A to point B, music seems to have come along for the ride. It frequently accompanies runners on their training runs in the form of headphones. Even running partners, who presumably run together because they enjoy each other’s company, wear headphones piping different soundtracks into their ears, the need for music trumping companionship. The repeated pumping motion of a bicyclist’s legs paired with the controlled rhythmic breathing of exertion can be a dance of sorts, and there are plenty of bikers who listen to music while they ride, despite the increased chance of accident. Portland even boasts several self-propelled, music-producing vehicles like the neighborhood “disco trike” often seen at festivals and protests around town.

Music and transportation is not a new pairing. Movement of any kind seems to crave music. Take the most common method of transport in the United States – the car. Although it requires minimal exertion, ‘driving’ was the most frequent response to the question, “When do you listen to music?” on a recent Fri-host web poll. It seems that even moving by mechanical means brings forth the hankering for rhythmic bumps and melodic phrases. Just look at the history of cars and music. United Artist’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang evoked joyful outbursts of singing from whoever rode within. John Travolta exalted his hotrod “Greased Lightning” by driving off into the sunset singing, “We go together…” From Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go”, to The Doobie Brothers’ “Rockin Down the Highway”, and Alabama’s “Cruisin’”, musicians have sung about the natural match of driving and music.

Music and cars go together like…well, like teenagers and the need to get somewhere. First came the car, next, the car radio. These days, a car without a CD playing-stereo either has been up on blocks in grandma’s garage for the last 20 years, or has been the sad victim of a crime. Over the generations, boys circled the teen hangouts in their smooth rides with music blaring, trying to entice girls. Odds are, rollin’ with the tunes has scored more than a few hot dates. Music mixed with the freedom to move is an attractive combination.

But today’s kids are less apt to drive. Insurance is expensive, let alone the price of the car itself. The bus is the next logical step. Portland Public School teens ride free on the local bus system, but time spent listening to music has not decreased, thanks to the ubiquitousness of ipods and other MP3 players. On a recent bus ride, I counted 15 of the 30 riders wearing headphones. Trimet rules state that ‘excessive noise’, which presumably includes personal music, is not allowed on the bus, but there are plenty of examples around the world where music on the bus is shared with everyone, whether they like it or not.

Recently, I spent some time in Peru. The busses are all privately owned and operated, leading to fierce competition between rival bus companies. I watched this competition play out on the extremely narrow, poorly maintained roads that switch back and forth sharply alongside steep cliffs. It isn’t therefore, surprising that the incidence of bus crashes is extremely high by American standards, and the death toll often tragic. In 6 months in Pisac, Peru, there were 3 fatal bus crashes nearby. The first carried 20 plus teachers who commuted into a remote village every Monday and returned to their homes on Friday. There were no survivors. Another bus slammed into an oncoming vehicle as it was rounding a blind curve at 40 miles an hour, killing the passengers in the car and severely injuring many riders. The third accident I not only heard of through the grapevine, but saw the physical scrapes on two neighbor kids who were riding the hour-long trip home from school that night. The driver apparently fell asleep at the wheel during a double shift.

On every occasion, there was music on the bus. Every bus ride, safe or sorry, comes with music - very audible music. Most busses are equipped with a loudspeaker system that dumps the driver’s choice directly onto passengers’ heads. The music is never quiet, nor very clear (radio transmissions have to fight to reach over the high mountains that surround the Sacred Valley where I lived). I can’t stand static. Here in the US, I refuse to listen to fuzzy radio signals. In Peru, that is practically all I heard. Unless, of course, the bus radio was broken. In those cases, my fellow passengers jockeyed to fill the void with songs stored on cell phones or MP3 players. Silence was not an option. The volume level was either loud or ear-splitting.

Whether it serves as entertainment to pass the time, or a way to keep the driver from falling asleep, music, silent or shared, is as common on busses as backpacks and body odor. Back here in Portland, the music scene plays an important role in the identity of the city. And, we are fanatical about our public transit. Tie these two points of pride together, and we witness music and mobility merge as we ascend the evolutionary ladder of transportation. We serenade ourselves on a much grander scale, on much larger vehicles.

In 2011, a group of young transportation-focused groups created a musical celebration of the latest addition to the Metro area’s multi-faceted transportation network, giving birth to the Streetcar Mobile MusicFest. The concept, broken down into its simplest form, is a toast to Portland’s Streetcar, a rolling party in honor of that sexy thing called public transit, and a celebration of moving with the music. In September 2012, a new Portland streetcar route came online. On October 5th, the Central Loop on the east side of the Willamette river played host to sixteen bands between the Rose Quarter and OMSI as the Festival marked its second year. For one night, Portland’s shiny chariot to hip nightclubs and restaurants on the inner east side resounded with the sweet sounds of live rap, mariachi, boleros, hip hop, rock and roll and indie-folk.

