Darwinian Gardening

Tomato plant and squash plant in a pot, in the garden among morning glories, irises, spearmint, etc.

I’m writing a 3-part series on composting over at Kitchen Stewardship; here’s how to get started with my composting system using 3 ordinary flowerpots, and I also mention two FREE composting systems my family members have used. Here, I’m explaining my general approach to the garden I nourish with my compost.

The idea and the name of Darwinian Gardening come from my mom, who devotes a section of her large garden to “the survival of the fittest,” with lovely and sometimes surprising results.

You could just fertilize some soil and then see what grows there, being totally hands-off about it.  Mom and I intervene a little.  The basic idea is to plant the seeds you have and encourage the plants you like, to grow a uniquely beautiful garden that’s environmentally friendly, inexpensive, and low-maintenance.

I don’t have a big garden like my parents do.  My front yard is about 12 feet square.  My back yard (not shown in these photos) is on a cliff and very shady, so we struggle to keep anything growing there to control erosion.  One of my favorite things about Darwinian Gardening is that many species of plants intertwine, creating lots of variety in a small area.  My garden may be tiny, but there’s a lot to see here!

Morning glories, lamb’s ears, and purple vine working together to choke out “weeds.”

My garden combines things I planted on purpose with things that just showed up. Every spring, I plant whatever seeds I have, root cuttings from my potted plants, and maybe buy a few bulbs or seeds or seedlings.

A lot of my plants “grow like weeds” and are essentially invasive species, but I don’t consider them “weeds” because I like them!  I only pull up plants I truly don’t want, like poison ivy and burrs.

However, my most enthusiastic plants sometimes choke out other plants that I want to grow, so I intervene by digging them up and moving them to a bare spot.  Morning glory vines twine around other plants and block the sunlight; while I’m supervising my kids playing outdoors, I patrol the garden and carefully unwind morning glories from the other plants and wind them onto things I don’t mind them growing on. Read more of this post

Public Transit and Convenient Commuting

It’s getting harder and harder for me to believe that the majority of Americans who work outside the home commute by car.

I understand that many small towns and suburban and rural areas have no public transit at all, and that many cities have inadequate public transit providing infrequent service to just a few neighborhoods.  What I don’t understand is why so many people put up with it!  Of course there are situations in which people have good reasons for living and/or working in remote areas.  But there are millions more who just seem to be taking for granted that, as a grown-up, every day you get into your car.  It hasn’t occurred to them to try their local public transit or to ask why there isn’t any.

What really staggers me is when I hear people who live and/or work in the very same neighborhoods I do, talking about driving to and from work–especially if they’re employed by one of the local universities whose every employee/student ID card functions as a bus pass!  Seriously!  You don’t need a special card; you don’t need to sign up for the transit program; as soon as you get your ID, you can hop on a bus, tap it against the card reader, and get a free ride to anywhere in Allegheny County the transit authority goes, any time buses (or light-rail trains or inclines) are running!  You can use it all weekend, not just for commuting!

Pardon all the exclamation points, but I’m excited to be working for the University of Pittsburgh now.  None of my previous employers offered free transit, so I’m accustomed to paying slightly over $1,000 per year for an annual bus pass giving me unlimited rides all year.  It was convenient even when it was a series of monthly passes arriving by mail, even more convenient with the ConnectCard that lasted all year.  It cost much less than paying cash fare for my workday commute, with the additional bonus of free rides for other travel.  But it was a substantial expense each year, which I don’t have now, whee!

It took me until last week, my fourth week at the new job, to realize just how staggeringly convenient my new commute is: Read more of this post

EVERYTHING WILL BE ALL RIGHT.

This is a story I’ve been wanting to tell since it happened, but it almost doesn’t sound real.  This really did happen, though, and it was an important encouragement just when I needed one, and now I’m at a point where I really need encouragement again.  I’m kind of writing this for myself to read, but I also hope that it will help other people to see a glimmer of hope in desperate times.

