Real life

17 07 2011

My managers recently told me that my job will be going the way of the dinosaurs soon. As in: extinct. Quite unsettling, especially considering I had no say in the planning or the timing of all this.

I had been toying with the idea of quitting for a while now; I wasn’t particularly happy in my job. The issue of dealing with clueless and socially incompetent superiors is tough enough. But returning from a 3-month sabbatical to find no less than eight close colleagues had decided to flee the institution is a rather large blow to one’s enthusiasm.

Photo out of a recruiting brochure for a large bank. Exciting, huh?

So anyway, I have been chewing on this news for the last couple of weeks and trying to figure out how to make the best of the situation. My concentration often wanders while I am at work, I look out my high floor window at the world below and concoct complex plans involving idealistic notions of the way the world should be – and the positive difference I want to make in it.

The other day I applied to a job with exactly that in the description: “We are looking for people who want to make a positive difference in the world.” Well hell, where have you been all these years, dear potential employer?

The truth is, though, it never is like what they tell you…that’s what bothers me most about being an adult. Parents, teachers and other people of authority dangle this image of the perfect world in front of kids’ noses for the first 18 years of their lives. They are told a million times that a good education and lots of hard work will get them whatever they want, and enable them to live a life of happiness and prosperity. That anything is possible if only they put their minds to it. That there will be a reward in return for years of exertion, good sense and following real and unwritten rules.

When I was a kid, most of us actually believed it all.

And in the second 18 years of life, we found out that that’s simply a bunch of horse manure.

In the meantime – and currently motoring along in my 3rd chunk of 18 years – I am all for telling kids their dreams will never come true, no matter how hard they work or what sacrifices they make. As in: “Forget it kid, your ambitions are toast, especially in this economy.” That would be much more honest than sending them on a wild goose chase for a nonexistent pot of gold.

Certainly every generation has its winners, those superstars who proverbially fly to the zenith of their professions and are not only phenomenally successful, but also genuinely happy. But for all the rest of us who forewent things we believed in in order to bust our chops and never reach that level of success anyway because someone just doesn’t like the way we dress, or the friends we have, or the way we express ourselves, well, then, that’s just time wasted, is it not?

So now I wait for a new employer who will graciously invite me to exchange my brainpower for a pay check. I am “talent”, waiting for a place to be “managed”. Nothing more. My next job will be a transaction – a deal sealed by two signatures on a piece of paper – performed five days a week, for 47 weeks a year, for the number of years it takes before the one side is sick of the other.

Maybe I’m just tired. I know there will be idiots, intrigue, incompetence, injustice and inequality wherever I go, and I will make a sincere effort to deal with them in the best way I know how: to (try to) never again allow myself to get emotionally involved.  Hence, the positive difference I make in this world will be elsewhere.

And never the twain shall meet.

A postcard from Switzerland

17 06 2011

Dear Donna R.,

Do you remember us? We met you at the Golden Nugget casino in downtown Las Vegas. Fremont Street. About six weeks ago. You were our server in the Buffet, and my three friends were the Swiss folks that inhaled Zelma’s bread pudding for desert. (You remember – I had a scoop of Cookies ‘n Cream instead.)

You asked us where we were from, and, without knowing if we were ax-murderers on leave from jail, you gave us your home address and asked us to send you a postcard when we got back. You collect postcards, you said, and you haven’t yet received one from Switzerland. Well, here it is. Sorry it took so long.

Switzerland at a glance

We chatted a bit, and you said, “Las Vegas is boring, and Switzerland is not boring.” Well, you are right, I suppose. Summer has arrived here, and it’s not boring at all. In fact, it’s quite attractive here, lots to do and generally a very pleasant place to spend one’s days.

But as I told you too, home is where the heart is, and the heart, right now, is elsewhere.

I spent three months in the United States this Spring… it was the longest period of time over on your side of the pond since I finished graduate school in 1992. Before I arrived in the U.S. I knew that it would be a watershed experience for me – either I would go back to Europe saying, “Hey, glad I finally got that out of my system!” or I would be saying, “I want to go home, now more than ever.”

You know how this story ends, don’t you?

For much of the last two decades the idea of returning home has weighed heavily on my consciousness. Europe afforded me a lot of opportunities, too many to name here – and I am thankful for every single one of them. I started a career and a followed a trajectory that would have been unlikely back home. I had cool jobs, traveled and did all sorts of neat things that were only possible while riding on the coattails of the EU passport I am lucky to have.

