Monday, October 24, 2016

Sexual Aggression Goes Both Ways

Physical and verbal assaults are not relegated to only women.  It's a form of bullying perpetrated by insecure people to make them feel better about themselves by demeaning someone else.  Last week I wrote about the "outdoor locker room" and how men's unsolicited verbal advances on women is more prevalent than we may have thought.  However this behavior is not a simple one-way street.  I've had my fair share of aggressive verbal and physical behaviors from both women AND men.  And while men can be verbally abusive, women somehow feel that they have a certain right to men's bodies that causes them to act far more aggressively than you'd expect.

I'm old and married now, but let me go back several years, even back to when I first started writing this blog even; back to when I was younger and a lot more buff.  I can't count the number of times I was out with friends in a club or a bar, or even at a house party or gathering, when a woman approached me and, without asking my permission or receiving my consent, proceeded to grab my arms or rub my chest.  "You're so big!," they'd coo.  "How big are your arms?"  "I just want to hug you."  "Can you pick me up?"

I was always uncomfortable when this happened and, worse, I was unsure how to respond.  The thing is, men are supposed to want to be adored.  Our workouts aren't so we can get stronger, it's so that we can look more impressive, look more masculine, attract a mate.  We are supposed to want to be desired - it's what evolution and society taught us.  We've also been taught that men cannot be assaulted by women, i.e. that a weaker opponent is unable to harm a stronger one.  Men get assaulted by women all the time.  And men can get raped by women.  It happens, despite people dismissing, ridiculing, or even snickering about the very thought.

And of course, men assault and rape other men.  We all know the stories.  And back in the day, being gay only compounded the matter for me.  Other gay men would feel they had carte blanche to just reach out and grab me whenever and wherever they wanted.  It was nothing for a lone hand to reach through a crowd and squeeze one of my pecs.  In the beginning, I would demurely pull away, but it became so prevalent that I eventually struck back.  I'm not sure how many fingers I broke in those days, but I would very quickly grab a finger on the obtrusive hand and yank it in the opposite direction.  I once complained to the manager of JR's bar in DC about someone who was being uncomfortably aggressive with me.  The manager's response was simply, "get it girl."  Gay assault is not taken seriously at all.  We're apparently supposed to appreciate the attention.

I've never liked being touched by someone, anyone, who was not a very close friend or family member.  As a kid, I had a hard time with swimming lessons because I didn't like being handled in the water by someone I didn't know.  When I'd go out and see friends, it was mostly a wave from a distance or even a handshake.  Eventually, most gay men in DC knew when they could touch me.  I refused to play the game.  Perhaps this is why not many of my DC friendships survived after I moved to Chicago where, interestingly enough, I didn't face the same kind of aggression.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"Hey Baby, Shake Dat Ass Hard!"

Yesterday, while walking back from lunch, my stride caught me up to three mature men who were meandering down the sidewalk.  And by mature, I'll say in their 50s.  Just as I caught up to them, a young woman with a fuller figure came out of a door ahead of us, walking in the same direction.  The words these men then shouted at this woman were shocking - yelling at her to "shake it", calling her "baby", and naming her certain body part, among other things.  The woman neither responded nor reacted.  She just kept walking.  I couldn't see her face.

My stride was more in-line with hers so as I passed through the three men and got ahead of them, I saw the woman then walk passed another man who had come out of a building for a smoke.  As he lit his cigarette, he made a comment to her, watched her pass him, then shouted something to her.  Again, she neither reacted nor responded.

When I started writing this post, I listed the races of these 5 people.  And then I thought, "Does it matter that they are all the same race?  Does it even matter what their race is at all?"  It shouldn't.

With all that's in the media about what's referred to as "locker room talk", I can tell you here and now that the sort of language we've been saying disgusts us as a society is alive and well and living on our sidewalks, not just in our locker rooms.  And while this is not to give Donald Trump a pass on his behavior, it's to say that the rhetoric is prevalent - maybe not in ALL groups, but certainly in some.  It's obviously not the first time I've ever witnessed something like this, and it's not like Donald Trump has caused this to happen.  He's only pulled the rug back to expose what was already there by giving "The Deplorables" permission to be unashamedly vocal about their hatred, contempt, and scorn.

We have such a long way to go as a society. How we talk to each other demonstrates respect for self and others.  The language I heard on a Chicago sidewalk yesterday demonstrated that those men had absolutely no respect for the woman, and certainly none for themselves.  They weren't quiet or soft spoken; they wanted to be heard and they didn't care by whom.  Time was that "cat calls" used to come from construction workers high over head or from behind a fence.  There was still an element of safety for women because there was distance - some spacial barrier that made women feel uncomfortable, yet still allow them to feel (hopefully) unthreatened.  However today, it's right there; there are no barriers and there is no protection.  Women are being degraded and approached by men who are standing or sitting right next to them.

At first I wondered how these four men would feel if they heard someone yelling these things to their wives or daughters or even grand-daughters.  And I decided that ultimately, they probably wouldn't care.  Because if you can do it to someone, you couldn't possibly care if it's done to someone else, really.  You might bluster about it, but you don't care.  Unless it's done to you.

Today, I kick myself for not staying something at least to the first three men.  I don't know what I would have said, but I should have said something.  It most likely would have created an argument, but I rarely shy away from those, anyway.  Instead, I made the excuse that I was going to a meeting and didn't have time for an altercation.  But how would these men know that what they did was unacceptable if I - or anybody for that matter - didn't say something. Then again, why is it MY responsibility to tell three men in their 50s that their behavior is disgusting.

I often wonder if this behavior actually works or has ever worked.  When a man has cat-called a woman on the street, has she ever turned around to thank him and then proceed to make a date with him?  Has that ever worked?  Common sense would tell me "no", but then I think it must have, otherwise, this behavior would have died out by now.  I mean . . . right?  I'm grasping at straws, here.

This Presidential election cycle has done many things, chief among them the exposure of our country's underbelly.  Like I said, it's always been there.  It's nothing that was newly created or just popped up because of one man's pathetic behavior.  Granted, he's given it validation, but the light has been turned on to the beliefs and lacks of moral compass demonstrated by his dedicated followers.  And going forward, we will no longer be able to just turn off the light, close the door and hope that no one hears noises coming from the room that we might have to explain and most assuredly apologize for.


Monday, October 17, 2016

Bagging Groceries

I posted a quick blurb about this on Facebook once, but then decided it deserved a full-on rant that only I can provide.  So here goes.

If, like me, you are an obsessive person who revels in neatness, organization, and symmetry, then something as mundane as watching another person bag your groceries can put you in such a stressful and anxious state that you either have to stop the person immediately or, again like me, allow the person to finish only to move the cart to another location and re-bag everything as you see fit. Because, for the life of me, I can't understand why someone would just carelessly toss items into a rectangular, canvas bag instead of stacking them neatly so that everything fits into the compartment.

Perhaps there is an overall lack of training when it comes to bagging groceries, so here are 8 simple rules to bagging my groceries:

  1. Don't shove items into the bag.  This is now MY property; treat it with some respect. 
  2. Don't over-stuff.  I'm giving you more bags than you will ever need.
  3. Pack the heaviest and most durable items first.  I know this sounds rudimentary, but you'd be surprised.
  4. Balance the bag.  Don't put all the heavy stuff in one bag and not all on one side in a bag.  Distribute the weight evenly.  Again, I'm giving you plenty to work with.
  5. Don't lay anything on it's side.  It's on the shelf in a specific position for a specific reason.
  6. Pack like items in bags to avoid cross-contamination.  Meat in one bag, veggies in another bag, cleaning supplies in another bag, etc.
  7. Put all refrigerated items in one bag.  This not only helps keep them cold but will also prevent cardboard boxes from getting soggy.  It also helps with unbagging the groceries once you get home.
  8. Separate and sort the items before bagging, unless your customer is me because I've already gone to the trouble of sorting all the items on the conveyor belt for you.

