Sunday, March 25, 2007


I was very idealistic when I was a teenager: I think idealism and irony are probably the two defining (if paradoxical) conditions of teenagerhood, actually, so my idealism, I understand, is far from unique. Here are some of the things I was passionately idealistic about in high school: true love, saving the environment, vegetarianism, gender equality, meritocracy and social mobility. In a way, I still believe in these things, but the harsh black and white of my beliefs have been shaded and cross-hatched by the fine lines of experience, context, and book-learnin'. For example, in high school, I balked at the notion of 'feminism', styling myself rather a 'humanist'. This may have simply been a canny ploy on my part to not alienate the boy-folk whom I hoped would someday see fit to date me (no such luck), but I also figured that since women had the vote, and jobs, and such, feminism had mostly won the day and women's rights were well assured. (Oh dear). Knowing a little more of the world beyond my immediate experience, and having accrued some sobering experience of my own, I call myself a 'feminist' loudly and proudly now, if neither so loudly nor proudly as I denounced the label then.

As for my environmentalism, in my teenage years it manifested itself in a drive to collect cans for recycling, the co-founding of an 'environmental' club, and in spring cleanups of nature areas. But of course, I drove t0 school every day when I might have walked in about 12 minutes. Later, in university, it was easy for me to become a public-transit advocate, as I had no money for a car of my own. Since I spent twelve years in university before abandoning the 'student lifestyle', I had a solidly entrenched public-transit mindset by the time I finally had a career and the income to get both car and mortgage. You know about the car: the smallest we could get, with a high fuel efficiency rating, and only one car for both of us, rather than two. Well, in a one-car, two-career family, in which said careers are located at opposite ends of town ... somebody is taking the bus. And so we bought a house in our small city's downtown, partly because of its walkability to my work, and its good access to frequent buses.

Our house is just off the main drag, on the busiest side street parallel to the main drag, actually--this is how we could afford to live in the neighbourhood. At rush hour it's noisy, but all in all, we were very pleased to be able to put our money where our mouths were on the public transit, environmentally-friendly, pedestrian-lifestyle front. We felt also, it must be said, pretty canny for getting in early on the whole downtown revitalization thing going on, the gentrification of the area. Gosh! (we thought) A nice house, and affordable, and keeping to our principles, AND likely to appreciate in value, too!

Part of the local reurbanization initiative in our city is concerned with increasing access to rapid transit: a ridiculous proportion of our population lives in the burbs and drives drives drives, clogging up roads not built with today's car densities in mind. I felt very clever reading about this in the paper, feeling the wisdom of our choice. I was feeling, I must admit, a little smug.

Well. Saturday morning, I read in the paper that our road is the one proposed to bear a good bit of the new rapid bus traffic. My eyes swam. Visions of large rumbling buses passing by at all hours, with those awful squealing brakes that all buses seem to have. Visions of piles of cigarette butts and Tim Hortons coffee cups that seem always to collect at transit stops. Visions of sketchy people congregating and making noise. Visions of ... visions of ... NIMBY. Not in my backyard. An instinctive, propertied reaction: my peace and quiet, at risk! My property values, threatened! I spluttered. I moaned. I rapid-fire explained the article to Pynchon. On the basis of my consternation, he asked if I was going to complain.

I thought about it. I wanted to. My house!

But then, you know, I was feeling a little ashamed of myself. There's a saying I can't quite remember, but the gist of it is that it's easy to be poor and virtuous: there's not much real temptation to moral misdeeds in poverty. To be rich, though, is to have more scope for public action, to have both more capacity and more opportunity to choose selfishly. And here I was, smacking the newspaper in indignation that rapid transit might pass up and down my street. Me, the staunch defender of public transit, the pooh-pooher of Big Vehicles, the defender of urban living. Afraid of a bus. A bus (let's be honest) that I will likely ride to work. If I'm being perfectly honest, I would have to admit that it make sense to put a bus on my street: there are far fewer traffic lights than on the main drag, two street over, and of all the similar streets in the area, this one actually has the fewest number of inhabited houses on it (many of the 'houses' on this long street are businesses). What's it going to be then: my principles? or my self-interest?


Bring on the buses. No angry placards will I wave, no sharply worded letters will I deploy my expensive education to compose, no angry propertied mobs will I use my middle-class entitlement and confidence to amass. Now, the public transit proposal is still very theoretical and preliminary. No bus shelters are going up on the corners yet, nor are they likely to for some time. But still, I'd like to say:

Welcome, public transit. I hope you like it here in my backyard.


NotSoSage said...

It's funny isn't it? I have to say that nothing has made me feel like I have to work harder to convince myself to stick to those principles than having a kid. In two different ways: 1) I really want to stick to them so I can make an example of myself, 2) It's really hard to stick to them because sometimes it's easier to drive somewhere with a child than to walk, even if it's relatively close.

I got a child seat put on the back of my bicycle this weekend for just this reason! No more excuses! Huzzah!

I'm proud of you. Not in a patronizing, condescending way, but because I know how hard it is.

Mimi said...

Aw, thanks.

Yay for your bike seat! Lately, I've been thinking that if Miss Baby winds up at the University daycare, maybe I can get one of those little 'chariots' to attach to my bike to bring her there. Oh, but the car is easy, especially in the winter, you are so right ...

Someday our kids will be idealistic teenagers themselves and they will ruthlessly and relentlessly call us out on our little hypocrisies. Ulp.

Beck said...

I was a teenaged vegetarian, too, to the point of being an 80 pound anemic.
It's so hard to stand for the right decisions when they inconvience us - good for you.

cinnamon gurl said...

Good for you! I know how hard it must be... but good for you!

Mad Hatter said...

Well, technically, it's your front yard. I'm the only one of your readers who knows exactly where you live and what you are talking about and I can't help but think that the City's plan makes perfect sense. And yet? Knowing that Miss Baby will want to play out front and knowing how it is nice to have a quiet street when you have a kid.

Kudos, you are very strong. If you do get a Chariot (we have one) you can always bike through that lovely park to work. Are the animals still there to stop and visit on the way?

Jenifer said...

It is hard to stand for one thing and then have to live with it as it were. We will be judged by these wee people, I know because I already am. Papoosie Girl takes great relish in calling me on things.

I really get what you are saying.

Mimi said...

The update now is that I just told my mom about the potential bus, and she was all like "well, maybe you can get your house on the market and sold before it comes to that." Urrr, thanks mom. That's kinda not what I was looking for ...

Omaha Mama said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Omaha Mama said...

Good for you for sticking to your principles - it's tough to live it. I had many, many liberal viewpoints that were very black and white, especially when I was working on my undergrad. My republican father and I always enjoyed rowdy debates. It gave my mother a stomach ache. No, really, she would leave the table. I still consider myself a liberal gal, but find that some things have gotten more conservative as I get older. I'll be a crochety old lady, bitching about the "man" and taxes.

You are awesome for trying to live your beliefs - and I'm saying this from the 'burbs. I will say though, we live and work within 5 minutes of home - so a tank of gas lasts nearly a month.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I am notorious (in my own mind at least) for being extremely idealistic and somewhat judgemental, and then totally collapsing. I just do what everyone else does. My most successful trick has been to put myself among people I trust & admire, so that in following them I'm doing what I believe!

The buses would be hard. You're a strong woman!

Mimi said...

Thanks everybody: your kind words and your confessions are making me feel a lot better about all of this. Principles are easier to stick to when these principles and decisions get the kind of support you're all giving me. Really, things look better now--your comments are counterbalancing, say, my mom and her panic about my property values. I have to remember that my principles are not her principles ...


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