Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Stress Factor

Stress.  As in "I am so stressed". The phrase has become so commonplace in conversations that I sometimes wonder whether it has lost its true meaning. Or whether it has become such a catch phrase that people don't stop and think about what it really means. But recently two separate articles discussing the causes of stress caught my eye and now I find myself thinking at of course we are stressed as a country and a society. I mean, given all that is going on around us, how can we not be?

First, a The Washington Post article cited a Robert Wood Johnson Foundations study that found politicians to be the number one factor in causing stress in our daily lives. Eighty-six percent of surveyed Americans indicated that they had experienced stress in the past month with 26 % saying those stress levels had been extreme. While major health issues were the largest contributor of longer term high levels of stress, issues surrounding everyday life were attributed to smaller daily stressors. Americans said that "hearing about what the government or politicians are doing"increased their stress levels more than dealing with long commutes, juggling the work-life balance and dealing with family dynamics. Hence the negative influence of our elected officials. And with the ongoing stalemate punctuated by vicious verbal attacks and other juvenile behavior in Washington, it really is no wonder. What we are watching looks like bad reality television. But when these issues-- the economy, immigration reform, religious freedoms, access to health care and global warming-- directly impact individual lives yet are treated like pawns in an ugly game, it is all too real. So it is no surprise that as a society we are so stressed. I know I am, are you?

And speaking about hearing and watching the politics play out on televisions, a NPR piece discussed the same study, focusing on the impact watching, reading or listening to the news has on our stress levels. Open a newspaper or turn on the news and it is filled with bad news. Foiled terrorist attacks, domestic disputes turned deadly and the recent horrific spate of parents leaving their young children in hot cars fill the airwaves and these are just the domestic news articles. And when an event is particularly horrifying, the media provides continual coverage of the event. If there is nothing new to report they replay the footage or bring in "experts" who not only speculate on the event at hand but link it to past atrocities. One only as to think about the events surrounding the September 11th terrorist attacks or the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building to realize how true this year. Years after the event these images are still burned into my mind. But despite, or perhaps because, of the scale of these tragedies, people are watching. The above cited study found that "people who exposed themselves to six or more hours of media daily reported more acute stress symptoms than did people who were directly exposed" to the actual events. So we no longer need to actually experience the event in person in order to suffer the effects of its aftermath. Are we on the verge of becoming a country where everyone suffers from PTSD?

So who is to blame for all of this and what should we do? Do we elect new representatives with the hope that they can actually work together to solve our never ending list of problems? Do we turn everything off and simply unplug from current events? Do we run to our doctors requesting drugs to dull the side effects of our society? Sign up for yoga classes or live on media free communes that are cut off from the world? I have no idea what the solution is but something has to give. And soon....

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Size Of Your Footprint

After three years away, we're back in the U.S. of A. for a month. And the first thing I've noticed has been how big everything is. From the highways and the cars that speed down them to hotels and hotel rooms and even the people themselves, everything is simply so much bigger than it is in Europe. One could argue that it is because there is so much more space in America. But it all makes me wonder; is bigger really better? And more important, is it really necessary?

In our jet lagged haze, when we went to up our mid sized car at the airport, the saleswoman up-sized us to a much larger vehicle. (In my defense I had taken Sidney to the restroom and missed this transaction). When I saw the vehicle, I was immediately taken aback at how big it was. It was huge compared to the majority of cars we see on Europe's roads and would have a hard time driving down many of the narrow streets that we have grown accustomed to. It would never have fit into our parking garage back in Belgium. Yet sadly we aren't nearly the largest car on the Interstate being dwarfed not only by tractor trailers (that we are used to because in Europe they are the same size) but by even larger family sized mini vans and SUVs that could easily haul small armies. Back in Belgium, the only people driving vehicles this large are other Americans (and there are usually large scratches running the length of these vehicles since their size just isn't conducive to European roadways). European family cars are more practical sedans or compact station wagons that seem to work just fine. One could argue that the cost of fuel is a driving factor. With the cost of one gallon of unleaded gas hovering around $3.70 in the Washington D.C. area, the cost is three times as much in Belgium so it would make sense that Belgians drive smaller cars. But what about Americans in Belgium, and other parts of Europe? Are we simply willing to shell out a lot of money for fuel in exchange for driving that big car? I've heard people say that they must have all of the space so they are comfortable and have enough space to be in the car without touching one another. Maybe because I only have one child I don't get it but I remember road trips as a child where we were all squished into a vehicle and we did just fine. I guess times have simply changed.