In November 2014, I was in my fourth month of pregnancy and finally starting to get past the nausea when I had a nightmare.  I dreamed that I was walking in the jungle, admiring the exotic plants, having a pleasant hike until I noticed a glimmering spot in my vision.  Then, gradually, I understood that a migraine was coming, but I was in the jungle with no medicine and no help and–and I woke up, and in fact my vision really was disrupted.  This is the only time in my life that this ever started while I was asleep and I was able to perceive it.  I quickly got up and took my prescription migraine medication, which the midwife had told me was safer for my baby than allowing the migraine to proceed because migraines disrupt blood circulation.  I did not get much of a headache and was able to go back to sleep and then get through a normal workday.

The next time, I had no warning.  I just suddenly got a bad headache, and when I took my medicine it came right back up again.  But I had to go to work I had to I had to, because I was working toward a deadline but also because if I missed one more day, I wouldn’t be able to travel for Thanksgiving.

By then I’d worked out a morning survival strategy that involved having a bagel with butter at work every morning, except on the day when I was out of bagels and therefore would go to the bagel shop before work to buy a half-dozen bagels for later days, plus a bagel with cream cheese and a coffee to enjoy at the bagel shop.  This was my cream cheese day.  I told myself to look forward to the treat because I would feel better when I ate it, if not before.

Instead, I got worse.  A lot worse.  You know how doctors ask you to rank your pain on a scale of 1 to 10?  For years, I never ranked anything higher than 9, because it seemed to me that it would be possible for pain to be worse than what I had experienced.  I was right: In 2010, I had a migraine that went to Level 10 and stayed there until I went to the emergency room and was given an off-label schizophrenia drug that brought it down to a 3.

On this day in 2014, I hit Level 10 as I stepped off the bus into bright sunshine.  It only lasted one minute, maybe less, but that was too much.  My vision fragmented as if smashed by a rock, and that was about how my head felt.  I staggered across the sidewalk, crashed into the fence, and clung there, not thinking, barely breathing.  Then the pain dropped to Level 8, which for me is the clumsy, self-criticizing level where speech is difficult and vomiting is likely.  I ripped myself off the fence and stalked across the street toward the bank (because I needed cash for the bagels) as my brain yammered, Don’t you dare throw up; the baby needs every calorie; you are a terrible mother taking terrible care of your poor innocent baby; don’t even think about the hospital; they won’t give you any off-label schizophrenia drug when you’re pregnant; don’t be ridiculous; they can’t help you; stand up straight and look normal you freak; go to the bank like a grown-up and get your stupid bagel and go to work; nobody will help you; get yourself together and act like someone who can be trusted with a baby!!!

So I got to the bank machine, and I kept dropping my card, and then I must have pressed the wrong button because the machine was in Spanish, and it was my fault that I was doing it wrong and my fault that I don’t know Spanish, and although I muddled through well enough to get the cash, by then I was in tears.

I turned around, stupid and incompetent and crying in public, and in front of me was someone I had never seen before.  She was young, probably a student at the adjacent University of Pittsburgh.  She had a Chinese accent.

She smiled so gently at me and said, “Everything will be all right.”

I stared at her for a moment, and then, slowly, I repeated, “Everything will be all right.”

“Yes!” she said. “Everything will be all right.”  She hugged me.  My brain filled with different ideas: The headache will go away; I will feel better soon; I have money in my hand and more in the bank; I’m going to have a nice meal and several more meals today; I’m really quite lucky; I have what I need; I will have a healthy, beautiful baby, and all the struggles will be worth it worth it worth it.  Everything will be all right.  Maybe not this instant, but it will be.

She stepped back, gave me a radiant smile, then hurried on down the sidewalk as I called a bewildered “thank you…” after her.

Then I walked to the bagel place, and by the time I got there I was running; I ran straight to the back and into the bathroom and puked, but I hit the toilet perfectly, and after washing my face I looked into the mirror and said aloud, “Everything will be all right.”  That demonstrated that I could speak normally.  I went out and ordered my bagels and coffee.

Half an hour later, I had no headache at all.  I went on to a happy and productive day at work.

Of course, not everything was all right forever from then on.  I hit more really low spots before that pregnancy was over, and I’ve hit many more since then.  Life sucks sometimes!