Bagging groceries isn't an art form.  It simply takes brains.  Although when you do it correctly, you can win some cabbage, as well as my respect and admiration.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Accessory Lady

I'm dedicating this post to Kevin, who gets the world's biggest kick out of the fact that I once worked in a women's accessory shop.  So here's the introduction to the story, à la Sophia style:

Picture it.  September. 1988.  A handsome young man involved in a relationship finds himself with lots of spare time on his hands so he decides to apply for a part-time job.  He answers a few ads in the local newspaper (you did that back then) and received a call from a young woman, asking him to come in for an interview the following night.  The young man and young woman meet and an instant friendship is born.  

That handsome young man was me.  And that young woman was Barbara, or Barbie as she was known.  And the part-time job was working sales at Accessory Lady in Tyson's Corner.

So to back up, I was living with Ex#1 in Sterling, VA.  He accepted a job as a manager at The Body Shop, a new store that was coming to Tyson's.  To train for the role, he worked in the Broadway store in NYC for 6 weeks while the Tyson's store was being built in the mall.  I didn't want to come home to an empty house every night, so I decided to get a part time job.  I was already working at my day job as an Administrative Assistant for a realty tax service in Annandale, VA.  So since Tyson's was on my way home, it seemed like an easy idea to just get a job there.

I applied to a few jobs in the mall at women-centric shops.  I really just wanted to work with women at that time.  I was only 22 years old and mostly just wanted to be myself as much as possible, so I figured working with a bunch of women would just be easier.  Accessory Lady was a store that sold high-end costume jewelry, hats, handbags, scarves, and some clothing.  It was a much-more-upscale Claire's.

So on September 27, 1988, I went to the interview and met Barbie, a beautiful Korean-American woman around my age.  We talked and learned that we were both from western Maryland and instantly bonded.  The part-time job would be in her store, currently being built in Tyson's II, the Galleria Mall.  She hired me for the job and within a few weeks I was helping to stock the store with merchandise for its grand opening.

Barbie and Me at work, 1989
Ex#1 returned from NYC just before Christmas.  His 6-week stay in NYC had been extended to 13 weeks due to staffing problems at the NYC store.  This long separation did not bode well for our relationship.  I had only visited him once in that amount of time and for some reason, and I can't remember why, we didn't talk on the phone.  Perhaps it was because long distance charges was a thing back then, and his living in a hotel and having to pay high phone charges didn't help the matter.  I remember sending him his mail every week along with a note, but I don't remember us talking during that 13-week period.  We must have, but I don't remember.  Needless to say, our relationship dissolved on, of all nights, New Year's Eve 1988.  But that's whoooole 'nother story.

Barbie and I had lots of fun working together, and after my breakup, she and I would hang out together just about every night.  We'd go clubbing and had a set routine of where we would go on any given night.  Sometimes I would spend the night at her house and we would go to work together the next day.

I was the only guy working in the store.  The company had approximately 200-250 stores nationwide and there weren't too many men working in the company.  So when I got laid off from my day job due to downsizing, it became a big deal when I accepted Barbie's offer to be an Associate Manager full-time,  And then the push came for me to be manager of my own store.  A new store was opening in the newly-built Pentagon City Mall, and it was to be my store.  Accessory Lady hyped the idea that I would be its first male manager.  And then - I don't know - I guess it all got to me.  The reality of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks.

I didn't really care to be working in women's accessories, I just wanted to hangout with Barbie.  And this was never supposed to be my job job, just something to keep me busy at night while my boyfriend was out of town.  And frankly, I didn't even want to be in the DC area anymore for fear of running into Ex#1 out and about.  So I gave up my $19,000 a year job and just quit one day.  I had gone too far on this side journey and I needed to get back to the main road.  I didn't warn Barbie or anyone else about it, I just quit.  I wasn't the most responsible person back then.

Barbie and I were estranged for a while after that, and rightly so.  I've of course gotten much better at dealing with good-byes and ending situations, but at 22 years old, I was still emotionally immature.  I remember we eventually met and talked about things, but since then I had moved back home and was nowhere near DC anymore.  So the friendship, in its most recent form, dissolved.  

But Barbie kept trying to chase me down over the years.  She called my parents to find out where I was and how I was doing.  She invited me to her wedding, but I don't remember ever receiving the invitation, which could have been lost at Mom and Dad's at some point.  We lost touch, mostly because I was either too unstable in my living situation or was just lazy at maintaining contact.   Add to the fact that I HATE talking on the telephone.  I always have.  But then, years later, Facebook brought us back together,

Me and Barbie, 2016
Barbie and I met recently for lunch in Tyson's Corner.  It was the first time in 27 years we'd seen each other.  We reminisced and caught each other up on our lives, our marriages, our parents, her daughter, our careers and our families.  In many ways, she was exactly the same as I remember: same movements, same voice, same speech patterns, same face.  In turn, Barbie said I was completely different, that I was much more calm now, much more settled.  I chalked it up to simply being older and wiser.

By the way, working at Accessory Lady was Job #12.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Griffin Matures

This past weekend, we celebrated our 2nd wedding anniversary by road-tripping to see family.  We visited with an uncle and aunt in Ohio, spent 2 days with my clan in Maryland, then spent 2 more days with Kevin's sister, Kerry, and her family in Virginia.

Kerry is the mother of Griffin, our nephew.  He was the ring bearer in our wedding and you might remember he had some reservations about us getting married at all.  Two years ago, Griffin found it almost incomprehensible that "two boys" could get married.  In his world of Disney and iPad video, he had never seen 2 males get married, especially if one of them was a bad guy.

Fast forward two years to this past weekend where we overheard Griffin, at the ripe old age of 7, schooling another kid on the swing set at the playground:
Griffin (pointing to Kevin):  That's my uncle.
Other Boy:  Where's your aunt?
Griffin:  I don't have one, I have another uncle.
Other Boy:  Huh?
Griffin:  My uncle married another boy.  Well, an adult man.
Other Boy:  What?
Griffin:  Boys can marry boys, you know.  They bought a house in Chicago.
The conversation was simply matter-of-fact.  And to Griffin, it was no longer a big deal or ANY deal in his world.  But he's smart enough to know that not everyone thinks the same way he does.  And I wouldn't be too surprised if he enjoyed having the upper hand; at least knowing more about the subject than a peer.

Then Griffin saw me:
Griffin:  That's my Uncle Dop.  The bald guy.  He's got, like, the shortest name in the world.  
So that's who and what I am to a 7-year old.  It give me hope for the future.  On the walk back to the house, we couldn't help but wonder what was going to happen when Other Boy goes home from the playground and tells his parents, "Did you know boys can marry boys?"

Thursday, September 29, 2016

My 40th Job

In a little over a week from now, I start my 40th job.  That's right, I've worked in 40 different positions in almost as many different companies (some companies I went back to for one reason or another).  When I look at the list wholistically, I can see my evolution as a professional and how I personally grew as an individual, how my confidence increased a little here and there, how I took risks, and how I recognized (in some cases instantly) what would be good for me and what would not.

My whole life has been guided by my gut instinct of "yes, this will be good for me vs. no, this will be bad for me".  And the jobs I have held are no exception.  Sure, I stayed at some too long and at others not long enough.  But my gut told me it was time to move on and I always listened.  It wasn't always easy but I'm proud of my perseverance.

Granted, this list contains many summer jobs that were only intended to last a few days or weeks or months (Jobs #3, #6, #20-23, and #29).  But I include them because I learned something, no matter how small, at each job - whether it was how to treat coworkers or talk to a supervisor or address a client.  Sometimes, I was a great success (Job #34) and sometimes a pathetic failure (Job #28).  But if I learned anything, it's that I am resilient when it comes to accepting the situation, learning from mistakes, and moving on.

