The power of gratitude

We’ve all had our priorities shifted here in Christchurch by recent events. Once the fact really sank in that we live in a place where any second, with absolutely no warning, the earth can rise up roaring under our feet and the walls come tumbling down, we had to accept certain realities, like ultimate lack of control, quite differently.

I mean, sure we can control our day to day realities up to a point, but the big things, the life and death stuff, that’s pretty much out of our hands. That’s the same for everyone, no matter where we live or what we do.

But there’s something we can control no matter what our personal situation. Our own response to life. This isn’t easy. In fact it’s probably the hardest thing of all. Often it feels easier to move mountains than control our own minds.

But here in Christchurch, when we feel so helpless in many ways, shifting our priorities to focus on the things we actually can have some small hope of controlling has been a very healthy thing for a lot of people I know.

I’ve been reading some interesting writing recently about how to grow wellbeing and happiness in our lives, and more specifically, the power of gratitude to increase happiness. I have a small daughter, so I’m particularly keen to teach her how she can nurture happiness in her own life. One thing many of these writers emphasise is how making a daily habit of stating things we are grateful for can create a sense of well being, and encourage the habit of savouring life.

Some people keep gratitude journals. And I am a stone cold sucker for nice stationery, so when I saw this puppy, well, the idea of keeping a book of things I am thankful for seemed all the more enticing.

But we as a family have chosen instead to go round the table at supper and ask each other what we are grateful for. Initially it felt contrived. Some days I struggled to think of anything I was thankful for. I was tired, I felt grumpy, work had been hard and I still had three hours of writing to do once I put the small person to bed. What had I got to be grateful for?

Well of course the answer in these situations is always, “so much, you self pitying twerp!”

As soon as I realised that, I begin to remember the good things, the little moments that illuminated a difficult day. I’m not talking about the bigger picture stuff, like the fact that here and now I am incredibly lucky just to have a job, a house and my family around me (although some days, believe me, when I say I feel grateful for these things, I really mean it). I’m thinking about the gilded instants that lift the whole. The moment when, walking home, the sun came out and the bellbirds started singing. The postcard that arrived from a friend. The hug that my daughter gave me when I picked her up from preschool. The little beautiful things. I’m grateful for them.

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A list of things we’ve learned

Ciaran just insisted, in a charming way, that I go and write a damn blog post.

“Even just a list of things we’ve learned,” he said plaintively.

That’s a tough ask for me, because I’m not very good at learning stuff.

I mean I am good at it, if an authoritative, interesting person tells me what I need to know, preferably with the assistance of books and visual aids. A situation otherwise known as school, I believe.

But learning from personal experience? Oh, that’s hard.

But just for him, because he asked so nicely, I’m going to make a big effort.

So what have we learned from a year of not having a car?

