Saturday, March 1, 2014

Confession: We Got a Car

Confession to the Riding Phrius readers: We now own a car.  In fact we got it seven months ago.  It has been an identity adjustment, especially for this writer of Riding Phrius.  I have some explaining to do on how we got here.  With our car saga of the last few weeks, I have even more to share.  But first we need to catch you up on the decision to get a car.  Read on.

I got a call from Hillary over a year ago in November 2012.  She was breathing hard, biking the Roo to pick up one of the boys.  The tone of her voice mirrored the temperature outside, cold.  The message was crisp, "put on the list for 2013, get a car."  I took note, knowing it was just a matter of time before the kids' growing bodies and growing number of activities would push us to get a car.  But I also recognized the emotion of a tough moment. Yes, that day was a heavy dose of winter weather. But the rough winter conditions might ease up. Plus, Hillary's mom would be here for Christmas soon, giving us access to a rental car for two weeks.  But, I got two similar requests from Hillary over the next few weeks.  I started to reconcile myself with the idea that we might have to start looking for a car in 2013.  But as we headed into the new year, a Christmastime loaner car from friends and a break in the rough winter conditions paused the determined calls for a car.

Then we got a tempting offer a few months later in May.  Hillary's sister's family was moving back to Seattle from Washington, D.C. and did not want to take their 15 year old VW Passat Wagon with them.  It was actually the same car that punctuated our car-free decade while they were living in Copenhagen for one year in '04-'05.  It had 127,000 miles on it and was in pretty good shape.  It wouldn't make sense to pay to truck it, nor put the wear and tear on it by driving it to Seattle. They were ready to just buy a new car out in Seattle. And time was limited for selling it in D.C. So they offered it to us gratis.

Hillary immediately wanted to accept, but it took me many days to get on board. I thought of those beautiful mornings of biking the kids to school in the Roo.  Biking a trailer full of fall harvest fruits and vegetables home from the farmer's market.  Playing the games of tag with the kids while waiting for a bus connection. Enjoying reading together on the bus, and the unique perspectives on the city offered by public transit. Those moon-lit crisp nights biking back from a friend's house after dinner through freshly fallen snow. The kids asking, "are we going to take the bus or ride our bikes?", with cars never even on their radar.  Of course, just because we have a car wouldn't mean we couldn't experience those moments, right?  We know how special those moments are, even when sometimes suffering those really tough times when the bike was extra heavy with kids or the bus was missed. Surely after 10 years of experiencing them, we wouldn't stop seeking them out.  The problem is, having a car sitting right in front of your house makes using it way too convenient.  One's impulse to save 10 or 15 minutes on an errand often wins out. Rain or cold offer easy excuses to drive rather than bike. Then choosing the car over bike or bus becomes a habit. So, it was hard to think of letting go of our car free life. Ultimately, knowing it was just a matter of time before we needed a car and that this was a unique offer, we didn't pass it up.

Last June Hillary summed up so well what she's learned from our years without a car and announced our changing status.  She wrote this post on her Facebook page: "After 10 years without a car in the Twin Cities, here is what I've learned. You need to be stubborn. You need to be flexible. You need stamina, studded tires, and good winter and rain gear. Patience is important, and planning. I could use more of those last two. A garage full of bikes, a high frequency bus route, and a community of friends willing to give rides or loan you a car helps immensely. Even then, it's still not easy. You can't be afraid to ask for help, and should accept all offers. So when your sister offers you her car, for keeps, you don't say no. Come August, it looks like we'll be a car-light rather than a car-free family. Until then we will enjoy another summer of Riding Phrius, and then strive to keep the car parked as much as possible."

Friday, May 3, 2013

Birthday Butter-Butts in the Bike Lane

The snowy Minnesota Capital Grounds scene along my commute.
A major perk of my early May birthday is its concurrence with the migration of warblers and other songbirds from their tropical wintering grounds to their northern breeding grounds. I try to make the most of this timing and get out for a little birthday birding.  This year it turned out to be by bike the day before my birthday.

Despite a morning commute snowstorm, I chose to bike to work today and take the 12 mile route home along the Mississippi River. There were a few dedicated bike commuters in St. Paul's Summit Avenue bike lane this morning. By the looks we were giving each other, we all seemed surprised that our commute included a full-fledged, cheek-biting snowstorm.  But along my Mississippi River route home, I had the bike trails and bike lanes to myself...and the "butter-butts", the colloquial name for the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, aka "Butter-butt" (credit:
I was mostly excited to do my favorite Mississippi River route home for the first time since late fall. I actually didn't prepare for birding in that I didn't bring my binoculars. But in St. Paul's Lilydale Regional Park I spotted the first "butter-butt",  It was hopping and foraging on the ground along the bike trail.  Then I spotted a Palm Warbler on the ground a few feet from me.  With these birds, no binoculars were necessary. 
"Butter-butt Bike Lane" - the birds were too quick to catch in a pic!

