Thursday, January 31, 2013

Its A Crazy Crazy World

Sometimes you just need a good laugh.  Or a moment to reflect on how much crazier your already crazy life could be. January has been one of those months for me. Its been ugly and emotional yet uplifting and comforting at the same time. In reflecting upon the past thirty-one days I realize that despite all of the ups and downs, my life is a very good one. I have the love of my family and friends, my husband and I are gainfully employed, and we have many opportunities that others could only dream about.  Yes I am grateful.  But as I reflect on the past month I'm reminded that there really is a lot of crazy out there.  Here's a sampling of recent news stories that will either make you laugh or cry or perhaps a little of both. 

  • At least I'm not the mother of Matthew Todd the Boaz, Alabama man who, while intoxicated, used an ambulance, pair of horses and a stolen SUV to evade police. His downfall?  Returning to the same hospital where he stole the ambulance to seek medical treatment.  Click on this link to read all of the details. (Or for proof I'm not making this one up).
  • I'm thankful I didn't have to attend this funeral.  The late David S. Kime Jr of York, Pennsylvania, was such a fan of Burger King's Whoppers, that his funeral procession included a stop in a Burger King drive through where 39 Whopper Jr. sandwiches were distributed to mourners with the 40th reserved for the man of honor.  This story can be found here as proof that the story is real.
  • Yet another reason to avoid fast food restaurants--especially those that are located inside of a Walmart.  Luis Martinez, an employee of an Orlando, Florida Subway restaurant was fired after engaging in a confrontation with a customer who wanted ketchup on his Philly cheesesteak sandwich.  Apparently Subway doesn't stock ketchup as a condiment and the argument only escalated from there.
  • And in another Orlando story, would be car jackers had to abort their mission when they were unable to drive the standard geared corvette.  After receiving driving instructions from the car's owner and still being unable to understand the concept of a clutch, they fled on foot taking only his wallet and other assorted small items.
  • Philip Sandey of Huntsville, Alabama apparently needed caffeine before he could think clearly.  His attempted robbery of a Starbucks was thwarted when the clerk offered him a free coffee instead of opening the cash drawer.  He accepted the offer only to be arrested in a nearby parking lot a short time later.
And just in case you thought all of this craziness was confined to American soil:

  • Noor Mahmoodr of the United Arab Emirates was arrested for stuffing his suitcases with live leopards, monkeys and panthers in an attempt to smuggle them out of Thailand.  Really?  I can only imagine what the airport screeners must have thought when they saw those images pop up on their X-Ray machines.
  • In an attempt to bring fresh air into the country's pollution saturated cities, Chinese millionaire Chen Guangbiao is selling canned fresh air from China's mountain regions to oxygen starved urbanites.  Chen originally gave out free samples to lure people in but the recent exceptionally poor air quality in Beijing is resulting in the actual sale of this strange phenomena. 
  • In Oslo, Norway, the hoarding of diapers is resulting in shortages in stores.  Norway is one of the most expensive countries in Europe yet apparently Norwegian diapers cost significantly less than their Eastern European counterparts resulting in foreigners flocking to southern Norway and bringing them back across the border.  I wonder whether the cost of fuel is calculated into this "cost savings."

Seriously, you just can't make these things up.  But maybe you really, you can't.  Here's to a saner February.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Platform Hopping

My college computer
I am the least technology savvy person I know.  This is despite the fact I essentially grew up around computers (mind you that early on they were very large), have spent most of my professional life sitting in front of a monitor, and I have not one but two personal blogs.  Yes, despite all of this I am hopeless around computers.  My lack of technological expertise has come to a peak over the past two weeks as I attempted to move my food blog from its old home here on and to its new one on  Oh the frustrations of it all!

I'm dating myself here but during my senior year in high school one of our graduation requirements included passing a "computer proficiency test."  This test consisted of turning the computer on, opening a word processing document, saving it, then properly shutting down the computer.  Yup, that was it.  Not everyone in my class passed on the first attempt but I did and soon moved onto college where the facilities included two large, centralized computer labs and small individual computer labs complete with dot matrix printers in each dorm.  This was high tech stuff for my liberal arts college.  By my sophomore year I had upgraded from my electric typewriter and bought my very own Apple computer.  This was long before ready Internet access, when Pine was the college email system (and even then only in my senior year), and having a fancy ink jet printer made me the envy of my entire dorm floor.

My entry into the professional world moved me away from user friendly Apple computers and into the world of PCs.  Always a creature of habit I struggled to adjust but eventually found my comfort zone on both my own personal computer and my work based one.  And of course, just as I was getting the hang of things Microsoft would come out with a new version of their operating system and I would have to start all over again.  Sure some of the changes were minor, but they were just enough to throw me for a loop.  And then we switched from a PC back to a Mac at home and it didn't even resemble my old college desk top computer.  It was back to the technology drawing board for me.  (Again).  Over time I've learned that while I am proficient in many things, computer technology is not and never will be one of them.  Instead, I just make sure I always befriend the IT people at work......

So here I am in 2013 and I have two active blogs.  The first one (this one) started on a whim as a way of keeping family and friends updated on our adventures as we packed up our family and moved overseas.  The second blog capitalized on my love of food and cooking and was a spin off of the original blog.  Neither is fancy but they serve their purpose and much to my surprise, have taken on lives of their own.  Three months into writing my food blog, however,  I began to regret my choice of blog name since it would die a natural death once we depart from Albania. I decided it needed a name change.  And along with the name change its own domain name.  So never to do anything half heartily, I decided that if I was going to make a change or two, I was going to change a few more things as well including its publishing platform.  Out with blogger and in with wordpress for the new and improved  But remember, I'm not technologically savvy and am at heart, a creature of habit.

I've spent the past two weeks struggling to learn the intricacies of my new blogging platform. I know it isn't difficult but it sure has been frustrating just the same.  With the click of a button old posts quickly transferred from one platform to the next but the resulting layout didn't even begin to resemble its original form.  No matter what I tried, margins wouldn't align, bullets were off, and page previews looked nothing like I had hoped they would.  I spent hours reading and listening to online tutorials to no avail.  At one point I even had two laptops operating at the same time; the first displayed what was to become my new blog while the second had a step-by-step, complete with pictures, tutorial on how to find the perfect layout for my blog.  But success (or even acceptable) still eluded me.  And then I submitted a request for assistance to the online support team at wordpress.  Within a day I received a response from Allen, a wordpress "happiness engineer".  For the past week he has been patiently engaging me in an email conversation that is finally helping my blog resemble something I am comfortable sharing in cyber space.   Once again IT support is helping this creature of habit adjust to my new surroundings.  I had heard (and seen) good things about wordpress and can now attest to it.  This is just one of the reasons I switched.  So as of today my new and improved blog has gone live.  It isn't perfect and will probably always be a work in progress.  Knowing myself, however, I will eventually get the knack of the program.  Let's just hope that wordpress doesn't go and change everything the minute I catch up.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Let's Hear It For G.I. Jane

History was made last week and as is the American way as of late, it wasn't without controversy. On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that women serving in the U.S. military will now be allowed to serve in combat positions.  This declaration means that many of the highly coveted and highly skilled positions in the special forces, infantry, and special operations will now be opened to all qualified soldiers, sailors, and airmen regardless of their gender.  Both proponents and opponents immediately jumped into the debate, opining their reasoning for why or why not this move is or isn't good for the U.S. military.  My response to the debate?  Its about time.

