Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The People's Republic of Portland

Recently, when I moved from Denver to Santa Barbara, I took a slight detour and visited Portland, Oregon, where I lived for many years. I love that town, and don’t get to go there often enough to ease into gradual changes. One visit, there will be a gaping hole next to the building where my mother lives, and the next time I come, there’s a huge condo complex there. The city is changing and developing quite a bit, and some of the changes have been very hopeful. This "Share the Road" license plate was something I noticed for the first time this trip (I erased the license plate number out of a sense of patriotic paranoia).

Two visits ago, my husband and I noticed new, highly visible bike lane extensions called “bike boxes” at many intersections. These are designed to reduce accidents caused by cars turning right without being aware of bikes traveling straight ahead in the bike lane. Looking at the bike boxes, I felt like riding a bike across town would feel like a safe option. In the late 90s and early '00s when I lived there, I would pour over the bike route map trying to find some route that wasn't ridiculously circuitous, to get by main areas of town, trying to get around the places where the green "designated bike route" lines on the map would end and the red "hazardous for cyclists" routes were the only option. I think a relatively timid person like myself who would like to ride more but feels threatened by traffic would be more inclined to ride given safety measures like the bike boxes.

During my visit this month, I noticed parking spaces converted into bike parking on Belmont Avenue. The picture below shows a space about 3 car parking spaces long, and there is another area just like it at the other end of the block.

I think this is a very exciting trend, and as my visit continued, I noticed how many more cyclists there seemed to be than I remembered. It was pretty cool, until dusk when I noticed how many cyclists didn’t have any lights on their bikes, but were riding as if they had the absolute right of way. As a motorist, that was pretty stressful. I think it takes time to work the kinks out of shifts like this one, and the mutual rights and responsibilities of motorists and cyclists will find balance as mutual awareness develops.

It is so good to see a community starting to build infrastructure which will allow a significant part of the population to live more sustainably. In Chengdu, the main city in the Sichuan province of China, the “ring roads” which are a series of concentric main roads circling the city have a divided outer lane for bicycles, most of which is the width of the width of two regular car lanes. Chengdu is a city with a population of 11 million, and when I visited in 2002, the bike traffic was incredibly thick. The photo to the right was taken in Shanghai and shows the beautiful effect of a sea of bike ponchos -- during my visit, most Chinese bike riders would wear these when it rained.

Chengdu, like all Chinese cities, also has expansive bike parking areas, many with attendants, all over the place.

I've seen big bike parking lots in the states - most of them on college campuses - but nothing that compares with China or even Italy. We have so much room to grow here, but it was great to see the tangible changes in Portland, which is known for excellent urban planning, strong community involvement and progressive values. I saw a bumper sticker on a car that read, "The People's Republic of Portland." And it does feel like a town run by the people and for the people. Hey, haven't I heard that somewhere before?

On a personal level, I’m looking at these tangible changes as a reminder both metaphorically and literally to build structures that support the changes I want to see. It gives me hope.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Nobody's goin' nowhere. . .

On July 3, I completed a teacher training intensive at the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, and just before Richard Freeman distributed our “diplomas,” he reminded us: “these signify nothing.”

While some might find that announcement a tad bit deflating, I enjoyed it. I love the frequent reminders that, in any given yoga pose, you don’t get raptured up or automatically enter samadhi when your body crosses some arbitrary “finish line.” Grabbing your toe in triangle pose (in an ashtanga class) is nice: it presents the opportunity to emphasize the internal rotation of the front leg, and create some more dynamic charge. Right now, though, I can’t do that without “selling out,” and compromising the alignment of my hips and from there, the real juice of my version of the pose. None of the poses have a “finish line.” In fact, reaching a point where I start feeling puffed up about achieving some more advanced detail takes me farther away from that meditative presence that constitutes actually doing yoga.

It has been such a pleasure, and a wonderful re-education, to practice in a studio with this ethos. It frees me to try things out with curiosity and a sense of adventure, not worrying that failed attempts will reflect on my intrinsic value as a person. It reminds me to maintain my presence in the very simplest poses, which are surprisingly rich and full of possibility.

It’s taken me so long to realize that just being present in any moment brings with it such a different quality than does my everyday, distracted state of mind. It’s as if any given moment has the potential to be experienced as sublime. I have the idea, but realizing that ability is another story, possibly to be realized many lifetimes hence, if I am very lucky! If I can just remember the idea more often, that will be interesting.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Transitions, transformations

There are so many little moments in life where things change so that we will never be the same person again. Our relationships will shift, even just a little, and there is no going back to that idealized “way things were.” Some of these moments are obvious -- moving away from home, getting married, or having a child. Nothing will ever be the same. We could choose not to make these specific changes in an attempt to preserve the beauty of the way things are or once were, but we all know that doesn’t work. We’d end up like Miss Havisham, isolated in a decaying dream world. Most of the time, I see great beauty in this impermanence: things that are alive, rot. They transform into something else, again and again. The sweetness of summer fruit can be so sublime when it has almost crossed the invisible line between ripeness and rotting.

