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Archive for February, 2009

The COTA Challenge

The challenge of using public transportation has proven to be a worthy adversary. While my intentions were true, the practicality of my life, especially this month, has made it difficult to use COTA as often as I had hoped.

My first trip of the month was from downtown to Riverside Hospital. My grandfather had a heart attack at the beginning of February and then had quintuple bypass heart surgery. I was on my way to visit him. I went to COTA.com and saw that there was a bus running from 4th Street and Gay Street, right near where I live, express in 25 minutes to the front of Riverside. I was amazed at how convenient this would be. And it was, except for my failure to realize that the standard COTA monthly pass didn’t work with Express routes. Luckily, the driver was kind enough to let me ride anyway, and I had a great ride, reading relaxingly, and oblivious to the traffic racing around me.

The second attempt to use the bus came when my wife and I were going to the Short North for an afternoon of appetizers and drinks. My wife is a Columbus State Community College student and we had thought this allowed her to ride COTA for free. We got on the bus and were made aware that only Ohio State and Columbus City School students could ride for free, no longer Columbus State students. So we shelled out the $1.50, which wasn’t bad, but it did foil my expectations. In any case, after a great afternoon at Lemongrass, La Fogata, and Martini, we walked home.

What I found this month is that I actually don’t use my car that often. I walk to my gym, which is a block from my home, I walk to most restaurants or bars when I go out, or to the Downtown Resident’s Association Meetings I go to, or to my Cornhole League on Gay Street. Most of my activities center around places within walking distance. The few places I do drive are very difficult routes for using COTA. For example, to get to work in the morning the trip would take 1 hour and 27 minutes on the bus versus 15 minutes in the car. The ride home from work would take 2 hours and 5 minutes. Never more so than now, the free time I have outside of work is needed to be with my family, complete my Master’s Degree, take my dog to the park, etc. and as a result every block of time I have becomes very valuable to the point where that extra hour or more on the bus is not practical. As my schedule settles a bit, I can see making another attempt, however.

I go through about two tanks of gas a month, which isn’t great, but with Kroger and Giant Eagle fuel perks, I spend around 40 dollars a month on gas. For my wife and I to ride the COTA, it would cost us 90 dollars for two monthly passes.

All in all, this experience has been educational. In my minimal use, I did see the value of being able to read a book, or talk to strangers, or be on the phone without the stress of hurried drivers weaving through the traffic around me. However, for the moment anyway, the time constraints associated with the routes offered for my destinations make it impractical to be a regular on the COTA.

Chris

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There’s less than seven months remaining until Car Free Day 2009 which happens world-wide on September 22nd. Seven months gives us time to plan and execute and here are a number of local groups that could help sponsor Columbus’ Car Free Day.

COTA: It’s the obvious choice as a sponsor because getting around without a car means a boost to public transportation use. COTA’s marketing department could turn Car Free Day into their biggest annual fund-raiser.

The City of Columbus: Getting cars off the road even for one day means less wear and tear on the concrete and asphalt. It would also reduce the number of police officers required to respond to traffic accidents – and since there’s a cut back taking place, why not use the officers we do have to investigate and prevent crimes.

Columbus City Council: Hey, they wanted clean air in bars – how about clean air on my front porch!

ODOT: Because “Transportation” is more cost effective when it’s not accomplished by car, and if I remember correctly ODOT is looking for ways to save money right now. Could there be a better sponsor?

Grant Hospital: And for that matter, all the other local hospitals. Taking cars off the road even for a day reduces the number of fatal or near-fatal accidents, leaving emergency rooms open for emergencies and probably reduces the cost of health care, in general.

The Columbus Board of Realtors: When people get used to not using cars, they can get used to not depending upon cars and that means more money to spend on housing. A one car family can afford a much nicer home.

Nationwide: Why didn’t I think of this first! Reducing automobile trips saves lives, lowers the risk of accidents and that means Nationwide makes more money. Some studies suggest that more people die from automobile pollution than from automobile accidents. That’s a double win for Nationwide. Fewer claims also equates to lower premimus – and that’s being “on your side”.