But the odds are that everything will be all right, pretty soon.  Hang in there!  Try to notice the things that are okay, as well as the bad things that are so much more noticeable.  Try to look forward to the future.  It’s hard.  The past several weeks have made it obvious to me, again, that I’m not good at this.  I tell myself awful things and wish I could just give up.  I can tell that my brain is upside-down, but I don’t know how to fix it.  I just have to try to get along until things pick up.

This is Advent, the season of waiting, the darkest time of year.  Even if you are not a Christian or not religious at all, try for a few weeks to pray when you find yourself waiting.  It may not seem to accomplish much, but it is better than doing nothing.  If you’re too upset for specific prayers, just focus on this one idea: Everything will be all right.  It will.  It will.

America is SAFER now than it used to be.

I worked with crime data for 17 years, and occasionally someone would say, “Gosh, that must make you so worried about your safety!”  No.  It didn’t.  It had exactly the opposite effect.  There are four patterns I saw, over and over again, that made me feel safer:

  1. Crime rates in Pittsburgh and in the United States overall were already declining when I started working for the Pittsburgh Youth Study in 1998 and have continued to decline or remained stable ever since.
  2. Most crimes (especially sexual assaults and homicide) occur between people who know one another; they are not random attacks by strangers.
  3. Homicide and shooting victims are disproportionately black and male.  I am white and female.
  4. Every map of crimes in Pittsburgh shows that I live near the middle of a large low-crime area.

I could write a lot about what I’ve learned and how it’s influenced my sense of personal safety, but at this moment in American history I need to focus on helping you understand how safe you are and who’s trying to mislead you.

Monday’s presidential debate included repeated ranting from Donald Trump about the number of murders and shootings in Chicago during the Obama administration, implying that Chicago has become more dangerous and that this is Obama’s fault.  Trump would like you to believe that America is a very dangerous place and only he can save you from hordes of dark-skinned killers.

U.S. Violent Crime Rate 1960-2014

Graph from factcheck.org based on FBI data. Click graph for full article.

“Almost four thousand” is an overstatement of the 3,624 homicides in Chicago since Obama’s inauguration, but 3,624 is still a lot of people, and as Hillary Clinton said, “One murder is too many.” Yes. But the fact is that murder is far less common in Chicago, and in the United States overall, than it was 15 years ago–and that was a big decrease from 20-25 years ago. If presidents are responsible for violent crimes that occur during their administrations, then by golly, George Bush Senior was the worst president ever!

And before anybody gets on my case about Bush-bashing, notice that George W. Bush was the president who presided over an enormous drop in violent crime.  Funny how Trump doesn’t mention that–because it would ruin his argument that crime is high and it’s Obama’s fault.

Homicides in Chicago also have declined during the 21st century so far, but the pattern there is even more striking: There was a big drop from 2002 to 2004, and since then Chicago’s homicide rate has never again gotten nearly as high as it was in 2003!

Homicides in Chicago, 2000-2015.

Chicago Tribune graph reprinted by the Los Angeles Times. Click graph for full article.

Now, of course, just because murders are less common now than they used to be doesn’t mean we’re all perfectly safe.  Homicide is still the leading cause of death for black males ages 15-34, and although many of those victims were involved in gangs or drug dealing or carrying guns (all of which increase a person’s chances of getting killed), many were not–every year, some innocent, law-abiding black men are killed because they are mistaken for someone else, because they happen to live in or be visiting an area that is “rival territory” for a gang, or because police or gun-toting citizens don’t give them a chance to explain themselves.  Only 13% of the United States population is African-American, yet 44% of homicide victims in the United States are African-American; only 49% of the United States population is male, yet 70% of homicide victims in the United States are male.  (My calculations are based on data from 2013, from this Census table and this FBI table.)

Every murder is a tragedy, and the prevalence of homicide among young black men is a horror that we must do our very best to control.  My concern is that Trump’s rhetoric makes it sound like America is getting more dangerous by the minute and like dark-skinned people are out to kill you no matter who you are, and this really isn’t the case.  83% of white murder victims are killed by other white peopleThose of us who are lucky enough to be white people living in safe neighborhoods should be concerned about the plight of black people in dangerous neighborhoods out of love and compassion, not out of fear for our own safety.  African-Americans face more risks than they should, but even they are safer now than they were 25 years ago.  Cities across the United States have made real progress in reducing crime, and it hasn’t been done by yelling, “Law and order!” like Donald Trump.