My husband and I took part. We biked from work to the starting place on the east side of the Broadway Bridge, where normal every-day streetcars transformed into traveling music boxes full of rapt listeners. We waited only a few minutes before we saw the first streetcar that would receive its aural upgrade. We scurried to the ticket dispenser and tried to quickly buy two $1 boarding passes. The machine probably would have cooperated if we had used it before, or if we weren’t in a hurry. The five piece band, complete with upright bass, boarded the streetcar. Fifteen fans followed. We gave up on the ticket machine and jumped on just as the doors slid shut. The vehicle started powering up the slight hill towards the Lloyd District and a volunteer announced to the riders what was about to commence. She thanked the event’s sponsors and turned it over to “Ocean Floor”, the first band of the evening. No sooner had the first three tantalizing measures reached our ears, when the benevolent voice of the driver, like an omnipotent being gently scolding naughty children, overpowered the pleasant orchestral beginnings of a promising tune: “It sounds like you’re having fun back there, but I’m going to have ask you to stop playing music. It is a safety hazard and a distraction. I cannot safely operate the streetcar with music being played.”

The gleaming, brand-new interior of the high-tech streetcar with its breezy, cheerful crowd and classical melodies reminded me nothing of the taped-together, cheek-to-chin-overpacked South American busses that ran on fumes as they hurtled down crumbling highways. But I instantly thought of the overworked Peruvian drivers. Was music truly a distraction? Did it cause accidents or did it keep drivers alert and engaged? The contrast between what constituted a ‘distraction’ in a developing country, where slaughter-ready pigs were stuffed into potato sacks and hauled into the passenger area, squirming and grunting at passengers’ feet, and here, where the train practically ran itself, on tracks no less - seemed absurd. Ninety percent of the riders on board the streetcar had come specifically for this musical event. Our collective mouths hung open.

The Festival volunteer approached the driver’s door and they talked. She explained that his employer, Trimet, supported the event. He apparently didn’t get the memo. He refused to drive if the music continued, citing legal issues and his assertion that listening to music while operating a vehicle is unsafe. We sat at the stop for 10 minutes as he apparently talked to his supervisor. The volunteers talked to their supervisors. The band sat mute, the audience looked embarrassed and aghast.

Eventually, it was clear that the driver wasn’t going to back down, so we all got off the streetcar. It was not a propitious start to the evening. We awaited the next train, straining to hear the un-amplified group outside on the platform instead of inside the quiet, insulated comfort of the streetcar.

My husband and I eventually boarded a second train. We listened to the band briefly as we traveled southward on the new tracks. We wanted to experience the variety of acts the night offered, so we got off the train, walked to the other side of the couplet on Grand Avenue and waited for a new streetcar with some new music to listen to. Fifteen minutes later, a streetcar pulled up. In the driver’s seat sat our first, unyielding conductor. His streetcar had reached the southern terminus and was returning on the loop, still silently unadorned with either musicians or fans. Strike two, with the same ball! We hoped for better luck back on the MLK side of the couplet, so returned and, again, waited. We tried to purchase our required streetcar ticket again, but another passenger was waiting for her visa card to be validated in the machine, without results. She tried to cancel the transaction. Neither outcome materialized. She called Trimet to figure out a way to escape the incomplete purchase.

Our third train of the evening appeared. My husband and I eagerly boarded, leaving the woman behind as she continued her battle with the ticket machine. The musician was MC Rose, a female rapper and rhymer in a red track suit and dangling gold earrings. But there was no band, not even a stereo to accompany her. Without a mic, she performed her raps and rhymes and soon ran out of material. We were treated to some freestyle rap - she made it up on the spot. These attempts were honorable, but petered out as her ability to think up good phrases caught up with the speed of her tongue. She entertained us until we reached the end of the line. There, the driver opened the doors and took his mandatory 10 minute break.

The driver cleaned out the streetcar, sweeping all of us out into the cold, onto a pedestrian platform that overlooked a large empty parking lot behind OMSI. Luckily, the festival organizers had planned for this part of the routine (if not for the part about telling the drivers about the event). There sat a friendly man on a barstool, with microphone and music stand close by. It looked like we would be treated to more music. Instead, the performer told stories taken from ancient Oregonian articles, when streetcars were all the rage in the late 1800’s. The vanilla anecdotes kept us from falling asleep as we waited, but didn’t quite count as entertainment.

The ‘ding ding’ of the streetcar bell told us that our streetcar was ready to get ‘back on track’. We listened to one more rhythmic poem from MC Rose, and chose to disembark and wait for another train so we could hear some music that actually had notes. We stepped out onto a dark Grand Avenue that was near the offramp from the Morrison bridge and not much else. We waited. And we waited. Maybe that ornery driver had gone on strike somewhere else down the line and was holding up all of the trains in both directions. Maybe one of the bands distracted its driver, causing him to derail. Luckily, there was a bench to rest on as we passed the lonely time by fabricating a million reasons why the streetcar didn’t come.