General Motors: Cold chance in hell, but considering they bought out and shut down public transit systems around the nation, they should be forced into this one. Better yet, they government should require them to use the bail out money to rebuild the transit systems they destroyed. Doing that would keep their factories running for years to come.

UPS and FedEx: Deliveries are more easily accomplished when there are fewer cars on the road. Faster deliveries means increased savings for these two big companies.

Your employer: Don’t they already know that workers who chose not to drive to work are more productive and less stressed out? Tell your employer that you’d like to be more productive and ask them to buy a transit pass for you.

The list could go on and on, but you get my point. Car Free Day 2009 doesn’t mean giving up your car forever – it just asks that you to try to give it up for a day. Really, the true benefactor is you. Ride a bike, take a bus or walk. But plan now because September 22nd will arriver sooner than you think.

If you have ideas on what we could do as a community on that day, let us know. Id love to hear your ideas.

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My first exposure to opera occurred while I was living in Salt Lake City.  I’d come home from work one afternoon and as I was putting the key into the door, I heard opera music coming from inside my apartment.

There were two reasons that I found this odd.  I lived alone and I didn’t own any opera music.  I stepped back from the door to examine it, first to make sure I was at the correct door then to look for signs of tampering.   Everything looked normal, but I was at the back door and couldn’t determine the integrity of  the front door.

I suspected that a burglary was taking place and that the culprits had decided to lounge around the house and enjoy the stereo system before they departed with it.  I’d heard about things like this happening, but Salt Lake City wasn’t known for its cultured criminals.  My heart raced as I entered the apartment.

“Hello?  Who’s here?” I shouted.  I couldn’t hear my own voice over the music.  Louder, I shouted again, “Who is in here?” and as I walked further in I saw candle light flickering in the bathroom.  The surrealism increased rapidly.

From around the corner I peeked into the bathroom to find my best friend from Seattle immersed in the tub and engulfed in bubbles.  He’d found himself in Salt Lake, found the key to may apartment, let himself in and made himself at home.
“What in the hell are you doing?” I asked.

Tonight I’m going to my first opera performance here in Columbus.  It wasn’t until about two months ago that I even knew that Columbus had an opera company, and I’m not even sure how I stumbled upon Opera Columbus’ web site.

I’m not overly passionate about opera, though I’ve always enjoyed the voices of Andrea Boccelli, Charlotte Church and Cecilia Bartoli.   Discovering, however, that Columbus has an opera company was enough to entice me into buying a ticket.

Its not that I’m overly interested in seeing a performance, but I am interesting in seeing who is supporting opera in Columbus.  In living here for eight years I’ve never heard one person mention Opera Columbus and that is why I purchased a ticket.  A sense of curiosity opened my pocket book.

Tonight Opera Columbus is performing Puccini’s Turandot.  I know nothing about either except for the fact that Puccini died before completing the work.  Fortunately, Opera Columbus has a synopsis of the show on their web site and the staff uses both a blog and Twitter to spread the word.

If you’re curious about opera in Columbus you can take advantage of $10 tickets for tonight’s and Sunday’s performance so long as you purchase them at least one hour before the curtain rises.  Call 614 469 0939 for more information.

Perhaps I’ll see you at the Ohio Theater tonight.

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A National Elixir

A small change in behavior set off an unexpected chain of events during my recent trip to Finland. Because I’ve recently stopped smoking I’ve stayed away from booze as a way of keeping the desire to smoke in check. As much as I enjoy beer, a good vodka or a good scotch, I’ve stayed away. An occasional glass of wine with dinner, but for the most part and by sheer coincidence, I’ve nearly eliminated booze.

Questions arose when I declined beer before, and cognac following, a dinner with former colleagues. I explained my situation and left it at that, then watched as the remaining three polished off two bottles of wine and countless beers.

Up north, a friend had a six pack waiting for us behind the barn. My train arrived at 18:30 – a typically perfect time to down three apiece.

When I arrived at the home where I spent the majority of my time, my hosts greeted me with a choice of beer or gin. I had a sip of gin and explained why I didn’t want one of my own.