  • Contrary to my own expectations, it was actually harder not having a car in the summer months. I thought it would be tough on cold wet winter mornings, when I had to get up in the dark, wrangle a protesting toddler into her pantechnicon and push her to preschool in driving sleet. Don’t get me wrong, that stuff wasn’t exactly fun. But I’m pretty stoical when it comes to stomping around in unpleasant weather.
  • What was more of a bummer was when the weather got all nice and we wanted to go to the beach for a swim/go camping on the weekend/go for a picnic on the peninsula on a sunny Saturday and we couldn’t, because we didn’t have a car.
  • Even though you save money not having a car, who knows where that money goes? In hindsight, we should have been inspired by the quit smoking exercise, taken the money we would have spent on petrol every week and put it in a high interest savings account/sock under the mattress instead. We didn’t. Oh well!
  • Outings that require more than one bus trip become too hard. Although maybe that’s just us being lazy.
    You gain a new appreciation for your immediate surroundings, because you spend a lot more time there. Instead of driving into town to go out, we just walk down the road. Admittedly we pretty much always did that anyway, because we live in Lyttelton and it is frankly much much nicer than Christchurch, but without a car we became even more ferociously local in our focus.
  • Online supermarket shopping rocks. So fantastic. Quicker, easier and cheaper, even with delivery costs, because you don’t impulse buy. And let’s hear it for automated shopping lists! Unfortunately online shopping is currently not a happening thing in Christchurch post quake, but we want it back. Vehemently.  I should also note that it would be very nice if the supermarkets could sort out some form of recyclable delivery container, because it right gets on my tits when we have made an effort to take our canvas bags to the supermarket, and then I get my groceries delivery in about a bazillion plastic bags. Honestly chaps, you can pack more than two cans of tomatoes in a bag. No really you can. Try it. It will astonish you.  And while you are pondering this amazing revelation, how about considering some reusable, branded crates? Think about it, socially, ecologically and ethically responsible, miles of feel good press releases and happy customers. All for piss all effort. Sounds like a winner to me folks. Why thank you, I will take a small mention in your corporate eco-awards winner’s speech.
  • Major natural disasters are not good times to be without a car. When the earth roars under your feet, the buildings fall down, the roads buckle and all public transport has ground to a halt, it is nice to have the option of climbing in your car and getting the hell out of there.
  • It takes balls/stupidity to be car free with a small child, as there are times when they are sick, in the deepest darkest hour of the night before morning and you too are sick with fear, that you really would like to be able to just get in the car and drive somewhere where nice people in white coats will make it all better.
  • Our friends are the most generous people, and when we have really needed a set of wheels, they have given us theirs. Big thanks especially to the beautiful Kate, who lent us her car in that difficult, frightening post quake period, and made it possible for us to get around our broken town and also to get away to the mountains for a break. Thanks also to Lindon and the flying custard square, which he placed at our disposal as a ‘family car’ with his usual grace and generosity. And thank you to Lauren, Daniel and Clara, who lent us their Demio so we could go on dates, and babysat our little girl into the bargain. You guys are the business and we loves you.
  • I should have got a bike. Although, Lyttelton doesn’t have many down sides, but it’s a bit crap for bikes (assuming you want to just use your bike as a form of transport and not as some form of advanced downhill, off road, neon lycra clad insanity). It’s steep and hilly and the rest of the city is through a tunnel you cannot cycle through (although you can put the bike on the front of the buses and ride through the tunnel that way. Lots of people do). Also did I mention I am lazy? Also I’m too vain to wear a bike helmet. Maybe I will make an effort to get over some of these constraints as I actually really enjoy cycling places.
  • I passionately hate ‘cycling gear’. Really people, is it compulsory to look that bad just because you are riding your bike? In some cities people just wear their normal clothes, you know? Actually this is a total tangent and not something I have learnt as a result of being car free at all. But any excuse to air my utter intolerance for taut nylon bottoms is a good excuse.

Lyttelton – Do Something Beautiful

Well now, it’s June already which for those of us living in Aotearoa means we are entering into Matariki, sometimes referred to as the Maori New Year.   I might post more about Matariki shortly but for now I want to point out that it is a time for reflection, remembrance, connection with family/whanau and new beginnings.  We will make a couple of posts on this theme this month as those of you who have been following our trials and tribulations might have realised that we have passed our 12 month goal of being a car-free family during May.  More on that soon, as well as the end of the experiment… So in the spirit of Matariki I’m reprinting here the following article I wrote for the Lyttelton News – our local newspaper which comes monthly as part of the Akaroa Mail.  It appeared on the front page of the Friday 11th March edition.  Thank you to Margaret Jefferies for inviting me to submit.

Last year Margaret Jefferies of Project Lyttelton sent me a superbly eloquent definition of sustainability: the possibility of life flourishing forever.  In its simplicity it summed up perfectly for me, what I believe is a worthy aspiration for our community.  Inherent in the concept of flourishing are all the ingredients of a life well lived, and a strong community, such as: sustainability, engagement, inclusiveness, meaning,  resilience and well-being.  I like the definition also because there is room for doubt.  The possibility of flourishing.  It’s not a given, it suggests we must take responsibility and approach the goal of sustainability (flourishing) with purpose.  It is possible, there is hope.  How we do it is up to us.  It is in the act of seeking that we may indeed flourish.

