Thursday, May 16, 2013

Craigslist and my Inner Cavewoman

Perhaps it’s a nod to my hunter-gatherer ancestry, but a good find on craigslist is as satisfying to me as I can only imagine it would be to catch my dinner.  Look in any room in our house and you’ll find something brought to you by Craig: a paper shredder, a bookshelf, a set of model horses, a space heater, a racquetball racquet, a gas grill, a pair of rain barrels.  The list goes on.

Given my blunt aversion to shopping, why do I love craigslist so much?  The bargains and the zero-harm nature of finding treasure in other people’s trash are part of it, sure.  It appeals to my frugality and my environmental conscience.  

But there’s more to it.  craigslist takes a mundane provisioning expedition and turns it into an adventure.  A purchase on craigslist often involves travel to an unfamiliar destination, connection with a personal story, possibly entrance into a personal space, and importantly, trust in lieu of a money-back guarantee.  

Now, like all adventures, shopping on craigslist does not always go smoothly.  En route to the gas grill of our dreams ($50, including a full tank of propane – yeah baby) was a stopover at the home of a couple whom Paula could only describe as “chain-smoking hoarders.”  They had listed a grill for sale, but since the only passage through their apartment was a narrow path between skyscrapers of boxes, to actually remove the grill from their apartment would require hoisting it over a 7’ wall – by yourself, since both husband and wife claimed disabilities preventing them from helping with the lifting.  craigslist is not a bird in hand.  You have to love the chase, to have more appetite for a good story about hoarders than for the efficiency of a one-click shopping experience.  You have to like yourself some weirdo.

craigslist is one of those things that makes me think the Interwebs aren’t completely sucking the life out of us.  It connects people with an efficiency that is not possible in the absence of sophisticated algorithms – but the connection is ultimately human.  It takes thousands of strangers living within a 10-mile radius and gives us access to each other’s garages and basements.  We meet people we wouldn’t have met, sometimes living just down the street, because of a serendipitous symbiosis that probably wouldn’t have materialized in a pre-online world. 

I wax poetic a lot about connection, but when I read that suicide has surpassed car crashes as the #1 cause of injury-related death in the US, with social isolation as a suspected contributor, I can’t help but believe that these connections matter.  

The next time you are in the market for a push mower, concert tickets, or a Baby Bjorn Potty Chair, why not spare the air?  Put the Reuse in Reduce/Reuse/Recycle, and meet a neighbor in the process.  You might enjoy the hunt as much as I do.  And you might make someone’s day.

If you've got a great craigslist story, share it!

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Bike to Work Day Tribute to my Two-Wheeled Friend

Dear bicycle,

If you were human, you might wonder whether you should even entertain a letter from me.  In the 16 years we’ve been together, you’ve suffered a lot.  You’ve carried me through pouring rain and sweltering heat.  You’ve been poked with thorns and broken glass and everything else the streets of San Jose have to offer.  You were slammed into the pavement when I crashed and broke my humerus (though believe me, it hurt me more than it hurt you), and United Airlines tried to crush your frame 24 hours before we were scheduled to ride 500 miles through the mountains of Colorado.  (But they couldn’t crush your spirit.  We did it anyway.)  I suspect you wouldn’t recommend me to a friend or colleague if this were a Net Promoter survey.

Fortunately, since you’re an inanimate object, we can’t have this conversation.  Still, I feel compelled to tell the world how much I love you – well, not you, because you should only love things that can love you back, but our life together.  It is Bike to Work day, and here we are on the Caltrain, heading home from work.  

Biking used to be my standard go-to for a hit of euphoria.  In my 20s, I would wake up before dawn, ride halfway up Mt Hamilton, and then descend to downtown San Jose in time to be at work by 9.  My weekends involved long rides out to the beach and through the foothills.  Those were the days when no one needed me to feed them, find them matching socks, or make sure all the toilets got flushed at least once a day.  I didn’t have 6AM meetings with Israel back then.  I didn’t wake up so many mornings already counting the hours until I could get back to bed.

Life is different now, but one thing has remained constant: you are still my favorite way to get around.  I don’t cruise to Santa Cruz very often anymore, but I’m a frequent flyer on the bike/ped overpass at Ralston.  Thanks to the advocacy of groups like SiliconValley Bicycle Coalition, bikes are almost as welcome in the Bay Area as teacup Chihuahuas are in New York City.  Since 1996, I have been a bike commuter – first a few miles from my house, then via Caltrain to Mountain View, then Palo Alto, and now Redwood Shores.  

I’m old and tired enough that I often make up excuses for why I should just slide my lazy butt behind the steering wheel, tune in to NPR, and endure the crawl along 101.  But most of the time, I don’t.  I know from experience that I will often not feel like riding.  And I know from experience that I will always be glad that I did.  Bike commuting isn’t a reasonable option for everyone – because of physical limitations or the commute itself - but I’ll venture to say that it’s a possibility for many, especially in the Bay Area.  And, beloved bicycle, I think you would agree that it is one of the most positive changes you can make in your life.  

