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Join us next month as WOSU and NPR bring this one-day “un-conference” to Columbus.

We’ll spend the day at the WOSU studios at COSI sharing ideas and concepts that are important to you – because the topics will come from you, the audience.  Let’s see what we can discover together.

Register soon, bring your ideas about community involvement and help us lead the discussions.

Learn more about PubCampOhio by clicking this link.

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Tune into the second part of Finding a Home.  Follow this link to Vocalo to listen.

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It’s been six months since I’ve put my house on the market.  It still hasn’t sold, but that’s okay.  This time has given me the space to make sense of how it was that I found myself in Columbus and what I’ve gained while being here.

It has also helped me understand why it is that I find myself ready to leave.  This is part one of a two part podcast that explains exactly what happened.

Follow this link to Vocalo where you can listen to Part I.  The second part will be posted on Thursday, so stop back then.

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If you’ve been reading Urban-inFill long enough its evident that I’m in favor of comprehensive public transportation systems. Before purchasing my first car at age 23 I used public transit in both Minneapolis and Salt Lake to get around – and it was easy because in both places, I lived in the city with easy access to daily goods and services. In New York and San Francisco I lived without a car.

As an automobile owner for the past two decades I continue to rely upon public transportation whenever possible. It’s a personal choice because I simply do not like driving, although sometimes it is necessary.

Many Americans do not have the option of relying upon public transportation, either because they’ve chosen to live outside of the city or because the city in which they live does not support a comprehensive public transit network. A recent article by NPR’s Joseph Shapiro looks at the challenges facing aging drivers – a group of people who are often left stranded when their ability to navigate an automobile is diminished.

To drive is to be independent. Among Digman’s clients are people with fading eyesight who need to test their night vision. Or someone who was partially paralyzed after a stroke, now learning to use a left-foot accelerator. Or it might be someone whose license has been suspended because of an accident or a flunked driving test.

With scattered families, or families with two wage-earners, aging drivers have fewer options for getting to and from the locations that are meaningful to their lives. It becomes bothersome to seek rides from already busy friends and family, so many aged drivers continue driving for better or for worse. This NPR story looks at how aged drivers relearn previously held skills.

Read and/or listen to this article. It is yet another reason that cities need complete public transit systems. While most cities are trying to attract and retain younger citizens, here is an example of another group that benefits from public transit. For aged residents who can no longer drive  public transit allows them to maintain their  mobility and keeps them linked to the important people and places in their lives.

Keeping existing residents in their homes, regardless of age, stabilizes neighborhoods, keeps neighborhoods safer and creates a sense of place for new residents.

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“I promise you that we’ll meet Ira Glass before the year ends” I told him. Since Fish lives in Chicago, I figured this should be relatively easy. Someone we know must know someone who knows someone who knows Ira Glass.

When I heard about the This American Life simulcast, I rushed on-line to buy our tickets. And while we wouldn’t actually be meeting Ira Glass, it was at least a step in that right direction. Live via satellite is pretty close. If for some reason my initial promise failed to be executed, at least I could say that we saw him live via satellite.

A miscalculation on the time of the show caught me off guard. I’d heard about the show while in the Eastern time zone where the show would start at 8:00p. It never really dawns on me that Chicago is in a different time zone. When we’re not in the same dwelling, we’re interacting with one another on line – Fish in his time zone and I in mine.

So at 6:30pm when Fish said that we should get going, I figured that he was giving us enough time to find a decent parking spot and arrive with enough time to get good seats. “No,” he said. “It starts in thirty-minutes. Its live – and that’s seven o’clock Central.”

We found a parking spot on Diversey at 6:55p just two blocks from the cinema on Western Avenue and were in our seats by 7:03. The show had already started and on the giant screen, there he was – Ira Glass, live via satellite.

Minutes later Ira introduced Mike Birbiglia who told his story about being involved in a car accident and his struggle with legal processes involved. Inside, while we watched Mike tell his story, live via satellite, the car that we had parked outside was being smashed into other cars, live on the street.

As the show progressed we often commented to one another about the endearing impishness of Ira Glass. “He sounds so much younger, doesn’t he?”

An hour later and having left the theater, Fish and I were walking back to the car. From a block away I noticed that his parking job seemed less remarkable than I had remembered. “A man of such elocution would never parallel park that poorly,” I thought to myself. The flashing lights from the police car and tow trucks somehow escaped as clues to what may have happened.

It became obvious from about fifty-feet away that something had happened to the car after we had left it. “Honey, I think something has happened to your car.” Once there, we were met by a cop, two tow-truck drivers and a handful of residents from the building in front of which we parked.

The story of what happened was unclear, but the results were six smashed cars, five on one side of the street, and one on the other. The driver of the offending vehicle sat in the back of the police car, while his brother spoke to him through the window. Fish asked various people for an explanation of what had happened. One man showed us pictures he had taken from his cell phone. “Look,” he said, “I have an aerial view,” which proudly displayed. He’d taken it from his third-floor apartment.

smash

As the severity of the situation sank in, we had to come to grips with our options. Tow the car, but to where? What’s the cost of towing? Is the car totaled? Could it be driven at all? Of course, I had one selfish thought of my own; “This means I’ll have to take the bus to Union Station on Sunday night, and we’ll have to say our good-bye’s from Fish’s front door rather than from the curb on Canal Street.”

A series of events, some live, some live via satellite, including now two stories about smashed cars, and all of them a matter of precise timing, despite time zones and locations. A synchronistic fate, indeed.

We settled on having the car towed to a body shop across from Wrigley Field, then walked a couple blocks to share a pitcher of margaritas before taking the Red Line home. By the time we returned home, the night’s events felt far removed.

photo courtesey of S. Cornelis

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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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