Sometimes the jobs I had were only the result of some glamorized idea of doing something.  For example, I wanted to try waiting tables.  My first foray into that (working at now-defunct The American Cafe in Tyson's Corner in 1988; Job #11) began and ended all in the same day.  I wasn't in a good "head place" in my life back then and I just couldn't concentrate or remember the 15 million things one has to remember when one is waiting tables. But deep down, I knew I could do it and 4 years later I tried it again at Chi-Chi's (Job #17) and would be successful.  And I was proud that I was able to tackle this thing I wanted to try, especially when I had failed at it once before.

Working in retail heavily punctuated my early work history.  And I can see the growth in responsibility over time. My first retail job was working in sales at Camelot Music (Job #2), the largest music retailer in its day.  Then there would be a few more sales staff jobs before I graduated to assistant management at a Finish Line (Job #24) and Gap (Jobs #25 and #26), then ultimately being a manager at Platypus (Job #30), Rock Creek (Job #31), then eventually back to Gap (Job #33), which was where my retail career also ended.

Retail management gets a bad rap in the business world.  Other professionals think retail management is too easy or that it's not a "real" job.  But retail management is hard work and long hours.  It's sacrificing evenings, weekends, and in some cases holidays.  It's essentially running a business:  Product Knowledge, Sales, Customer Service, Diversity & Inclusion, Personnel Management, Inventory Management, Shrinkage Management, OSHA, Operations, Merchandising.  It's gathering and analyzing information; analyzing and solving problems; making decisions and judgments; organizing and planning; using social skills; adaptability; working in teams; leading others; building consensus; self and career development; workplace health, safety and security; meeting client needs and expectations; initiating product and service improvements; sales procedures and techniques; and equipment and tools.  Basically, retail management is a crash course in business management; people with MBA's might know business jargon, but managers in retail understand how to make and increase the numbers.

And it was during my retail career that I learned where my passion really lay:  developing people.  Had I know human resources existed as a thing when I went to college, I would have majored in it.  But I fell into my career quite by accident, which is how most HR professionals start out.  HR was never my job, it was a part of my job.  But it typically was the part I enjoyed the most.  Once I started to focus on just HR as a career, I took a job as an HR Generalist (Job #35), then an HR Manager (Job #36), then an HR Director (Job #38).  And now my new job will be Global Director of Human Resources (Job #40).

Admittedly, it took me a long time to find out what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Problem was, I had been in the workforce for 25 years by the time I got it all figured out.  Better late than never, perhaps.  The good news is that now I know.  And I know that I made the right decision because I keep excelling and progressing in my roles and responsibility.  I've come a long way from selling burgers and fries at McDonald's (Job #1).  But all roads led to this new job.

And I deserve it.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Eleven Years A Chicagoan

Tomorrow, September 25th, marks my 11th year living in Chicago.  I moved to Chicago on September 25, 2005 - 5 weeks after having open heart surgery.  I was nervous (read:scared) and count it as one of the braver things I've ever done.

In 1995, I had moved to DC when I was 29 years old.  My whole life seemed to be ahead of me.  It was easy to take on an adventure, then.  I formally adopted my nickname as my everyday name because I thought people would think I was interesting and would want to know more about me.  I could "re-create" myself into someone who was more outgoing, more fun, even more adventurous.  That's easy to do when you are still in your Twenties.

But at 39 years old, I was far more apprehensive and unsure and didn't care for a gimmick that would make me interesting.  Mix in with that a rocky medical situation as well as no job prospects and I think anyone would be uneasy.  It took me just over two months to get a job, which is laughable today when I think about how I've since gone 5- and 6-times longer than that.  I was worried, then, that I might actually have to move back home as a result.  But it's amazing what we can accomplish when we just accept our situation and take the first steps forward.

Still, I found it difficult to adjust to living in a different place.  I no longer had my familiar group of friends around me; there was only Ashley and this new guy, Kevin.  Ashley and his brother were busy opening up Hamburger Mary's in Andersonville, and Kevin . . .  well, I wasn't sure what was happening with him.  I had just ended a relationship in DC before moving (perhaps a contributing factor to my moving in the first place) and was certain that I didn't want to start anything with anyone new, especially in a new city where I needed to make friends more than I needed a boyfriend.

In DC, I had an identity.  People knew me there, they knew my jeep, they knew who I dated, they knew where I worked, where I socialized, where I worked out.  DC is small; everyone knows everything about everyone.  That's the truth.  It's surprising that a town built on secrets really houses very few of them.

2005                               2016 
It took some time for me to find my footing in Chicago, but find it I eventually did.  Little did I know then that Kevin would eventually become The BF, and then my husband and that we'd buy a house and travel the world together.  In that 11 years of time, I've lived in 5 places here  - 2 with Ashley and 3 with Kevin - and had 5 jobs.  Ironically, the exact same number of residences and jobs that I had in the 10 years I lived in DC.

In hindsight, these past 11 years have been perfect.  I wouldn't change a thing.  I love looking back at my life to see how I've grown. And I do so again today.

Thank you, Chicago, for EVERYTHING!!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Random Vacation Photos

Between Facebook and this blog, I've posted many of the pics I took while we were on our recent European cruise to the Baltic capitals.  But here are a few random pics that don't really belong anywhere but might still be amusing to some folks:

This (left) was our ship, the Norwegian Star.  It was built in 2001 and is 965 feet long and 125 feet wide.

On this ship, we sailed with 2,348 of our closest friends (many of whom we tried to avoid) as well as 1,031 crew (many of whom we tried to meet).

It had a spa, casino, several pools, a theatre, 10 bars and lounges, and way too much food.

And this (right) is "5 O'Clock Somewhere", our favorite happy hour bar on the ship.  We went here just about every night around 5:30 to hear a young man named Nathan from sing and play guitar.
We also made friends with Loan, our Caribbean server.

It was also here that we met a lovely Irish couple who invited us to stay with them should we ever visit that country - which we most assuredly will.

Sometimes the outside was simply breathtaking.  It wasn't always easy or possible to take a photo of a sunset on the ocean.  But I tried every time and this (left) was the closest I could get to a successful shot.

There were lots of other cruise ships on this same track of sea with us.  And I'm sure there were wide-eyed folks on those ships taking pictures of us just like I did of them.

When we visit the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, we were required to put on booties over our shoes (right) so as not to track dirt or possibly scuff up the gorgeous parquet and marble floors.

I'm not typically a fan of parquet floors, per se, but these were pretty magnificent.  And most were original.  We had to turn the booties back in before we left.

When I posted pictures of St. Petersburg, a few folks commented that Russia didn't look like a poor country.  But we only post pretty pictures anyway, right?  Trust me, it wasn't all pretty.

St. Petersburg only had apartment buildings, no houses.  And depending on when they were built, you can really see the Soviet influence.  Here's an example we passed (left) while driving one day.  I personally wouldn't want to live there.

When you are too sick to leave the ship and you stay behind while your family goes off, there's not much to do except walk around and take pictures of the ship.

Here is the main pool deck (right).  There wasn't a lot going on because just about everyone else was visiting St. Petersburg.  And rightly so.  Still, I wanted to take a few pictures to remember what the ship looked like.

In order to get in and out of Stockholm, the captain told us that we were only allowed to travel the bay during the daylight.  This could be because the channel was so narrow, or because there were SO MANY tiny islands in the route to the harbor, or because the noise and lights of the boat could have disturbed the locals who lived on the waterway.  Or it could have been all three reasons.

But to get in and out, we needed a special pilot who would navigate the ship from port and then embark by climbing through a hatch and down a ladder to a small boat traveling alongside our ship (left).  It was surreal to watch this guy perform this dangerous stunt, which he probably does several times a day.  Really puts the dangers of Human Resources in perspective.

