A Yankee travels Dallas

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At the bus stop: just me and the bus sign.

Some of the things I do here in Dallas, like walking, are seen as something only a Yankee would do, though I think that taking the bus is a very Southern tradition especially for working people-think of the Montgomery bus strike.

Certainly, my experience of using the bus system here in Dallas has been very different than using the bus and metro system in Montreal. One similarity (and a good one it is!) is that in both places I, as a senior (over sixty-five years old), can buy a monthly pass for $40 U.S. (49$ CAD, which is roughly the same price).

The big difference seems to be that the transit system in Dallas is not the first choice for getting around town. The buses are busy during the morning and evening rush hours, but are almost empty on the weekends. They also run on once an hour schedules during the weekends. Sometimes I have been the only person on the bus or the DART trains in the middle of a Saturday afternoon!

It is a peculiar sensation to wait for a bus or a train in a deserted station or all alone at a bus stop. In Montreal, there are always people in the trains, or getting out at my stop even if it is after midnight on a Friday or Saturday night! But here the preference for the young & hip is Uber.

The mass transit here is also, like the neighbourhoods, de facto segregated by income, race, and ethnicity. Almost all the passengers are people of color, either working folks or indigents. However, I have found the atmosphere on the buses very warm and welcoming, much of which is the result of engaged drivers and a Southern feeling for hospitality even to strangers.

The drivers too are, almost to a person, very considerate of their passengers. The buses have a ramp that can be let down to allow people in wheelchairs to roll up more easily into the bus. Then the drivers must get out of their seats to attach the wheelchairs to the bus. And when the disabled person needs to get off, the drivers have to disconnect the chairs again, and let down (and then take up) the ramps. This is a very important service that the Dallas transit offers their customers, but as there is no one on board to help the drivers with this job, the buses often run behind schedule!

So, once again, a better choice for transportation is in place, but the difficulty is getting people to opt for this choice, and by upping the ridership, create improvements to the service.





Artisans of the Common Good

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My walking shoes: L.L.Bean sneakers & Ecco leather ties. Pastel on watercolor wash.

I got a very interesting comment recently on my post about the difficulty of walking around Dallas, and I have been thinking about it since the New Year.  My reader noted that the folks in Dallas love their cars, but also that they need the cars in order to commute in a spread out city during the summer months when the temperature is often in the triple digits.

Fair point, but why make the solution to commuting, during the four months when it is unhealthy to be outside walking most of the day, fit every day the rest of the year? (It has been -11 degrees F. recently where I come from in the North so you can only imagine how happy I am walking around Dallas in your delightfully comfortable 55 degrees F.!) What would Dallas look like, and what could some strategies for encouraging walking be, if we didn’t assume an easy one size fits all means of transportation?

Texas just got ranked one of the lowest states (34th) in the nation for good health with 33% of the population obese, so the question is not a trivial one! But for most of us, we use the infrastructure that is in place, and don’t really notice it unless we come from another society with alternate ways of getting around. We tend not to think about how our world would be different (and better!) if we, as individuals, make different choices.

And as we change our lives, the infrastructure would begin to change too. Right now in Dallas, the highways that connect parts of the city are in good repair, but the smaller local streets have been neglected as the city endeavours to save money. It makes sense to walk locally if only to spare your car the damage of negotiating streets with a lot of potholes! If more people walked to do the errands that are now done by car (grocery shopping with a pull cart, picking up dry cleaning, going to the library, etc.); and used walking to get some of the exercise that either they are not getting, or that they are relegating to the time at the gym, the routes between destinations would improve: better sidewalks, more time to cross busy larger streets, and perhaps most important, drivers being aware that there are going to be pedestrians sharing the streets with them!

As David Brooks wrote in his op-ed piece, for the New York Times, recently, on Pope Francis’ New Year’s Eve homily: “the people who have the most influence on society are actually the normal folks, through their normal, everyday gestures: being kind in public places, attentive to the elderly. The pope called such people, in a beautiful phrase, ‘the artisans of the common good.’ ” Choosing to walk, choosing to quite literally “step outside the box” makes you an artisan of the common good!





Compost Orphan

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This is my lovely bucket of kitchen scraps: lemon rinds, coffee grinds, avocado pits, carrot ends, beet skins, and Chinese cabbage leaves.  One half of all the garbage I generate in my kitchen is from my mainly plant-based diet. But I am bereft! I am a compost orphan. I wander the streets of my very well kept, highly manicured neighbourhood looking for a place to dump my compost!

Occasionally a landscaping company comes through the condo compound where I live; and the guys with the loud leaf blowers kindly allow me to add what they call my “organics” to the bags of leaves that they collect and haul off to some distant leaf composting station which I have yet to locate.

But I generate too much compost too fast, and I am on my second bucket by the time they come back two weeks later. I have tried neighbours, but no one here gardens! (It is a lovely community artfully landscaped, but a virtual green desert.) I went and asked at all the local groceries including Whole Foods: no joy! Even the local juicing place doesn’t compost (sigh*).

