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Two years ago I sold my car.  I haven’t driven since and I haven’t given it a second thought.

The convenience of not having a car – and indeed it is a convenience to avoid paying for  gas, parking, insurance, maintenance, etc…. is in direct proportion to population density   and the frequency in service of public transit.  These two situations are related.

While Chicago’s population density is on average 11,864 per square mile, my neighborhood is at 33,000 per square mile.  Because of this density, transit routes are more profitable.  With three L stops, express bus service as well as local service, getting to and from is a snap with 24/7 train service and 18/7 bus service.

When the need arrises for a taxi, the rides are short and inexpensive.  Overall, transit connects both airports, and the Amtrak station.  Regional trains connects Chicago to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan.  I can visit friends in Milwaukee or take a trip to the beaches of Michigan.

With this density comes a level of profit for the providers of goods and services.  Four full-sized grocery stores serve the area.  Two Walgreen’s and two CVS’, each no more than a half mile apart.  Scores of restaurants and bars are here as well as a new library.   Two Target stores are three miles apart, each in an adjoining neighborhood.  For the most part, everything is within walking distance and there are days when I don’t need public transit at all.

Within the city limits owning a car is discouraged through covert measures.  Due to the scarcity of available land, parking is a premium and priced as such.  Cars in the city require a permit.  Gasoline is highly taxed.  Residential buildings do not require a 1:1 ratio for parking – it would be too costly, regardless and pre-war buildings have no parking.  Toll roads act as a barrier, and now  city streets are being narrowed for the sake of moving the population more efficiently through the addition of bike lanes and BRT (bus rapid transit) lanes.

These circumstances combined create an environment where life without a car is quite convenient.   And that is precisely why I made the decision to live here, car-free and stress free.   It’s not complicated, but I did have to leave Ohio in order to live this way.

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“There are those two months of winter when I won’t be biking to work,” he said.

“Two months?” I asked.  Then I told my neighbor that I wanted to use his calendar.

I’m the guy who prefers summer biking.  When I awoke at 5am to seventy-five degree temperatures and was out on the lakefront trail by 6am I was in a state of pure bliss.  Today I awoke to a temperature of forty-nine degrees and it’s a sign that my outdoor bicycling season is nearly over.

When I was a kid my summers were spent riding my bike.  Day after day, summer after summer it was me and my bike.  My third bike, pictured here, had an odometer and as I raced around the block day after day, Lucy, the old woman who lived at the corner of our block would ask with each round, “How many?” and I’d blurt out the latest mileage as I passed her.

My next bike, of which there are no photographs (we didn’t have pocket cameras) didn’t have an odometer, but it was a three-speed and by this time I was exploring the neighborhoods surrounding mine.  Throughout those summers I’d bicycle from the shores of Lake Calhoun to the Cathedral in St. Paul and to all places in between.

Back at home after a day’s ride, I’d pull out my map of Minneapolis /St. Paul and highlight the streets that I’d been on that day, using the map as a way to discover  new streets to explore.

Fast forward to 2012 and I now have GPS tracking available which not only maps my ride (www.mapmyride.com) it also offers statistics on distance, time, elevation, average speed, and calories burned.   I now have this wealth of data at my fingertips  thanks to orbiting satellites that make our lives on earth easier.

While the data surrounding a season of bicycling is nice to have, for me it’s never been about the data.  My bike rides have always been about exploration and freedom.  Freedom to move through time and space in near silence in a narrow sliver of space that I control.

In smaller cities, that sliver of space was seldom interrupted.  In Salt Lake City I could bike up a canyon and only pass a handful of people.  On the bike path along the river in Columbus I might pass a few dozen people when I was near the university.  In Chicago, however, I often navigate through hundreds if not thousands of people, especially on the weekends.