I could go on and on about crime prevention, too, but I’ll stick to telling you a little about what I learned from my own work on the book Young Homicide Offenders and Victims: Risk Factors, Prediction, and Prevention from Childhood.  I did all of the data processing and some preliminary analyses for this book, and I am a co-author of two chapters.  In this book, we studied the 37 convicted killers and the 39 homicide victims who were among the young men we had been interviewing since they were in elementary school, and we determined what predicted who would kill and who would be killed.  These are the nine factors measured when they were in elementary school that predicted which boys were more than twice as likely as the average boy to grow up to kill someone, in order of statistical significance with the best predictor first:

  1. One or both of his biological parents did not live with him.
  2. He lived in a high-crime neighborhood.
  3. His family qualified for welfare benefits.
  4. His mother was younger than 20 when her first child was born.
  5. He was old for his grade at the beginning of the study–either he started school late, or he was left back.
  6. His mother (or the female adult most responsible for him) was not employed outside the home.
  7. His parents and/or teachers agreed with the statement, “He doesn’t seem to feel guilty after doing things he shouldn’t.”
  8. The adult most responsible for him reported that his biological father had ever had “behavior problems.”  (This one bugs me because it is so vague and open to bias on the part of the person reporting, but the fact that it was a strong predictor indicates that it was measuring something important.)
  9. His family had low socioeconomic status–calculated from the current or most recent job and the highest education completed by the adults in the home.

Think about those things when you think about how to prevent murder.  There are so many things we as a society can do to support families so they can raise good kids and to help kids when they first show signs of trouble–instead of waiting until they hurt someone and then throwing them in jail.

Gun control is a factor, too, and a major issue in the current election.  I agree with both candidates that we need to do more to get guns out of the hands of convicted criminals who aren’t allowed to carry guns.  My opinion, informed by what I’ve seen in crime research, is that the way to do this is to control guns much more tightly, more like we do cars: Carrying, using, or owning a gun should require a license, and to get a license you should have to demonstrate that you know how to use a gun safely and you understand the laws.  Each gun should be registered with the state and that registration updated annually.  These policies would help to reduce illegal selling and borrowing of guns.  It’s also my opinion that we should have fewer guns in the United States and work away from the idea that we “need” guns so much, but those are cultural and psychological shifts, not changes in laws.

I’ve learned a lot about crime.  It’s made me feel safer.  Donald Trump wants to talk about a few carefully selected facts as if they prove that we’re in grave danger and only he can help us.  I hope that looking at facts about the bigger picture helps you to understand how twisted his views are.

It works for me!

The City of Slim Shadies

On days like this, when the sky is so heavy with clouds that we never glimpse the sun, and the wind is cold and damp, and it seems like winter will never end . . . I think of Eminem.

I guess I don’t mean the rapper himself so much as the character he played in 8 Mile [plot synopsis], which I saw when it came out in 2002 mostly because I was so impressed with the rap “Lose Yourself” [lyrics].  It very strikingly captures a young man’s desperation to escape the life he’s always known by seizing a fleeting chance to express himself in a way that will be heard and magnified to bring his family a better future.  The film amazed me with its very consistent, insistent pull, bringing me right into Rabbit’s story that he was not only telling me but making me see and feel.  I left the theater and had to walk around in the cold drizzle for a long time letting him speak to me some more.

And I thought, I work for that guy.  I work for 1,517 guys, a lot of whom are a lot like that.

Disclaimer: This article is not in any way an official statement by the Pittsburgh Youth Study or any of its funding entities.  This is a statement of my personal opinions and feelings.  For information about the Pittsburgh Youth Study, see our many publications.

