Oh, Chicago!

15 04 2012

One of the Dalai Lama’s rules for living a good and wholesome life is: Visit at least one new place a year. Or something like that.

So I went to Chicago.

The view from my hotel window on the 22nd floor.

I had never been to the mid-west, other than changing planes at O’Hare once, maybe 15 years ago. (With the exception of a week-long trip to Winnipeg for my best friend’s wedding in 2000. But that’s Canada. Doesn’t count.) And I will be honest, Chicago was not really at the top of my list of new places to go. It just so happens that the company I work for has its U.S. headquarters there, and the company sent me on a business trip. So I went.

As your typical Northeast-Mid-Atlantic-I-95-corridor-sophisticate, I never gave my country’s heartland a second thought. All these years I thought there was just lots of white space and corn fields and cowboys between where DC ended (Georgetown) and the San Francisco Bay Area started (Berkeley). Heck, until five years ago, I had never even been to San Francisco, either. So here I thought there was just 3,000 miles of nothingness between the left and right coasts. I guess I started taking note of Chicago when Barack Obama emerged as a potential presidential candidate in 2007-ish. But I never really felt like I had to go there.

So on my first trip to Chicago, I arrived last Sunday with zero expectations and was open for, you know, whatever. And I was really impressed. The first Chicagoan (or is it Chicagoite?) I met was friendly and  helpful, showing me how to use the ticket machines to buy a fare on the L. The second one I met, as I got on the train, wished me a great time in his fair city.

I called an old friend of mine I hadn’t seen in more than eight years – a native of the South Side who moved back after years away to work as a television producer for a major national network. He drove me up and down Lake Shore Drive, showed me all the sights – at least from afar – and fed me a Chicago deep-dish pizza (basically a cheese quiche with a half-inch of tomato sauce on top) in his neighborhood pizza parlor, as we caught up on each other’s histories.

On day two he took me to the 27th floor of some ritzy downtown hotel and we drank very expensive whiskey and prosecco while gazing out the floor-to-ceiling windows, as twilight fell upon the bustling city below and all around us.

The Loop from high up.

(Yes, I did go to the office, too, and met lots of really nice folks there as well. Mid-westerners, mostly.)

What a great surprise, getting to know this cool city under brilliant springtime sunshine, as well the wind that gives the place it’s nickname. Giving rise to the thought that I’m not sure I’d want to spend a winter there.

And I realized once again that the Dalai Lama is a really smart guy.

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Jake sets sail

11 03 2012

A very good friend of mine, let’s call him Jake, will be leaving his family soon on a seven-month journey that will take him to the other side of the planet.

He is doing this not completely voluntarily, because it’s part of his job. Jake is an officer in the U.S. Navy, and his ship is about to depart on a long military deployment.

I met Jake almost ten years ago, on a different Navy ship, just off the coast of Kuwait, its iconic city skyline on the horizon on the starboard side. Back then, he was a member of the crew and I was a journalist, and we watched the politics of the region heat up from front-row seats. The ground war in Iraq was a few months away but the conflict had claimed its first lives already.

Kuwaiti sunset, October 8, 2002

Jake and I kept in touch and we became really good friends. I got to know and love his parents, his wife and their two cool daughters, too. We visited each other – I traveled to both coasts of the United States to see them, they came to Europe to see us. They played a very important role at my wedding.

On a hot night in 2003, Jake, living in San Diego at the time, was my last link to the outside world as I sat in the back of an SUV, speeding through the darkness to Iraq from Amman, Jordan. We carried on a conversation by SMS until I got a few kilometers inside the border. Our chatting across 11 time zones ended abruptly as the sun began to rise, and I slipped out from under Jordanian cell phone coverage.

Iraqi sunrise, August 8, 2003

Nine years ago this month, the world saw a superpower and a dictator posturing for the public. The dictator lost on the first night of hellfire in Baghdad. Woe to those who try to tangle with the biggest military might in the world.

The politics of the region are, once again, in turmoil. The names of the places and the actors are different, but the anger behind it is similar. This new (and still verbal) conflict has very sinister undertones – there is talk of nuclear weapons for the first time since the Cold War ended. And Jake and his shipmates are sailing into the thick of it again.