But these sitings in Lilydale Park paled in comparison to the profusion of butter-butts I flushed from the bike lane along Minnehaha Avenue.  It was really incredible as I flushed 5-8 at a time. In fact I was surprised that I didn't run one over. I really wanted to get a picture to show you, but like any warbler, they move fast. 

I wasn't the only one noting the profusion of Yellow-rumped Warblers in the neighborhood.  I got home and Henry said, "Dad, we saw this really cool bird right next to the Roo near my school".  Theo had also spotted them and had looked them up with Hillary to identify them.  But they had not heard the nickname "butter-butts". For two young boys, that nickname produced giggles and made these birds all the more cool, and memorable. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Family Outing to the PBS Kids Writer's Contest Celebration

Who could resist a celebration of kid writers with Word Girl? Let alone a celebration at St. Paul's newly restored Union Depot? Better yet, Theo got an invite and certificate for the story he entered into the contest. So the whole family caught the 21A bus and took it to what is probably the bus system's most stately station, the renewed Union Depot.

The 40 minute bus ride provided kids and adults alike a nice little nap (Henry continued his nap through the whole celebration and half the bus ride home).

Author of the Monkey with a Toolbelt books, Chris Monroe, gave a big congratulations to the young writers and offered some great writing advice (use experiences from your own life, create a good writing space, sit down to write at least 10 minutes every day, stick with it!).

The space is beautiful. We can't wait 'til Amtrak trains and the new Minneapolis - St. Paul light rail begin to use this station.

What are those girl's in the photo above looking at?  The Guinness Book of World Record's largest Lite Brite! 

Thanks to TPT and PBS Kids for organizing the Writer's Contest and celebration! 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Finding the Birding Groove at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

I have never experienced such a good place to introduce birding to kids as the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Florida's Sanibel Island. This was our third spring break visit to Sanibel in four years. Every year we bike half the Refuge's wildlife drive loop. This year coincided with a time when T was showing even more interest in birds. He is six, way into nature, has a growing interest in birds and just got some kids binoculars that work really well for him.

Osprey on nest platform along the Rabbit Road area bike trail.
We picked a morning that would include low tide.  Thus many of the wading birds would be feeding in the exposed mud flats and shallow waters. Our full group went- Hillary, her mom, me, T, H, and Hillary's sister's family of four. The place we stay is an easy 1.5 mile bike ride from Ding Darling. So we warmed up on bird watching by stopping and watching the Ospreys and their nest on the nesting platform along the bike trail. It takes a while to successfully look through binoculars and get the desired bird in your view. So this was good practice for all.

T watching the birds at the first stop on Wildlife Drive.
Once we got to the refuge we biked right onto Wildlife Drive. We passed a Little Blue Heron just off the drive.  I didn't announce its presence as parents and kids were busy chatting and I knew there would be plenty of birds ahead. Sure enough we got to the first viewing area and saw scads of birds on the large open water and exposed mud flats. After viewing a few herons and such, we made our way over to the spotting scope that a Refuge volunteer had set up. While H was looking through it, T somehow saw a different bird flying far away along the edge of the mangroves. He said, "there's a Roseate Spoonbill!" He had been looking at the bird book before, so I assumed that he recognized it from the book. The Refuge volunteer glassed the flying bird and said, "you're right, that is a Roseate Spoonbill!  I haven't seen one of those for several weeks."  T, of course got a quite a thrill out of that, mentioning it several times over the next few days. 

"Squishing" for fiddler crabs along Wildlife Drive.
Once again the rest of the group got ahead of me as I scanned for more birds.  T was hanging with me and his six-year old attention span was reaching its limit. I was little surprised, actually, but the bumpy road turned out to be his chief complaint.  He proclaimed he was not going any further. So we took a break.  After various attempts to take his mind off the road and how far we were from the rest of the group, I suggested he go search for fiddler crabs long the water's edge.  He walked down to the muddy area and quickly delighted in his ability to drive fiddler crabs out of their burrows as he stepped along side them.  He walked back and forth a few more times and was ready to go with  his attitude and attention rejuvenated. 

From here on T was really getting in the groove of wildlife watching.  I was teaching him more about recognizing key field marks for identifying birds.  What size is it? What shape and color bill does it have? What color are its wings, its belly, legs, etc.  As he was already studying the different parts of birds in first grade, he was really primed to recognize field marks.  Plus, his young eyes mean he can see really well.  The sign posts of birds commonly seen along different sections of Wildlife Drive were helpful too. 

