Thursday, December 29, 2016

Annus Horribilus

And it goes like it goes and the river flows
And time it rolls right on
And maybe what's good gets a little bit better
And maybe what's bad gets gone

This is how I am summing up 2016.  This is the chorus of "It Goes Like It Goes", the slightly eerie Oscar-winning theme song to Norma Rae.  Because if 2016 taught me anything, it's to continue to expect disappointment while constantly hoping for better. 

No doubt, 2016 will go down as one of the worst years at least in my lifetime.  Not before in my 50 years on Earth has a 365-day period produced such challenging and disappointing loss.  I've never been so glad to see a year come to an end.  If the last 8 years has taught me anything, it's that there is always hope.  And I look to 2017 to provide and fulfill that hope to a reasonable degree.

This year started off with such promise.  We celebrated New Year's Eve in NYC with our friend, Tim - a person who embodies hope and wonder.  We saw a few Broadway shows and I reconnected with Kathy, a dear college friend and former housemate.  I vowed then to reconnect with all my lost college mates, but I didn't follow through.  And I think that pretty much sums up 2016 - full of promises that were not fulfilled, both individually and collectively.

2016 could have been one of the greatest years in our country's history.  But instead, it showed us and the world how backward we still are as a country while we laid out plans to not only stop social growth, but to roll it back by decades.  Again, I'll look to 2017 to hopefully prove that wrong.

Since January 1, 2016, I gained and lost 2 jobs, and my current one is on shaky ground thanks to the policies of the incoming presidential administration.

I fought (and continue to fight) a long health struggle.  Nothing major like dealing with heart surgery or fighting back from a stroke or dealing with cancer.  Thank God.  Most of my year was fighting something as mundane as a sinus infection that simply would not go away.  For the last 7 months of the year, it's been headaches, malaise, horrific odors, and the constant battle between stuffy or runny nose.

I missed a few planned vacations with my husband because I was too sick to travel.  My entire summer was spent at home, save for forcing myself to attend a cookout now and then so that Kevin wasn't doing everything without me.

It was another year of my Dad slowly progressing into his own world due to dimentia.  Another year of him living in the nursing home and Mom visiting him two times a day every day.  Another year of their lives stagnating, living apart, and feeling helpless and hopeless.  Again, I call on 2017 to provide clarity.

2016 took many wonderful people from us.  On a personal note, the loss of Judy, my mother's best friend, continues to resonate with so many people.  My posting about her ended up being the 3rd most read post of my entire blog, following the two posts about Carol Burnett.  And rightly so.  Judy was an amazing woman full of love.  Her absence made this past Christmas that much more bleak.

There were certainly rays of sunshine during this year: the marriages of family and friends help lighten the levity of the rest of the year, doing their parts in keeping hope alive; our trip to the Baltic Sea and the wonders that brought; seeing family when we could and friends as often as possible.  There were certainly simple joys throughout the year.  And certainly another year of life is enough to be grateful for.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Sound of Metaphor

Last night, we watched The Sound of Music on TV.  Like most Americans, I've seen this musical a hundred times.  It was the first movie my parents took us to.  I must have been 5 or 6, but I remember sitting in The Palace Theater on Main Street and watching this movie, and being so taken by it that my parents bought me the soundtrack album.  The cover folded out with colored pictures and a complete write-up of the show.  My boyhood crush on Julie Andrews was in full-swing.

Watching the movie last night, I couldn't help but be struck by the fact that the characters are a metaphor for our times. So who are YOU in this movie? 
Are you Maria who sets out to accomplish an impossible task and succeeds despite experiencing some failure? 
Are you Captain Von Trapp who stands up for his convictions no matter the consequences? 
Are you the nuns who sacrifice their safety for what is right? 
Are you Baroness Elsa Schraeder who initially fights for what she wants but eventually, and somewhat easily, concedes defeat and accepts the status quo?
Are you Leisl who wants more from life and is struggling to move forward despite being restricted and caught between dueling sides? 
Are you Rolf, easily swayed and intoxicated by power from a leader who offers empty promises but taps into your need for self-importance?  And who is gullible enough to join a militant faction while telling his near-age mate that she's being naive? 
Are you the Von Trapp children who are disinterested with social conformity? 
Are you Hans Zeller loyal to the party no matter what ugly turn it takes?
Movies, specifically musicals, are meant to transport us someplace else, to temporarily forget our problems and live in a world of magic, dancing, singing, and love.  But I couldn't help but feel that at least this time, The Sound of Music was too eerily current.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Granny's Dishes

When I was a boy, I spent many weekends with my Granny at her house, which was mostly within sight of my parents' house one street over.  I ate many meals with her and I always loved her dishes.  They were the only thing I actually would have loved to have when she passed away in 1987, but they went to my uncle who had been living with her at the time.  He eventually moved away, got married, then divorced, became infirm, and then passed away himself a few years ago.  Where Granny's set of dishes eventually went is anyone's guess.