Now, most people would say that I “work for” the principal investigators of the study, or that I “work for” a psychiatric hospital that is part of a corporate health-care system, or that I “work for” a research study that is funded by federal grants.  Yes, those are the ways my work is organized and paid.  But who have I been working for in my 17 years of data management and analysis of a longitudinal study of Pittsburgh’s at-risk boys?  I’m working for them.  I’m doing what I can to help us as a society understand why some boys break laws and hurt people and often wind up dead at a young age, while others somehow find their way to a stable and responsible adult life. Read more of this post

Baby’s First Traffic Safety Lesson

Lydia is eleven months old.  Yesterday, we spent some time enjoying the beautiful spring weather in our small front yard.  Lydia studied the flowers.  She picked up dead leaves (functioning as mulch) and examined their lacy skeletons.  She gleefully wiggled her arms amid the arching green leaves of the daylilies coming up between our sidewalk and the neighbors’, and she pulled on some leaves to assess their strength and find the tearing point.

She also spent lots of time sitting or crawling on the sidewalk in front of our yard, soaking up sunshine, saying, “Hi!” to all passersby.  She toddled along next to our neighbors’ retaining wall, which is just the right height to lean her hands on.  Then she ventured across the sidewalk, looked over the curb, and began to reach for an interesting pebble in the gutter.

I said, “No!” and pulled her back.  She looked surprised.  But just then–perfect timing!–a car came rumbling along our brick-paved street.  “Stay out of the street.  The street is for cars,” I told her.  I pointed to the passing vehicle.  “Cars are big and fast.  We stay out of their way.”  She leaned over the curb again.  “No, the street is not for you.  The street is for cars.  The sidewalk is for people.  Stay on the sidewalk.”

I’m going to have to repeat this lesson a zillion times before she really understands–so let’s get started!  It’s complicated: The street is for cars, but when people get into cars we have to step into the street to get there.  The street is for cars, but people can walk across streets, following safety rules.  Lydia will have to learn that she can’t go into the street alone but can go with a taller person.  I know how to explain that.  But for now, I started with the lesson relevant to the present situation: Play on the sidewalk, not in the street.  A few repetitions did the trick for yesterday.  We’ll tell her again next time she approaches the curb. Read more of this post

A Day as Mama and Data Manager

Welcome to the March 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Day in the Life

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have given us a special glimpse into their everyday.

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There are three main things I do in my day-to-day life: mothering Lydia (10 months old) and Nicholas (10 years old), working 40 hours a week as the data manager of a social science research study, and writing this Handbook.  I write quite a bit about the first activity, and if you are reading this you’re obviously aware of the third.  But I’ve written very little about my job.  What is a “data manager of a social science research study,” anyway?

My job is to organize the HUGE PILES OF DATA collected by interviewing 1,517 men every 6 months for 4 years, then every year for 9 years, and 3 more times since then (whenever we got a grant to follow up).  Other people do the interviews; I just work with the data.  The study started when the guys were in elementary school.  They answered questions for about 2 hours each time, and in the early years their parents and teachers were interviewed, too.  Each person’s answer to each question is encoded as a number in a data file, which looks like a spreadsheet.  The row is the data on that participant, who is identified by a 5-digit number.  The column is the question, which is identified by a string of 8 letters and numbers.  There is a separate data file for each questionnaire, each time it was asked; each data file has a name, also 8 letters and numbers.  There are patterns to these 8-character strings, which I can “read” and remember very easily after 16 years working for the study.

In addition to organizing the data from the interviews, I make variables called “constructs”, each of which represents an idea that is measured by a bunch of different questions.  I write computer programs that do arithmetic and algebra with the “raw data” from the questions to create the constructs.  For example, the construct Parental Stress sums up the parent’s answers to these 14 questions; a parent with a score of 14 is exceptionally calm, while a parent with a score of 70 is a frazzled wreck.  My programs attach labels to the constructs and their values so we can keep track of what all the numeric values and 8-letter-and-number variable names mean.  (No, “frazzled wreck” is not the actual value label!  It’s “very high stress”.)

So, it’s my job to know what questions we asked, how the answers were coded, what constructs were made, and where everything is in thousands and thousands of data files.  I also spend a lot of time looking for things that don’t make sense, figuring out what’s wrong, and fixing it.  The higher-level statistical analysis is done by other people, as well as most of the writing of papers about our findings–but because I like to write and am a grammar zealot, they often ask me to proofread and sometimes let me write a section.