It’s his fourth or fifth multi-month cruise in something like 12 years, and while I do understand his commitment and service to his country, I wonder how much more of this he and his family will be forced to endure. His father passed away recently, and he will miss his oldest daughter’s high school graduation this Spring. Last year she turned 18 without him… because he was underway.

I wish Jake – and the thousands of military personnel he sails with – Godspeed; that they return home physically and psychologically unscathed.  For the families and friends they leave behind, the wait will be a long one.





The THINGS take Switzerland

1 03 2012

A couple of weeks ago, some visitors decided to stop by. The timing wasn’t great because I had just started my new job and am also attending university courses for the first time in 20 years. That double whammy had me going to bed at 9pm every night for the first two weeks because I was simply exhausted.

The THINGS, as they are known, belong to my only good Canadian friend, the lovely and hilarious Ironic Mom. She is sending them around the world in place of her 7-year-old twins. (Though I’m sure that on some days she would have been quite happy to send the twins.) On their Excellent Adventure, which started last summer, they have already criss-crossed the United States and Zurich was the first stop on the European leg of their tour.

In addition to my new job, we were in the middle of an incredible cold snap, with daytime high temperatures of minus 15 degrees Celsius (3 degrees F for you Fahrenheit types). So flying and rollerblading – my staple activities when the weather cooperates – were simply out of the question. Actually, anything that required leaving a heated building was rather painful and not recommended.

(Maybe they can stop back here in the summer?)

Other hosts have been very creative with their blog entries about the THINGS’ visit – writing in rhymes and singing in harmonies – I’m afraid all I can offer is a few photos of nothing special in the land of cows and chocolate.

"We’re here!"

"Geez. Looks cold out there."

"SH*T. It IS cold out here."

"Want to go for a hike?" "No thanks, not today."

So to escape Switzerland’s harshest winter in three decades (and as a warmer alternative to any outdoor sports activity), we went to the gym. The THINGS hid in my locker until they realized that it was ME that would be working out… that they were just along for the ride.

"Get out of there, you two."

On the rowing machine…

…the bouncy gym ball…

…and the crosstrainer.

We did venture out into the city one day, and made some more friends (animal and human) in the department store’s extensive Switzerland souvenir department.

"Moo."

… as the salespeople wondered what the hell they were doing climbing into the souvenir kiddie mugs.

To end their visit we made one last stop, at the world-famous Spruengli chocolate store. After all, what do Swiss people need all those cows for, anyway? Because they are the world’s largest per capita consumers of chocolate!

The THINGS knew this, but had to wait till their final day here to partake in the experience.

"Yum, look at all those chocolate cakes..."

"...and the pyramids of macaroons."

The THINGS got enough of the “food of the Gods” to last them till they arrive at the next stop on their world tour. (Trust me.) They are off to the UK next, where I’m hoping Spring has sprung and they get to spend more time outdoors. Watch for further installments of their Excellent Adventure on www.ironicmom.com.

Meantime… I have to get back to my new job.

Shoes definitely NOT made for walking.





Back to work!

12 02 2012

So last Thursday I started a new job.

Fortunately, it’s a really great job, with a lot of good benefits and an interesting, wide-ranging scope, and I really hope that I can keep it for a while. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal the name of my employer here because, well, I’m just a little paranoid about these things.

It’s a corporate job, and one which finds itself at the crossroads where doing good business meets doing good for society and the environment. It’s in the relatively new, wide-open field of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Companies are finally figuring out that it helps to consider the ethical consequences of their actions, rather than steering directly to maximum profit and ignoring the world around them, or the problems they may be creating.

Taking responsibility.

CSR is a controversial place. Some (neanderthal) corporate executives complain that it’s an expensive waste of money with zero return on investment. Some (dogmatic) non-profit organizations on the other hand complain that companies are engaging themselves in areas in which they have no expertise – and are going to screw it up anyway. Or that their efforts are not sincere. Or that they are interested only in the public relations benefits (also known as “greenwash”).