As time wore on, we noticed that the digital sign informing waiting passengers when the train would appear was malfunctioning. At first it told us that a train would be there in 6 minutes. A few minutes later, it read 8 minutes. Then it said that a train was ‘arriving’, meaning that a streetcar should have been visible right there in front of us. But no train. A few more passengers showed up and waited with us. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been tricked into waiting for a bus when I could have been eating a nice meal with friends or relaxing in my living room, listening to…music! After a grueling 23 minutes, a new record streetcar wait for me, a train rolled up, full of happy music lovers and a band with instruments! We squeezed on, eager to experience what we had envisioned the whole night should have been like – rockin’ music played loud enough to hear, an appreciative audience and a festive mood. The drummers slapped their bongos, the singer jammed, surrounded in close-quarters by attendees ranging in age from 21 to 60. We were psyched! But as we reached the next stop, the band surprised us by getting off the streetcar.

My husband and I looked at each other, flabbergasted. We thought the music was going on until 9 pm, but it was only 7:30. Not wanting to ride a streetcar without music, we got off with the band to find out what was going on. The group was scheduled to play at the event’s closing party just up the block - they had to start setting up. We were unable to hide our disappointment. The jamming band walked off towards their party gig, and a reporter with professional microphone and camera turned to us, “Can I ask you a few questions about the Streetcar Music Festival?” she asked. At that moment our mood was not something I wanted broadcast to any audience, let alone one full of colleagues and peers in the transportation industry. “Some of the event organizers are our friends, so we don’t want to say anything negative, but honestly, we haven’t seen much music yet and we’ve been here for 2 hours.” I said. “So, no, please interview somebody else.”

The reporter found another more willing interviewee, and we waited yet again for another opportunity to feel like we were actually participating in this event and not just waiting at a bus stop in common commuter drudgery. It occurred to me as I stood out there in the cold, that only in Portland would people be crazy enough to spend the prime hours of a Friday night sitting at a dark, cold bus stop and call it fun. And here I was, that person! But luckily, a streetcar soon arrived, carrying what would be the highlight of an evening otherwise short on entertainment.

A smallish Latina woman with a crazy mouth, and a dark, curly-haired young man leaned up against a small corner inside the streetcar, beat-up guitars propped on their knees. When the streetcar started to move, they strummed out the beginnings of an upbeat Spanish ballad. They played as if they had been making music together for years. And when she opened her mouth, I was dumbstruck. Spanish poetry slid from Edna Sanchez’ mouth, in turns rolling across the train compartment like a bull barreling down the narrow streets of Seville, or clinging to her voice box like a hesitating drop of dew on the verge of falling from the lip of a rose petal. The two-piece band showed us real talent that fit the streetcar venue like a glove. She sang, she whistled and the two of them put on a worthy performance, the best that we had seen all night. A success! Finally we had gotten what we came for! And just in time, because as the streetcar reached the Festival’s boundary at the Rose Quarter, it was time for us to go. We had a dinner reservation at 8:30 a few blocks away.

Our review of the Streetcar Mobile MusicFest was mixed, but we had seen many happy participants that night, and the next day Willamette Week and the Mercury heralded it as a success. Despite the practical glitches and setbacks that we experienced with our choices, the idea of passing time moving along the smooth rails of the streetcar route and enjoying musical entertainment along the way felt correct, as though music inside of gliding steel transportation devices is the way it is supposed to be. Perhaps it is the physical change in location along a direct trajectory that replicates that human desire for music as we move. Could it be that music is a basic compliment to any physical movement? People feel the urge to dance, to move their bodies when they hear music. Do they feel the need for music when they move?

From elevators to airplanes, music is the background to our motion, the soundtrack of our directional movements. More and more, modern life takes on the characteristics of a movie, with music setting the scene and the mood for how we experience coming to a new place, distinct from the one we just left. Music colors our expectations, just as it heightens emotions in a suspenseful drama. It accompanies us as we maneuver through the obstacle course of our lives, perhaps even guiding us at times. If so, the Peruvian bus driver with his hand on the radio dial, MC Rose and Edna Vasquez may have more influence over us than we thought. Music may not make the wheels go around, but it certainly changes how we experience getting there.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fashion on Wheels

What is working at our daily jobs if not an opportunity for us to look fabulous?  Yes, there is that question of earning a living and feeling fulfilled, but aside from all that, it gives us the chance to adorn our bodies in clothing that makes us feel powerful, important, or at least interesting.  If it weren’t for our daily occupations, how many of us would forget to change out of the appalling but comfortable sweatpants and shapeless college-era tees we prefer to sport around the house?