The main focus of the study is juvenile delinquency: which boys do it in the first place, which ones outgrow it rather than becoming adult criminals, and what factors make crime more or less likely.  We also have lots of data on mental health, substance use, parenting practices, and demographics.  Interesting stuff!  I love my job.  I’m surprised I managed to summarize it this briefly!  Okay, let’s get on with A Typical Day In My Life…. Read more of this post

Squirrel Appreciation Day

It's Squirrel Appreciation Day!It’s a real holiday!  It’s today, January 21st.  Keep an eye out for squirrels as you go about your day, and appreciate their resourcefulness, climbing ability, and cuteness.  (Photos are from http://squirrelworld.lincatz.com , a site for squirrel appreciators.)

I live in a solidly urban area of a major city, but even so, the neighborhood where I live is a major squirrel habitat.  Even on the busy street of high-rise buildings where I work, I typically see at least one squirrel along my four-block walk from the bus stop to my office.  A squirrel can live happily in an area so small you wouldn’t even know it was a forest, like a seven-foot-wide strip of lawn with a couple of trees. Read more…

A Positive Experience at the Post Office

The United States Postal Service has had a rough time in recent years. “Snail mail” just seems so slow, now that we can do a lot of things online.  FedEx and UPS have made their services more convenient to use, so a lot of people no longer choose the post office as their method of sending a package.  As the USPS struggles, it’s had to raise stamp prices frequently and cut staffing at some locations so that customers wait in line longer.  Even I have complained about the post office vending machine and its horrible fake “stamps”.  The Christmas season is an especially busy time for the post office, and we grouchy citizens tend to focus on the tedious standing-in-line and the worries about whether our gifts will arrive in time for Christmas, instead of marveling at the number of cards and packages that arrive promptly in perfect condition despite icy roads and runways.

But this week, I had a great experience with the post office!

Read more…

An Abundance of Apples

Returning from a family vacation last Tuesday, waiting at a traffic light around the corner from our home, I glanced up and noticed many red apples decorating the trees at the edge of a neglected parking lot. This lot belonged to a restaurant that closed several years ago, and the building’s been vacant ever since. Nobody is using that parking lot. I doubt that anyone feels a sense of ownership about those apples. I’m almost certain that nobody would bother spraying pesticides on those trees, which means the apples are organic. FREE ORGANIC APPLES!!

I love saving money, and I love saving food from being wasted. Also, it was a nice day, and we were getting home with time to spare before dinner. As soon as we’d unloaded the car, my eight-year-old Nicholas and I walked over to the parking lot with a couple of bags and started picking apples.

We soon found that most of the apples were out of our reach. Read more…

6 Unnecessary Types of Cell Phone Call

Three years after I explained how I survive everyday life without a cell phone, I’m still doing fine without one.  I recently took a three-day vacation by myself, and as I often do when traveling alone, I borrowed my partner Daniel’s cell phone for the trip.  However, I found that none of the times I used it was essential, and having it along was as much of an inconvenience as it was a convenience!

I’m not a Luddite who doesn’t believe in modern communication.  Not only did I use email extensively when planning this trip before I left home, but I brought my iPad with me and used it frequently, using wifi in two restaurants as well as my friends’ home, not just to communicate by email about my travel plans and to check maps but also to do unrelated emailing, maintain this site, do some Websurfing just for fun, play some music, use some other apps….  I love being able to carry my computer in my bookbag when I choose to do so (typically, I leave it at home unless I’m traveling overnight) and to do all this fun and useful stuff.  But I also appreciate that the iPad doesn’t shriek at random (to me) moments when someone contacts me, and that using email doesn’t involve shouting in a public place or trying to understand buzzy sounds that resemble a friend’s voice.  It is cell phones, specifically, and the way they are getting used in our culture, that bother me so much.

I made six cell phone calls during the three days.  Every one of them was a type of call I’ve often heard other people making on cell phones in public places.  Every one of them was unnecessary, or could be made from a land line, in the era when we all understood how to live without cell phones.

Call #1: “What do you want from the store?”

Read more…

What to Do When Your Child Witnesses Bad Discipline

If you have any opinions at all about the appropriate methods of disciplining children, and if you are ever anywhere near any families with different opinions, someday you will find yourself in this situation: Your child sees another parent respond to a child’s behavior in a way that your child recognizes as different, which may be shocking or upsetting to your child.  What can you say to help your child understand what’s going on?