Naysayers have been putting forth a variety of arguments as to why women should not serve in combat zones.  Some claim that introducing women to traditionally all male platoons, squadrons, teams (whatever you want to call it), will tear apart the traditional "band of brothers" and negatively impact morale.  Times changes and all must get on board.  If the status quo had been allowed to stand decades ago when the armed forces became racially integrated, we would still have a segregated military.  Others argue that the situations are just too dangerous for women.  Hello, too dangerous?  Women realize they are serving in the armed forces and not attending an afternoon tea party.  And how do you define "dangerous" when you are at war?  Despite their not previously being allowed in combat positions, a total of 152 women have already died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan while serving in supposedly "safer" positions.  The reality is that war is ugly and no one is safe regardless of your gender.   And then, inevitably, there is the sexual aspect of integrated forces.  I read one op-ed piece where the author said the introduction of women into the special forces would serve as too much of a temptation to the men who often go for extended periods of time without having contact with women.  Or gasp (!) what if the troops saw each other naked!??!   My initial reaction was to laugh since to argue this, one would have to naively believe that all of the men in the service are heterosexual.  (But perhaps some are that naive..........). The same outcries were heard when the U.S. Navy began to allow women to serve on ships.  Integration might not have been smooth sailing from the get-go but today all ships are fully integrated.  I remember during Glenn's last deployment that there were several female spouses who regularly voiced their concerns about women serving on board ships with men.  Yes, this was happening in 2008.  This was years after integration but some people still were uncomfortable with the co-ed conditions.  My reaction was the same then as it is now;  if you are so concerned about your husband being tempted by other women because they are working and living in close confines with each other, you probably have larger issues in your marriage that extend far beyond a military deployment.

So what are the proponents of this move saying?  (Besides, its about time).  If we are to argue for equal rights amongst the genders it has to be equal on all fronts.  And yes, that means having to face the same dangers that men going to war have been facing for centuries.  No one is asking for special treatment either; women must follow the same physical fitness guidelines as their male counterparts.  To this end, perhaps coincidentally or perhaps intentionally, the U.S. Marines recently announced that female Marines will now be held to the same pull up and push up standards as their male counterparts.  Will it be difficult? Maybe for some but if you are going to be on the front lines, you must be prepared.  Bullets don't discriminate based on gender.  It has been too easy to dismiss women as being the "fairer" sex and therefore physically weaker.  Undoubtedly, some women--myself included--are.  (I am a self proclaimed wimp).  But I have met many women who can out run, out push up, pull up, and generally run physical circles around many men.  Let's give everyone the opportunity to prove themselves.  Perhaps the largest bonus, however, is the opportunity for true career advancement.  In today's battle heavy world, most of the military's generals and admirals have served on the front lines of combat.  Prevent women from serving along side them and you are preventing them from having an equal chance at promotion to the highest military ranks.  With the change in the law they literally now have a fighting chance.  And lets be honest, could the world military situation be any worse if women were in leadership positions?

Are these changes going to occur overnight?  Will everyone accept the changes today, tomorrow, and even next year?  No and no again.  Change is always slow and not particularly easy but most times it is for the better.  And I think this move is definitely for the better.  My next suggestion would be to open the Selective Service, and if there was a draft, to women.  After all, if we want true equality, we must be willing to step up to the plate.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Rubber Ducky In The Snow

With the exception of a few very cold minutes at the top of the Zugspitz in Germany this past Christmas, Sidney has never really experienced snow.  He knows what it is since he can see it on the tops of the nearby mountains, but he has never truly experienced it in its purest form.  Both Glenn and I had grown up playing in the snow; snowball fights, building snow forts, skiing, and sledding were all a part of our winter childhoods.  This weekend we decided Sidney needed to learn what this is all about.  (Glenn also wanted to test out our new-to-us vehicle (a.k.a. the rubber ducky) which would supposedly enable us to reach parts of Albania that our old car prevented us from visiting).  And so we set out.

We bumped and bounced our way out of Tirana and over the mountains west of the City on a combination of roads that were narrow and newly paved, newly paved and already deteriorating, and dirt and rock filled paths that hardly constitute as roads.  We passed mountainside villages, grazing sheep, large expanses of barren, rock filled land, and icy mountain streams.  As usual the scenery outside of the urban areas was amazing and reminded me that far from the crowds, traffic, and mounds of trash, this really is a wild and beautiful country.  From his perch on the backseat Sidney commented on the animals in the road---donkeys, sheep, chickens, and yes a cow that raced us up a hill--- and also pointed out that there were lots of rocks everywhere.  Albania is indeed a harsh and rocky place.

All it took was climbing out of a river valley and up into the mountains for the road to instantly turn from paved to rutted with rocks.  In one moment there were only traces of snow and in the next all we could see was where the "road" was supposed to be was an endless snow covered countryside.  Bouncing along was kind of fun and reminiscent of IPMT but not knowing what was actually under the snow, yet imagining the possibilities, made the going very slow.  Until we couldn't go any further.  Our vehicle finally met her match when the uneven surface below the snow, combined with the mountains of snow we had been plowing through, prevented us from continuing on our journey.   This is when we really began to enjoy the snow.

It took some convincing to get Sidney out of the car but once he felt the snow under his feet he was immediately entranced.  He ran back and forth across the open area yelling that "Sidney is running in the snow!"  Someone living in a snow filled area might not understand his excitement but for the first time, rather than watching the snow from afar, Sidney was experiencing what it felt like to walk and run in the snow.  The snow cushioned his falls and allowed him to immediately pick himself up and continue on his way.  (My strange little boy, however, did not like the snow sticking to his pants).  He shrieked with delight as he watched Glenn form snowballs and throw them at the surrounding trees and quickly tried to emulate him.  (We do have a family understanding that snowballs are never to be thrown at Mamma).  Sidney's fleecy mittens didn't allow the snowballs to easily be launched but through perserverence he finally found a way.  Hitting the trees was an impossible challenge, but the parked car proved to be the perfect target.

Not wanting to be out in the boonies as darkness fell, we didn't stay as long as we would have liked to.  A few tears were shed as we returned to the car and bounced our way back towards Tirana but Sidney's tears soon returned to joy as he prattled away about all things snow.  We heard the narrative of how Sidney had been running in the snow, throwing snow, and playing in the snow.  Unprompted, Sidney informed us that the day had been fun.  Watching Sidney discover the snowy world around him reminded me that this is what childhood is supposed to be about.  We don't need to take plane rides to the world's great cities, ride trains through the mountains,  or spend money the latest gizmos and gadgets.  Time spent together as a family and a simple snowball thrown in one's "backyard" is truly the most enjoyable and memorable aspects of childhood.