So this pretty much wraps it up.  I'm sure a random story or photo will appear in future posts, but I wanted to share these soon.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Moving From One Thing To Another

It's a tricky thing, moving from one thing to another.  Taking steps, growing.  Reaching.  Trying.  It feels good, to spread your wings or stretch your arms - to go for something you figured could be unattainable.  And then the incredible feeling of accomplishment you get when you reach it.  It feels good.

It feels good.  And it doesn't.

Moving from one thing to another means leaving people behind.  Not forgetting about them, just perhaps not seeing them as often.  We build families around us as we journey through life, moving from one thing to another.  And we don't, or most typically can't, always take those families with us.  So they stay as we move from one thing to another.  And it can be hurtful.  And sad.  And confusing for some.  And knowing you are the cause of that hurt . . . doesn't feel good.

Despite people's best intentions of wanting to be happy for you and wishing you the best in life, there is still hurt.  You can see it, feel it.  It's like a hug from a stranger.

Many times in my life, I've moved from one thing to another: new job, different apartment, changed cities, acquired boyfriends.  Each time, the future looked brighter for some reason.  Each time I was taking steps, growing, reaching, and trying to spread my wings - even if just a little bit.  Edging closer and closer the person I eventually want to be.  And people have been happy for me as I moved from one thing to another.  Some people.  Some people were not happy.  And I knew that I was the cause of that not happy.  And it didn't feel good.

So the question is, how do we juggle and then balance the good we feel along with the not good?  And how do we reassure the people who are not happy that moving from one thing to another is the right thing to do?  And how do we vanquish the not happy from our lives so that we can focus on just the happy... and the good?

The human experience is fraught with dichotomy.  Moving from one thing to another is a predominantly selfish act of balancing the good with the not good, the happy with the not happy, all in hopes that the attained goal rewards us with just good and happy.  The realist that I am knows that it doesn't always work out that way because some of the not good and not happy remains, and for some reason never goes away.

But the optimist in me (yes, there is one) knows that I need to keep taking these steps, growing, reaching, trying, because ultimately it's only MY journey.  And despite trying to reassure those people - the family that I can't take with me - that nothing will change, it will.  Moving from one thing to another is sad and scary and exciting for everyone, whether or not they, too, are moving from one thing to another, or not.

I am about to advance in my journey.  I stepped, grew, reached, and tried for something I thought could be unattainable.  And I accomplished it.  And the feeling is incredible.  I have no way of knowing if this is the right thing to do, but, again, it's all part of MY journey.  And, unfortunately, not all of the family I created where I am will be able to come along with me.  And that makes it not feel good.

But some of the family I created will be coming along to cheer, support, and root for me.  And that feels good.  It feels good.  And that's the part I am going to focus on as I move from one thing to another.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Favorite Part(s) Of My Baltic Vacation

Similar to the post I wrote last year when we returned from our European-Vacation-Slash-Delayed-Honeymoon, this is a post about what I liked about each city we recently visited on our 2,158.4 nautical-mile-cruise around the European capitals on the Baltic Sea.  And like last year, I preface it all by saying that my most favorite part about traveling anywhere is doing it with Kevin.  Fortunately for us, we travel well together.  And this time we had the added bonus of his parents, Pat and Dianne, joining us for the escapades.

Copenhagen, Denmark

I'll start off by saying that ALL of the cities we visited this time felt completely different than the ones we visited last year.  The standouts from last year's trip for me are Bruges and Ghent, both in Belgium.  Both were small, contained towns where little has changed in the last few hundred years.  But on this trip, all of these cities have been modernized and, to some degree, westernized as well.

Copenhagen was the first stop and the embarkation of our cruise.  We arrived on a Friday afternoon and the cruise began the next day, so we really only had a few hours to enjoy the city.  Once we dumped our luggage in our hotel (that had no A/C, I might add), we went out to walk the town.

The Promenade Pavilion
Inside Tivoli Gardens
The standout for me was Tivoli Gardens, which, somehow, I didn't even know existed. Opening in 1843, it is the 2nd oldest functioning amusement park in the world.  It is essentially the European Disneyland.  AND - I got in for free!  While standing in line to buy 4 tickets, a stranger approached me and said he could get one of us in for free on his pass.  And my family, completely disregarding my safety in a foreign country, said, "Great, see you inside!"  Once I got in, the stranger shook my hand and wished me a fun time, then walked away.  Odd, but economical.

What was also cool about Copenhagen is that it was the only city on our trip that we saw at night.  On future stops, the cruise ship sets a return-to-ship deadline of 4 or 5PM, so you don't get to see what places look like at night.  And frankly, that's when most of these old cities are at their most charming, in my opinion.  It's fun to walk around and see the lights.  Every place is a different place when the sun goes down.

A fun surprise occurred after we departed Copenhagen port on the ship.  The captain, who was a pretty chatty fella when you stick a loudspeaker in his hand, invited the guests to look off the port bow of the ship where, in the far distance, you could see the outline of an old castle.  The castle, Kronberg off the coast of Denmark, was the castle William Shakespeare immortalized as Elsinore in his tragedy play, Hamlet.  I mean, nothing really noteworthy actually happened here, but it will be cool to be able to visualize Elsinore the next time I see or read any part of Hamlet.

Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin Palace in Germany
There is really only one thing to see in Schwerin (pronounced Shver-EEN), and that's the Schwerin Palace or castle. The palace is a behemoth that rises from a tiny island in the middle of the city's main lake.  The castle is certainly impressive and parts of it date back to the 10th century.  The palace had gardens, a stone grotto, a throne room, paintings of long-dead ancestors, the whole shebang.  Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and super cute (she had spent a year living in Wisconsin on an exchange program so we chatted about Chicago).

After the palace tour, we walked through a little bit of the town, which was hosting its version of a Renaissance Fair.  It seemed much more authentic than the few we've visited here in the states with friends.  We mostly just took photos for "Ye Olde Neil".  There was this ONE entertaining thing that happened....

This stop on the cruise was mainly so folks could take a high speed train from the port in Rostock to Berlin.  We opted not to do that, since we were in Berlin last year.  So we took this day trip as part of an excursion with some other folks.  It was nice to drive through the country and see what lies between Berlin and the port.

Tallinn, Estonia

Since Tallinn was the first Baltic capital we visited, it was pretty much the first REAL stop on our trip since we bypassed Berlin.  And Tallinn did not disappoint.  After disembarking, Kevin led us all to Linnahall, a 5,000-seat relic of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.  Forgotten in an ugly/gorgeous kind of way, it was interesting to think about how impressive this must have been at one time.  The sad part was that we could no actually enter this monstrosity, but it was still cool to walk around.

After that, we relied on Rick Steves to guide us through the rest of our town tours.  This guy is priceless.  Seriously - buy his guidebooks before you go anywhere!  He led us down Pikk through the lower old town of Tallinn.  Tallinn, like most old European cities, was a walled city in the good ol' days.  Tallinn actually had 2 walls, that separated the upper town from the lower town and also served to double the town's defenses against attack and invasion.

Highlights of our walking tour were 1) the views, which were amazing.  Tallinn was smart enough to create viewpoint plazas on some of its highest streets.  So even on a rainy day, which was how we experienced Tallinn, the views were still amazing.  Foggy, but amazing.

And 2) having coffee atop one of the wall sections.  This was not part of Rick Steves' tour, but we were standing in front of a section of one of the walls that was probably about 40-45 feet high.  We we looked up, we could see people walking across the top.  So we climbed the most narrow set of winding stairs that exist in Europe and reached a coffee shop, the Kohvik Dannebrog Cafe, that was amazingly doing a nice business atop this wall.  And they had free wifi!