My recent acquisition: 
Kenro Holiday Collection
Back then, Granny bought her dishes a few at a time from a traveling salesman who would come to the house on a regular basis.  I don't know how she bought them (all plates first or all one color, etc), but I know it was in pieces - not all at once like we do today.  That's how she bought a lot of things.  I remember as a kid watching her talk to visiting salesmen who were selling just about anything.  That's how things were done back then.  With 9 kids, it wasn't like she could just go shopping, and there weren't many stores in her very rural neck of the woods.

So resigning to never actually owning her set, I decided to just buy a set for myself.  All I knew from my own mother was that they were melamine dishes from a company called Melmac.  So I set out to find them.  And I learned that Mother was half right.  The company that made the melamine dishes was actually named Kenro, one of the great melamine manufacturers that outlived most. One may argue it was their timing or their keen ways of marketing and management that sustained them during economic change.  

Kenro was named for it's owners and inventors, Kenneth Welch (president) and Roger Sacia (vice president).  Their first plant, in Freedonia  Wisconsin at 200 Industrial Drive (established in 1953), turned out 24 hours worth of plastic products, and 2 Million dollars in annual sales by 1958.  The company was so overwhelmed, a second location in Galesville, WI was in swing by the end of 1958, set to open in February 1959.  By 1959 a lot of earlier plastics companies were on their way out due to rising production costs and a general lack of love for melamine by consumers. Kenro's successful lines were Holiday by Kenro, Debonaire Melmac, and various kitchen plastics.  Granny's dishes were the speckled Holiday by Kenro line, specifically red, turquoise, yellow, and white.

Kenneth and Roger decided to patent their technique for METHOD AND COMPOSITION FOR THE PRODUCTION OF SPECKLED PLASTIC WARE on April 6, 1954  This patent would technically prove them being "first to patent the speckled ware" although they weren't exactly first to invent it.  The diagram at right is the patent for the set's sugar bowl, considered futuristic in its day.

Identifying Kenro items is easy, since most items are clearly marked on the bottom.  What may be confusing is dating. Some will list patent numbers on them, and some will say patent pending. The patent pending is obviously older and scarcer because the company had applied for a patent, which wasn't granted for the items before production began.  Later items show the original patent which does not necessarily mean they were produced on that date of the patent, but is simply referring to their original patent. You will see script and print backstamps for Kenro.

So now, after several years of scouring Etsy, eBay, and just about every vintage retail shop in every city we've visited the last few years, not to mention the numerous times I made a bid on eBay only to lose out at the last minute, I was FINALLY able to purchase a large set of Kenro Holiday dishes for my very own.  They arrived earlier this week and are instantly among my personal treasures.  They aren't Granny's, but they remind me of her especially today, December 14th, on what would be her 107th birthday.

Still not completely sure if these will be every-day dishes, used for special occasions, or never used at all.  But buying something I may never use isn't like me. I do plan on adding to the collection - not insanely, just a piece here and there as I find it.  Kenro Holiday dinnerware is a lot like melted plastic popcorn: so much of it was made that it's hard to know what all is out there and available.  And like those window decorations, I'll buy what I like when I see it.

But for now, I'm just going to sit at the dining room table and enjoy the view.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Years Of Dental Pain

T'was three weeks before Christmas and all through my mouth
Was a mess of great doing; my teeth work had gone south.

Oh screw it, here's what's going on.

I'm sure no one can quickly forget that my 2016 was dominated by one story.  The year will no doubt be remembered as "The Year of the Sinuses".  On my last visit to my ENT, he told me that the root of my problem (pun intended) was a tooth root that had broken off in my gum and punctured my sinuses, allowing bacteria from my mouth to get into them and cause recurrent infections.  But of course it did.  So now a trip to the dentist was in order if not downright necessary.

I'm not proud to admit that my last dentist appointment was in July 2005.  Problems with my teeth have been brewing for many years and I've just not done anything about it.  I guess I figured that there was no real hope of saving my teeth, so I just planned on waiting it out until I would need a mouth full of implants, partials or full-on dentures.  My siblings all have great teeth, but no amount of  dental hygiene was going to prevent mine from deteriorating.  And I figured that as long as the front ones still looked good, I could buy time.