Making snowballs

Glenn demonstrating how throwing a snowball is done

The car made an easier target

Trying to figure out why the snowball sticks to his mittens when he tries to throw it

Glenn demonstrates making a snow angel; Sidney would have nothing to do with this

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Antics of Boys

The face of innocence? 
As any parent knows, raising children is not for the faint of heart. When Sidney was born prematurely and spent eleven weeks in the NICU I had my share of scary moments.  In hindsight, I spent every day literally holding my breath and was only able to exhale as each hurdle was overcome.  When he was three days old and his brain scan showed no abnormalities, I felt a weight lifted off of my shoulders.  When Sidney was removed from oxygen and breathing on his own, my own breathing was suddenly freer.  From moving out of the ICU to the CCU and then receiving a medical clearance to be transferred to a hospital closer to home brought even more relief. Each time the doctors reported that he was exceeding anticipated milestones it became a little easier for me to breath.  All was not positive though and Sidney's setbacks were my setbacks and with each one I felt as though I aged a bit. Even after Sidney was finally discharged from the hospital and we brought him home I continued to worry.  Being too quiet during nap time made me fret that he wasn't breathing, refusing to cooperate during tummy time caused me to think his neck muscles wouldn't develop properly, and not performing on demand during a pediatric development appointment caused me to have fits of worry.  Gradually these worries subsided and I naively thought things would get easier.

Alas, each milestone, whether it be crawling, walking, or his ever emerging independence, has brought about new rounds of worry.  Would he fall and hurt himself?  Would his desire to explore introduce him to an unanticipated danger?  These were the things that kept me up at night but gradually, ever so gradually, my fears subsided. And then we would enter a new phase and I would start to worry all over again.  Just when I thought I was getting the hang of things we picked up and moved to Albania; probably the most child loving yet un-child proofed place on earth.  This land of concrete buildings, tiled floors, no green space, and exposed electrical wires is a child proofing nightmare.  We had been warned that Albania's pediatric care was not only not up to western standards but that there wasn't a single trauma center in the entire country.  These are just the facts a parent of an active toddler wants to hear.  Our first few months here found me paranoid about Sidney's falling and hitting his head, ingesting something toxic, or getting impaled by a sharp metal object.  (These were all realistic fears by the way).  These fears slowly subsided and surprisingly continued to diminish even after Sidney fell on our concrete stairs, chipped his front tooth, and survived relatively unscathed.  And then Sidney became a pre-schooler.

Last summer I had my first heart in my stomach, paralyzed by fear moment.  We were on a weekend trip to a mountain village with a group of colleagues from the Embassy.  Late in the evening, with Sidney safely (or so we thought) tucked away for the night in his pack and play in our third floor hotel room, a group of us were sitting outside on the patio enjoying a drink.  Because the hotel lacked air conditioning we had set up Sidney's bed under the open window in the hopes that the evening breezes would help keep him cool.  We had our baby monitor with us and we able to watch Sidney laying in his bed sucking his thumb and clutching his blanket.  At least that is what he was doing one moment.  In the next he disappeared from view in the monitor only to reappear in the third floor window.  As he peered out over the ledge and made moves to hoist himself up I was paralyzed by fear.  Glenn made a mad dash across the patio, into the hotel and up three flights of stairs as I stood there too petrified to move.  Half of our group moved to stand under the window and talk Sidney down as the others moved in to comfort me.  Too afraid to look I had to turn my back and in those short few minutes between the time Glenn leaped from his seat until he reached Sidney's side I felt as though I had aged years.  It was a horrifying feeling with a fortunate result that I never, ever wanted to feel again.

Fast forward to yesterday.  I should have realized that this moment six months ago was only an omen of things to come.  In the past months Sidney has grown both physically and intellectually and is now in the "Sidney can do it by himself "phase.  I have grown with him and have even gotten better about letting him test his limits (within a controlled environment of course).  As such, Sidney has taken to wanting to go from the second to third floors of our house to retrieve things all by himself and for the most part I've gone along with this. He knows to turn on the lights, hold onto the handrail, and be careful with each step.  We've also been teaching him to close the door behind him in an attempt to keep heat and cold in their respective places.  Yesterday, however, the game changed.

This looks like trouble........
Shortly after Sidney had asked to go upstairs to get "his birds"--- actually Glenn's Kindle with Angry Birds loaded on it, I heard a pitiful wail.  The nanny was in the process of leaving for the day but we both immediately stopped what we were doing and bolted up the stairs.  Now, we live in a traditional Albanian house with a center stairwell and doors at each and every doorway.  Each door is slightly different in size and door handle height but the one consistency is that every door is locked with a key from both the inside and outside but not both sides at the same time.  Each door is also configured with its own key meaning a "master" household key would be irrelevant.  When we moved into the house the issue of doors and keys was irrelevant since Sidney could neither reach the door handles nor was he able to manipulate a key in the lock.  Over the past 19 months he has grown and become exceptionally dexterous when it comes to turning things.  As such, we've removed the keys from the doors and have them hanging on hooks well beyond the span of his reach.  Or so I thought.  Since we have been working with Sidney to close doors behind him, he did exactly this when he reached the third floor.  He also took it upon himself to turn the key (something we have NOT been teaching him), that was somehow in the lock, into the closed position. The wails we heard were his scared cries when the door wouldn't open.

as does this.....
Realizing that I had no way of opening the door, I quickly called Glenn at work to have him send someone from the Embassy to come and take down (?) break down (?) open (?) the door.  I wasn't exactly sure what I needed because my mind was focused on Sidney's painful and scared cries of "Mamma help me." The nanny had already taken off her coat and had it wrapped around her hand in an attempt to punch out the glass on the door (the other thing about Albanian doors is that they all have glass panels).  In my broken Albanian I simultaneously plead with her not to do it since I feared the shattering glass would injure Sidney while trying to calm down my crying son through the door. I tried to envision any dangers that might be locked behind the door with him but it was his scared cries that really caused me to unravel.  As he kept up his cries of "Mamma" I asked him to turn the key to unlock the door.  My  pleas went unmet but the nanny's requests in Albanian finally netted results.  After what felt like hours but was in reality ten or so minutes, I heard the lock click and the door slowly open. Sidney was as pale and tear stained as was I.  Again, I felt as though I had aged years in the matter of minutes and the number of gray hairs on my head had multiplied exponentially.

I would like to think that I will never again feel this level of fear but I know better.  I am raising a mischievous, curious, and limit testing boy so I know my future is filled with moments like this and antics I don't even want to think about.  Scrapes, bumps, and heart stopping scares are what the future holds for me.  Glenn continually shares tales of his own childhood and I fear that Sidney will follow in his footsteps in all things mischievous.  Although I know millions of mothers around the world go through this every day, I don't know if my heart can take this excitement.  At least I have a good colorist who helps keep the grays in check, a husband whose nerves can't be ruffled, and a sweet boy who always gives me a hug when he realizes that he scared his Mamma.   