For me, this drove home the fact that sometimes you just have to go off-path and allow your curiosity to dictate the next steps you take, especially when visiting a (safe) foreign country.  This was how Kevin and I experienced Europe last year.  We certainly learned more about what we were seeing this time, but perhaps the best way to sightsee is a mixture of organized tour and just following your nose.

St. Petersburg, Russia

A few weeks later and I still cannot believe I was actually in Russia.  Despite having initial trouble getting into the country, St. Petersburg was everything I had always hoped it would be.  The City of the Tsars was a place I had been reading about for many years.  Similar to my interest in British Royalty, I've also had a great interest in the Tsars of Russia.  And like London, St. Petersburg was a place I never thought I would ever visit.

What surprised me the most about St. Petersburg was the colors of the buildings.  There is a rule or law (according to our tour guide, Anna), that because  this city only gets about 60 days of sunshine per year, certain buildings must be painted a pastel or Caribbean color such as light blue, pink and yellow.  Otherwise, gray would be the only color everyone would see due to lack of sunlight.  Makes total sense - but was still a surprise.

We had two days in St. Petersburg, so Day 1 was spent visiting Peterhof (above), the summer palace of Peter, The Great, and Catherine Palace (right), the summer palace of his wife, Catharine.  To say these places werre opulent would be an understatement.  Russians love gold leaf.  And they used it ad nauseam in their decorating.  Peter loved fountains; Catherine loved amber.  And both were on full display in their respective palaces.  We also got to visit a few Metro (subway stations).  Why?  Because Metro stations in St. Petersburg are amazing!  Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev built them double as underground bomb shelters during the Cold War.  So they are ornate and vividly decorated.

On Day 2, I stayed behind on the cruise ship because I wasn't feeling well.  Coming off of the summer I had, I didn't want to push myself and risk getting a sinus infection or even a cold.  So my family went on without me to visit Church on Spilled Blood, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and then did some shopping in downtown St. Petersburg.  If I learned anything on this day, it was that I would never want to cruise alone.  I got a lot of reading done, but mostly just napped and wandered around the ship.  It was kinda fun to sit on the balcony and see them return from their day trip, though.

Helsinki, Finland

The next day we left the bright colors of Russia for the earth tones of Helsinki.

Missing the 2nd day in Russia proved to be a good idea, as I'd seemed to abate my cold.  As much as I hated missing the place where the Tsars are buried, it was good to not push myself and then possibly miss Helsinki and Stockholm.  Plus I was able to finally finished the book I'd been reading for almost a year!

Again doing a walking tour, we left the ship early and walked through the town to start at the Market Square off of the Esplanade.  From there, we wound our way through the city, seeing such sites as Senat Square, the train station designed by Eliel Saarinen, and the Helsinki Music Centre Concert Hall.  But the two highlights in Helsinki for me, interestingly enough, were both churches:

The Chapel of Silence, or Kamppi Chapel, is located in the middle of a market square at the entrance
to a shopping center.  The chapel is intended to be a place where people can have a moment of silence and meet each other.  It offers the opportunity to calm down in what is arguably the busiest area of Finland.  There are no services conducted here; it's simply a place for quiet reflection and peace.  Outside, the chapel is imposing without being overbearing.  It's curved shape allows pedestrians to easily pass by it.  But inside, the oval shape creates a feeling of safety and embrace.  I'll admit, it was difficult to leave this sanctuary.

The second church as aptly named, Rock Church or Temppeliaukio Kirrko.  Outside, it resembled an old burial mound.  But inside, the circular church is essentially carved out of bare rock with a ceiling made out of copper wire.  The natural acoustics make this an excellent concert hall as well.  Water trickles down the rock walls and the place is about as serene as it can get.

Panorama inside Temppeliaukio Kirrko
We put the guidebook down for the walk back to the ship and just followed whatever interested us.  Helsinki, like Copenhagen, does a good job as mixing its old and new.  It seems as if both Helsinki and Copenhagen just modernized organically.  Tallinn had its obvious "old town" area separate from its growth.  But in Copenhagen and Helsinki, it all seemed to blend together - and quite nicely, too.

Stockholm, Sweden

Our last stop on this trip was Stockholm, birthplace of IKEA so I expected to love every piece of furniture I saw.  And once again, the colors of the building changed.  Where St. Petersburg was pastels and Hensinki was earth tones, Stockholm was deep rust and orange and dark yellow.  I'm betting all these places look amazing in the snow.  And perhaps that's the reason for the color variations.

Of all the cities we visited on this trip, I found Stockholm to be the most charming.  Narrow, cobblestone streets, twisting pathways, little market squares.  But the architecture in the modern section of town was equally interesting.  There was a definite separation between the old and the new, but I enjoyed being in both spaces.  Of the 6 cities, Stockholm was the one in which I could live, if I needed to make that choice.

We spent a good amount of time just walking down Vasterlanggatan, the touristy drag, and (left) Prastgatan ("Priest's Lane").  We popped our heads into a German church ("Tyska kyrkan") on this street which was originally named for the residences of three chaplains and a bell ringer built there in the 16th century.

We visited the royal palace and managed to witness the changing of the guard ceremony.

It was really cool to see the Nobel Museum where the annual dinner is held and the Prizes are awarded every year.  Its located on Stortorget, the oldest market square in Stockholm that includes the original water well for the town that's still connected to today's water conduit.

We walked back to the ship knowing this was pretty much the end of our cruise (still had one full day at sea).  This was an AMAZING vacation and truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  I doubt I will ever go back to any of these cities again - the thought of which was not lost on me.  So I really tried to absorb as much as I could.  There were moments when I would just stand and look around me, listening to the pulse of a foreign city, hearing people conversing in a different language, smelling the unfamiliar foods, watching people going about their everyday lives - no doubt inconvenienced by the myriad of tourists who descend upon their cities every day.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Russia Thinks I'm FBI

So, funny story...

Once we got off the cruise ship in St. Petersburg, Russia, we had to go through border control and have our passports approved and stamped for accepted temporary entry into the country, in lieu of having to purchase a visitor's visa.  The rule is that Russia will waive the visa as long as the visitor is escorted throughout the city by a Russian tour guide.  This would somehow seem shadier if we were in Moscow, but it ended up feeling just oddly curious given that we were in St. Petersburg, arguably the most Western-influenced city in that entire country.

It's always a little nerve-wracking to go through customs or border control, even when you are a law-abiding citizen.  You are essentially at the mercy of non-Americans in a non-American country who espouse non-American beliefs yet still possess the very American ideals of suspicion and conspiracy theories.

So we, Kevin, his parents and me, are standing in the border patrol line with out passports and proof of tour in-hand.  Kevin goes through first so he can connect with our Russian tour guide on the other side.  Then Kevin's dad went through, followed by his mom.  Each time, the border patrol officer would take the passport, look at it, look at the person, look at the passport, do something out of view like look at a computer or scan the photo or play Soduko, then eventually stamp the passport and approve the entry.  Each person took about 20 seconds or so. Then it was my turn.

Because I somehow invite weirdness into my life by some unseen flashing bulb on top of my head, I should have known this would be weird.  I approached the thick glass window and passed my documents through to the officer.  He looked at me, then at my passport, then at me, then down again.  After about 15 seconds, he leaned in and said (in his thick Russian accent) "I need to see your military ID."  I'm sure my usual, uncontrollable look of WTF flashed across my face.  "I don't have a military ID" was my response.  "No?" he said?  "No" I replied.  He looked down again and after a few seconds looked back up at me.