Yes, work is an excuse to look sharp.  But looking good each day while riding a bicycle to work is a separate challenge, one that I recently discovered is more often than not forsaken by my fellow bike commuters.  One crisp,  sunny September afternoon, I left work early and biked to the east side of the Hawthorne Bridge to conduct a fashion study of Portland cyclists.  I parked my faithful two-wheeled friend alongside the bike path and wedged my $160 Dansko platform clogs into the V of the metal fencing, hoisting myself up onto the broad, flat steel rail above. I swung my purple tights-clad thigh over the top.  After a few brief moments of awkwardness – I’m sure no one was paying attention – I managed to turn around, arrange my silk, black-polka-dot skirt around my knees and cross my legs in modest reporter fashion.  My view as I balanced on the fence rail encompassed the entire south bikeway looking west – the perfect data collection point for my research.

It was 4:45 pm.  I would be able to evaluate and tally the biking wardrobe of every east-bound commuter coming at me from this strategic perch.

I pulled my pen and notepad out from my handmade studded pleather backpack, and tucked an escaping wisp of hair back under the cute, flower-print Nutcase helmet I still wore.  It matched my pink Anthropologie blouse and added just the right aura of local hip chic to the otherwise client-appropriate outfit I had picked for work that morning.

Hardly a minute passed before I was called into action by a small pack of riders approaching from the SW 2nd Avenue bridge ramp.  My plan was to take a one-hour sample of cyclists, counting and classifying their attire as they made their daily commute home after work.  The timeframe, from 4:45 to 5:45, would capture slackers who sneak out of work early (like me) and give folks a chance to change after work if that is their thing.  The first small group of riders consisted mainly of men in jeans and T-shirts.  One rider wore logo-emblazoned tour gear a la Lance Armstrong.  There were two women in black elastane biking pants.

For the next hour, cyclists came at me in spurts or in long continuous lines of twos and threes jockeying for the pole position going up the slight incline to SE Hawthorne Blvd.  At times, my tally marks couldn’t keep up with them all.  The sheer volume of bike riders was impressive.  After the first half hour, I had put pen to paper 187 times.  I ride with this enormous pack every day – I line up behind them in the green box at the MLK traffic light, I feel their wind as they zip past me on the uphill at SE Clinton Street.  But witnessing them now, each following one after the other like a rolling ant parade, drove home how robust this bike-centered life is here in Portland.

I have to admit I was a little surprised at what they wore.

The first 15 minutes brought almost all young people – in jeans.  I personally never wear jeans to work.  I rarely even wear them at home, preferring slouch-wear, pajamas or a pretty sundress.  It dawned on me that this must be the student contingent.  The servers from Starbucks and Pizzicato had punched out.  The last class of the day at PSU had finished up.  These were the pre-professionals, and jeans serve as everyday wear that is just as appropriate and convenient on the seat of a bike as in the seat of a classroom chair.  Jeans dominated my non-scientific study – 35 riders wore them – until 5:00 pm, and by the end of the hour, I had counted 183 jeans-wearers; 119 men and 64 women. Obviously, the ‘Portland casual’ look played heavily outside of the classroom too, accounting for 23% of the cyclists that hour.

The second noticeable wave of fashion was the shorts and T-shirts set.  Mostly men, these riders swarmed a little later, between 5:10 and 5:30.  I imagined office workers changing out of their slacks and dress shirts in office bathroom stalls.  They donned leftover weekend clothes – whatever had been tossed on the bedroom floor Sunday night: multi-pocketed cargo shorts, barbeque-stained T-shirts, an occasional button up madras shirt – and were now sweating in them.  In this same category, I lumped those who wore athletic attire of any sort.  Women more often than men wore windproof, ripstop biking pants, stretch pants or full-length athletic tights.  My favorite rider in this category wore super short blue running shorts, but kept his shirt and tie from the office.  (Apparently, he only sweats from the waist down.)  This sexy combination caused me to stare, and he waved at me, smiling big. I watched his royal blue tie flap in the wind and his nicely muscled thighs pump the pedals.  The distraction made me miss the next five riders.

As should be expected, athletic gear and shorts dominated the hour with 46% of riders, 260 men and 115 women choosing them as the appropriate attire for a tranquil September afternoon ride home.

Interspersed among these groups was the occasional pro-biker wannabe.  These riders looked serious; perhaps they live in Gresham, from the built-for-distance, multi-colored spandex shorts they wore.  Their matching singlets, emblazoned with sponsor names and banana pockets, frequently camouflaged middle-aged paunches.  These riders almost all carried panniers on their bikes instead of backpacks.  Like I said – serious!  Fifty-seven men and 15 women considered their ride grueling enough to wear only the finest in bike gear. As a fashion category, this group had a poor showing at only 9%.  A mere 72 riders emulated the style of the pros.  Could the recent de-throning of the allegedly drug-addled Tour legend, Armstrong, have something to do with these paltry numbers?

