Sunday, December 27, 2009

Snowsheing at Festge County Park

Today's adventure was snowshoeing at Festge County Park, just west of Cross Plains. I'll need to check my map, but the terminal moraine - the Johnstown Moraine - either runs through the park or very close by.

For those not familiar with the glacial history of Dane County or Wisconsin in general, this is where the latest glacier that covered most of the state and upper Midwest stopped. To the west and south of this linear feature, the glaciers never altered the landscape. This area, called the Driftless Area, is hillier than the rest of Wisconsin; there is a more regular drainage pattern for the streams, and the scenery is unlike anything else in the state.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Fix It First! Then give me some alternatives.

This article highlights the problem with transportation spending priorities. We keep building new highways, when we can't even afford to fix what we have now.

Building new highways to feed our insatiable appetite to drive everywhere, fast, without delay, at all times of the day and year is simply unsustainable, and not just for the environment. Your tax dollars are paying for this pyramid scheme.

And yet, the paltry sums that some want to spend on alternatives to driving - walking and biking for shorter distances, urban transit for daily travel in your metropolitan area, and reviving the rail system for intercity trips - are derided as wasteful spending and taking money away from "what is needed."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pros and cons of working at home

Yes, it's nice to be able to work in very casual clothes, so casual that you wouldn't wear them out of the house. Yes, it's nice to be able to eat your own food and not have to travel on nasty roads or in rainy weather. Yes, setting your own schedule is very useful.

But there are drawbacks to working at home. The principal one for me is that I feel cut off from the rest of the world, and sometimes don't even leave the house. It's especially tempting to stay in when the weather sucks. Today's weather wasn't really too bad, as long as you weren't planning on traveling anywhere, but seeing snowing falling makes me less likely to venture out, unless it's time to ski or snowshoe. So it was mid-afternoon before I went out to shovel and see what the world was up to.

I also don't work well when I don't have the input and feedback of other people. Perhaps that's why I feel energized and tend to be more productive after I get back from a conference: I'm full of ideas.

And the most likely place for me to find the people to interact with is the coffee shop. Even when I was working downtown, a trip to Ancora was often the most productive part of my day. I'd be trying to reach people all morning - leaving voice mail messages, emailing, and playing telephone tag - and finally say, "I'm headed over to Ancora for a cup." And hour and a half later I'd wander back into the office. While walking the block to the coffee shop, or waiting in line, I'd see most of the people I'd been trying to reach all day.

So here is another reason for the efficiency of urban area: As I mentioned in a previous post, casual encounters are increased, and it is easier to take advantage of these casual encounters, when you are walking and using local shops. If I had worked in a large office building, or had to drive to errands on break, I wouldn't run into people from other employers or offices. Those encounters were what drove both by advocacy work at Bicycle Federation and my alder work. Being able to talk to people without an appointment, without a plan to discuss anything in particular, stokes work creativity.

Obviously, I'm not the first person to notice this, and the link between density and creativity is a familiar theme of Richard Florida, but this is an observation of my own behavior and needs. YMMV

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Steel cut oats and apple compote on a snowy day

Today's blizzard seems the perfect time to write about my favorite winter breakfast: oatmeal with fruit and vanilla yogurt.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Casual encounters: How to increase them and why they build community.

Last night a friend commented how surprised he was that, everywhere he went in Madison, he ran into someone he knew. "I've only been here a little over a year, and that never happened to me in Boulder."

This difference in casual encounters didn't surprise me. From what he had told me, the city of Boulder is an expensive place to live, so many people actually live in one of the surrounding communities. As a graduate student, he had commuted to campus and back to his house every day. He took the bus much of the time, but many other people drive. So despite the fact that Boulder and Madison are often compared - medium sized cities with large universities, liberal politics, and residents with a strong interest in the outdoors, physically active lifestyles, and the environment - they are really very different when viewed through the lens of a "community."