I will admit to being very spoiled. When I lived in the country in Vermont, I had composting piles out back by the garden beds. Even in Providence, Rhode Island, a good sized city,  I was able to build a small compost heap behind my apartment building. And then, of course, there is Montreal, which just instituted curb-side compost pickup (be still my heart!) last year in my neighbourhood (Verdun).

I have even considered starting a worm farm in my apartment. But though it would take care of the kitchen scraps by turning them into fabulous worm castings, perfect for fertilizing a garden, I would then be reduced to trying to find a place to donate the worm fertilizer. Also, this is a temporary stay for me, and my daughter is adamant that she will not adopt the worms when I return North.

It is times like this that I have the unsettling feeling that I have moved to an alternative reality!





The Weight of One


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Holiday Bouquet © J.Hart ’17

There have been a number of articles recently complaining that the individual decisions and actions that people are being encouraged to take and to do are irrelevant and possibly counterproductive as they lull people into a false sense that they can ameliorate or even prevent the coming climate related disasters by their personal choices.

These opinion pieces come from both sides of the political spectrum, but they all fail to understand a basic fact of capitalism and our present exploitation by multi-national corporations: whether drugs, fashion, sodas, fast foods, plastic water bottles, or gasoline, all sales of stuff depends on the individual deciding to spend her or his money for something that will enrich the wealthy, impoverish the person, and destroy the earth. And the 1%, the wealthiest in the world, have made their fortunes on these millions of our small individual choices.

The problem, as I see it, is not that sustainable actions for individuals are ineffectual, but that they are unworkable at the scale and with the depth of determination with which they are now practiced. Recycling, minimizing waste, taking shorter showers, not using plastic bags, not drinking anything in one time use plastic bottles, etc. are all good, but are too little too late.

It took barely two generations in the U.S. to go from a relatively modest lower middle class living situation for most people to an untenably wasteful and destructive lifestyle that is sickening and impoverishing much of the population. It took a concentrated media blitz with television shows and advertising to convince people that a wasteful and “luxurious” way of living is to be desired, is a sign of success and even virtue (sic!), and, more importantly, is “normal” and an important indication of progress.

The reality, as we have finally discovered, is quite the reverse: in order to live on the earth and protect our future, we must reduce the cost of living on this earth; and revert to a much simpler, slower, and more modest lifestyle. And if we, the mass of separate individuals, created the wealth and are complicit in the destruction of the planet, it stands to reason that we, as individuals, can make the choices that will save the planet and redeem our species.

But which of us is really willing to do that? What culture in history has stepped back from the brink by reducing its consumption and its power? What individual has willingly walked away from comfort and wealth? The only one I know is Siddhārtha Gautama, the scion of a wealthy family who gave it all up to find enlightenment and become the Buddha. Buddha followed and preached what is called “The Middle Way”, a lifestyle that is neither luxurious nor impoverished. But what was “The Middle Way” in Southeast Asia in the 5th century BCE, would probably look like the poorest most uncomfortable way to live in the 21st century AD!

So how do we, the well educated, the solidly middle class, the believers in climate change and sustainability, step out of our boxes? How do we disengage from the non-stop voice in our heads that repeats and repeats that we should never be inconvenienced, made uncomfortable in the smallest manner, or in any way voluntarily limit our appetites or desires? We have been taught that we deserve the best of everything, even if it means the end of the world as we know it. It is what Bill McKibbon calls “hyperindividualism” and it is a very hard habit to break!

So here are some modest suggestions for better choices for healthier habits in the New Year- a way to practice for the coming hard times, disengage from large corporations, and realize a more human lifestyle:

  1. Stop shopping. Don’t shop for recreation or to feel less depressed or less lonely or to alleviate boredom. And if you, as I, were raised in a household and a culture that prioritized shopping, and you are having trouble breaking the habit, here is a link with a helpful psychological tip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDpyS2HN5SA No joke: just stop it!
  2. Don’t buy, eat or drink any processed food. Eliminate all sodas, fast foods, and packaged foods with ingredients that your grandmother would not recognize. This is probably the hardest thing to do, as commercial food is created to be, for want of a better word, addictive. However, if you drink only water, tea, or coffee without sweeteners, and you cook and eat locally grown and harvested produce, eggs, and meat, you will find your health improving within a short time.
  3. Unplug from your phone, television, and the internet for as much of the day as you can. Apple, Google, Facebook, and all the other large tech corporations, want you to believe that you can’t live without their products; and their products, which mainly provide entertainment, increase desires and decrease the ability to delay gratification. They also create a mindset that expects speed in all things: information, relationships, and solutions to problems. Neither speed nor tech will be the answer to the dilemma we are facing.
  4. Make your connections to other people locally and in person.  Politics too should be rooted in your community.

I don’t know if enough of us will make the necessary changes soon enough to save our species. But I do know that I would rather make the choice now of my own volition than be forced by disasters to live in straitened circumstances later. If we are committed (and lucky!) we might live to make a more mature and Earth-centric human culture. May we all find peace, joy, & compassion in 2018!