"Are you a cop?" he asked.  "No, I'm not a cop."  He looked down again, then gave me a sly look.  "Teacher?"  "No, I'm not a teacher."  His expression never changed; he remained emotionless.  There was no clue that he was just having fun with me or if he was dead serious.  But I erred on the side of believing he was dead serious.  Because at this point, he got up out of his chair, opened his door and yelled for someone to come assist him (which I can only assume is what happened since it was yelled in Russian and someone showed up about 30 seconds later).  It was also at this point that I turned to look at my family who were standing about 30 feet away, basically in another country, looking at me inquisitively.  "They think I'm a cop" was all I could mouth to them.

And I got the sudden rush of thinking, "holy shit they are going to escort me to a small white room with fluorescent lighting and make me admit that I really AM a cop... or a soldier... or an English teacher (?).

Office Number 2 arrived and the two officers began conversing in Russian.  Admittedly, I am still a little unnerved.  Again, I'm in a foreign country at the mercy of border patrol.  If they decide I'm not telling them the truth, they can just take me away.  No questions asked.  And no one could do anything about it.  So I tried to stay calm without looking like I was actually hiding something.  After a minute or so, Officer Number 2, a young blonde guy, came out of the office and in a more friendly tone asked me if I worked for the police.  I told him I didn't.

"What is your job?" he asked, also in a thick Russian accent.

When I responded that I work in non-profit, I was met with blank stares.  So I altered it to say I worked in a charity.  I quickly assumed that telling them I work in Human Resources would be a completely baffling statement so I hoped the word "charity" would translate easier.

The two officers talked again.  I wish I knew what they were saying but Officer Number 1 seemed to be incredulous.  After more talking, Officer Number 2 simply asked me, "Do you work for the FBI?"  At this point, I couldn't contain myself and I simply laughed out loud.  Office Number 2 laughed as well.  Officer Number 1, notsomuch.  "No, I don't work for the FBI."  I REALLY wanted to ask them why they were asking me or what is it about me that makes them think I am with some form of law enforcement (or perhaps teach law enforcement?).  But I assessed that this was neither the place nor time to try to make friends, so I basically prayed that they believed me and hoped for the best.

After a little more discussion, I assume Officer Number 2 approved me and Officer Number 1 reluctantly stamped my passport and allowed me to enter Russia.  I met my family and gave them the details.  I guess I can feel comforted by the fact that I look like I can take care of myself.  And that I am, apparently, the Russian ideal for what looks like law enforcement in that country.  If things start to go south for me job-wise again, I could probably get a gig in St. Petersburg.

Or - and I flatter myself here - perhaps I bore too much of a resemblance to Sean Connery in one of my favorite movies, "The Hunt for Red October", where he plays a Russian who defects to the United States and takes the USSR's prize submarine with him.  Who knows?

But if you are ever in St. Petersburg and you are stopped by a police officer, it's not me.  Or is it?

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

13 Countries in 1 Year

I have lots of stories to share about our recent cruise visiting the Baltic capitals of Europe.  I still can't get over the fact that I was actually in Russia.  IN RUSSIA.  It's going to take some time for that to sink in completely.

On one of our last nights on the trip, Kevin asked me how many countries I (and by some extent, he as well) have been in over the past year.  And the number is impressive when I consider that for the first 49 years of my life, I'd only been in the US, Canada, and Mexico - which is still two more countries than most Americans ever visit.  But over the last 11 months, I've added 13 countries to that original list of 3:

  1. Germany
  2. Czech Republic
  3. Austria
  4. Luxembourg
  5. Brussels
  6. France
  7. England
  8. Ireland
  9. Denmark
  10. Estonia
  11. Russia
  12. Finland
  13. Sweden

So for someone whose first overseas trip was less than a year ago, this list is pretty impressive.  And by my side through is all has been my favorite traveling partner who continues to push me a little further than I think I can go because he knows I can.  And to that I say,

"Я счастливый человек"

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Happy 55th Anniversary, Mom and Dad!

As I have done several times on this blog, including last year and 10 years ago on their 45th, I want to wish my parents a happy wedding anniversary.  This year marks 55 years of marriage for them, having tied the knot on August 26, 1961.

It hasn't always been smooth, but it's been full of love and dedication.  They've set the bar extremely high for the rest of us to follow.  This is not the way they wanted to spend these years together, but at least they are together - and thankfully so.

They make me proud every day of my life.

I can't imagine raising just one child, let alone the small army my parents brought into the world and guided to adulthood.  As well, I can't fathom the amount of sacrifice that went along with it.  My parents gave up more than I will ever understand in order to have a family, put us through school, clothe and feed us, and instill in us a set of decent morals and values.  The man I am today is owed in a very large part to the child they raised.

I could gush about them for days, so I'll simply say to them that I love you both so much.  And I can't wait to see you in a few weeks!  Congratulations to you!

Friday, August 19, 2016

And So It GOES

The long, national nightmare is over!  I finally had my application accepted by US. Customs and Border Patrol ("USCBP"),

Just to bring you up to speed on this issue with the Global Online Enrollment System, or GOES:  We left our story back in June after I had submitted my initial application in April of this year and anticipated getting approved within the 4-6 week timeframe the USCBP promises on their website.  Six weeks came and nothing, so I called Rep #1 who said he would send my application again.  Then it was 8 weeks and Rep #2 told me I shouldn't have called in at all, but he would send my application through again.

So here is where we pick back up.

Essentially, nothing happened after the conversation with Rep #2, so at the 11 week mark, I called USCBP again.  Remember, calling this agency is no easy feat; it takes LOTS of patience and an excellent cell phone plan.  The number will not connect right away, if it does at all, and it's typical to be the 16th caller in the queue.  The queue moves slowly.  V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y.  This time, it actually took me 2 days of trying to finally reach Rep #3.

I must say, I was amazingly calm during this discussion.  You see, I have a tendency to be a hot head when things don't go the way they are supposed to.  But I remained uncharacteristically cooperative and even-tempered while I brought Rep #3 up to speed on the situation.

His response was simple: "Your application is lost in fiber optics."  Um... what does THAT mean, exactly, or even figuratively?  He then proceeded to tell me that too many people were applying for and taking part in this service.  And then he started giving me a history lesson about the program.

This is where the old me started to return.  I said, "Ok, thanks, but let me stop you right there because I don't care.  I don't care about this history of this program.  Really, I don't care.  What I DO care about is the fact that you - meaning USCBP - offered a product for a fee.  I paid the fee.  You promise on your website that I would have this product for which I paid within 4-6 weeks.  Next week, it will be 12 weeks and I still don't have it.  Plus, you're telling me that you don't know where my application is or if it will even ever get processed.  And on top of that, you tell me I can't reapply.  Sir, if this was ANY other business in the world, I could sue you.  But lucky for you and me, I guess, I can't.  So you're telling me I'm just out of luck?"  His response: "That's about it."

I asked if he could look up my application using the membership number on my application.  He said he couldn't.  I asked if he could look up my application using my assigned PASS ID number.  He said he couldn't.  I asked him what those numbers were for if not to help keep track of the application.  He said he didn't know.

This is your government dollars at work.

To end the conversation, I said, "well, I guess I can try asking my congressman to help me" and he encouraged it.  "Yeah, go ahead, I talk to congressmen offices all the time.  But it won't do any good."  And that was all I needed to hear.

I reached out to Senator Dick Durbin's office seeking help.  Then I reached out to Rep. Mike Quigley, my state congressman.  Then I reached out to NBC5 Responds, the local consumer investigation team.  I explained my situation in great detail to all of them and begged for help.  I heard back from all of them within a day, letting me know that they received my request and were looking into it.  As well, they also gave me the name and contact information of the person at their respective organizations who would be working on it.

TWO DAYS LATER, I received notification that my application for Global Entry had been accepted.  It was a Christmas miracle in July.  And the thing is, I don't know how it happened.  It could have been the rep from Senator Durbin's office, or the rep in Rep. Quigley's office, or someone from the NBC5 news team.  Or it could even have been Rep #3 who realized the injustice and really looked for my application (on second thought...).  Or perhaps my application was simply next in line.  I have no idea.  But the good news was that it had been processed albeit in twice the amount of time they said it would.  So that was Step 1.

