Madison has made me whole again. A phoenix rising from the ashes? Check. And not a moment too soon.
I was recovering from a serious loss: grieving the death of my first beloved small business to the cancer of the Great Recession. Obstructing the grieving process was the insane work schedule of my new small business, a nighthawk radiology service. Nighthawk radiology is third-shift work, 7 PM to 7 AM, seven days on and seven days off. Each night my two-man team would process (receive, read, and report on) the ER imaging of 130 patients per night from nine regional hospitals. Then we’d sleep the day long, eat “breakfast” at 5 PM, and do it all over again. Needless to say, the intensity and Sysiphian nature of my work week allowed for little reflection or meditation.
But at the end of workday seven, I would fly from Houston to Madison to spend my off-week with my wife, who had just gone back to school for graduate studies in public health at UW Madison. I was greeted each week by the magical sight of Tenney Park (below; photo credit needed), which is essentially the gateway to Madison coming from the airport.
We lived in UW married student housing, called Eagle Heights. Each Monday morning I would have the cab stop short of the complex and let me off at the bottom of the hill for a nice stroll up the bike path (below).
Eagle Heights was a throwback to mid-century institutional community design, with 1200 units housing over 3000 people essentially off in the woods. It was separated from the main UW campus by a mile-and-a-half of the lake shore, which insulated us from the famously hard-partying undergrads.
It was a quiet hideaway, shaded in summer by 150-foot white pines and old oaks of ten-foot girth. Summer mornings could get a bit rowdy, as hundreds of the children of grad students ran wild in this bubble of safety and open space. Summers in Eagle Heights demonstrate the occupation of little kids to be the playtime mimicry of working adults.
Our two-bedroom unit was “cozy.” We had brought our king size platform bed with us from Houston, and we were lucky to assemble it with the bedroom door open because, once the platform was screwed together, it blocked the door. Tiny, yes, but the 650 square-feet of space had been laid out so well that we had all we needed.
That tiny apartment, with its single entrance and instantly surveyable floorspace, both swaddled me in warmth and encouraged me to spend time outdoors (which I took to include all the quality beer bars in the area). For us coming from a 3000 ft.² house in Houston, Eagle Heights living forced us to pare back. It was a cleansing consolidation, sorting and culling the piles of material possessions one collects over the years. I was astonished to find myself able to let go, even of items from my childhood that had an irrational hold on me, like this model ship which found a very good home in the bedroom of one of our favorite neighbors (below).
I feel the emblematic patterns of Middle Life–moving out of state, changing careers, gaining weight, losing hair. Yet I feel it’s in Middle Life that one can make certain choices one couldn’t have made years ago. I feel I’ve traded an old sailing vessel that wasn’t doing me any good for a new one. (Have I mentioned I’ve joined the sailing club?)
Joining the UW Hoofers sailing club is something I never would’ve done before. My pre-Madison worldview was that of consumer first. And what do good consumers do when they want to go sailing? They buy a boat of their own. That probably explains why I’d never chosen to sail: the concept of owning a boat, and a trailer with which to tow it, and rented storage, all presented a barrier to my entering the world of sailing. The UW Hoofers Sailing Club leverages the resources of the community to provide the boats and infrastructure and volunteer efforts for maintenance. For a modest $295/year, I can sail any of the 100+ boats (from dinghies to sloops, on up to six different keel boats), windsurfers, and even snow kites in winter. Perhaps best of all is unlimited instruction at no extra cost, which is how I learned to sail.
Speaking of winter, I ride my bike year-round.
In fact, when my wife and I moved to Madison, we sold our cars and left them behind in Texas. Madison is compact enough, we can go nearly everywhere we want on our bikes. When we do need to go farther, the Metro bus system is superb, with seemingly more lines than one could ever need. Also nice, there’s no bus stigma. To see the bus carrying individuals of many different income levels is to see a city that confronts its traffic problem as adults: rather than ever-widening streets at the expense of all else, the city actually restricts traffic in various ways, chiefly by restricting parking. Instead of encouraging more cars into the city center, the city provides great public transit and some of North America’s most admired cycling and pedestrian byways. The true economic elite in this town still of course drive luxury cars to work every morning. But if they work in the city center, they park at a premium. Everyone else enjoys free (with any current student ID) or cheap and highly efficient trips by bus, bike, or on foot. I recently took the heavily used route #70 nine miles to the west side during rush hour, which took twenty-five minutes. That same trip on a woefully under-funded bus system in Houston used to take me a punishing 45 minutes each way to and from the college campus where I taught.
Rather than prioritize the individual in his or her own car, Madison coaxes individuals out onto the streets, preserving great public spaces for more people to enjoy. The site of its lively sidewalk culture and busy bicycle commuter paths could be mistaken for one of the nation’s great cityscapes, like Portland or Seattle or Berkeley. Madison is a small, compact place. Competing interests collide. Hard choices must be made. It’s clear the city is making many of them well.
There is also Community Car, a car sharing club that rivals the amazing value of the Sailing Club.
For a one time $35 sign up fee, we joined the club and can reserve any of the Priuses, pickup trucks, Honda Fits and Civics, five of them kept in various spots within a mile of our apartment. The cars are fully insured and fully fueled at no extra cost, save for the hourly fee, which is only $7.50/hour or the $3.75/hour Night Owl rate after 11 PM. Mileage only costs extra beyond 150 miles in a day. My wife and I rent Community Car to the tune of $20/month on average. The service hits that sweet spot that’s triangulated between the bus, the bike, and walking. The car isn’t the symbol of American individualist freedom for nothing; it can be a real advantage to have a car for certain scenarios. But not owning a car–not shouldering the financial costs (depreciation, fuel, interest on financing, insurance, sales tax, maintenance, repair; Consumer Reports estimates such costs for a Mini Cooper to be $5,800/year!) or the costs in lost time (dealing with maintenance or breakdowns or flats or dead batteries, researching the purchase, researching the maintenance/repair providers)–now, that’s a freedom in and of itself. The catchphrase in the Community Car logo is “Own less. Live more.” I get that now.
This post is getting way too long. Besides, by now one can see what I’m getting at about Madison. Madison has shown us a paradox: the riches of living modestly but deeply and without fear, in a place that values community. In this town I feel awake again. Again? Or is it really for the first time, ever?