Here in Madison, the people that my friend and I would naturally socialize with: academics, people involved in politics, activists, employees and volunteers at non-profits, etc. live not only in the city, but close to downtown. Because of the geography of the Isthmus, many of us walk, bike, or take the bus for our daily commute and other local trips. We socialize, shop, and play close to home and work because opportunities to do these things are available where we live and work.

So as we go about our daily lives, we are in close proximity to others that we would know anyway. Add in the fact that we tend to travel in ways that allow us to greet and talk - it is far easier to stop and talk when walking or biking than when driving - and you have a higher chance that you will both see someone you know and be able to chat when you do catch sight of that person.

Driving naturally divides people. You are enclosed in a metal box and traveling at a speed and distance from each other that doesn't allow one to yell out, "Yeah, Sue! Where are you going?" You can't discover that you are each looking for a bite to eat or thinking about seeing a movie. You don't have the chance to stop and ask your neighbor what that lovely flower is he has in the yard.

So both the (relative) affordability and the de-emphasis on car travel means that in Madison we are always running into people we know, whether that be a work colleague, a friend-of-a-friend, another parent from your child's school, or just that person that goes to the same coffee shop as you.

These casual encounters are what build and maintain a community. They make people feel safe and reinforce the idea that we share a common life. Although they may not come up with this example, it's what makes small town life so appealing. And yet you don't have to live in a small town to get it. Just start walking, shopping locally, and keeping your eyes open for other people.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Thoughts on the Edgewater and city process

Below is a letter I wrote today to a handful of city alders, ones with whom I feel I have a personal relationship. I got several positive reactions, so I thought I'd post it for the general public, at least those out there that know I have a blog, which isn't many. I made one or two editorial and grammatical changes from the original:

Dear former colleagues -

Although I'm sure you are way sick of hearing and talking about the Edgewater, I'm just dropping you a note to let you know where I stand. And I'm not for or against it!

However, I'm very cautious, bordering on suspicious, about how this whole process has happened. When I was on the Council, I was occasionally bullied by people – both by those that wanted something and those inside city government – to vote for (or against) something with which I was not entirely comfortable.  This treatment generally made me less likely to support the matter. That's what this feels like.

Whatever you do on Tuesday, or in the future, vote your conscience. You are all smart and thoughtful people, and I hope that you will use those skills, your heart, and hard information you may have to make the right decision.

But on a harsher note, I do not like the constant drum beat of inevitability that this project has maintained. I have been told that decent information and drawing were finally presented at the Landmarks Commission meeting on Monday, but I know that several commissions had asked for specific information in the past - such as rendering as to what the project would look like standing on Langdon or Wisconsin Ave, and not just the lovely close-up of the plaza - and yet never received the requested information. It felt like the developers were so certain that they had this thing in the bag, that they viewed commission meetings as a mere formality, not taking the input or requests of the commission members seriously.

We have a city process for a good reason, and it pains me to see both the developer and the Mayor show disdain for it. Yes, it may take awhile to get projects done in Madison, perhaps longer than in other cities our size. But that is because we value the input of citizens, city staff, neighbors, and others with a real and long lasting interest in the city. We don't make decisions in back rooms; we make them out in the fresh air, so everyone can know what is happening. To hear the Mayor dismiss the Landmarks Commission as, "a handful of unelected individuals," reeks of disrespect. I predict that comment will come back to bite Dave in the butt when the RTA referendum comes around.

So, dear friends and former colleagues, do what you think it right, but don't do it because you feel you have to. Don't do it because the Mayor would be mad. Don't do it because the unions are standing there glaring at you, or the press will write nasty things, or you got angry letters.

I'll be watching Tuesday via City Channel on my computer, with a big bottle of wine. Feel free to email or Face Book comments, ‘cause I can’t see all the boring, frustrating, or funny stuff at home.

Glad I'm not getting all the emails and phone calls,


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pot roast: Comfort food and reflections on eating meat

Last night I made pot roast for the first time in my life. How can any omnivore get to middle age and never make pot roast?