Step 2 was getting a in-person interview in order to complete the process.  So I went back online to find an appointment.  First, I had to find a location.  Kevin had his interview at O'Hare Airport, but when I looked for available appointments there, the earliest available was in October.  So I looked at other location where I could possibly be over the next month and only one place had availability:  Port Clinton, OH had an appointment for August 19th at 8:30 AM.  So I took it.

The night before, I drove 5.5 hours to Port Clinton and spent the night in a hotel.  I was up early the next morning and was in the USCBP office at 8:15 AM.  The interview took 5 minutes.  Not kidding.  The office fingerprinted me and told me that I was essentially wasting my time going through all this because there were now "too many people in the program.  Just get in the shortest line" was his advice.  Lovely.  But as it is most of the time with me, it's the principle of the thing.

Step 3, I learned during Step 2, is now to wait for an email that tells me the ID number I've been assigned is valid and ready to be used for travel.  Who knows exactly when that email will come, if ever at all.?  This has been one big continuous guessing game.  But for the most part, I am finally a member of the US Trusted Travel Program and my domestic security checks and international customs checks will hopefully be easier and faster...someday.  We'll see.  We put it all to the test on August 25th when we fly to Copenhagen, Denmark for a 10-day cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line, stopping at all the European capitals on the Baltic Sea.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Bad Apple

About a year ago, my iPod nano died.  Just up and died. One day I plugged it in to charge it and... nothing.  I was sad.  This was the device I bought back in 2006 after I had accidentally drop-kicked my original iPod while running.  I honestly can't be too upset, I guess, because 9 years is actually a pretty good life for any piece of technology.

So up 'til now, I've managed to live without music-on-the-go. However, now with all the driving I do and my eventual return to the gym following my summer-of-hell, it's time to break down and buy a new one.  So yesterday after breakfast downtown with visiting friends, Kevin and I stopped at the Apple Store and I bought a shiny new blue 16GB nano for $149.99.

At first, we expected the nano to be a little cheaper - at least under $100 by now.  The original iPod was created in 2001 and as technology changed and demand grew, the nano was born 4 years later in 2005.  At the time, the 2GB and 4GB nanos sold for $199 and $249 respectively.  So actually the nano has gotten cheaper over the years while offering more storage space.  Less for more: something that doesn't happen too often in the retail industry.

Came home and unpacked me new little blue gem.  The instructions were simple: Just plug it into your computer and the existing iTunes library would find it and sync everything.


At first things started to move smoothly and I thought, whew!  And then an error code popped up.  Good ol' error code -69 which apparently relates to syncing errors.  It appears that just about every song I didn't purchase directly through iTunes was now somehow corrupted.  I went online and looked for ways around this code.  There were lots of suggestions on how to fix the problem from so-called techies, but nothing I tried worked.  I went on YouTube to find a tutorial to walk me through the process, but the instructions I found didn't work.

And why didn't all these suggestions work, you may ask?  Because after I accepted that the error code was valid, Apple went to the trouble of automatically deleting ALL of those songs from my iTunes library.  Just up and deleted them.  Wasn't that nice?  So now the 1200+ songs that USED to be in my iTunes library now amounts to exactly 488 songs, which indirectly means that Apple stole about 800 songs from me.  And if we guess that each one of those cost about $1.29 (which I think is the going rate now for songs through iTunes), it comes to about $1,032.  Add that to the $149.99 I paid for the nano and Apple ended up charging me $1,181.99 for my new little blue gem.

The bright side in this (if there is one) is that it's been a year since I've heard the songs in my iTunes library so I can't actually recall off-hand the names of the songs I no longer have.  I expect I'll be reminded of them along the way, and then I'll just have to decide if I want to download them again.  Truth is, most of the music I have/had is a little stale.  And I was going to edit the songs after they uploaded into my new device.  But that should have been MY decision and not Apple's.

Color me blue.  Just like my iPod.

Monday, August 08, 2016

My Lovely Sinus Surgery Synopsis

What I THOUGHT I was going to go through and what most people get when you mention "sinus surgery" was what's known as Balloon Sinus Dilation, a minimally invasive office procedure performed under local anesthesia where the doctor inflates small balloons into your sinus pathways to restore drainage, which are then extracted a few days later.  That's not what I got.

I was told by friends who said they had gone through sinus surgery that it was relatively pain-free and that the most jarring part was seeing the packing they are able to pull out of your nose following.  That's not what I got.

I expected this to be simple and instantaneously relieving.  That's not what I got.

So I needed clarification.  I sent an email through the Northwestern portal to the ENT to ask for a consultation because I felt I was owed a more full explanation of what kind of surgery I had and what was found. I admitted that this information may have been shared with me previously, but that I was only now in the proper state in which to hear it.  Within 2 minutes of sending the message, the doctor called me on the phone.

In short, I had pansinusitis.  There are a total of 8 sinus cavities in the face, 4 on each side.  All 4 on my right side were completely clear.  All 4 on my left were completely clogged.  Since sinuses tend to fill and discharge on both sides simultaneously, the doctors knew there was a bigger problem since there was such an imbalance in mine.  In all 4 sinus cavities on the left side, there was infection and pus.

Here's the official synopsis:
  1. Nasal/sinus endoscopy, surgical; with ethmoidectomy, total
  2. Nasal/sinus endoscopy; with maxillary antrostomy
  3. Nasal/sinus endoscopy,with maxillary antrostomy; with removal of tissue from maxillary sinus
  4. Nasal/sinus endoscopy, surgical with frontal sinus exploration, with removal of tissue
  5. Nasal/sinus endoscopy, surgical with sphenoidotomy; with removal of tissue
All this mean they cleaned out the Maxillary cavity, which is the one in the cheek area, as well as the Ethmoid cavity, which is the one just above the eye, close to the nose (the one that had swollen and caused me to go to the hospital).  The Frontal cavity, the one above the eye on the forehead, was also filled, however the plan was to allow that one to drain on its own, now that the two cavities below it were empty.  Also, based on my anatomy, the drainage tube from the Frontal down through my nose is not a straight shot, as it is for 99% of the population.  My tube has kind of a zig-zag, which causes for slower drainage.  To fix this, the doctor would need to drill up into that cavity, which he only wants to do if absolutely necessary.  It still might have to happen, but with luck, it will eventually drain on its own over time.  By the way, remember that all of this was done through my left nostril which is pretty amazing when you see where each of these sinus cavities is located.

The really big issue was the last cavity, the Sphenoid, which is located deeper in the skull behind the eye.  While the infections and blockages in the other three cavities were recent (the infection contracted back in May) the infection in the Sphenoid had been many years in the making.  This problem did not initially make itself known on the original CT scan and was only discovered during surgery.  The doctor cleaned out mold and fungus balls that had been building for years.  Because mold does not need chlorophyll to survive, it's apparently easy to grow inside your body as it feeds off of other organisms.  So from ALL of the sinus infections that I have had over the last several years, this mold and fungus had been growing exponentially.  Symptoms would be alleviated due to antibiotics, but the infection itself never really left and would lay dormant until slightly triggered by something like a ride in an airplane when my sinuses would work to balance the pressure in my head.  This is why I would almost always get a sinus infection after a flight.

And this is also why the doctor wondered why I wasn't in more pain that he expected.

Hearing all this actually made me feel better, in a way, because I was wondering why I was having such a difficult time dealing with and healing from what many of my friends considered a simple procedure.  I felt justified somehow, and ironically relieved knowing that this was not as simple as I was initially told and expected.