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Cleaning House

This is what it looked like as the movers packed up our house to move from Washington DC to Albania:

Yes, we moved seven full crates jam packed with our worldly belongings overseas with us.  Since this didn't include any of our furniture it was comprised of our "household goods": clothing, personal items, and my endless and very heavy collection of small kitchen appliances, serving dishes, and cookbooks.  I've always prided myself in being a minimalist and initially I was quite proud of how little we were bringing.  That was until  we went six weeks without any of our belongings and survived just fine.  The arrival of our seven full crates reminded me that the reality is we have too many unnecessary things. 

Fast forward nineteen months.  We are still one year away from moving (to where I have no idea) but I'm already starting to worry about what this next move will entail. Rather than get rid of things while we have been here ---something I had crazily thought we would do and used to justify the reason I brought so many items I no longer used-- we have only been consistently accumulating more items.   We are regularly gifted with knick knacks and miscellaneous trinkets that while interesting (sometimes very "interesting") just collect dust and take up shelf space.  But not all of our acquisitions are destined for a mythical yard sale.  In addition to two large and heavy pieces of furniture, a giant custom made solid oak kitchen table and an extra large antique dowry chest, we've accumulated more books, toys for Sidney, and yes, kitchen items.  As I look at my overfilled wardrobes, pantry that could feed a small country for a year, and cabinets filled to capacity, I'm realizing that I do in fact have too much stuff.  No, I am really not a minimalist.  So how did I get to this point and more importantly, what is a girl to do about it?

I used to be one of those people who carried that teeny tiny purse that was so fashionable yet incredibly impractical.  I remember my friend Catherine laughing at me and telling me that some day I too would be lugging around a cavernous bag.  At the time I told her it would never happen but fast forward a few years and here I am, over sized bag in hand, digging through the bottomless pit to find a pen.  Somehow I have become "that" person.  I am the very same person who used to be able to travel for a week with only a carry on.  I am now the one who checks an large suitcase for a long weekend.  I really dislike being that person but can't quite figure out how to minimize.  Whereas my mantle and bookshelves used to hold a single, carefully selected picture frame, our shelves are now filled with lead crystal plaques, post Communist era military propaganda, miniature lithographs of scenes depicting European cities, and oddly enough, a collection of shot glasses and key chains.  And the alcohol.  We love good wine and an occasional after dinner liqueur but the number of potent brandies, rakis and vodkas filling our shelves is threatening a collapse.  There is no way we could drink everything in the coming year and what on earth will I do with these items once we leave Albania?

So here is my plan:  2013 will be a year of downsizing.  No matter how pretty, unique, or potentially useful it might be, I will not be purchasing additional serving dishes, table linens, or pottery.  I'm going to limit myself to a single medium sized suitcase when traveling for a long weekend.  (Hey, it is a start and in my defense, my bag usually includes all of Sidney's clothes and sundry paraphernalia).  For the rest of our time in Albania I'm going to limit the size of my weekly grocery shop.  No longer will I buy things just because they look interesting or extra items because they might not be there next week.  I'm also going to stop taking all of the extra food from people who departing post.  Seriously, we could easily go several months without shopping and still have food to spare.  When the annual Embassy yard sale comes around, rather than simply organizing it for everyone else, I'm going to personally be organized enough to rid myself of the too small clothes, obsolete baby items, and other boxes filled with things I have no use for.  

Without a doubt a year from now we will be taking more "household goods" out of Albania than we brought in.  I will strive to have fewer items then than I do now.  Somethings I won't part with though; just think about the dinner conversations that will be able to ensue when we pour our special Russian vodka into Hungarian shot glasses as we show guests our Albanian double headed eagle plaque and Chinese key ring collection.  I bet you would all like an invitation to that dinner.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Customer (Un)Service

The more I travel the more I realize that the concept of customer service is very much culturally driven. What is considered to be good service in one culture could be deemed rude behavior in another.  While it may not always feel that way, when compared to other societies, the America the motto of "the customer is always right" carries a lot of weight.  At various times in my life I've been on both sides of the issue--working in both the restaurant and retail industries-- and on an ongoing basis, as a customer.  Perhaps it is my own experience in serving customers that makes me more attune to and critical of what the service industry is and isn't doing right.  And over the past few years I've experienced my share of both the very good in customer service and the very, very bad.

After close to two years in Albania, I am still befuddled by the concept of what constitutes good customer service in this country.  For the most part I have found the sales clerks (who are often the owners) in neighborhood markets to be exceedingly friendly and helpful, but those working in larger supermarkets and retails establishments are across the board unhelpful at best and rude and hostile at the worst.  I have yet to shop at a large grocery store here where I have felt as though customer service has been satisfactory. More often than not questions are met with terse "yes" or more often than not, "no" responses.  In what is probably an attempt to deter shoplifting, stores are overly staffed with numerous people who will stalk you through the aisles yet are unable to direct you to the item you are looking for.  If something is out of stock no one can ever tell you when more will be available.  On more than one occasion I've brought items to the register only to be told I can't buy them because they "aren't for sale".  Never mind the fact that the shelves are filled with the said item; if for some reason it can't be scanned, you can't buy it.  It is as simple as that.  No one ever offers to retrieve a substitute item for you rather they just tell you no.  How is that for making you feel welcome?

I don't think I'm alone in assuming you get what you pay for and more and more I find myself willing to pay for good service.  This past weekend we stayed at the very nice Le Meridien Hotel in Vienna.   As I expected, from check in to check out, room service to concierge, the customer service provided by the hotel was exceptional.  Would I have expected the same type of service from a Super 8?  Absolutely not.  Similarly, I have few expectations for receiving outstanding customer service when I am in a fast food restaurant yet if I am eating in a fine dining establishment I expect the quality of service to match the quality of the food.  In Albania, however, this simply isn't the case.  Ironically, customer service at byrek stands and other "fast food" establishments is often better than that at sit down restaurants. (I suppose this might be due in part to the owners being the ones who are actually working behind the counter).  Smoking in restaurants in Albania is illegal and most restaurants have signs to this effect.  This does not deter many people from smoking and if you are the foolish customer who actually requests that other patrons put out their cigarettes you are met with scorn and disdain but restaurant workers and fellow diners alike.

Many restaurants have impressive looking menus that read like novels.  You will be presented with page after page of dining options only to have the majority of the food items not available.  Seriously, who runs out of pasta at an Italian restaurant?  I've eaten out in groups where we've all had to request a couple of separate items before finding something that is actually on the menu.  (More than one person has told me that menus are printed with what restaurant owners think their customers want to eat; not with dishes that are actually available).  At all but a few of the best restaurants that cater to international clientele, waitstaff are apt to ignore you.  Often we have to flag down a waiter to order and again to receive our check.  In between it is the exception rather than the rule to have a waiter check on you to see if the food is acceptable or if you need a refill on your drink.  When dining in large groups--i.e. any event with four or more people-- it seems to be the norm that at least one dish will not come out to the table with the rest of the food.  Or each person will receive their food at a different time resulting in a table full of people actually dining solo with the others looking on.  And forget about being a woman and expecting to receive any service.  Even caterers in our own home have refused to acknowledge me or the direction I gave them.  (Needless to say, we no longer use this restaurant for our catering needs.....)