This is List A and this is what I’ve learned from bicycling on Chicago’s north side:

  • Know that only those behind you can see you.
  • Assume that those coming towards you cannot see you either, especially if they’re passing in heavy traffic.  Lights on at all times is best.
  • Expect runners in front of you to stop immediately at any given time and/or dash to the lake without looking first.
  • Understand that tourists on bicycles is NOT a good thing.  Not for anyone.  Tourists commandeering their own four-person pedicab is a really bad idea.
  • Avoid Navy Pier between the hours of 9am and 8pm.  Realize that this is impossible because the the trail crosses the entrances to Navy Pier.
  • Remember that you will say aloud every word of George Carlin’s Seven Words while navigating the bridge over the Chicago River which is the lower level of Lake Shore Drive.
  • Translate “on your left” into every language you can and assume that only local bicyclists and runners know that this means.
  • Assume that the mom pushing her double-wide stroller and talking on the phone has no idea that there are other people living in Chicago.

This is List B and this is what I’ve discovered from bicycling along the lakefront:

  • The earlier I ride, the better.
  • Every morning I’ll see the gray-haired woman on roller blades.
  • Often I’ll see a very old man in a yellow hi-viz vest shuffling along just north of Fullerton.
  • Equally as often I’ll see the very old woman in her housecoat, orthopedic shoes,and giant bug-eye sun glasses out on the trail pushing her walker.  She’s still got it!
  • Every morning, evening, and weekend I’ll see the tanned and toned shirtless runner near the Oak Street Beach that looks exactly like Carmine Ragusa.
  • I never see people inside of the Mies van der Rohe apartment buildings.
  • Heading south from the Museum Campus and through the prairie restoration area is amazing!
  • Heading further south to where the city is creating separate paths for bicyclist and runners is even better.
  • Passing McCormick Place on the way home and realizing that there is still 90 more blocks to go feels exhausting.
  • Rounding the corner northbound towards the Oak Street Beach is exhilarating and makes me want to keep going.
  • I’ll pass Carmine Ragusa again.
  • Getting splashed by crashing waves near Fullerton when the lake is rough feels great when it’s hot outside.
  • The lake can take on so many different shades of blue.

Everything on List B makes dealing with List A worth it.

 

Year to date I’ve biked 550 miles in 45 hours and have burned 23,714 calories.  I’ll likely make it past the 600 mile mark before it’s just too chilly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It just so happened that the furniture that I found most appealing and within my price range is made in the United States. I didn’t necessarily plan it that way, but when a family member suggested I shop at Ikea instead, I reminded them that spending a few extra dollars for an American made product is probably a better thing to do these days.

These days – that even sounded a bit odd to me when I said it because I’ve never really bothered to look to see which workers my money was supporting. Sure, I purchased a pair of New Balance shoes a couple summers ago when I heard that they had moved some their manufacturing to Maine. Generally speaking, however, I’d throw into the shopping cart whatever it was that caught my eye and/or had the best price.

Considering that my relocation to Chicago has come about after a series of very fortunate events and years of hard work and conservation, I thought it might be a wise idea to make sure that I keep the good karma moving forward. I’ve made the decision to outfit the place with American made products whenever possible.

My first challenge was to find new dishes. While the style that would have looked best with a modern interior was made in Japan, it didn’t seem right to send my money there when I had American made options. Instead I chose Fiesta dinnerware made in West Virginia by Homer Laughlin. The same classic design for decades but in nifty new colors. I’ll admit that knowing that Fiesta Ware is keeping families in their homes in West Virginia makes the style a perfect fit in my new kitchen.

Speaking of kitchens, I was delighted to discover that Libman brooms are still made in Arcola, Illinois so I chose a Precision Angle broom made from 80% recycled plastic. It was the same price as the “designer” broom that was made in China. I’m still looking for a scrub brush that’s not made in China.

With the toaster and coffee maker I was not so fortunate. Would it really be that difficult to make a toaster in the US? It’s a fairly simple process of stringing heating cables inside of a non-combustable housing. Add a lever, a timer, a couple springs and that’s that. Certainly someone in the US could pull that one off.

Although Brahms Mount in Maine produces linen towels from American raised Alpacas, the $130 price tag for a bath towel is a bit steep. I went with a Macy’s sale item instead that was produced in India.