But it isn't just American cars, it is everything. Houses are huge, filling sprawling suburbs with McMansions that could house entire extended families but are intended so a couple and their children. Not only does every household member require their own sleeping quarters but they must also have their own recreational space as well. Hotel rooms here are so much larger than their foreign counterparts with the bathrooms alone being the size of many hotel rooms. Do we really require that much space when we travel? And don't even get me started on the portions of food that are served in restaurants. From super-sized drinks and fries in fast food restaurants to overflowing platters in more formal dining establishments, the amount of food being served is simply overwhelming (and likely contributes to the size of Americans). Grocery stores are sprawling filled with what I now find to be overwhelming choices. Is a choice of thirty different soaps really required? Or a freezer case that spans several aisles? I guess if you are all about convenience foods you do need that much space. But pre-packaged foods produce more consumer waste. In European communities where you pay more for each bag of non-recyclable trash you put on the curb, it is practically a badge of honor to put as little as possible in front of your house on trash day. American houses are easy to spot because of their mounds of trash sitting on the curb.

Yes, everything is feeling just so big to me and I'm finding myself wanting less space, smaller meals and a more compact environment.

But is America and the American lifestyle simply bigger because it can be? Maybe it can be at the moment but is this over the top excess sustainable over the long haul? And again I ask whether it is even necessary?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The 'Woe Is Me' Race

Does it ever seem as though no matter what tale of woe you hear someone is quick to talk about how their situation was so much worse? As in "you think you have it bad but when I was a kid I had to walk to school...barefoot....in the snow.....uphill both ways." OK, I jest (sort of) but this is a quote I heard a lot growing up whenever one of us kids would complain about how bad or unfair we perceived something to be. For kids, it may often feel as though you had it worse, your life was tougher than everyone else's, your parents were meaner and you never got what you wanted. But to carry this attitude into adulthood? Unfortunately people do it and rarely, if ever, is it pretty. And when social media is involved, the problem seems to manifest itself all the more.

Sadly, I've seen this woe is me, my situation is worse than yours, too many times in the military community. This is especially sad since rather then supporting each other, we turn against one another, second guessing decisions and calling into question whose situation is worse. I recently read a blog piece that was written by a Army reservist's wife who was bemoaning an impending ten month separation from her husband. She unwittingly called the separation a deployment because those were the terms that she and her family thought about the separation in. But her husband wasn't being sent overseas, rather he was attending a military college program on the other side of the country (in the U.S.) and her family had made the decision not to be uprooted and move with him. So instead of fellow military spouses rallying around her to support the separation the claws came out in full force attacking her choice of words, questioning the decision to remain behind and essentially telling her that her situation was nothing compared to what other military spouses had gone through.

Choices such as voluntary separations are very personal and, I doubt, ever made lightly. Yes the circumstances between deciding to be apart versus being told you will be apart are very different but at the end of the day the results are the same: you are separated from your loved one. I am absolutely not discounting the stress and anxiety that comes from having a loved one deployed in a war zone but who are we, as individuals or a community, to judge someone else's decisions? If they want to call a situation by a certain name, let them instead of attacking them because what they said or are going through is different than our own experience. It is as if we in junior high or are we strong adults who hold our families together for months on end and support each other?