Right now, as a community we have been faced with a crisis of major proportions.  We will move through the stages of emergency response, recovery and eventually, revitalisation.  It is how we approach these stages and frame our perspective that determines the quality of the experiences we will have.  You could say that this is the measure of our resilience.  To put it simply, we can choose to see the earthquake either as purely a catastrophe – the end of many things – rebuilding in haste, without vision, walking backwards into the future or we can acknowledge the tragedy and begin to approach it as an opportunity to re-imagine our community and work to create the flourishing Lyttelton of our dreams.  There is no right time for this to happen.  No rules or timeframes, it is up to us, together to work it out.

Lyttelton is resilient.  I know this because we have so far made it through two major earthquakes, the second a genuine disaster for our town, and still, here we are – working together, helping each other, asking questions, talking about the future.  If we are to not only endure and survive but to flourish, we must mix in the best of our resilience with a sustainable approach.  Moving forward in a considered way, with vision, be bold and with nothing less than flourishing as our goal.  And while we are waiting to get on that bus – let’s do something beautiful.

Go-By-Bike Day!

Yes yes, you say.  We get all this good stuff about why active transport is so great yada yada. So what are we doing about all this?  Aha!  I’m glad you/I asked!

Obviously I’m not the only one who sees the importance of getting people active (obviously).  I’m just the only active blogger promoting active transport who’s actually ‘bone idle’ (as my brother would say).  It’s a strange claim to fame, but I’ll take it.  I’ve just noticed that my bike has mysteriously become covered in cobwebs…

IT’S BIKE WISE MONTH!

Anyway.  I wanted to shine a light on this great event which is part of Bike Wise Month held every year in NZ during February.  Implemented and promoted by Bike Wise, a government initiative funded by the NZ Transport Agency and the Ministry of Health.  I hope that doesn’t make it somehow less sexy, I just wanted to say ‘fair go’, the G-men are actually trying to do something positive.

This coming Wednesday 16th February is Go-By-Bike Day nationwide.  By my reckoning on the Bike Wise website there are about 80 events planned for Wednesday alone.  Let alone the rest of the month.  Go-By-Bike Day events tend to involve enticing commuters to cycle by offering free breakfasts to cyclists.

Here’s a link to the Christchurch event, they’re offering brekkie at 4 different locations in the central city.  I’m gonna try and get my whole team to bike to work and meet for a breakfast together so if you’re in ChCh bike along and I’ll see you there!  I’ll be giving away free subscriptions to ToC 😉  And while we’re at it maybe we’ll all wear our best ‘bib n’ tucker’ and make it a real cycle chic event.  Boss-Lady recently purchased a rather fabulous reconditioned granny-style, sit-up-and-beg (love that name) bike, complete with basket on the front.  Puts my mountain bike to shame.  But wait til they get a load of my retro suit!

Need some inspiration?  Look no further.  Well no, do look further but here’s a good start…

How to Be a Car-Free Family

How to Be a Car-Free Family by Angela and Dorea Vierling-Claassen.

Our Massachusetts heroes Angela and Dorea Vierling-Claassen had this article appear in that most excellent of publications, Yes! Magazine.

It’s a good introduction to their blog which we also talked about right back at the beginning… Just the little bit of inspiration one needs on a rainy, southerly day.

And another thing… Pedestrian Thinking?

Following on from the last post – no wonder we have such a hard time convincing people to consider the creation of a walking city (note: a walking city includes our rollin’ brothers & sisters).

The word ‘pedestrian’ has become in our society a kind of insult, meaning: slow, stulted, non-creative, inefficient and a bit lame.  In other words not fast, not sexy, not cool.  Which is why I love the work of Living Streets Aotearoa. From their website:

We want more people walking and enjoying public spaces be they young or old, fast or slow, whether walking, sitting, commuting, shopping, between appointments, or out on the streets for exercise, for leisure or for pleasure.

Let’s take back our public spaces!

This is from the page I linked to in the previous post: the Traffic Transport & Road Safety Associates (Ireland) website.  But it was so compelling I just wanted to give it a post all to itself.  Here’s the link again:

Pedestrianisation.