My favorite category was the well-dressed biker.  These were people who, with the easy addition of a pant-leg strap and the loosening of the tie, transitioned from high-powered client meetings to high-speed escapades down the Eastbank Esplanade in seconds flat.  Men wore dress shirts and ties; women wore slacks and flats.  There were 86 men who did nothing more than roll up a pants leg and swing it over their bike to get on the road.  Surprisingly, this is the only category where women out-performed men.  Ninety-one females of all shapes and sizes did away with the fuss and bother of packing a change of clothes for their commute. They wore what could be considered office clothing, including simple skirts, boots, slacks, penny-loafers, sandals and blouses.  My favorite business-attire rider, not unlike my favorite blue-shorts-and-tie man, demonstrated the value of mixing genres.  She wore a tight little black skirt and an elegant blouse, but underneath she had sensibly chosen hot pink lycra shorts that flashed with every turn of the crankshaft.  In my one hour sample, I observed 146 people (22%) who found it unnecessary to change their clothes before their commute.  Like me, they probably ride a little slower than the rest so as not to muss their dry-clean-only items.

During this study, I saw a man covered in bags full of plastic bags, a women in her hospital scrubs, a grown man riding a scooter in shirtsleeves and tie, a giant tricycle carrying mom, dad and child, two shirtless men, and a smattering of children riding behind their parents on variations of bicycles built for two.  I learned that men ride more than women, at a rate of almost 2 to 1. I viewed a wide variety of work and fitness attire and inferred that those who changed into different clothing for their commute, about 54%, think of it as an athletic activity, while the remaining 46% don’t necessarily. Overall, I counted 807 thin, fat, tall, short, brown, white, hairy, bald, young and old people as they powered themselves efficiently and cleanly across our famously bike-friendly bridge.  That averages 13 people per minute.  Most of them wore shorts – and a smile.

I hopped down from my observation deck and stowed my research tools back in my cute little backpack.  I have to admit, I was a little disappointed with the results.  I was looking for fashion statements, riders who thumbed their noses at the concept that cycling and looking great are like oil and water. I was hoping to see patent-leather pumps and floral-print peasant skirts; pink ruffles with matching thigh-highs, Brooks Brothers jackets, suspenders and spiffy Dolce and Gabbana silk ties.  Apparently, Portlanders are a little too practical – or they sweat more than I do.

So, with a sigh, I mounted my two-wheeler and merged with the still-heavy traffic streaming out of downtown, taking my familiar place amongst my pack.  With my black polka-dots, my bright, flouncy, lace-trimmed blouse and my purple tights, I headed for home in the slow lane, a single point of eye-catching fabulousness in the thick of the crowd.

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Love takes many forms.  

There is puppy love – the shy, confused kind you feel at age 5 when a tall, sun-kissed-blonde, 13-year old named Wilber from across the street stoops over to pat your curls and tie your shoe.  “Aren’t you a sweet potato pie?” he asks, dimples in full relief as he grins at you, half boy, half man.  Those long-ago five minutes when you first discovered - up close - how alluring shirtless summer skin can be as it brushes against your pudgy cheek.  Oh, the flutter that brief attention causes in your skinny chest.  Like a thin, warm cinder, the moment glows softly over the following months and years.  You watch for Wilber’s entrances and exits from across the forbidden barrier of the street, hoping he will remember that you are his sweet potato pie.  Unknowingly, Wilber earns your secret baby affections from afar, cluelessly enchanting you with his bent-legged cartwheels, his tree-climbing skills and the freewheeling laughter that rings out from high-up branches.  Puppy love’s innocent affection, its wide-eyed awe and inevitable impossibility introduce us to the world of romantic attraction.

Then there is the other kind of puppy love – love for actual puppies.  This puppy love, very different from the other kind, pangs sweetly with a sappy tenderheartedness.  It suffuses your body when you spy that one, dark-eyed ball of fur that seems to love only you.  His heart-rending neediness and his unwavering, wagging yearning to be close to you strikes a chord on your heartstrings.  He gleefully submits to you, laying himself out vulnerably as if he knows you alone are innately unable to harm him.  To him, you are all-powerful, all-loving.  You are so stricken with him that you sign up to feed, walk and care for this living creature for the next 20 years.  He seems perfectly suited to please you, from his delightful little kisses to the squirming of his malleable little puppy body.  You take him home, driving with him wrapped inside your jacket because you can’t bear to hear him cry to be apart from you.  He is your new best-friend-for-life. 