I don't know why, but there is a lot of emotion centered around my face.  When I went to pieces on my first follow up appointment with my ENT, I remember telling Kevin that I would have a similar reaction going to a dentist.  I don't know why this is.  I don't recall having a bad experience with a dentist per se.  Perhaps some of it is the fact that over the years, I've quietly dealt with some severe pain in my mouth as teeth broke off, nerves became exposed, and gums bled.  And also, perhaps some of it - or most of it - is just plain embarrassment.  I don't seem to have this same problem when my eyes are examined; there's just something about my nose and mouth.

Back in July 2005, though, I took steps to fix everything.  I scoured DC for a dentist whom I would be able to trust and would work with me to fix my issues.  I remember the dentist asking me what my greatest fear was.  I said, "Having to leave this office without teeth in my mouth".  He said, "What if I promised you that would never happen?"  And I felt better.  So we made appointments to get things done.  My goal was to have it all complete before I moved to Chicago in September.  And then I had a heart attack, which nixed everything.

But now it's time to take care of it.  Indeed my health depends on it.  So I did about a week's worth of research and found a dental practice.  I met with the dentist and I trust him - for the most part.  I shared my fears and emotional distress and we talked through it.  I go in for a cleaning this week, but the real work will start in January when my dental insurance renews.  Not surprisingly, I need a lot of work done.  But the goal is to save as much as possible and then deciding if I want to do anything cosmetic.

Here's hoping 2017 doesn't become "The Year of the Teeth".

Friday, December 02, 2016

Burning The Flag

The American flag is one of the many symbols America uses to identify itself. It's steeped in tradition and even has it's own little fairy tale of a story about its origins. Americans love the story of Betsy Ross’s making the nation’s first official flag. For 150 years now, the tale of the plucky, practical Philadelphia seamstress has occupied a comfortable niche in the country’s patriotic pantheon alongside the stories of Paul Revere, the Minutemen, and Valley Forge.
Ross is so beloved and so deeply embedded in the nation’s memory that somehow it seems unpatriotic, if not vaguely treasonous, to cast doubt on her story. The truth, however, is that nobody can prove that Betsy Ross had anything to do with the first official Stars and Stripes.  There's truly no good historical evidence that she had anything to do with its creation, but we like believing it anyway.  Even the Betsy Ross House, now a Philadelphia museum honoring her, promotes her story but encourages visitors to decide whether it’s “historical fact or well-loved fiction.”
But at it's core, the flag is just a symbol. That's all, just a symbol; a thing. It's not living. It means nothing, really. So if someone wants to exercise their 1st Amendment right and set fire to the flag and burn it, so what? It doesn't hurt anyone.

We've become a nation so bothered by the actions of others that we are neglecting to check ourselves and be accountable for our own actions; a nation of Christians who simply refuse to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ; a nation of people who would rather record the wrongdoings of a person rather than step in to stop them or, better yet, engage them in conversation as to why they are acting the way they are. And why? Because despite screaming about how much we care, we really don't. We don't really care. We don't care if our actions affect another person. We don't care if inaction hurts another person. We don't care if our beliefs infringe on the beliefs of another person. We don't care. As long as we get ours, we don't care.

We elected a man to the presidency who thinks it's okay to sexually molest women and young girls.

We don't care.

Hate crimes in New York City have risen by 31% compared to this same time in 2015.

We don't care.

There's been an outbreak of about 900 hate crimes since the election in November.

We don't care.

Our country has no gun laws, save for the American right to bear arms, bear meaning we have a right to keep them and carry them, but not necessarily a right to purchase them; an amendment that was written at a time when the country had to call on private citizens to defend itself against invaders. Not the case anymore. Anyone can buy a gun. Anyone can use a gun. Anyone can be shot anywhere at anytime, including children in schools and students at universities and people simply going about their daily lives.

We don't care.

Our police officers are killing - KILLING - Americans. They're not maiming them to prevent running away, not shooting them in the arms to disarm them - killing them. It seems an officer's first response is to kill someone, not slow them or stop them in order to understand motives and actions. We will never have answers to the thousands of questions we have when something goes wrong.

We don't care.

A Texas-based company wants to run a natural gas pipeline through Sioux territory in North Dakota that could contaminate their drinking water as well as traverse their sacred burial grounds, and despite environmentalists' claims that the pipeline could ruin the ecosystem.

We don't care.

People in Flint, Michigan haven't had clean drinking water since April 2014. It's so bad, it's called a crisis by FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. But there's no outrage about it. Why? Because...

We don't care.