Why Pedestrianise?
  • Improving Road Safety – reducing the potential for conflict between vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists and motor vehicles creates a significant reduction in the number of accidents within the pedestrianised area.  In Odda in Norway accident reductions of over 80% were reported.
  • Improving Economic Vitality – most retailers, at least in town centres, appreciate that the number of people walking past their shop and not the number of people driving past their shop is key to getting people inside to spend money.  Pedestrians comparison shop, and research conducted in the United Kingdom reported increases in sales of upto 20% per year in the first few years following pedestrianisation. Research from 11 cities in Germany showed average rent increases of 50% after pedestrianisation. Chartered Surveyor Weekly reported that following the introduction of the footstreets concept in York, United Kingdom, a boom in retail sales was accompanied by rent increases of upto 400%.
  • Improving Social Interaction – increasing the amount that people meet, talk and interact, has been shown to have health benefits, but also creates a sense of community and a pride in the space or place.
  • Improving Health – in the same way that providing streets to drive on has been shown to increase traffic levels, providing a good walking environment has been shown to increase the number of people walking. Studies tend to show that the number of people walking within the immediate area will increase by over 50%.
  • Improving the environment – It is over 30 years since the OECD studied the link between environmental improvement and the removal of traffic.  Whilst some of the noted benefits such as reductions in Carbon Monoxide have now been addressed through the introduction of catalytic converters to vehicles, creating a modal shift from the car to walking reduces the level of CO2 helping the country to meet its emissions targets. Noise levels are also reduced by up to 15 decibels.

 

So, what kind of city do you want to live in?

Paying for sex, Seinfeld and the tyranny of … Free Parking

 

Free Parking: sounds like some kind of recreational creative picnic sport

 

He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world?
It is people! It is people! It is people!

In the ‘Good Living’ supplement as part of filthy Christchurch rag The Press the other week was an interesting article on international parking guru Donald Shoup.

Headlined, in one of those sub-editor pun wet dream moments, as ‘Free parking’s true toll’ (I can’t hyperlink to it as it’s pay-to-view only, courtesy of unFairfax so not much point and anyway I’m going to discuss the thing intelligently myself.  And you can visit Mr Shoup’s website above, which is far more useful) the article is reprinted from the Los Angeles Times.  Not sure why I’m telling you that but when I get my serious blog voice on it feels proper to start acknowledging sources.  Actually, one should always acknowledge sources.  Anyway…

Why I’m writing about this is that Donald Shoup struck me as someone who fully grasps the double-edged sword of convenience, right way round of course.  He also gets the counter-intuitive concept of how the most convenient option is often the least helpful.  He’s talking about car parking and the problems it presents to town planning and designing for urban revitalisation.

Now for those of you in danger of nodding off at this stage in a riveting post about parking cars and wondering when the hookers are getting here.  Stay with me.

I’m not sure what I like more about Mr Shoup – being 72 and still riding a bike everywhere or the fact he quotes Seinfeld to illustrate his ideas.  Here’s where we get to paying for sex.  Shoup quotes George Costanza from Seinfeld who likened using a car park building to “going to a prostitute”.

“Why should I pay when, if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?”

This line of thinking, in the context of parking, leads to people driving around the block several times waiting for that magical parking space right outside their destination, expending time and fuel in the process.  “Maybe if I go round once more there’ll be a free one this time!”  Shoup argues that when street parking is free or inexpensive as is the case in many towns and cities, that demand soon outstrips supply and people cruising for parks waste time and fuel polluting the air and congesting the streets.  My pet hate is the slow cruise along the line of parked cars, holding up the flow of traffic while searching for a space, usually without the use of indication.  Oh yeah, baby…

Is that one? No... Oh! There! No...