Months later, when that fuzzy, warm ball of fur plops down for a nap on your foot, round belly still protruding pinkly like a baby, you melt anew with puppy love.  There is something about the wet nose nuzzling your hand, begging for the hundredth scratch behind the ears, that draws out the sweetheart in you.  When you return from a short trip to the store, he senses your approach from a block away.  His exuberant ecstasy causes his whole body to quake and he wets himself with glee at the joy of simply being in your presence again.  This undying joy cements his place in your heart.  Just by being yourself, you earn his worship.  This kind of puppy love is instantly rewarding.  It converts you from an underpaid foot soldier on the treadmill of adulthood to an all-powerful goddess, bestowing happiness with a gentle gesture and a smile.       

Both kinds of puppy love, however, grow older.  Wilber grows spotty facial hair and starts hanging out on his front porch drinking beer with scruffy-looking n’ere-do-wells.  His crunched up beer cans litter the sidewalk. He burps loudly and plays guitar badly.  His beat-up rust-bucket squeals annoyingly as he skids down the street at 2 in the morning. 

Your fuzzy, four-legged friend also ages.  He starts chewing shoes…and furniture and records and $90 work slacks. He grows fat in a way that isn’t so cute anymore.  Pooch develops allergies.  He sheds.  The glossy fur you loved to pet comes out in handfuls and forms tumbleweeds that tickle your nose and accumulate in the corners of your living room.  He licks his balls then turns to lick your face or steal a bite of your toast.  That cute little puppy voice becomes an incessant barking that annoys the neighbors and causes disharmony on the once-friendly block. 

Eventually, puppy love dissipates and disappears.  But at least for Fido, you stick with it (Wilber can take care of himself).  Year after year, you continue to feed and walk and clean up after your aging sidekick.  You still play tug-o-war when he feels chipper.  He still lies on your foot and nudges your hand, asking for affection.  And you still give it.  The many years of happy companionship he has brought you with his undying devotion deserve as much.  Puppy love has turned into old-dog care and maintenance.

There are many stages of love. 

There is first love, when you have passed through puberty successfully and are surprised to discover that a male can be interesting and funny, and interested in you.  You share a chance conversation after softball practice with the coach’s son.  He laughs at your jokes.  He looks you in the eyes and doesn’t look away, eager to know more about you.  He asks you questions and listens to the answers.  You mention a song you like; he asks if you would copy it for him.  Mutual interest emboldens both of you to seek each other out at gatherings and think up excuses to call each other on the phone.  You spend time together, away from your friends.  You lay side by side on the grass talking for hours.  He turns to hear you better.  You turn to see him as he talks.  Your faces are very close.  So close, in fact that you feel like you should stop talking, but talking allows your lips to move, distracting you from the fact that your knees are touching his knees and your belly is growing warmer from his surprising body heat, co-mingling with yours like his earthy scent and the fresh grass smell beneath your cheek.  Your words grow laconic and pointless, their only purpose remains to prove that you two are still just talking.  Somehow your lips are forming words and simultaneously drawing closer to his.  Sentences come out as a jumble of unrelated words:  “Pineapples……hang-glide……predator”.   Your brain is unable to keep up the charade convincingly as the ‘P’ sound brings skin to skin, a gentle push, and you give up the farce, reaching the rest of your mouth out towards his in an innocent first kiss.

First love is ill-fated, like Romeo and Juliet.  Soon jealousy overtakes you.  You see him, bolstered by the new confidence your affections have given him, flirting with other girls, trying out his appeal on a larger audience.  The recent feeling of walking on clouds becomes one of being mired in the sticky complexities of pride and selfishness.  What once was uplifting is oppressive, sucking greedily at your time and emotions; combative, boxing your heart with heavy, clumsy punches; obfuscated, all but forgotten beneath the thorny brambles of teenagers struggling for self-esteem and identity.  Of course, you are young and fickle, so it ends quickly, and badly, bringing new sensations of humiliation, failure and a guilty longing for the dizzying perfection shared only weeks earlier.  You yearn for that first pure and innocent moment in the grass as you fume over the new girl – outward proof of his newly bolstered sense of self-worth and your worthlessness.

You get over it, and move on eventually.  After first love, comes second love.  Second love turns out to be an unsupportable infatuation, and third love was really only about his body in the end.  By the time fourth love tries to sneak into your life, you have graduated from soft, sweet kisses to all that there is to know about men and women together in the dark.  You are an adult, you think you are savvy about love.  You know how to distinguish the butterfly feelings in your chest from a solid sense of connection.  You are able to put aside the fancy dinners out, the cunnilingus and the impromptu skinny dipping in the park to evaluate whether this person can help you achieve your life goals.  Love takes on more responsibility.  You are starting to realize that even a solid connection isn’t enough.  Is this the person you can build your dream with?  Will you become a better person with him at your side?  Can you trust him with decisions that would change your life?  Can you, indeed, trust him with your life?