So I don't understand all the hullabaloo about setting fire to a piece of material. It means nothing. When people are suffering and grieving and unable to live their lives and we don't do anything about that, why on earth would we rise up because someone burns a flag that has come to represent division, hatred, and intolerance? I love my country and I am happy, thankful, and proud to be an American. And I will fight with whatever tools I have to help get it back on track. But as far as burning the American flag goes...

I don't care.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

My Lovely Sinus Surgery . . . Continued

For the past month or so, my sinuses have worsened.  I'm sure you, like me, had thought all of this was behind me.  But to pick up where we left off in August, I went in for a follow up appointment in September.  What we found during that appointment was that my sinuses did not heal correctly.

If you put your hands together flatly, the way a child does when praying, and then you bring the fingers of your right hand down so that the tops are pressed against the inside knuckles of your left hand, you'll form 3 sides of a square, or it will look like a lowercase "h".  That's how your sinuses are supposed to be.  Mine, however, healed closed:  Put your hands back in the same praying position, but keep all your fingers pressed flatly together while pulling your right wrist away from your left hand.  Quite different.

And of course, an infection had developed.  So back on antibiotics and steroids I went.  Two rounds each.  Eventually the headaches that I had above my left eyebrow returned, with greater intensity this time.  So I made another appointment for two weeks ago.  My doctor, apparently, had forgotten my appointment and had gone home for the day before I arrived, so an intern saw me and told me to schedule another appointment for after Thanksgiving.

As the pain in my head intensified, it ended up curtailing my Thanksgiving plans.  I didn't go to dinner at Neil and Bob's, which we do every year.  I would have been lousy company.  But I sent Kevin just so he'd come back with leftovers.  I also didn't accompany Kevin to Ohio to see family for the rest of the weekend for the same reasons.  I didn't get leftovers that time, but he did buy me some antique Christmas ornaments for our tree.  Just as wonderful!

So I went in for my appointment with my ENT this past Monday at 2:30.  Because the previous meeting with him had rendered me an emotional disaster, he had prescribed me Valium this time to hopefully calm my nerves to allow him to actually do some work cleaning out my sinuses.  His goal this time was to remove the tissue that had sealed my sinuses so that they could once again drain.  He also needed to continue vacuuming out debris left behind from the original surgery.

This time, I decided to go alone, to not have Kevin with me.  While it was wonderful to have him there for support last time, I thought that I might have used him as an emotional crutch.  Alone, I would just make myself get through it - tough it out.  He wanted to come for support, but I thought I'd do better alone.  And I apparently did.

There were still a few surprises.  For example, the Valium did a good job of calming me down.  It didn't stop the pain I felt, but it did allow me to concentrate on Kevin's face - the very thought of which was a happy distraction.  And the fact that the doctor put a needle up my nose in order to numb my sinus cavities was jarring.  This was - again - something I had to just accept was going to happen and allow him to do it.

When all was said and done and the doctor left the room for me to just relax, I looked over at the tray he was using during the procedure.  It pretty much looked like a surgical tray to me:

Note the bloody instruments and the blood splatter on the cabinet in the bottom of the photo.  Classic.

I was given a few instructions and permitted to leave.  Once I got out to the street, I felt a runny nose coming on, so I reached for a tissue in m pocket and dabbed my nose only to see the tissue cover with blood.  I thought it was weird that the doctor let me leave the office without 1) letting me know I might bleed at all and/or 2) not giving me something in case I did bleed.  This has been indicative of my medical treatment throughout this endeavor.

I made it home and laid on the couch.  Kevin came home with treats and new slippers for me - the world's best nurse.

So if history taught me anything, it's that my nose will probably drip blood for the rest of today, and then once the swelling subsides the sinuses will drain for about a week or so.  I feel like great progress was made yesterday.  So I am hoping that this really IS the last chapter in this saga.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Blog Problems

At some point last week, I clicked on my blog and realized all the image on it were gone.  All of them.  Well, not exactly all - just every picture posted since December 12, 2006.  Even the header was gone.  I reached out to Blogger (my host) for help and am so far being helped by a very patient woman named Penny.  But so far everything we try doesn't seem to yield a positive result.

Apparently, something has happened between Blogger, Google Photos and Picasa.  Despite having a Google album named after this blog, which shows all of the photos being stored in archive, we can't seem to get them to reappear on my blog.  Going forward, not a problem.  However I - and by extension, you - can't see photos posted on previous posts.

There are certainly bigger problems in the world, but having this issue fixed would be nice, but not important.  Just wanted to post an explanation in case you, like me, were wondering what recently happened.