Not all customer service here in Albania is bad; we have found a few restaurants that have become favorites due in part to their good customer service.  Unfortunately, however, these establishments do not seem to be the norm.  In our travels through other parts of Europe we've also experienced both good and bad levels of customer service.  If nothing else, these collective experiences have taught me that American customer service is actually pretty darn good.  Sure, I still get aggravated when I sit on hold for what seems like hours waiting to be served by the "next available representative" or the agent at the other end of the line speaks barely understandable English.  Is this frustrating?  Yes, but since I don't have to deal with this type of customer service every day I can deal with it.  I'd much rather have a pleasant clerk in the check out line at the grocery store, a waiter who doesn't make a point of avoiding our table, and a retail clerk who knows which aisle cup hooks can be found in.  Perhaps I am asking too much but I think not.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Weekend of Viennese Culture

I'm back!  After a brief weekend away from Albania, from blogging, and from the stresses of daily life in general, I'm getting back into my groove.  The first day back to work after the weekend is always hard and it is even harder when the first day back is a Tuesday that follows a Monday holiday.  When you add in the fact I'm coming down with a cold and need time to fully recover and settle in from being away, the conditions make for very slow going.  Was it all worth it though?  Absolutely!  We quickly learned that the best thing about our overseas posting was our close proximity to the many amazing things Europe has to offer.  Just one short airplane ride (or sometimes two) and we can be in many of the world's great capitol cities.  It would be a shame to miss these opportunities and as such, Glenn and I have been slowly but surely working our way through our travel bucket list. Under the auspices of it being Glenn's birthday weekend, we left Sidney in the capable hands of his nanny and spent a culturally filled, whirlwind of a weekend in Vienna.

Family trips with a three year in tow involve lots of outdoor exploring (Europe is filled with water fountains, broad plazas, and monuments), structured meals and yes, a daily afternoon nap.  With this trip involving just the two of us, we had none of our usual constraints.  The first thing we noticed was that without little feet needing to keep up (or be carried) we could cover a lot of ground.  Second, our meal schedule was drastically different.  Instead of daily breakfasts in the hotel we wandered the streets until we found a cafe that looked enticing.  The same went for dinners; room service at midnight or no dinner at all worked just as well as spontaneous stops for coffee and sweets or a pint of local beer whenever the mood struck us.  Instead of popping into to grand cathedrals --or taking turns going inside-- we were able to take our time to admire and just take in the majestic buildings that are Europe's great churches.  We were even able to take a guided tour of catacombs of the historic St. Stephen's Cathedral, something that would have been impossible had Sidney been with us. 

We spent Saturday night attending a performance of Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame at the Vienna State Opera.  We haven't attended a concert or theatrical performance that wasn't part of Glenn's official duties since before we were married so this was a true date night.  While I don't think that the actual opera would rate a repeat viewing, the overall experience was amazing.  From the historic and ornate opera house to fancily dressed patrons and just our being able to say that we saw an opera in Vienna, the evening was the highlight of our trip.  Sunday was a continuation of our cultural tour as we spent the afternoon exploring the picture gallery and Egyptian and Near Eastern collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum.  As an added bonus the museum building itself is a masterpiece of art and architecture that is worth visiting for its merits alone. I love museums and could spend hours meandering through collections absorbing all they have to offer.  Much to my delight we were able to truly take in all the museum had to offer without feeling rushed by a three year old with a limited attention span and amount of patience for such things.

The Vienna State Opera House at night
The main entryway of the opera house



I love family vacations; there is nothing like discovering a new place through the eyes of a child.  From water fountains to street musicians (Sidney's two favorite things to watch on vacation), I know I would have noticed the Viennese version of them more had he been with us.  More than once Glenn and I commented on how much Sidney would have enjoyed experiencing something that we saw.  However, I believe that couple time and childless get aways are important.  I know that we were able to enjoy a side of Vienna that we wouldn't have been able to see had Sidney accompanied us.  We are lucky that we are able to take trips both with and without our son since it makes me appreciate both all the more.  By Saturday night I did find myself really missing Sidney and looking forward to seeing him upon our return.  I was also missing the built in afternoon nap schedule that accompanies him.  (After a day spent exploring the cold outdoors, I found myself longing for a late afternoon reprieve).  Next up a family trip to Budapest.  Afternoon naps are sure to be a part of that schedule.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Dear Abby, Ann, Prudence, Caroline, and Amy

Dear Abby, circa 1961
The world has lost an American cultural icon.  Pauline Phillips, a.k.a. Dear Abby, the grand dame of advise columnists, passed away this week at the ripe old age of 94. Growing up, I remember my grandmother reading Dear Abby's column in our local newspaper and tsk-tsking about the questions posed by writers. From "modern" decorum inquiries and workplace dilemmas to the age old issues of wedding etiquette and dealing with in-laws, Abby's column addressed them all. Her answers were insightful, sometimes terse, and often laced with humor. Her column first hit the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1956 before eventually becoming syndicated and reaching a broad audience of everyone from confused teenagers to disenchanted housewives and harried professionals.  Being an advice columnist ran in the family; Phillips' twin sister was the late Ann Landers of Dear Ann Landers fame and today the Dear Abby column continues with letters being answered by Phillips' own daughter Jeanne.

Dear Abby paved the way for a whole new generation of advice columnists.  Slate Magazine's Dear Prudence, The Washington Post's Caroline Hax, and The Chicago Tribune's Ask Amy are all modern day advice columnists whose styles and advise is reminiscent of Dear Abby.  I'm not a regular follower of American pop culture but I do read these advise columns whenever the opportunity arises.  Many of the letters and their corresponding responses are humorous; I often find myself wondering if the questions are real then I realize that you just can't make this stuff up.  From future mother-in-laws agitated about the bride's choice of wedding dress, bridal colors, and lack of old school formality to teenagers and all of their corresponding angst, the questions get asked and answered on newspaper pages across the country. The Internet has added a whole new dimension to advice columns with Caroline Hax's weekly live chat inevitably producing a lively "conversation" between the writer and her readers.  If ever I feel as though I'm having a really bad day, all it takes is reading one column to realize that my problems are minuscule compared to those of other people.