Of course it was the alligator sighting on our way back that was especially exciting.  T asked for my phone and took about twenty pictures of the sunning alligator, a spider on its web, and his alligator-mimicking dad. 

Finding an alligator was of course a major goal for the kids.  So I called Hillary and H who were already at the visitor's center.  They rushed back to see it much to the delight of H. The pressure was off now, we saw an alligator. 

A long time (1 hour? maybe 1.5 hours) after T proclaimed he was not going any further, we made it back to the visitor center near the beginning of Wildlife Drive.  At that point T realized that he left his helmet back at the cut-off trail where we saw the Pied-bill Grebe.  Without a better option handy, I told him to wait for me at the bike racks while I took the 20 some minute round trip to retrieve his helmet.  When I returned I found him recording what we had seen in his journal.  What a wonderful scene to return to! 
Thinking we were mostly done for the day, we headed back to our place.  But T was completely in the bird watching groove by now.  We stopped again to watch the Ospreys on the nesting platform for about 10 minutes.  We watched a few of them circle overhead and got a great view of the distinct shape of an Anhinga flying overhead. Then we spotted a Great Egret and a Night Heron (yellow-crowned, if I remember correctly).  From too tired to go any further, to totally grooving on finding birds, it was a morning to remember.  What a treat to see T experiencing the rush of bird watching that birders live for. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Neighborhood Youth Ski League

Theo and I raced the Winther Kangaroo trike the five blocks from our house to catch the #7 bus to Theodore Wirth Park for today's Minnesota Youth Ski League (MYSL).  Just as we locked the "Roo" up, the bus passed.  Bummer.  No MYSL for us this week.  Theo was a good sport about it.  By this point the snow was really coming down.  He said, "I'll just ski home".  I rode behind him as his sag wagon.  Really enjoying the novelty of skiing through the neighborhood in the beautiful fresh snow, Theo skied on to his friend's house where we stopped to say hello and then headed back home.  He probably got just as much skiing in without any car/bus time.  Nice! Back home, he reported to Hillary that he practiced his star turn, pizza stop, and "shuffle, shuffle, glide".  Call it the Neighborhood Youth Ski League for us today.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Freeze, thaw

My bike got marooned in my bike locker at work when the sub-zero temps froze the upper Midwest  over a week ago. I put my bike on the bus last night to get it home and happily awoke to a "balmy" temperature of 16 degrees F.  So I went for the bike commute.  It was fantastic.  And I still got words of disbelief from co-workers, "whoa isn't it way too cold?"  "Yeah, but it's over 20 degrees warmer than it was two mornings ago," I replied. 

Here are a few images of the the frozen Mississippi as I crossed it this morning.  What a cool pattern showing the ice chunks from the last thaw all frozen in place.  Compare these photos with the one in the post from two and a half weeks ago. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Bussing it to MN Youth Ski League

Both boys are doing Minnesota Youth Ski League this year at Minneapolis' beautiful Theodore Wirth Park.  Being 7.7 miles away from home and involving skis, poles, boots, and winter layers, it presents some logistical challenges for our car-free family.  The biggest challenge is getting all four of us there.  Only Theo did ski league last year meaning that he and Hillary or I could often get a ride with friends.  But that is not so possible to do with four of us going.  Fortunately the #7 bus leaves 5 blocks from our house and ends at the park's ski chalet!  Alas, the full one-way trip takes about an hour.  For those accustomed to getting there within 15-20 minutes by car, an hour may seem absurd.  As usual, we are doing our best to make the most of the bus time.  Here are a few shots from last week's and this week's trip to the MN Youth Ski League at Theodore Wirth Park.

 The crew on the #7 bus with skis and poles stashed aside the seats and Theo's tongued stashed in its typical response to the camera.

 Theo taking advantage of the time on the bus to do some of his math homework.

 Our bus arriving at the Theodore Wirth Chalet. It is amazing that we can get to this bit of winter wonderland on a bus!  Yes, they even make snow for the slopes and trails here.

 Henry toughing it out in today's single digit temperatures today.  He hauled his skis up the steps and the slippery hill. 

 MYSL emphasizes fun.  That includes bending over to pick up stuffed animals as you ski. 

 Theo's group today.  Doesn't it look cold?

 Theo skiing the loop back to the Chalet for the well-deserved hot chocolate.

 Hillary with her ski buddy. 

The perks of the bus:  Henry called it quits after 35 minutes in today's cold.  Instead of waiting for Hillary and Theo to finish, Henry and I caught the earlier bus home.  He got in a 25 minute nap and I got to read the newspaper.  Now that's Riding Phrius.