Hopefully Penny will find a fix.  She keeps coming back with suggestions to try.  And she seems to know her stuff.  But who knows.

Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 11, 2016

Fear And Loathing In America

Just over 150 years ago, our country fought a civil war in which, figuratively, half of the country believed that all men were created equal, and the other half did not. Comparatively, the results of the recent election were clear: half the country voted in favor of bigotry and racism, and the other half did not.  One hundred fifty years ago, our country lost about 620,000 citizens in that war, and countless thousands since have lost their lives in the pursuit of the words Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
And this is, perhaps, what has bothered me the most about this election.  I had no idea I lived in a country where, despite all our social programs, activism, awareness, and laws, we are still a country of divisive hate and fear; where the citizens of a country founded on the principles of religious freedom continue to spew hatred at people who observe different religions; a country where the words nigger and faggot are used as easily today as they were 60 years ago; a country where the Ku Klux Klan can endorse a presidential candidate who goes on to win the election.

 And to say I am disappointed by all of this is putting it mildly.

Since Tuesday night, it has been far from "business as usual" for me.  I've tried to not watch the news and have attempted to stay off of Facebook for a while in order to clear my head.  As Tuesday evening went on, I could feel the growing tension as my personal bubble burst all around me.  It was like waking from a nap and looking at a clock that reads 7:00 but you don't know if it's 7AM or 7PM.  That state of confusion has been my constant for the past several days.  It's like I don't know where I am or even what day it is.  On Wednesday in my office at work, I was suddenly so overcome with emotion that I cried.  For the first time in my life, I wept for my country.

I wept for the children who now think it is acceptable to hate people based on their private beliefs or the color of their skin.

I wept for the teen boys who will believe it's perfectly acceptable to sexually molest or assault a girl, or each other.

I wept for all the women who will die attempting to self-abort an unwanted or risky pregnancy.

I wept for people who will lose access to social programs - canceled because the deficit will grow too high.

I wept for the fact that the New Colossus on the Statue of Liberty really means absolutely nothing to many Americans.

I wept for all the Ringling Brothers that will come with this Barnum in the forms of a spite-ridden Christie, a hate-mongering Giuliani, and a despicable Gingrich, to name a few.

I wept for the fact that we have sullied the reputation of the presidency by putting a man who espouses bigotry, hated and misogyny in The White House; a man whose name will now be forever linked to names like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt; a man who will be so mired down in his own personal lawsuits (sexual impropriety, fraud, Trump University, for raping a childamong others) that he won't have the time to properly prepare for his next role.

And by "role", I mean I honestly think he doesn't even want to be president, he just wanted to win the election.  Mark my words here, I give him two years (and that's being generous) until something happens.  He's going to find out how in-over-his-head he is.  He will either be impeached or resign.  And then Mike Pence, who by all accounts is no better of a human being, will assume the Presidency.  Trump will walk away, just as he has from all of his previous business ventures.

When George W. Bush was elected in 2000, then re-elected in 2004 - sure, I was annoyed.  But I wasn't afraid like I am today.  I am actually afraid today.  I fear my non-white friends will be treated unfairly and will be hurt in some way.  I fear that my job in cultural exchange will end because the new administration will make it impossible for foreigners to come to the country.  I fear that people will die because they no longer have access to medicine and healthcare.  I fear our allies will turn their backs on us because of our choices.  I fear that we will alienate ourselves from the rest of the world.  And I have the very real fear my country could revoke my marriage and tell me that I am no longer allowed to be married to the person I love, or that my marriage doesn't "mean the same" as a "traditional marriage".  I fear that my rights as a citizen will once again be stripped from me by my own legislators.

Even if just 1 of these fears is realized, it's 1 fear too many.  For the past few days, I've wanted to post my feelings but didn't want anyone who read them to pass them off as those of a sore loser.  Because my personal senses of disappointment and loss are minor compared to the loss my country will face for what could be generations to come. Absent hyperbole, this was an election that will ruin people's lives, tear apart families, and put the health of millions of people at risk either through denied healthcare or family planning.  And why?  Because somehow, white men feel disenfranchised in a country in which they have had complete control for more than 500 years.  They've allowed the fear of what they don't know to cloud their judgment.  And they've allowed a carnival barker to prey on and exploit those fears to his own advantage.

I wish I was wrong.  I hope that I am.  But why should I be?  With all the great leadership we've had in this country for the past 150 years, why should I expect a man with the divisive morals of a maggot to now be able to lead us to a better place?

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.  Sexual aggression is not reserved just for women; men get a fair share of it as well.  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.

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.

Barbie and Me at work
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,

Barbie and Me, 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.

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.