The time is ripe for change in my life, as my husband and I prepare our dog, cats and belongings for our migration to Santa Barbara. It is so sad to leave behind colleagues, mentors, patients, and friends, but leaving has also helped me appreciate the sweetness of our time here.

Denver has seen the maturation of our golden retriever Willow, who has shown me all around our neighborhood, and who will dearly miss Shadow, her dog boyfriend across the street. Shadow is, truth be told, really dreamy -- tall, dark and handsome, with piercing eyes, like a movie star. Try as she might to play it cool, she can’t pass by his front porch without betraying her feelings for him. And he’s in to her, too.

We’ve met so many remarkable people here -- friends, co-workers, patients, congregants, and neighbors. Even leaving those incidental relationships, no longer seeing the people I run into in the course of my daily routine, is surprisingly poignant.

My experiences at the Yoga Workshop in Boulder have helped me learn about so much more than a physical yoga practice. The teachers and students have taught me lessons in patience, determination, and attentiveness to things as they are. These are lessons that apply to all areas of life, and I am so grateful to that community for being an embodiment of a spirit of welcoming and acceptance in a context that brings me face to face with so many insecurities and fears. That simple room and the people who bring it to life are a treasure.

So, it is with a heart full of gratitude for the time spent here that I move on to Santa Barbara and begin again, having been touched and changed from the experiences and relationships of the past two years. Thank you, and come visit us when you can!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Water Pharms

Lately, there has been some buzz about traces of pharmaceuticals in our water supply. "...drugs have been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas -- from Southern California to Northern New Jersey, from Detroit to Louisville, Ky."

So, what are we taking?

"A vast array of pharmaceuticals -- including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones."

And how do they get there?

"People take pills. Their bodies absorb some of the medication, but the rest of it passes through and is flushed down the toilet. The wastewater is treated before it is discharged into reservoirs, rivers or lakes. Then, some of the water is cleansed again at drinking water treatment plants and piped to consumers. But most treatments do not remove all drug residue."

It is kind of like second hand smoke, in that it reminds us that an individual decision to take a medication effects the whole web. So does supporting agriculture that relies on antibiotics, hormones and pesticides.

These topics coming to light raise such mixed feelings for me-- of course, we need to know that pharmaceuticals are effecting our environment and everyone's health. But the fear of everything being toxic in the environment, and the attendant efforts to avoid exposure to anything potentially harmful can get a bit out of hand. I'm trying to think of it as a really good motivator to help myself and my patients lead a heathy lifestyle and keep our livers and other elimination pathways functioning optimally. We are built to deal with a challenging environment, and our bodies can protect us from a certain amount of exposure.

This issue presents some scary unknowns, and it's natural to ask, "how can I avoid exposure to this threat to my health?" For some, the answer is to invest in a reverse osmosis water filter which will remove many of these chemicals, and drink that water. But is that a good solution for everyone?

Reverse osmosis water filters raise an ethical issue: they waste quite a bit of water, so if we choose to use them, we're creating an environmental impact. We choose to reduce our own exposure to toxins at the cost of increasing the toxicity of our environments. It's problematic, and it gets to the core of the original issue: our individual choices effect the web. We need to consider the impact of our choices and, for health practitioners like me, the implications of the recommendations we make to our patients.

"Reverse osmosis units sold for residential purposes offer water filtration at the cost of large quantities of waste water. For every 5 gallons of output, a typical residential reverse osmosis filter will send around 10 - 20 gallons of water down the drain although it may be captured and used for watering plants and lawns." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reverse_osmosis)

This issue is very different from the question of eating organic foods, because organic farming nourishes the earth more than the alternative. We reduce our individual exposure to pesticides, reduce pesticide in the environment, hopefully improve the soil and possibly grow food of higher nutritional value with organics. If the food is local, pretty much everyone wins. Not so with reverse osmosis water filters.

So, these days I am making an effort to treat my body right by not loading it up with additives and chemicals or foods that irritate me, so that my body doesn't have to waste its energy defending myself from my lifestyle. I hope that I have the capacity to deal with the traces of toxins that I come into contact with everywhere. Some day, living my life will surely kill me, but until then, I don't want to live in a clean bubble at the expense of others. I want to try to make life choices that express connection with my fellow beings and solidarity with the common good. After a lifetime of feeling guilty about the amount of waste my existence produces, it's actually kind of nice to think that my little liver can conjugate some of these environmental toxins, and my body (if I take care of it) can reduce the toxicity of the environment in this tiny way.

It's important to step back and look at the interrelatedness of things, and search for some creative solutions. It's also good to remember that we people are strong enough to deal with our circumstances, be they national policies that need to be overhauled, personal habits that are taking their toll, or lurking toxins every way we turn. We are built to deal with these things.