When the answers to these questions are all affirmative, you realize that this is a new kind of love - a somewhat calculated love, functional and anchored by shared values.  Ideas about politics, money, children and lifestyle weigh more heavily on the scale than you ever thought they would.  This love has a checklist attached:  Does he have a job?  Does he do what he says he is going to do?  Does he treat his mother with respect?  This fourth love is the marrying kind.  As dry as it sounds, it has to pass the practicality test.  But yet it is founded on mutual affection and admiration.  In fact, shared practicalities open up a new way to realize affection and respect, which in turn translates into a new and different way of looking at love, one that is there for the long haul.

Love feels good.

The love a mother feels for her child might be the sweetest love.  As your wee lass nurses, suckling on your warm flesh, she gazes up into your face as if you are the sun and the moon to her.  She studies and learns every curve of your face.  Her wide open eyes adore you and absorb you as if you were the milk flowing into her mouth.  In fact, as far as she can tell, you are the milk and the milk is you.  You are the satisfied feeling in her stomach and that feeling is you.  Little warm hands clutch at your breast, her eager, heart-shaped mouth searches for the source of those good feelings.  And you are so proud and pleased to be able to give it to her, to supply her with what she needs, from food, to warmth to that gentle rocking motion new parents adopt whenever they are standing still.  Her desire for you, unembarrassed, unprotected, simple and needy, ignites a love more intimate and breathtaking than carnal love.  The sight of her or the sound of her plaintive whimper feeds your craving to be of service, opening the milk gates without warning.  Being so important and so rewarded, as she smiles up at you, nipple still clutched in her toothless gums, stirs a biological love, both physical and emotional.

Love changes over time.

Husbands lose their hair and stop rubbing your feet when you get home from work.  Babies mature into independent, sassy, teenage daughters, refusing your hugs and kisses and walking five paces behind you to avoid embarrassment. You slack off in your efforts to please your family, settling into a maintenance state of simply not-displeasing.  Formerly intense feelings of closeness and mutual adoration morph into lazy routine.  The ruts you have formed deepen as you travel along the tired old passageways in your emotional life.  Occasionally, you jump the tracks for a refreshing moment of candid mother-daughter talk or a spontaneous romantic detour with the old man.  What used to be that tickly feeling upon seeing your beloved has been replaced with the solid reassurance of new cabinets in the kitchen and the calming murmur of the faithful, still-functioning washing machine in the basement.  Your physical expressions of love are now mainly intellectual expressions of satisfaction for what you have built together.  The pride you used to feel holding your lover’s arm as you strolled down University Avenue is now a solid certainty that you are marching together toward major life milestones.  Your vision of what kind of life you wanted is unfolding as planned. 

That butterfly flutter from rubbing your lips against the sweet cherub cheek of your baby daughter is unavailable to you now.  Instead, you rely on surrogate excitement, like the endorphin rev you get in spinning class or the perfect peach cobbler found at book club.  Passion and adoration for your partner turn to mature appreciation and, if you are lucky, familiar enjoyment.  Years of memories fill in that part of your brain that needs emotional stimulation.  You fondly reminisce about those lusty nights spent pursuing your future husband when he had a six-pack, or you joke about the ergone cycles of joy, fatigue and relief that came with herding little people from diapers, to first wobbly bike rides down the driveway, to high school proms.                    

We move through many kinds of love in our lives and share it with many different people, sometimes watching it change from one kind of love to another.  By its very definition, love is good, in all of its forms.  There is subtle love, deep love, explosive love, submitting love, motherly love, doting love, devoted love, compassionate love, responsible love, body-based love, brain-based love, sisterly love, friendly love, respecting love, love for one’s parents and love for dependent creatures of all types. 

There is one more type of love that may top them or encompass them all.  I like to call it pure love.  Pure love is a kind of love that surpasses all worldly definitions of what love can or should be.  There are no roles and no rules to this kind of love.  It sees no boundaries and no limits.  It doesn’t run out or grow stale.  It doesn’t start or stop with the vacillations of people’s life stages or their actions and behaviors.  Pure love is a feeling of affinity so deeply felt that to demonstrate it depends not on the relationship between the one who loves and her beloved, but upon whatever those two people need at that particular moment in their lives.  Whatever social circumstances exist are inconsequential.  Pure love answers whatever need is there, regardless of the age, gender, relationship or history of the participants.  In a pure love relationship, we would be willing to suckle the beloved if he were a baby, kiss this same person passionately if he were a grown man, or comfort him in his sickbed if he were old and infirm.  Pure love gives what is necessary.  It molds itself into whatever form best serves its recipient.