I’m very aware of the quandary CSR practitioners find themselves in. Nevertheless, I think there’s a lot to be said for the efforts that are being made. And after all, no single company or person can save the world. My employer has a huge interest in the subject, with a correspondingly significant budget as well.

For me, it’s something completely new. So new that in addition to my (full time) job I will also be attending university courses part-time for the next seven months to get a theoretical grounding in the basics. And that’s another challenge – going back to school almost exactly 20 years after I completed my last degree.

(What do I take with me? A pencil case? Or just a laptop?)

This will be my third career. When I got my Master’s degree two decades ago, I read that this was the direction in which society would be moving: While our grandparents’ generation generally stayed at one employer for many years, members of my parents’ generation changed jobs two, three and maybe even four times during the course of their working lives. My generation would change careers that many times.

Et voilà. Here I am.

This new job is waaaaaayyyyyy outside my comfort zone. In, like, Siberia as far as I am concerned. But judging by the winter we are having, I just also may very well be in Siberia right now. Nothing to be afraid of though, just a matter of dressing warm enough, right?

I know I’m smart (kinda), I know I have my head screwed on right (most of the time, at least), and I know that I have mastered incredibly difficult professional situations before – perhaps not with the greatest panache and elegance, but you don’t get points for style here.

Stay tuned, if you’re interested. This is going to be fun.





The almost-United States

2 01 2012

In the last couple of days I have been having fitful bouts of insomnia again. Nothing like last summer, but still. Lying in bed, looking at the ceiling is no fun, no matter if its for 30 minutes or 3 hours.

So to make the time pass quicker, I devised a couple of concentration games for myself, one of which is a challenge to name all the 50 states in alphabetical order in less than 2 minutes. It’s not as easy as you think.

For the first twenty or so times I tried this, I always came up with 47 or 48, once I even made it up to 49. But that darn 50th state eluded me. Over and over and over again, I always seemed to be one or two short.

This is so true. (From the website: http://www.funnyordie.com)

In the meantime I have a system and I know exactly how many states there are per letter. The last couple of times I played this game with myself, I have got to 50 pretty regularly. Let me demonstrate.

First the four A’s. Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas and Arizona. Followed by 3 C’s: Connecticut, Colorado and Chicago. No, hang on. California.

Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii.

The four I’s come next: Iowa, Idaho, Illinois and Indiana.

Kansas & Kentucky.

Louisiana.

This is where it gets interesting. There are SO MANY states that begin with M and N! I’m so sure that this is where I always lose one.

Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Mississippi, Missouri.

New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada.

Whew. Think that’s it.

Then there’s Oklahoma and Oregon, followed by my home state of Pennsylvania.

Rhode Island, and the Souths… Carolina and Dakota.

Texas and Tennessee followed by Utah.

Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Yay!

Uh oh. That’s 49.  Lost one again. Do let me know if you find it.

(And no – Washington DC is not a state!!! It’s a District!)





Of paint, outlets and doorknobs

7 12 2011

So for the last two weeks or so I disappeared into renovation-land. As some of you may know I still own my father’s condo in South Florida. He died about four years ago, and we decided to keep it as a (very expensive) vacation place. Some would call it a “money pit”.

Two years ago, when R. was unemployed for a few months, we decided to start upgrading the place that seemed to have not been upgraded since it was built in 1973. The kitchen’s dome lighting was vintage, and the appliances were slowly taking leave of their functionality, one by one.

The pink bathroom was classic, too.

Gorgeous. Just Gorgeous.

So thanks to my unbelievably resourceful and flexibly unemployed husband, we managed to redo the kitchen and the two bathrooms within about four months. He flew from Europe to Miami five times within that span of time to supervise the construction.

For the past two years we have thoroughly enjoyed our half-new vacation place. But every visit we said to each other that the place kind of needed a new paint job. And every time we came, we also said – “Okay…. next time.”

This past September we attacked the project head on. R. is no longer unemployed, but he now has a job where he can literally take every fifth week off. (PS.: I want one like that too…) So he flew over to Miami and started the long and arduous task of covering every ceiling and vertical flat surface within the four walls of our condo with a fresh coat of white paint. It took him eight full days.