For cookware I discovered Calphalon from Toledo, Ohio. It appears as if their hard-anodized cookware is still made in the States. It’s certainly not the least expensive, so I’ll buy a piece at a time and I only need a few pieces. I seldom cook vast arrays of food so a entire kitchen ensemble isn’t necessary.

In preparation for hosting a few friends for New Year’s Eve, my search for martini glasses led me to Crate and Barrel. For only $1.95 per unit, their Dizzy line is both unique and American made.

The new coffee table was made in Minnesota and the bed frame and media console were both made in North Dakota. The sofa comes from North Carolina, as one might expect. All these pieces come from Room & Board which tries to source from US companies whenever possible. And with a personal shopping assistant from Minnesota named Sandy Northberg I was made to feel right at home, don’tcha know. She e-mailed me today to see how I liked the new pieces.

My mattress, the first good mattress in which I’ve invested was manufactured in the US under the direction of Value City, formerly a Schottenstein company out of Columbus, Ohio. Selected and paid for while in Columbus and delivered to my flat in Chicago – that’s convenient.

With all thats happening with the American unemployment levels it just makes sense to look for American brands first. In some cases the cost might be slightly higher but for the most part I find prices fairly competitive. When given the choice it’s a much better option to give my money to my “neighbors” because keeping their income in tact keeps our neighborhoods intact which in turn keeps our cities and towns intact and viable.

I’ll continue to look for examples of American made options as 2011 continues and post what I find here. In the mean time, consider your shopping habits and determine if you can contribute to the stabilization of your neighbor’s future.

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During the summer of 1983 I lived in a small town in rural Finland.  It was just a summer but there I met friends that I’d know for a lifetime.  I also encountered a rich simplicity that made me want to stay.  Practicality.  Modesty.  Balance.  But most of all, simplicity.  Little was wasted, there was little want and people were happy.

Fourteen years later, in 1997, I found myself working in Finland.  The world had changed and so had Finland.   Despite the changes that had taken place in politics and economics I returned to find the Finland that I had remembered.  A place of practicality, modesty, balance and simplicity.

December 6th was Finland’s 93rd year of independence.  In 1917 Finland declared it’s independence from Russian control.  It had been ruled by Russia as a Grand Duchy beginning in 1809.  Prior to Russian rule, Finland had been controlled by the Swedes.  Swedish occupation lasted for roughly 560 years.  Throughout both occupations the Finns held tight to their native traditions, beliefs and values – essentially, their cultural mythology.

As a visitor I had always felt that the Finns were similar enough to Americans.  I didn’t see any glaring cultural differences but my friends said that I would never truly understand the differences until I lived there.  And then that happened, essentially, as my weekly life transitioned to living and working in Helsinki.

What I always enjoyed about Finland was it’s predictability.  Things just worked.  For example, buying a train ticket required certain steps and these steps were always the same.  Speaking to a clerk in a shop or market followed certain expected (yet bare bones) pleasantries.

What later drove me absolutely crazy about Finland was it’s predictability.  Every store clerk asks the same question and responds with a similar response.  Buying a train ticket can now be done on line, but one can still go into the central station, take a number and wait for the little “bing-bong” sound that signals that it’s now your time to be served at a specific window.  This same series of events takes place in banks.

In my twenty-five years of dealing with life in Finland I’ve seen the country go from near poverty – when in the 1980’s the government spent wildly on facilities and infrastructure to the 1990’s when the nation was repaying it’s own debt, to the roaring millennium years as part of the European Union when cash was pouring into the country and every spare centimeter of land was being built upon.  And now again, to a period of reduced spending and conservation.

Despite relative recent events of poverty and wealth, and over centuries of foreign rule, Finland now commands one of the best standards of living in the Western world.  Nearly free, life-long educational opportunities, one of the best public school systems in the world as well as the world’s highest rate of Internet connectivity.  Finland’s population is one of the best educated and most competitive in the world.

And this is what I have learned from Finland – While outside influences may change, a value system of practicality, modesty, balance and simplicity brings about long-term prosperity and keeps one’s cultural identity in tact.