So where are we now, 18 days following surgery and 10 days after the follow up:  Overall I feel pretty good.  An occasional headache will pop in, mostly on the side or top of my head.  They're not too intense anymore and I no longer feel the need to take Aleve or Tylenol to combat them.  I am still performing sinus rinses twice a day and will continue until my antibiotic (now on Doxycycline) runs out in another 5 days or so, then I'll just do once a day I guess forever.  My energy is coming back, as is the weight I lost over the course of the ordeal.  I get a stuffy nose on the left side and wake up about 4 hours after I go to bed every night.  I get up and walk around to alleviate the pressure and then eventually go back to bed.  We're going to put a humidifier in the bedroom to see if that helps at all.

I have another follow-up with the doctor sometime in September, but everything is pointing to a successful albeit slow recovery.  We are going on another European trip the end of August and if working at Make-A-Wish taught me anything, it's that one needs to have a goal in order to heal.  So that's what I am shooting for.  And I hope I make it - if even by a nose.

Friday, August 05, 2016

My Lovely Sinus Surgery Follow Up

Friday, July 29th finally came.  It's a day that I spent an inordinate amount of time welcoming, dreading, and eventually hating.  And here's why.

It had been 8 days since my sinus surgery.  And to be honest, I was feeling progressively worse each day.  I had been told by the doctor that I would feel immediate relief following surgery, but that didn't seem to be the case.  If anything, the headaches increased and I wasn't eating much due to overall nausea of having "stuff" dripping out of my nose and/or down the back of my throat constantly.  If I was supposed to be feeling better, no one informed my sinuses about it.  This had not been the smooth, easy, or immediate recovery I was led to expect.

My original follow-up appointment was scheduled for 4:00 PM, but I begged for an earlier time because I wanted to put an end to the pain as quickly as possible.  So the doctor's office thankfully moved my appointment to 8:30 AM on the same day.
Throughout the previous week, I learned that I am in no way shape or form prepared if I were to contract any form of long-term illness.  Neither emotionally nor mentally will I be able to handle myself and remain positive if I were to get cancer or any life threatening medical condition.  Occasionally you hear stories about people who've lost the fight to cancer and people will say things like "I never heard him complain" or "she always remained so positive despite how she must have felt".  I'm here to admit that I will NOT be one of those people.  My apologies right now to Kevin, my close friends and family, but I will forever be amazed by people who have and will face down any form of life-threatening illness and remain positive and uncomplaining about it.  When I go, I'm going to take everyone with me
Kevin drove me to Northwestern for my appointment.  We parked in the parking garage and as we were walking through the breezeway into the building, I noticed we were following a family of 4:  a mom and dad and 2 boys under the age of 10.  All of them were wearing tee shirts about fighting brain tumors.  And I suddenly hated myself.  Here I was, a grown man with a little sinus problem turning it into a bigger deal than it needed to be, and then here was this family with (I suspect) a child who may have a brain tumor.  I didn't say anything to Kevin about it for a few days (he had seen it too) but it weighed very heavily on me for the rest of the day.  I felt foolish.  I still hurt like crazy, but felt almost ridiculous for allowing this to cripple me like it had.  This is not to negate the fact that I was in pain, but it did help me put it into context.  And I felt ashamed.

We got to the doctor's office and they sat me in an exam chair and readied me for the eventual vacuuming process.  The assistant first sprayed a saline moistener up my nose, followed by a numbing solution.  After sitting for a few more minutes, the doctor came in to start.  He started talking about my surgery and, to be honest, I was only half paying attention until I heard him say, "It's surprising that you weren't in more pain."  Kevin responded with, "You didn't live with him."  And the doctor said, "No, I mean even when you came in for the initial visit, you didn't seem like you were in that much pain and you should have been."  Trust me, I was.  Then, I was reassured again by the doctor, that I should feel instantly better when this process finished.

He fired up the machinery and started the procedure. I leaned back in the chair and the doctor inserted the long, thin vacuum tube into my nose and within a few seconds it felt as though he was drilling into my skull.  Despite his using what I was told was a vacuum, it felt more like a scraping.  All I could do was grab my legs in pain, writhe in agony and beg for him to stop.  Which he did.

Let me say here and now that this was the most painful process I have ever gone through in my life.  And remember, I've suffered heart attacks and endured open-heart surgery, all of which in retrospect were a cake-walk compared to what I was about to experience.  I even went back and read my journals and blog posts concerning my heart surgery and nothing in them suggested that the pain I experienced then was overwhelming or beyond what one would naturally expect after going through such events.

I sat up in the chair and was engulfed by a wave of emotion unlike anything I can ever remember.  I quickly became hysterical and hyperventilated.  The doctor admitted right then that they sometimes give Valium to people before this procedure and that maybe they should have offered it to me.  between gasps of breath, I managed to respond, "Yes, maybe you should have."  He left the room to allow me time to calm down, but it took several minutes for me to regain my composure.  I could not stop crying and found it difficult to get my breathing regulated.  It felt like such a violation - a complete assault and attack on me.  Had Kevin not been with me, holding my hand and comforting me, it would have been an even more difficult process.

Kevin told me that it was no wonder I was experiencing such an emotional release.  I had been dealing with this for the last few months and was physically and emotionally exhausted at this point.  And I agree that certainly played a part.  Perhaps too, so did the idea of the child with the brain tumor play a part as well.  But along with those ideas was the excruciating pain of having something that felt like - again, drilling - happening, especially to my face, especially inside my head.  Your face and head are who you are.  It could be why many people, myself included, fear dentists.  The idea of something coming at my face and head - well, it's a natural instinct to duck, get out of the way, or otherwise protect your face and head from approaching objects.

And the doctor was only half done.

I knew I had to muster the courage to allow him to come back in and continue doing what created my anxiety and meltdown.  Throughout my life, when faced with adversity, I have made it a practice to dig in my heels and accept my situation with an inner cheer-leading monologue that goes something like, "Okay, here we are.  This has to happen.  Accept it and move on.  This is temporary."  And then I get through it.  But it took A LOT for me to cheer myself through this procedure.  Again, I credit Kevin being in the same room with me.  So after about 15 minutes of me struggling to calm down and regain my composure, the doctor came in for Round 2.

Again, I sat back in the chair and the vacuum was inserted into my nose.  Instantly, the pain came right back and I fought to stay in control.  The doctor commented that I wasn't squirming as much this time, but it felt no less of an assault.  Again, I dug my fingers into my legs and again I pulled at the cuffs of my shorts.  And after about a minute, which seemed like an hour, it was over.  And again, I was flooded with emotion.

The doctor said a few more things, none of which I remember.  Kevin was diplomatic and I'm sure handled the conversation.  I was invited to remain however long I needed to before leaving, which was about another 5 minutes or so.  On the way out of the room, I grabbed a tissue box, tucked it under my arm, and told Kevin, "I paid for these" and out we walked to go home.

The rest of that day is mostly lost to my memory, either from blocking it out or by sleeping it off.  I almost never cry.  Almost.  I'm just not emotional in that way. This was the most sad and negative emotion I had spent in one day, perhaps in my whole life.  I spent the rest of the day intermittently bursting into tears for no reason.  And I'm not at all surprised if my mind is choosing to forget it.

I continued to get better through the rest of that weekend.  I returned to work on Monday and despite not yet finding the best position in which to sleep, continued to feel better each day.  Headaches and spontaneous drainage aside, every day showed more improvement.  But one thing was still clear - I was lacking knowledge of what I had just gone through.  I was never given (or don't remember getting) an explanation as to why I woke up from surgery 2.5 hours beyond what I was told.  I had no idea what surgery had actually been performed.  I was told twice by the same doctor that I would instantly feel relief following as many procedures to no avail.  I was in the dark.  So on that same Monday, I reached out to the doctor for a consultation to find out just what the hell had happened.

And here's what he said...