Yet looking past the superficial, something very basic is missing. It’s nothing concrete, material, or anything I can pick up and hold. It’s more of a feeling, a mentality, an attitude, a sense of community. It’s a deep-seated yet unnamed feeling I associate with the culture in which I was socialized – I can only describe it as a combination of longing, sadness, love and pride – that comes suddenly and unexpectedly, and always takes a while to put away again.

My time with my folk, my people, immersed in my culture taught me a few important lessons. Most important: even after living overseas for about 20 years, the United States is still my home. I can still identify with people, speak their language, laugh at their humor and feel their pain.

It was tough getting on that plane back to Europe last week, with no exit strategy and no timeline for the future. I sit here, in an job I am no longer excited about, in a land I will never be able to call my own, having to deal with the locals in a language I will never be able to speak.

So… interesting? Yes, it’s an interesting place, with an interesting history and interesting characters. (And heck, I met my husband here! He’s great!) Comfortable? Very. There are a lot worse places to have to return to. But home? No, not likely. Ever.

Hope you are well and not wilting in the Vegas summer.

Yours truly,

Evelynn and her Swiss friends

ES and IT: a match made in hell.

11 06 2011

Gosh, you’re all still there? What loyal readers I have! Thank you! In this day and age of instant gratification there are still a few folks who will remain faithful, even through a two-week writers’ block. You are too kind.

While suffering through my recent mini-drought, I turned 41. (Who would have thought?) And my husband had a really great birthday gift idea – he bought me a new computer.

My new toy.

Of course I had been coveting a new computer for a while, surreptitiously browsing the aisles in our local electronics megastore and oogling all the new technology on display. Today’s laptops all look really cool there sitting in the shelves.

But for months, that is where they remained – on the shelves.

Though somewhere deep inside I knew that my good old Compaq laptop’s days were probably numbered and a catastrophic failure was increasingly likely, I couldn’t see myself investing in something shiny, flashy and new. I mean – a laptop that was state of the art in the summer of 2004 when I parted with $1359 (purchased in Delaware – no sales tax!) and took it home with me isn’t that old and outdated. (Is it?)

My old toy.

It is?

Ancient, you say?

No, it doesn’t have a built-in webcam. Should it?

And a 30 GB hard drive is… measly?



Okay, so I guess I needed a new computer. And my husband (a recent new-hardware-client himself) just cut to the chase and went out and bought me one. Not a moment too soon, turns out – on the day we took it out of its box for the first time, my old Compaq sucked up some kind of nasty Internet virus and has been unhealthy ever since.

R. warned me that setting up the new machine would require a few weeks of intense work, sorting stuff out, while all the updates and service packs and God-knows-what-else would be downloaded (automatically!) in order to prepare itself adequately for the next couple of years of service.

Huh? I don’t remember my old computer doing any of that seven years ago.

But then again, I haven’t really been paying attention to developments in the IT industry. The extent of my understanding of technology is that I need it to function when I turn it on. End of story. And when/if it doesn’t, and faced with the philosophical question “Fight or Flight”, as a wise liberal arts major, I usually end up on the “Flight” side: If something doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to the first time around, abandon it. Don’t waste another single minute on a process where the cards are obviously seriously stacked against you. Do without. Move on.

My husband, however, is the opposite. He (a recipient of a degree in physics) will sit there till 5 a.m. if he has to, in order to figure out what is wrong with a certain application/program/software/harddrive/browser/index/screensaver/mediaplayer/ format/language/taskbar/shortcut and fix the problem. His endurance in all things technical is astounding. The next evening at dinner he will then describe to me in detail his epic battle with technology and all he did to overcome it. I listen with interest, thankful that another electronic crisis has been averted and I still have access to all of my files.

Clearly one reason why there are so many unemployed liberal arts majors out there.

Lanugage Traps for Foreigners

31 05 2011

Language and culture can be tricky, and there are a lot of unhealthy traps that a foreigner can tumble into without even trying. The Swiss friends with whom we are currently traveling in the United States have gotten a massive dose of both in the past couple of weeks.

Heading off into uncharted linguistic territory.

They have been pretty good sports about it all, even if, as is sometimes the case, the joke happens to be on them. And even if most of the information goes in one ear and out the other because it will be useless to them when they get home in 6 days.