Beyond the entertainment factor, I think advice columns provide important insight into the world around us.  Weed out the absolute ridiculous (and yes, it does exist) and they reflect the concerns and issues that many of us ponder on a daily basis.  The teenager with angst over her parents not understanding her:  the actual issues might be different but the theme is one that transcends generations.  The same generational differences are reflected in letters from adult children dealing with their own aging parents, grandparents concerned about the way their grandchildren are being raised, and parents concerned about the pressure they are feeling from their own parents when it comes to child rearing.  The prospective bride who is receiving peer pressure in all directions about keeping her maiden name, hyphenating it, or changing it entirely: this is an issue that most of us married women have also contemplated at one time or another.  The advice may vary but more often than not, the underlying theme is one of picking which battles are worth fighting and which ones should just be left alone.  I would hazard a guess that, at one time or another, all of us have contemplated or at least thought about any one of the many issues that are discussed in these columns.  Yes, these issues are real now and will continue to be.

So rest in peace Ms. Phillips.  I don't know if you ever imagined that your reach would have been so vast but it was.  You influenced generations of Americans with your wisdom and your legacy is sure to live on.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Child-Free Zone??

We've all heard the debate.  And I'm sure we've all heard the children as well.   Nothing seems to fire people up more than the question of children in public.  One side accuses the other of being "anti-child" while the other lashes back saying that poor parenting creates children who run amok.  Throughout the debate the underlying question remains:  when and where is it appropriate to bring children and will we even be able to all agree?  Where you stand on this issue depends on where you are coming from.  Personally, I know my own position on this question has changed since I became a parent. Prior to entering the parenthood club, it wasn't so much that I didn't think children belonged in certain situations; rather in most cases I just didn't want to have to deal with them.  Now, from the perspective of a parent, my thinking has changed (somewhat).

Restaurants and airplanes are two of the most common hot button locations where the debate is particularly polarized.  (Of course I've witnessed my share of unruly and disruptive adults in both venues but that is a topic for another blog entry).  The restaurant question is regularly posed and discussed with Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post's food critic.  Should children be allowed to eat in nicer restaurants?  Is it acceptable to bring children out to a nice restaurant for lunch but not dinner?  Or should families with children be relegated to fast food and informal dining chains? Airplane travel is another constant debate.  National Geographic's Christopher Elliot moderates these debates in his column where the question of children seems to be the most prominent travel related question.  People argue about whether airplanes should have designated child-free zones, family areas, or should children be banned from certain flights all together.   I've received my own fair share of dirty looks from fellow passengers when they see me boarding an airplane with a small child in tow but I understand where they are coming from.  Who hasn't spent a long fight with little feet kicking the back of their seat with the offender's parents sitting there oblivious to what is happening? We've all heard the screaming child as well.  Most times the crying can't be helped but that doesn't make the situation any more tolerable.  Ironically, now that I am a parent, other people's crying children don't bother me. I can usually tune out the noise and sit there feeling grateful that I am not responsible for the source of the disruption.

The children - no children debate is also deeply cultural.  In the Balkans, children are welcomed at most places and events.  From my western perspective this isn't always appropriate but clearly I am in the minority with that opinion here in Albania.  We've attended formal receptions where children have been running under foot and have spent more than one late night dinner in a restaurant surrounded by baby strollers and unsupervised toddlers.  When we host events in our home some of our guests will ask if it is acceptable to bring their children while others will just arrive on our doorstep with them.  At the same time, we've been accosted by more than one dinner host when we arrive without Sidney in tow.   If you have a crying or fussy baby on a plane full of Albanians, rather than give you dirty looks they will all jump up and offer to help soothe the fussing child.  I do love the fact that many European airlines greet all of their little passengers with entertainment packs and special snacks.  Now that is customer service that we all benefit from.

So how do we deal with the child- no child issue?  Clearly, all children are not created equal with some being better behaved than others.  I would say that sometimes Sidney is very good and other times...... not so much.  I love Sidney and enjoy being with him but recognize that there are some situations where his presence just isn't appropriate.  If the situation is particularly formal or the hour overly late, Sidney stays home.  On the occasions when we do bring Sidney out to eat in nicer restaurants we are careful to make sure his presence doesn't disturb others. We will opt for earlier dining times and if his mood turns sour causing him to become disruptive, we remove him from the situation immediately.  (Having a ready stash of "table toys" and other forms of entertainment always makes things easier as well).  As far as travel goes, we are fortunate that he loves airplanes so has yet to be overly disruptive on one of our many flights.  Of course it helps that his little legs are still too short to kick at seat backs and he is easily amused by his father's explanations, complete with toy airplane demonstrations, of the physics of flying (I kid you not).  Still, I spend most flights on edge worried that he will have a meltdown and given the close confines of a plane, we wouldn't be able to remove him from the situation.  Would I support a family and children zone on an airplane? Absolutely since it would ease my worry about bothering others. Do I still plan on taking Sidney out to dinner?  Yes again, but we will continue to select venues where we will all be comfortable.  In the end, it doesn't matter which side of the debate you are on. Its all about being aware of our surroundings and being respectful of others. If we practice this, we can all be happy.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Rules of Admission

I've been watching a battle brewing in one of my Facebook groups recently.  Called the Naval Officers Spouse Club, this is a group that was originally created as a place for the spouses of U.S. Navy Officers to seek advice and share information about this crazy lifestyle we all lead.  Because it is an open group, meaning anyone can view its content, for privacy reasons I never post; rather I use the page as a resource.  After all I'm not the first nor will I be the last spouse with a particular question.  Despite its openness to the rest of the cyber universe, the page does provide a wealth of information about living at various places across the world, the inside scoop for ensuring that a move goes smoothly, and other minute details that only fellow Navy spouses can know about or understand.  Membership seems to be on the honor system and I have seen posts that make me question whether or not someone truly belongs in the group but perhaps that is just me.  It is the group's growing membership where the recent problem lies:  a non-officer spouse has asked to join the membership ranks and this has rankled some members.  Upon receiving the request the group's members immediately entered into a debate of the merits of allowing an enlisted spouse to join an officer spouse group. Inevitably the conversation became the ago old military one of officer versus enlisted.  To me, that debate is irrelevant.  The real question is one that transcends far beyond this virtual group and into every day sticks and bricks life:  if a privately (funded) organization has created rules about who can and cannot participate in their activities, why is there such a push to question eligibility and ask for exceptions?

I personally would never dream of asking to join a group or organization that I clearly was not qualified to be a part of.  But then again, I strongly believe that rules are rules, they are created for a reason, and they should never be broken.  However, sometimes I wonder if I am in the minority with this line of thinking.  I see the challenging of such rules in action everyday.  Parents routinely ask for their too young or too old children to be able to participate in a sporting event for which the organizers have set age limits; school districts that have clear residency requirements are challenged to allow non-residents admission; and yes, social clubs that cater to a specific audience, whether it be military spouse groups, boy scout packs, or country clubs all get challenged to make exceptions to their admissions policies.  If we start making exceptions it begs the question of why have rules in the first place?

Too many times these issues become personal.  Someone will advocate that their friend is nice and should be allowed to join the club.  Unless being nice is clearly defined as a criteria for joining, why is that even entering into the discussion?  If you make one exception, where do you draw the line? When you reach someone who isn't so nice?  As is the case with most things, once you start down that slippery slope you can rarely return to where you started from.  By saying no to the exception you aren't judging one's "niceness" factor; rather you are judging them on the basis of their clear eligibility criteria. If you don't meet it you can't join; if you can, welcome aboard.  The concept really isn't that difficult.  But then again, I am a rule follower.