Over the past decade I’ve led a life focused on these values.  I chose to live in a house that was practical.  Leaving consumerism behind I shopped very modestly at thrift stores forgoing “fashion” for warmth and costly for inexpensive.  When I left a long-standing career I made the decision to choose balance in my life over income. Later, that balance created even greater income.  Whether it was growing my own food, collecting rain water or living without air conditioning and foregoing the use of an automobile, my choice was always simplicity over complex.  Practical rather than expected.

Despite cultural norms or political expectations I simply lived my life by practical and modest methods.  While others complained about the high cost of driving, I transitioned to public transit.  While a political battle ensues over the acceptance of train travel in Ohio, I’ve been traveling by train (as an Ohioan) and also avoiding the cultural debate taking place at airports.  As our country battles with job loss, I’ve been buying American made products.

When I decided in 2006 to postpone moving until 2010 so as to increase the equity in my house, I knew I was embarking upon a plan that would work.  I knew it would work despite what everyone said was possible because, and solely because I had made modest and simple choice in previous years.

And because I held true to my beliefs, dreams and goals, I have been able to create a new standard of living for myself that goes against the current cultural, political and financial expectations.  When everyone said that it couldn’t be done, I believed that it could.

I can’t help but think that my time in Finland helped create this personal paradigm.  The cultural stability and long-term success of the Finns despite outside influence is likely due to the maintenance of practical, modest, balanced and simple ideals, values and beliefs.  Live a simple life and you will be rewarded.

Thank you Finland.

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If you’re like me, you’ll stay up late every now and then.  Maybe its because you’re out with friends or maybe it’s because you’re engaged in something interesting like reading a book, watching a movie – something like that.

Consider this:

Scenario A)
Let’s say that you’re up late one night and get to sleep around 3 a.m.  About five and a half hours later you wake up, stumble to the kitchen and grab a cup of coffee – maybe some fruit or a danish, or maybe french toast and eggs.  Gaze out the window for a while contemplating the day ahead of you – then freshen up, brush your teeth, lace up your shoes and hit the streets with a plan.

Scenario B)
Maybe you don’t like staying up that late.  And maybe you like to sleep more than six hours.  So, let’s say that you hit the sack around 2 a.m.  After a full eight-hours of sleep you wake up, brush your teeth, have a leisurely breakfast, chat with a few folks over coffee and then decided to spend the rest of the afternoon taking in the sights and sounds of the city.

Scenario C)
Some may like the idea of getting up early, watching the sun rise, reading the paper or knocking out a few chapters of a great book.  Then it’s a intriguing conversation over lunch, an afternoon nap, and by early evening you’re ready for the theater, the opera and a late dinner at a little bistro around the corner.

Imagine that in Scenario A, you walk out the door and find yourself in downtown Chicago – at the base of the Sears Tower no less.

In Scenario B you walk out the door and find yourself just four blocks from the National  Mall in Washington, DC.

And in Scenario C, you open the door and find yourself at Penn Station in New York City.

Do you know that these options currently exist, using Ohio’s existing passenger rail service?  Sure, it requires a drive to Cleveland to catch the train, but it’s possible, it’s completely do-able and it’s relatively inexpensive.  Amtrak operates two trains a day to Chicago, and one a day to both New York and Washington DC.

Yes, it requires a trip to Cleveland to catch the train, but passenger rail exists and it works.   And it’s comfortable.  Even with the drive to Cleveland, it’s relatively convenient.    It’ll be more convenient when boarding the train in downtown Columbus is possible.

Supporting the expansion of Ohio’s passenger rail service also means taking advantage of what we have today, funding what we have today so that those funds can be used to expand service in the future.

If you one of the supporters of the expansion of passenger rail in Ohio which will include the 3C Corridor project, I encourage you to take the train next time you’re planning a trip to one of the three destinations, served directly, on Amtrak today.

$49, one way to Chicago.
$77, one way to DC.
$86, one way to New York.

These are next-day departures, not advanced reservations departing from Cleveland.  Chicago and DC are can also be reached from Cincinnati, but with longer travel times.

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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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