In my previous post, I mentioned my role as the color commentator as we pass landmarks, cruise through national parks and drive down Main Streets of small towns along our way. And some of the stuff we have been talking about really does merit a blog post.

Cultural connotations can be difficult to understand in the language of origin, and most are more or less gibberish in some other language that doesn’t have the words for it. Here is a short list of a few things I have recently tried to explain… I have listed them in the order of least difficult to most difficult to describe in a foreign language.

See how many of these you can do in a language that is not your own, and let me know your foreign friends’ comprehension and/or reactions:

  • Why are there little red flags on the sides of American mailboxes?
  • 100 miles does not equal 100 kilometers, and 100 degrees Centigrade does not equal 100 degrees Fahrenheit (but that 100 degrees F is still hot enough….)
  • The difference between “hash browns” and “hash brownies”.
  • How drivers at an intersection with a four-way stop sign organize themselves so that chaos does not ensue in the middle of said intersection.
  • What are trailer parks, and how do you identify their human declination, “trailer park trash”?
  • The micro- and macro- economic benefits of 24-hour shopping. (And the fun of a 3 a.m. soccer game in Aisle 6 of your local supermarket using a can of tuna instead of a ball.)
  • Why it’s completely appropriate to dance with some guy to live music in some stinky bar in some little town in the middle of nowhere out west and then later ask to borrow his cowboy hat for a photo opportunity. (Prerequisite: alcohol.)

And here is one I haven’t even attempted on my Swiss friends yet, but know from past experience with other Germanic peoples that it’s pretty much impossible:

  • Major League Baseball.

    Does not exist in Europe.

My new love Fred

11 05 2011

I have fallen in love, once again.

Yes, I think R. will tolerate this new love, if grudgingly. The object of my desire is just under two feet tall, weighs 40 pounds and is covered with shaggy black fur. He is seven years old and in order to protect his identity, I will call him Fred.

Fred: "Woof!"

Fred is a Portuguese Water Dog, and a distant older relative of the nation’s First Dog, Bo, who moved into the White House two years ago. And if you do the math: Fred was already around for a while before Bo and his kin became popular. Before the world had actually ever heard of the Portuguese Water Dog and that there even was such a thing.

Fred is the only dog in the world I have ever met who cozies up to an oversized yellow Sponge Bob cuddly toy. It’s the cutest thing you have ever seen.

I met my new true love in Connecticut, in the home of very old friends. They invited me to stay with them after I had spent two tense and sleepless nights at another friend’s house, desperately dodging two big, sinister orange cats, the air thick with their omnipresent dander. When I left, I had to pick cat hair off every piece of clothing that I had taken into their home. It was… distressing. Mainly because I am very allergic to cats.

Somewhere here on my blog I mentioned that I am a dog-person (married to a cat-person). And even if I was not allergic, I find dogs just so much friendlier, more accommodating, more loyal, more playful and simply more reliable than cats.

And according to the Chinese zodiac, I was born in the year of the dog so I share many of those (ahem, exceedingly positive) characteristics.

The Chinese probably had a really good reason or two not to have a year of the cat in their zodiac. Cats are infuriatingly aloof and mean, and so much less useful to society than, say, dogs, dragons, snakes, sheep, roosters and rabbits.

I just know that all you cat-lovers out there will tear me to shreds for this, with those vicious little claws of yours. Fine – bring it on. I will take a slobbering, juvenile-minded canine over a hissing, oh-so-sophisticated feline any day.

My love for Fred was sealed on the final day of my visit in Connecticut. We attended a sporting event about 90 minutes away by car. Of course there was no question about whether or not Fred would be part of the festivities. On the way home, after suffering through a miserably cold, wet and muddy day, we had a car full of people, and Fred, always the boss, was not going to be relegated to the trunk of the stationwagon.

I became his Sponge Bob as he climbed onto my lap in the front seat and nestled his head into the door’s armrest. There he slept, the whole hour and a half till we got home. 40 pounds of warm, snoozing, snoring dog, on my muddied jeans, through a wicked rainstorm down the highway as the day turned to dusk. I stretched the seat belt around him. When we pulled into his neighborhood, he instinctively knew he was close to home. He sat up, looked out the window and wagged his tail.

In thanks for the favor, I got a wet, sticky doggie kiss. And my heart was his.