Meanwhile, over on Facebook the debate continues. I don't know where it will end up but one thing is guaranteed, the group will be polarized by the whole situation and I'm not sure that is in any one's best interest.  See what happens when someone tries to bend the rules?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Learning To Sit

I need to learn to sit.  I'm not talking about the physical act of actually sitting down; I mastered that one decades ago. What I need to do is learn to just sit back, relax, and do nothing.  No reading, crafting, watching television, or playing with my laptop.  Last night I realized just how bad I am about sitting when I commented to Glenn that Sidney never curls up in my lap to read a book the way he does with his dad.  Glenn pointed out that I am never just sitting there; rather I always have something in my lap or my hands to keep me busy. I thought about it for a brief moment, looked down at the laptop that was perched on my knees at the moment, and realized just how right he actually was.

I think I've always been this way.  I don't remember a time when I haven't had something in my hands while sitting in a chair.  I'm the person who, even in my pre-child days carried a large purse that was filled with "entertainment".  I always bring a book in my purse to doctor appointments in case I need to wait.  (I also have a pen and a small notepad in case I need to write anything down).  Living inside the DC beltway taught me to always have some distraction stashed in my car since I inevitably got stuck in gridlock at least once each week.  Receiving my first e-reader was monumental since it eliminated the need to fill my suitcase with reading material when I travelled.   Even on my busiest days I may say that I need to sit down and rest but within minutes I am inevitably thumbing through a magazine or jotting down notes on a piece of paper. Glenn, on the other hand, can seem to sit in his chair for hours on end doing what appears to be nothing.  I will peer over at him to see if he is even awake and he is usually sitting there in a Zen like trance. His mind may be filled with developing ideas but physically his body is at rest.  Perhaps this is why, that after a lazy Sunday of "doing nothing" I feel exhausted while Glenn is relaxed and ready to face the week ahead.  Could it be because I have spent the afternoon pinning new recipes on Pinterest, planning menus and grocery lists for the week, wasting time on Facebook, and researching future trips?  My distractions aren't always technology driven; knitting socks is the perfect portable distraction when a Wi-Fi signal isn't available.

On a recent plane trip where I found that had mistakenly placed my Kindle into my checked luggage I found myself sitting in my seat with absolutely nothing to do.  Sidney and Glenn, along with most of the other people around me, were dozing.  I had already thumbed through the in flight magazine several times on a previous flight.  Even the potential view of the Alps below was obstructed by a heavy cloud bank.  The prospect of sitting still for a full hour with nothing to occupy me made me feel physically uncomfortable.  I just don't do well with the whole sitting thing.  I also realized that I couldn't remember the last time I had found myself in that predicament.  I have never been so relieved as I was when the plane began its descent into Tirana.

I am vowing now to be better about sitting.  As hard as it may be, I'm going to make a concerted effort to keep my lap free when Sidney is around in case he wants to join me in my chair.  I can't make any promises for when he isn't in the room, but this will be a start.  I do have another flight planned for this upcoming weekend.  This time I'm going to be sure to put not only my Kindle but a magazine or two for good measure into my carry-on bag.  After all, this sitting and doing nothing thing will still be a work in progress.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

On Human Kindness And Understanding

My blog post from yesterday sparked a lot of conversation between myself and friends, both those I know in real life and the ones I only know virtually.  I've been blogging for a year and a half and yesterday's entry received more hits in its first twelve hours than most of them do over the course of a full week.  While many of my posts are personal, they really aren't about me; their themes transcend far beyond my personal world.  I'm neither the first person nor will I be the last who experiences personal heartbreak and joy, has strong reactions to current affairs, and generally wonders what is happening in the world around us.  As I've said so many times before, my hope is that through my writing I can help bring about an awareness of situations, make my readers think, and more importantly create the start of conversations that need to take place. And with yesterday's blog I seem to have done just that.

I've received an amazing number of messages from people who read that post.  There were much appreciated offers of sympathy and support but the most poignant ones of all were those from people who shared their own disturbingly similar personal stories.  It saddens me that so many of my friends have also experienced the life shattering pain that I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy.  Regardless of the circumstances around each friend's miscarriage, two consistent themes arose from yesterday's messages.  First, each person felt scared, alone, and initially blamed themselves for having caused the miscarriage.  The second theme, a continuation of the feelings of loneliness, was that most people were afraid to share their experiences with others but when they did, they realized that they were very much not alone.  And I think that is a powerful message that transcends far beyond miscarriages and into life itself.

How often do any of us really know what is going on with the person next to us? We may be quick to be judgmental (I know that at times, I am, but I am really trying to work on this), about the actions of others but do we really know what is driving those actions. If a co-worker is always sad, short tempered, or in a foul mood, do we know why that is?  Is the normally cheerful person suddenly withdrawn?  For most of us, it is much easier to broadcast our good news than it is to share the bad.  We may internalize our problems because we are deeply private, in shock, or just plain scared.  Eventually these unspoken problems are likely to manifest themselves in other ways that we and the people around us might not understand.  And this is OK too.

Now I'm not advocating for public dishing sessions around the office water cooler.  Perhaps your co-worker is in chronic pain from a medical condition, has just suffered a loss, or has recently received devastating news.  Unless they choose to share the information, it isn't any of your business if the person next to you is suffering an illness, a loss, or an unnerving disappointment.  What is important is that we all take a step back and not be so quick to judge.  We can show our support just by being non-judgemental.  What isn't said can be even more powerful than what is said.  I beg of each and everyone of you to take a moment to think about why someone might be saying the words they are or reacting in an unusual way.  Don't judge; just try to understand.  Be kind and show some compassion and understanding.

If even one person who reads this thinks about what I have written and acts upon it, I will feel like these words have made a difference.  And trying to make a difference is really why I blog.

Friday, January 11, 2013

My Body Is Broken

Subconsciously I knew what was happening from the first moment those gut splitting pains shot through my abdomen.  I lay on the cold bathroom floor in the middle of the night thinking it was all a nightmare and it was.  I told myself it couldn't be happening since after all, I neither realized I was pregnant nor thought I could become so without medical intervention.  In reality, since this wasn't my first or even second miscarriage, I knew exactly what was happening to my body.  Some days is just plain sucks to be a woman and that day was certainly one of them.

I'm not sharing this unpleasant experience because I want sympathy or pity.  Rather, I want other women who suffer through miscarriages to know that they aren't alone. According to the American Pregnancy Association, of the approximately 6 million pregnancies that occur in the United States each year, 69,600 or around 12% end in a miscarriage.  When you factor in advanced maternal age and a history of previous miscarriages--factors that unfortunately affect me-- the chances of having an unsuccessful pregnancy increase.   This definitely doesn't make me feel any better about my circumstances but knowing these facts now, something I was unaware of the first time around,  does make me feel less alone.