Efforts to revitalise town centres often focus on parking – more of it and cheaper please.  This is very pertinent in Christchurch, a car-centric city.  The central city is constantly under threat from the proliferation of suburban malls with their thousand free car parks above, below and around their monolithic edifices.  These places are veritable Cathedrals of Convenience.  Central city retailers and the City Council are forever racking their brains about how to stop things falling apart, the centre cannot hold etc. etc.  This inevitably rolls around to the retailers bleating at the Council about cars and parking i.e. more and cheaper please.  They even managed to convince the Council (despite international research and evidence to the contrary) to allow cars through previously pedestrian-only inner city malls.  S’funny really, when what the shops really want is more people inside them not cars cruising past looking for parks.

After ‘The Event’ of September 4th last year, there was a considerable drop in the numbers of people visiting the central city.  Not surprising really, even after the cordoned off ‘exclusion zone’ and curfew was lifted, every available space in the media was taken up with images of the ‘catastrophic destruction’ in the central city.  After all a fallen down old building makes for a better lead image or back-drop when doing a live news report than the 50 other ones and entire suburbs behind it that are untouched.  No wonder people were jittery about going there – everything was apt to fall on their heads.  Except for the 99.9% of buildings that were not.  Leading up to Christmas this had retailers crying into their lattes with expected crashing sales figures.  The City Council responded with making all street parking free for a couple of weeks following the major quake and then over the Christmas build-up giving the first 2 hours free in all buildings and street parking.  To me this didn’t seem to make much difference – I noted a lot less cars around and plenty of parking spaces.  I’d wager it wasn’t the cost of parking keeping people away from town.

Est celui-là là ? Non... Oh! La? Non...

Shoup’s work harmonises with plenty of international research that demonstrates the more spaces you open up to cars (either driving or parking) then cars just fill them up again.  It’s just like those ‘awesome’ tax cuts that bribed a change of government in NZ– how much are you noticing that extra $15 dollars per week even a month after you start getting it?  You simply expand your living to absorb the extra ‘dollarspace’.  Hopeless.  No disrespect to the many economist readers of ToC but tax cuts do NOT improve and enhance our quality of life.  Just as cars do not revitalise cities – people do.  He tangata, he tangata, he tangata!

Speaking as someone guilty (now reformed) of cruising around looking for free parking, hoping to hit that little jackpot, I get what Donald Shoup is talking about.  He advocates for ‘fair-market’ pricing on street parking and making Park & Ride and various other options cheaper and more attractive.  Then using the revenue from parking directly for enhancing and revitalising the public space of central cities.  Encourage more walking, cycling and other forms of Active Transport.

And I’d throw in to the mix perhaps not allowing any more soul-destroying suburban malls to be built.  The tyranny of convenience eh?  But that’s another post all in itself.

And by the way, there is no such thing as the Free Parking jackpot in Monopoly.  Look it up.

A Design for Life*

Just a quick post about some cool stuff I’ve seen – actually ‘on-topic’ too…

The Riversimple Car: for those who've always wanted a sort of Pixar-animated flying beetle car.

As seen in this years Brit Insurance Designs of the Year nominations.

Now we’ve got our thinking caps on.  Making the ‘Eco’ and ‘Human’ friendly options more convenient than the alternatives.

The Riversimple car can reach 80km/hr (50mph) with a range of 322km (200 miles), with fuel consumption claimed to be equivalent to 300 mpg (miles per gallon). The cars will be leased with fuel and repair costs included, at an estimated $315 (£200) per month. The company hopes to have the vehicles in production by 2013; next year, it will release 10 prototypes in an unconfirmed UK city.

Imagine sharing the lease between a couple of families living close together.  Or whole neighbourhoods getting together to lease several.

The second image after the jump is about the urban cycle hire project.  Also check out the awesome and somehow sci-fi ‘energy harvesting’ paving slabs!

Brit Insurance Designs of the Year 2011 award nominations

* Manic Street Preachers from the 1996 album ‘Everything Must Go’.  See a pattern emerging here?

A Kiwi Kinda Christmas. Kinda.

Well I’ve gone and started it now, haven’t I?

Got us all thinking about Xmas (not that you could avoid it in all honesty).  So I thought I’d put it out there in a Tyranny of Convenience kinda way to find out what your ideal or fantasy Christmas would look like and what your actual Christmas is going to look like.