In addition to declining the free booze, I choose not to plan for the afternoon happy hours or late nights at local bars – times and places where I knew I could run into people I know. This time I used public transportation not to get to and from various bars, but to get to and from various sources of wireless Internet service. Not unlike my days in Columbus, I spent the afternoons at coffee shops and public plazas reading, writing and keeping up with the news and blogs.

With a new set of behaviors in place, it took less than twenty-four hours for me to see what I’d been able to ignore in the past. What I noticed was the evidence surrounding sadness and social isolation that leads Finland to having one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

Blank faces were at nearly every turn and the lack of smiles became downright disturbing. Listless heads held up just enough so the eyes could look out the windows of the metro when it was above ground, then turned to stare just below the chin or off to the side of whomever was across from them when below ground. No talking, except for the recorded female voice calling out the names of the stops, first in Finnish then in Swedish.

In crowded aisles of department stores or supermarkets no one bothers to say “excuse me”. Clerks and cashiers ask the same questions, repeatedly, to everyone they serve.
Along even the narrowest country road there are no “good mornings” or “hello’s” when passing other pedestrians. There is cultural silence.

In every setting pairs of eyes glance up quickly and in the event that contact is made they dart away to stare off into the distance. Within these eyes and from the surrounds of silence I began to hear the piercing screams of loneliness.

My daily ride into the city on the metro became the most terrifying part of my day. People forced into close proximity but unable to respond socially to one another left me feeling isolated as well. I began wearing my earphones and listening to my music while going to and from. The soundtrack didn’t match the movie making things that much more disturbing.

Thoughts of sealing myself into a hotel room for a couple of days entered my mind as I tried to figure out what was happening. I felt a tremendous need to escape but I had no where to go. Walls of grayness started closing in around me. Walking. I had to keep walking and better to do so in the darkness so as to see fewer faces. The darkness is meant to be silent.

The keys of my Blackberry clicked throughout the night to friends across the ocean as I tried to make sense of what was happening. I came to realize that because I wasn’t in pursuit of alcohol or hanging out with friends while consuming alcohol or dealing with the after effects of alcohol, that I was witnessing what those who consume it are trying to escape. Drinking makes the feeling of isolation go away at least for awhile. A little bit longer when drinking together. I had used alcohol to do the very same thing in Finland, year after year. I’d confused that with having fun. But it was, and still is for many, a method of survival wrought with its own self-contained problems.

A friend in Chicago responded by e-mail to my silent screams.

“You have seen the evaporation of your enthusiasm for a culture and country (its customs) and your past interpersonal relationships vanish before your eyes…that must be disorientating.”

He said it best.

To escape, I scrambled to fill my remaining nights with different types of social engagements. I went to see a movie, the first Finnish film I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. I dodged small clans of drunks outside of metro stations, moved out of the way for others stumbling down the street and listened to the cursing from another when he fell off his bicycle due to the ice. Ironically, the movie was about the organized crime that surrounded illegal alcohol sales during the 1960’s in Helsinki’s Punavouri neighborhood.

Two days later I went to a musical performance by Siiri Nordin (her sound is seductive!)- a concert hosted by the city, just two metro stops north from where I was staying. A large room of smiling faces was hugely therapeutic, though my usual set of friends didn’t wish to participate.

During my remaining jaunts to and from the city I made it a point to make eye contact with whomever I could and then smile or wink at them. I made an extra effort to liven my step and walk to the beat of my music. I looked into every face as I ascended from the metro stations hoping to find the exceptions or at the very least, find a smile in return. One night I rode home next to an Indian couple I’d seen the night before. When the woman recognized me, she smiled.

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Lapua – when you need some quiet.

The best vacations are usually those that take place where there are the fewest distractions.  For me that place has always been a small town in west-central Finland.  Lapua is 320 km north of Helsinki and 80 km east of Vaasa.  With a population of 14,000 there aren’t many choices to be made and for the most part the people here don’t ask a lot of questions.

I came to Lapua first in the summer of 1983 at the request of a friend.  He had been an exchange student in my high school and invited me to spend the following summer at his place.  While I’ve been back to Finland dozens of times since then, I’ve only made it up to Lapua a handful of times.  This time I captured a bit of it to share with you.

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