But once the walls and the ceilings were white again, we noticed that the closet doors, room doors and door frames were a kind of seedy beige-y color that depressed us. And the doorknobs, fashionable in the 1970’s, I’m sure, just had to go.

A second working vacation was planned.

We arrived a week and a half ago, and in those ten days the place has turned from dowdy to rowdy.  For the trim and every other surface that needed something fresh, we chose an airy, light turquoise that carries the name “ionic sky”. I kept calling it “iconic sky”. It looks unbelievably Florida-y, South-Beach-y even. Oh-so-cool.

But renovating comes with its pitfalls, too. For example, I never knew painting was so hard, that one can make so many mistakes, and that it is possible to get a cramp in one’s hand from holding a paintbrush for 8 hours every day. I thought that kind of thing only happened when you were writing exams at school.

During our renovation extravaganza, no day was complete without a visit to one of our two local Home Depots. We always seemed to need some tool / widget / screw / nail / cable / switch / outlet / paintbrush / cover / glue that we did not have at home at that particular moment.

On the bright side, I discovered a new, marketable skill I never knew I had: replacing doorknobs. My apparent expertise earned me the endearing title “Miss Doorknob”. My dear, sweet husband, whose native language is not English, was previously unaware of the colloquial connotation of calling someone a “Doorknob.”

Of course, he meant well, and I love him for it.

And hey, if I don’t get a job in my field by the end of January, maybe I can make replacing doorknobs my new career choice!

My handiwork. All mine.





Smart women, dumb circumstances

10 11 2011

During my recently-relaunched job search I have been confronted by an attitude that I had no idea was still a serious a problem in early 21st century corporate life. Women have had the right to vote in most countries for more than a generation, in some countries more than two generations, and have been an integral part of the workforce for much longer than that. That the glass ceiling still exists at all is a crime in itself.

But here is a little more food for thought.

Twice within a short period of time I have been rejected for jobs on a premise and for a reason that for me is quite simply unbelievable. I was always told to work hard, and that there will be rewards. “You can do whatever you want in life,” was the refrain I always heard from elders and teachers.

Well, apparently, if you are a woman, and you work too hard, and do too much, and want too much and you are tall and blonde and strong and intelligent and outspoken, all these factors will conspire to work against you because managers are downright scared of you.

And if you wear heels, by God, you are in for it.

My favorite heels of all time. These boots were made for walking, but not only.

Earlier this year, I interviewed at a company that has a record of treating smart women well. I saw a TV feature on the company’s CEO, a rare bird indeed in a tough, manipulative and mildly corrupt industry. I saw myself learning a great deal from this person. Especially tactical things like getting ahead in territory that is generally dominated by men.

The rejection surprised me because I had the feeling from my interviewer (the person who would be my direct superior) that I was just what he was looking for. He seemed confident that I could do the job well, fit into the team and could offer me a perspective to expand my abilities and skills to benefit both the company and myself.

I ran into this person in a completely different context months later. Somehow, the topic came up as to what the real reasons were for why I was not offered the job. He said flatly, “You were too strong for my CEO. You would have scared her to death.”

A second incident happened shortly thereafter. The feedback from my interview, passed on to me by HR: “The department head felt threatened by you. He felt like you could do his job, and not the one you applied for.”

Well of course I could do his job, but the question that nobody bothered to ask me is: would I even want to? (Uh… no.)

So how do I get my message across in a non-threatening way? I have no idea. I don’t want to be the boss, I don’t want to have to deal with personnel management, and I could care less about the perks and the big bucks that go along with it. (I just left a job to which I was lured by money and status, and it didn’t make me happy.)

I just want to be left alone to my own devices, work as a member of a team, deliver my deliverables, and go home. I have no desire to have to pick up my phone in the middle of the night on the weekend to solve a problem for some impatient person who can’t wait till Monday morning. Been there, done there, got the stupid T-shirt. And a burnout.

In the meantime I have the feeling that I have to dumb-down my CV and my story to make it look like I am less qualified than I really am.

For real? Isn’t that just so… wrong?