Years ago my family started to have picnics on Christmas day – we live in the southern hemisphere, don’tcha know – and after all it’s usually hot and sunny on the 25th.  It was a kind of revelation.  All my life we’d had the ‘traditional’ northern hemisphere Christmas experience – our parents were from Northern Ireland – and we were brought up with hot turkey, stuffing, vegetables and hot Christmas pudding with custard etc.  Eaten inside on a 28 degree day isn’t really what you wanted as a kid with a brand new water pistol from Santa.

Likewise the trappings were all northern hemisphere-oriented: wrapping paper with snow and sleighs and reindeer; tree decorations with snow globes, tinsel snow etc.  Everywhere you looked – winter.  And this wasn’t just our family of course – the whole damn country was obsessed with Christmas ‘back home.’  Everywhere you went you were beaten around the head with carols like White Christmas and Jingle Bells.  All totally meaningless to a southern hemisphere culture in December when you stop and think about it.

Our Christmas tree - Aotearoa-style

And yet, I loved it.  I’m not for an instant suggesting that I was in any way deprived as a result of a culturally topsy turvy Christmas.  It’s just a strange fact.  Slowly over the years, New Zealand has been creating a Christmas iconography all of its own.  BBQs and beaches are replacing snow-filled countrysides as the settings for festivities.  Kiwis (the bird, that is) wearing jandals, floppy sun hats and sunglasses deliver presents to kids playing beach cricket, wearing zinc and swimming trunks while mums and dads lounge around the bbq on deck chairs with ice cold beer or perhaps a glass of sauvignon blanc.  There’s a great kids book called ‘A Kiwi Night Before Christmas‘ recasting the classic rhyme in a kiwi setting:

It was the night before Christmas, and all round the bach

Not a possum was stirring; not one we could catch.

We left on the table a meat pie and beer,

In hopes that Santa Claus soon would be here.

Who inevitably arrives on his trusty tractor complete with sheepdog.  And there’s been one or two attempts at some kiwi christmas carols too.  Perhaps the most memorable  by Lindon Puffin ‘Pohutakawa Xmas’ – which seems to annually duke it out with Snoopy’s Christmas for the top spot on the Yuletide Charts.  I wish I could link you to it – it sums up a southern hemisphere xmas experience perfectly.

Nowadays our annual xmas lunch generally revolves around a gourmet BBQ but there’s still some ‘traditional’ elements of our past – roast turkey, ham, Christmas pudding.  But our tree is a Rata in full bloom – alive! Which is how you tend to feel at this time of year.  We’ll gorge ourselves beyond what is seemly, drink far too much wine, there’s bound to be at least 3 types of dessert including 2 trifles and the whole thing followed by the richest xmas cake known to mankind with whisky and wearing those daft wee paper hat crowns from Christmas Crackers while endlessly reciting sketches from Monty Python’s Flying Circus and singing old TV theme tunes. If we don’t haul ourselves out for a stroll to the timeball it’ll be  snooze o’clock for all concerned.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way, except maybe…

This post was inspired by an article on one of my favourite websites right now The Idle Parent (check out the manifesto!) about their ‘fantasy family Christmas’.  It’s a cracker, I hope you enjoy it and I hope you are finding and making your peace out there, wherever you are.

So, your fantasy yuletide vs. the reality? – let’s have it!

What to give the planet for Christmas?

Saw this on one of our favourite websites World Sweet World.  It’s the precis for an article on building your own bike trailer – something we had our own feature on this year…

While around a quarter of all the energy we use in New Zealand is for transport, two thirds of the trips we actually make are less than six kilometres. If you calculate the embedded energy used to get your food on your table (how much energy is used for the farmer to fertilise the field, to run the tractor, package it, transport it to market, etc.), you are likely to double that amount by driving to the supermarket to do the shopping. It’s relatively easy to make big energy savings here and you’ll be better off health- and wallet-wise in the process.

–          World Sweet World – Steven Muir, Issue #9

So, what to give the planet for Christmas?

How about a break?