When we love purely, we don’t care about how it looks or why we feel the way we do.  We don’t keep a tally of the pros and cons.  We don’t decide whether the recipient is deserving.  We can feel pure love for an individual - a kindred soul who connects with us on a profound level.  We can feel this deep love for groups of people, like our family, immediate or extended.  Entire communities and even nations can be the focus of pure love.  Whatever is needed from us, we give, happy to be of service to those whom we love.  Pure love can be directed toward the entire world, with all of its human and non-human inhabitants, spiritual and otherwise.  And as members of this community, we ourselves are recipients.  Indeed, the most important form of pure love is the love we feel for ourselves.  Loving ourselves without conditions or boundaries, regardless of our critical evaluation of our strengths and weaknesses, through every stage and every turn our life takes, this is a love in its highest form, a cornerstone to all other forms of love from motherly love to the love we feel for strangers in Nairobi.  It cannot be bad.   With not much more than a blind faith in this alone, we can love ourselves with such tenacity and depth that nothing can break it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Brain Versus Brawn

I don’t know the characters in “Lost”.  I haven’t got a clue what “Swag” means.  I don’t know who Katniss and Peeta are.  I can’t tell Jack White from Jack Black.  Please excuse my total lack of contact with modern culture: my brain is heads-down sweaty, too busy working out to know what is going on in the outside world.  Imagine the comic-strip image of a bubble-gum-pink, bumpy mass floating inside its traditional corporeal tank of cranial fluid.  Now imagine it pumping iron, curling free weights, doing burpees on the mat, cleaning and jerking double its own weight like an Olympic weightlifter, doing upside down sit-ups from the chin-up bar.  That has been my brain for the past 4 months.  

My week begins with a grueling one-hour set of focused meditation and guided imagery.  Then it’s off to my paid job for 40 hours, followed by various daily doubles designed to build strength, flexibility and tone.  Monday nights are choir practice.  Tuesdays are Advanced Conversational Spanish.  Wednesdays bring core-strengthening imagery, positive reinforcing statements, and sometimes a little yoga to exercise the fine mental skills.  Thursdays are more Spanish.  Fridays I catch up on all of my homework in my online “Mathematical Thinking” class.  Saturday and Sunday and in between structured activities, I try to squeeze in touchy-feely time with my family – spa time for my tired noggin.  Oh, and I write every day.

My brain isn’t terribly scrawny or shrimpy.  It isn’t the 98 pound weakling on the brain playground.  In fact, my brain has been my first-string quarterback for 42 years, performing admirably under duress and sometimes pulling off feats of agility so daring and muscular that it was able to come from behind to score surprising upsets over worthy adversaries.  Like when it convinced my husband that we should take our family to Peru for 7 months.  Or when it got us out of paying for a car we had rented and subsequently damaged while on vacation in Los Angeles.  With these significant title victories and others equally as impressive, why do I insist on the punishing regimen of constant, pre-occupied mental gymnastics that denies my brain the everyday pleasures of watching on-demand “Leverage” in its jammies and chowing down on beer and nachos while listening to Nicki Minja with the rest of the conscious world?
It’s hard to break the news.  But lately, I have noticed my brain falling behind during warm-ups and taking extra trips to the bathroom right when the action on the field gets hot and heavy.  It isn’t putting in the effort this coach expects from the star of the team.  Its midsection, as it were, is spilling out in classic dough-boy style, muffin-topping over the uniform that we are all proud of.  But looking ‘over the hill’ is the least of its troubles.  Its speed, efficiency and accuracy have all taken hits.  The stats aren’t good.  Unfortunately, my brain is showing the classic signs of early retirement.  But I am having none of that!  I am making every effort to whip it back into shape so it will continue to do its part, providing essential support to this team as we go into our 43rd season.  Just look at the sacrifices my liver has made, especially during college.  And the lungs, breathing nothing but thin air up in the Andes.  My eyes have lost some of their keen, youthful talent, but more than make up for it in their unabashed determination to out-sparkle the competition.

“Do it for the team! Do it for the team!” my organs all chant in time as my brain pants out 20 more squat thrusts.

Because, well, if my brain really does decide to retire, to grow fat on a beach in the Bahamas with a Mai Tai in its hand, to give up this dream job as top scorer on the winningest team I have ever had the pleasure of managing, that means the end of a good run for all of us.  We depend on it.  Without our star player, this team is kaput.   

So I will continue to look for ways to beef up my reluctant brain until it shines as a crushingly brawny, sturdy, reliable version of its current self.  Be it philosophy, print-making or statistics, I will continue searching for the perfect workout that inspires my brain to fall in love again with this game called life.  Joy, determination, gusto and verve can be found face-down on the mat.  Yes, I am a hard-ass.  Drop and give me ten, brain – in Japanese!