I suffered my first miscarriage shortly after Glenn and I had excitedly announced my pregnancy to our families and close friends.  We had been married for less than a year but given our age, had decided to immediately start our family.  We had been so excited to learn that we were expecting and had already begun to make plans for our new arrival.  Good friends had gifted us with a few small baby items that I was eager to use.  Up until this point my biggest medical issue had been having my wisdom teeth taken out while I was in high school so I thought I was healthy and had every reason to believe that I was experiencing a normal pregnancy.  And then I received the devastating news from my doctor that the fetus was not developing normally and my body would soon begin to miscarry.

I remember laying on the couch in our living room for over a week vacillating between tears of physical pain and tears of emotional agony.  No one could ever have prepared me for how difficult this experience would be.  I felt alone, angry, and ashamed that perhaps I had done something wrong and had directly caused this to happen.  I tried to remember when I had drank my last glass of wine and I ruefully recalled stopping by Pet Smart, on my way to my check up, to purchase a 50 pound bag of dog food.  Eschewing the assistance of the eager clerk I had hoisted the heavy bag into the back of my SUV.  Logic would dictate that this had not caused my miscarriage but in my confused and saddened state I sought out any explanation regardless of how unfeasible it might be.  I was hesitant to share what was happening with anyone, but having already announced the pregnancy I had no choice.  Reactions were mostly sympathetic but one so called friend told me that I must have done something to cause this to happen since things like this just didn't happen to good people.  While I had been wondering the very same thing to myself, hearing the words spoken aloud ripped open the wound again.  I stifled back my shock, pain, and tears and vowed not to talk to anyone else about this.  (A year later when this very same friend had her own miscarriage I quietly dropped of a care basket filled with homemade goodies and pampering items on her doorstep.  She never knew who gave it to her and while I knew there was no way that these items would heal her wound I also knew that she deserved kindness and caring during this tragic time).  After I week of self pity, I picked myself up, packed away our precious baby items, and tried to carry on.  But gone for good was that carefree assurance that we would easily have our family.  My perspective on life had changed forever.

Earlier this week as I lay on the exam table at the --- only in Albania--- named Petal Gynecological Clinic looking at the enlarged ultra sound image showing my now empty uterus, I reminded myself how lucky I really am.   I am already the mother to a happy and healthy three year old. This is so much more than millions of women can say.  I have a loving and supportive husband who has been by my side, both physically and emotionally through all of this.  I have access to quality health care (although I wondered how true this was at that exact moment since this particular clinic seemed to lack heat), and I knew that physically I would once again come out of this situation in one piece.  I told myself that this time, since I hadn't even know I was pregnant, I hadn't had the time to bond with my unborn child.  That should make things easier, right?  Perhaps I am jaded but despite the language barrier between myself and the doctor I told myself that this time wasn't going to be as bad as it had been in the past.

Maybe my experiences have hardened me. Rather than wallowing in my pain and self-pity I immediately picked myself up and carried on as normal this past week. I popped some extra strength ibuprofen, went to work, socialized with friends, and hosted two dinners in our home.  I've spent time with Sidney each evening and given him an extra hug and kiss each night.  Tomorrow I will attend a baby shower for dear friends and rejoice in their health, happiness, and good fortune.  As has been the case with each of my losses, I will mourn them and never forget them but continue to appreciate what I do have.  That is all I can do.  The wonderful thing about life is that it carries on.  It isn't always easy but our experiences only make us stronger.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A World Full of Specialness

If the current popular perception is to be believed, we are all winners.  From youth sports teams moving away from keeping score and high schools that either don't have class valedictorians or have multiple ones so no one is perceived to be inferior to the next person to work places where all employees are rated as outstanding on their annual performance reviews, we are apparently all growing more exceptional in every way.  While we readily acknowledge that we all have strengths- whether they are academic, athletic, or artistic, there is a trend underfoot towards doing away with the notion that we have any weaknesses.  We are all perfect.  In every way.  No one is better than the next person. We are all equal.  A part of me jests but I fear this isn't that far from the reality.  And why is this happening?  Have strong self-esteems and healthy egos is one thing; having an inflated sense of self and no sense of humility is another.  Where does one cross the line from one side to the other?  And what happens when as a society, we are all on a single side?

Who doesn't remember the Wellesley (Massachusetts) high school Principal who gave a speech to a graduating class and happened to mention that they all weren't special?  We may not remember the rest of what he said but those few words went viral last spring as people across the country expressed outrage at the Principal's audacity to speak the truth.  How dare anyone insinuate to a generation of teens, who had been raised to believe that they were indeed exceptional in every way, that they weren't?  Having witnessed first hand this growing sense of entitlement and superiority amongst younger generations (yes, I do sound old now),  I personally applauded this speech and am still thinking about it.  Contrary to popular belief, not being exceptional doesn't devalue you as a person; rather it recognizes the fact that some of us are better at some things than others and there shouldn't be any shame in this. 

I was raised to believe that life isn't always easy and you have to work hard to achieve success.   But if you do work hard, chances are that you will succeed.  My parents praised me when I earned it--good report cards, winning a music competition,  or offering a kind gesture to someone who needed it earned their positive accolades--- but they also let me know when I could have or should have done better.  A poor grade was no one's fault but my own (and it certainly was never the fault of the teacher) and perhaps if I had practiced more I would have placed first rather than second in that music competition.  Over time this ethic was instilled in me and I learned that if I wanted to be number one, successful, or whatever label the recognition is called---in whatever the situation may be-- it wouldn't come automatically and I would have to work for it.  Yes, there were many times I was disappointed in not winning, when I was picked last for a team, or I didn't receive the job offer I had really wanted, but this made me try harder the next time around.

I don't believe this idea of having to work for something is unique.  There is something to be said for the evolutionary belief of survival of the fittest; since prehistoric times if you wanted to survive, or get ahead you needed to work for it. If you wanted to eat you had to be a good hunter, or at least provide something to the clan in exchange for earning your keep.  These notions aren't completed obsolete.  The U.S. Navy continues to use a stratification system for rating sailors and officers within a command.  Only one person within a given command, squadron, etc can be ranked number one.  Someone else is number two, then three, and so forth.  Since promotions are directly connected to how you are rated, there is an incentive to work hard to be number one.  Few work places seem to practice such measures though. Unfortunately, I've worked in too many places where this rating system is eschewed.  In one of such workplaces people were rated on a scale of 1 (needs improvement) to 5 (exceptional), and the expectation was that as a supervisor, unless you had strong evidence to the contrary all of your employees would receive exceptional ratings.  Seriously!  What does it mean if everyone is rated as exceptional?  Does that mean that everyone is really average?  What do you strive for if you are told you are doing everything perfectly?

So what happens when you have a generation (or more) of people who have never been viewed as anything less than exceptional?  Maybe a few people really are that all around good but as one of the non-exceptional mere mortals out there, I'm feeling left behind.