But along the same lines, whenever someone takes a moment to whine or commiserate, the same people attacking the above blogger are probably the ones who will be quick to tell you that their deployment experience was worse than theirs. Whether it be longer, during more "important" months, they experienced more house and car problems (which inevitably happens regardless of how long a military member is away) everything about their situation is worse. But in their civilian lives they are probably the same people who have the worst neighbors, their angelic children are probably in classes filled with misbehaving children, their daily commute is more trying and so forth. Maybe there is an award out there for having the worst situation that I am simply unaware of. Why else would people feel the need to try to one-up each other when it comes to bad or difficult situations?

Perhaps it is time that we all put on our big girl panties and support one another. A little understanding and compassion, i.e. "I'm sorry you are going through this" followed by an offer of a helping hand or positive advice would be a lot more productive than put downs and turning the situation into a competition about whose situation is worse. Think about it; its just the right thing to do.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Commercials, Oh My!

Talk about culture shock! After three years of watching no network American television I feel as though I am in shock with the commercials. We aren't big television watchers to begin with but our dose of American pop culture has been limited to the sanitized AFN network and their plethora of PSAs about how to be a good neighbor, co-worker and representative of our country. And now, after all this time of not seeing commercials, I feel overwhelmed by the mass marketing, in your face nature of America's advertising gurus. At the risk of sounding like an old cranky pants, when did commercials get so loud? A comfortable sound level will suddenly turn to ear deafening blasts when a show switches to commercials. Really? Are people more apt to buy something if the advertiser yells at you? (More likely, they want to ensure you hear their message while you run to the kitchen or bathroom).

It seems as though everything is for sale. From buy one -- get one free deals to limited time only discounts on all of your must have new and improved items, if you have the cash (or the plastic) the world is yours for the taking. Cars and discounted furniture are being peddled by slick salesmen while cartoon characters are selling everything from cereals and chips to toys and auto insurance. I've never been a fan of talking animals as advertising tools but after not seeing them for so long they just seem plain silly to me. And the back to school and end of summer sales? It is only mid-July so can't we please enjoy what is left of our summer before we are rushed into what comes next. At least I haven't seen any Halloween or Christmas ads yet but then again, I am probably a couple weeks too early.

I guess I never realized just how annoying commercials are.....until now. Do people really watch them and do these marketing strategies really sell more stuff? I'm realizing that maybe the AFN infomercials aren't so bad after all.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mamma, They Speak English Here

We've only been back in the States for a few days but Sidney is marveling at all of the English that is being spoken around him. It has made me realize that, other than a long weekend in England, he has no memories of being in a completely English speaking environment. (Yes, I know I am generalizing here since hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken in the United States but please bear with me on this one). His earliest memories are of our living in Albania. He spent more time with his non-English speaking nanny, playing on local Albanian playgrounds or with the neighborhood kids than he did with our American peers. As a result, by the time we left his Albania was fluent but he would excitedly point out when anyone around us was speaking English. It was almost as if it was the foreign language.

Here in Belgium Sidney attends a Belgian school where French immersion is the language of choice. Because the student body is as diverse as NATO itself, some kids already speak French but most speak their mother tongue and for most, that language isn't English. Even at the ripe age of four he has become adept at hearing a language and immediately identifying its national identity. And of course he is soaking up French faster than he did Albanian and loves to educate us on the proper way to say a variety of things in French. (And naturally it is always with the perfect accent). But despite his ear for languages, he is quick to inquire whether people will be speaking English in any particular situation and always seems pleased when we tell him they will.

So here we are back in America where English is the predominant language. He's told me some of it sounds funny (we're talking southern accents here so I can only imagine what he is going to say once we venture north into New England) but it is English none the less. "Mamma, they are speaking English" has become the refrain I've been hearing over and over again. And I must admit, it is kind of nice to not really have to think about what is being said to me. From dealing with store and hotel clerks to being able to effortlessly read street signs, this English thing is kind of nice. But at the same time it almost sounds foreign to me. In a good way, of course.