Some questions that our readers will probably want answered: Will you have helmet head when you get to work?  I prefer to think of it as helmet style.  Will you get wet if it rains?  Only on the outside.  Your skin is well-designed to handle this.  Will there be close encounters with cars?  Quite likely.  You can’t ever assume that a driver is going to recognize you’re on the road.  But if you ride defensively and plan your route well, you can stay safe.  Can you rock a pair of fluorescent yellow rain pants?  You bet your life you can.  Will you feel better when you arrive at the office after a 20-minute workout and a ride through the Baylands than you do after 75 minutes of crawling along the freeway?  Yes, I am telling you, you will – because your blood is pumping, because you’ve left the air a little cleaner, and because you can spend the rest of the day feeling like a supreme bad-ass.    

So, my beloved bicycle, I want to thank you for your faithful years of companionship.  And I want to make an offer to any would-be bike commuters.  Whatever is holding you back – whether you need help planning a route, you need to buy a headlight, you’re not sure how to keep your pants out of your chain ring, you’re wondering whether you can ride with a skirt, you feel intimidated by the whole Caltrain thing, you got a flat five years ago and haven’t gotten around to fixing it – call on me.  I want to be your personal bike concierge.  And I’m not alone.  There are lots of us, and we all want you in the club.  

In the immortal words of Freddie Mercury: Get on your bikes and ride.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

La Mesa Verde

Most organizations think of volunteering with a 5-year-old as a sort of un-volunteering.  Gently citing concerns about things like safety, public health, and the well-being of those they serve, they would rather you leave your young children at home, where they can't sink grubby hands into shared food bins, pull rescued animals' tails, or ask other volunteers questions like "What's wrong with your teeth?"

I can't say I blame these organizations.  But I am grateful whenever I find an opportunity to volunteer with my kids, and Sacred Heart Community Service has afforded several of them.  Last summer, Leah and I joined an assembly line filling backpacks with school supplies for needy families.  And two weeks ago, we joined forces with La Mesa Verde, a program that provides low-income residents of San Jose with the training and supplies to grow organic vegetables in their backyards. 

We arrived at 8 in the morning for a 10-minute training led by wonderful Master Gardeners from Santa Clara County. (Did you know you're supposed to plant tomatoes with just the growing tip above the ground?  I didn't.  We replanted all of ours when we got home.)  After the training, and following an opening ceremony, we were instructed to stand under a number along the wall that matched the one on our packets.  The family we'd be helping would meet us under the number, and we'd go together to collect the flats of seedlings and travel to their home - where Sacred Heart had already built and prepared raised beds for the vegetables.

We met Jorge and Sofia* under our number and introduced ourselves.  They were participating in the program for the first time too.  We all headed over to pick up our plants, making small talk about the heat.  Jorge and Sofia each grabbed a flat and turned to leave.  "Nice to meet you," Jorge said, walking toward their car.

Ted and I looked at each other.  "Uh, we're coming with you!" I said brightly.  "We're going to help you plant."

Now it was their turn to look at each other.  They had a brief exchange in Spanish, then nodded.  "OK.  We'll see you there."  And off we went to our own car, digesting the awkward realization that they hadn't been expecting us at all.

We arrived at their home in south San Jose about 10 minutes later.  We all got out of the car and walked into their yard, where they were waiting with Sofia's mother.

Rebecca took a slow look around, then turned to me.  "I don't think they need our help," she said loudly.

I elbowed her, but she was right.  The front yard was bordered with every manner of growing thing: rose bushes, fruit trees, vines, herbs, even a hanging upside-down tomato planter.  "It's all my husband," Sofia said, giving us the tour.  When they had moved to the house 25 years earlier, there was nothing but a barren lot; Jorge had nurtured all of the horticultural splendor around us.  There were five or six fruit trees: peach, avocado, sapote.  Along the house leading to the backyard were tiered shelves overflowing with hanging plants.  And there was more behind the house. 

The family graciously welcomed our "help", even though we were pretty clearly just taking up space in their yard.  Leah and Rebecca soaked the plants in a bucket, while Jorge sprayed the beds and made rows of holes.  Sofia and Jorge's daughter and 2-year-old granddaughter soon joined - and we all worked on setting up the irrigation and getting the plants into the soil.  I spent most of my time picking up empty containers and talking with Sofia and her daughter - about swim lessons, being pregnant in the summer, working at Stanford, cooking with tomatillos... the usual.

An hour later, the plants were all tucked into their beds, Leah took her last run down their slide, and we started to gather our things.  We left with a peach seedling, a sapote seedling, and a fistful of green onions from Jorge to plant when we got home.  I couldn't get over our good fortune at having been paired with this warm and generous family.  They invited us to come visit whenever we were in their neck of the woods.  It felt as if we'd made new friends.

Volunteering is a funny thing.  In theory, you're there to help.  But sometimes you get more than you give.  Through La Mesa Verde, the kids got to spend a morning with four generations of a family whose life was little more than a stereotype to them before then - "the working poor."  Their life is nothing like ours.  Their life is everything like ours.

Without La Mesa Verde, we probably never would have crossed paths.  I am so grateful to Sacred Heart for organizing this day and connecting us with a family who volunteered to welcome us into their yard - and, for a day, their life.  Our community is a better place for these connections.

* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the family.