My son Nicholas is eight years old now.  We’ve used a mostly gentle discipline approach that focuses on explaining, redirecting, and using these strategies:

We sometimes get fed up and start yelling or say things that aren’t so nice, but we do our best to avoid being really harsh and hurtful, and we don’t hit him.  That means that when he sees another parent using harsh or violent discipline, he expects an explanation. Read more…

I don’t wear makeup.

I used to wear makeup.  From age 12 to 16, I added more types of makeup to my daily routine each year, and I went through that daily routine even if I wasn’t planning to leave the house.  I continued for a while into college before I realized that the insanely stressful life I was leading there did not allow time for makeup and many other students did not wear it–but I felt that college was an exceptional situation, so I still wore makeup to church, to my summer jobs, and whenever I went back to visit the town where I grew up.  After college, I wore makeup to work and church and social events very consistently at first, but over time I began to wear less and less, until at age 31 I quit almost completely.  Why? Read more…

Public Transit and Summer Fun (Plus tips on vacationing in Pittsburgh!)

Warm weather is here, and I’m looking forward to summer!  We won’t be taking any big vacations; most weekdays, I’ll be going to work in my office as usual, and our seven-year-old Nicholas will be attending art and natural history day camps at the Carnegie Museum while his dad works from home.  I take a city bus to work, getting off right in front of the museum, so it will be easy for me to take Nicholas there each morning.  I’m looking forward to riding the bus with him again like I did for three years while he was in preschool!  I have missed my commuting companion since he started going to a school within walking distance of our home.

I will admit, it’s a little bit annoying that he has to pay to ride the bus now and that the transit authority doesn’t sell bus passes for children.  Most days, Daniel will be picking up Nicholas and usually will do it by car, so Nicholas will be paying child’s fare for only 5 rides a week, a total cost of $5.50–much less than the $22.50 price of a weekly pass.  At least we’ll be able to avoid the hassle of finding exact change every day, by buying ten-trip ticket books, which they do sell in a half-fare version; the price is the same ($11 for 10 rides) but the tickets can’t get accidentally spent on something else!  If I drove him to the museum and then parked my car all day in the neighborhood, I’d burn through that $11 every two days!  (Parents of day campers get a parking pass for the museum garage, but it’s good only for short times for drop-off and pick-up, not for a full day.)

On the bus, and while waiting for the bus, I can read books to Nicholas–or my first-grade alumnus can read to me!  That’s another change from his preschool days.  I look forward to sharing more stories with him and having more reading time than we do at bedtime.

Every day, we’ll get to walk together from our house to the bus stop on the main street.  Our route to school goes the other way, and it’s been striking to me these last two years how much of the daily excitement of our neighborhood Nicholas misses by not hitting Murray Avenue every day!  (Sometimes I’ve taken him for a walk in the evening to see a digging machine, an antique storefront newly exposed during a renovation, or something else of interest that may vanish before the weekend.)  We’ll ride past a new apartment building every day and watch its construction. Read more…

The Beauty of a Bus Pass

In my purse is a 2″x3″ piece of paper that is worth $90.  It may not be the loveliest thing to look at–although this month’s is a nice shade of purple!–but this handy item has a beautiful effect on my daily life.

It is my Port Authority monthly bus pass.  It lets me ride the bus, trolley, or incline anytime I like, anywhere I want to go within the city of Pittsburgh and many suburbs.  All I have to do is flash that card.  I can hop on and off vehicles all day, if I like.  For just one dollar more, I can ride all the way out to the airport and other faraway parts of the metro area.

$90 a month, $990 a year if you pay up front to get one month free.  It might sound like a lot.  But when we tracked the actual fuel efficiency of our hybrid car, I calculated that taking public transit to work saves 37 gallons of gas each year–even for my little three-mile commute–and gas is $3.69 a gallon today, so that’s $136.53 a year; a parking lease in my office building’s garage costs $125 a month, so that’s $1,500 a year; driving to work would cost $1,636.53 a year even before considering the extra wear-and-tear on the car and the higher insurance premium on a car that’s used for commuting.  Read more…

How a silly Website brought me a great book

I have been a fan of passiveaggressivenotes.com for some time now.  It’s one of those sites that perfectly utilizes the Internet’s awesome power to collect silly things seen around the world.  It almost always can make me laugh in that wonderfully sudden way that really dispels stress.

Last summer, I saw a note posted there (unfortunately, I can’t find it again now to link to it!) taped in the window of a Border’s bookstore that had closed.  Like the rest of the chain, and many other bookstores in the past decade, it had languished because so many customers went into the store to browse and read but purchased nothing, preferring to do their book-buying online.  The sign said something like this:

CLOSED FOREVER
Try using the bathrooms
at amazon.com!

I thought it was clever and funny, but I also was zinged with guilt–just as I had been when reading about the demise of bookstores–for the times when I browsed without buying or used the restrooms or drinking fountain at the Barnes & Noble that used to be in my neighborhood.  Read more…

I didn’t know that was a forest!

When my son was two to five years old, he attended a preschool/childcare center on the ground floor of a nine-story apartment tower a few blocks from my office.  We commuted together by public transit and then walked from the bus stop across the parking lot that separated the building from the street.  I find parking lots very ugly, unpleasant places to be, and this one was particularly disheartening: frost-heaved asphalt with puddles of gunk, crooked and crumbling parking bumpers, lots of hostile you-will-be-towed signs (the lot is shared by several businesses), a smelly dumpster, and in the center a few pathetic hostas attempting to grow in a scatter of hideous orange wood chips and discarded fast-food packaging.  It was a daily struggle for me to walk through that space without feeling like I was taking my child someplace terrible.

One day in our first year there, as we left the school in the evening we saw a rabbit dart across the parking lot.  Nicholas said, “Oh!  A rabbit!  It ran into the forest!”  We looked through an empty parking space at the rabbit crouching under a bush on the steep hillside at the edge of the parking lot. Read more…

Traffic Safety for Little Kids

We live on a quiet street, but just around the block is the main street of our neighborhood, which has lots of traffic, parallel parking along both sides, and lots of intersections where right turns on red are allowed.  Only some of the intersections have traffic lights and walk signals.  There are lots of useful places within walking distance, and the sidewalks are wide, but crossing the street can be risky.  A lot of drivers seem to think the traffic laws don’t apply to them!

When Nicholas began walking, I saw that he already knew (from being carried by a walking parent) to pause on the curb and look around before stepping into the street.  That was very helpful, but it didn’t mean he actually knew how to cross the street safely alone.  By thinking out loud, I taught him what we look for when we pause on the curb and how we decide when it’s safe to walk.  But informed decision-making ability isn’t the only thing you need to be safe. Read more…

Walking to School

Happy Walk to School Day!  My son and I walked to his school this morning, and his father will walk him home this afternoon.  He’s in first grade.  Sometime during his years at this K-8 school, he’ll begin walking by himself, but for now I am enjoying the walk and the time with him.  We live slightly less than half a mile (five-and-a-half blocks) from the school, a distance we can walk in 10-15 minutes in just about any weather.

Being in a walkable neighborhood was a major consideration when we bought our home, two years before Nicholas was born.  (Use Walkscore to check out the walkability of different addresses!)  Walking to a good public school was only part of it: grocery store, library, post office, our church, restaurants, many other businesses, and playgrounds all are within a mile of our home, and all the streets have sidewalks.  We also live near a city bus stop, and Nicholas and I commuted together by public transit every day while he was attending a preschool near my office.  But being able to walk the whole way to school is even nicer!  (After taking him to school, I walk another six blocks to the bus stop and go to work.) Read more…

All-Ages Game Night: A great community event!

I ran an All-Ages Game Night at my church last month as both a social event for our members and a way to connect with our community (and maybe attract some new members).  It was easy to do, extremely inexpensive, and lots of fun!

My family loves games and owns enough to fill a large chest of drawers, so we simply brought about half of our games (see list below), the ones that are easiest to learn and don’t take a really long time to play.  We didn’t serve snacks at Game Night–food is distracting and expensive and gets the cards sticky–but we did serve ice water and lemonade using our real glasses.  It was a hot, humid evening, and our parish hall is not air-conditioned, so we set up fans. Read more…