Friday, January 31, 2014

January Lessons

On this last day of January—a January, which (and I think I can speak for all Midwesterners), has been one I would never like to replicate—I'm going to take a moment to reflect on a few of the valuable lessons I learned in the last 31 days.

  1. I should never say anything like, "This must be the coldest weather we are going to have this year, and the year just started!" I shouldn't say that if there is arctic/polar/"skin-freezes-even-thinking-about-going-outside" air freakishly descending, I shouldn't say that it if schools are shut down in response to that cold, I shouldn't even say that on a dare. It can be colder, and the cold can last longer—I just need to wait three weeks.
  2. It would be a lot easier to feel good about saving money if, every time I walked into the dentist, it didn't immediately cost me $1,000, and that's with decent dental insurance. I'm having a root canal later today, and I've already spent $980 ordering the crown/getting the first step done, I shutter to think what else my bill to add up to at the endodontist's office. Oh, and now that I'm chewing on the other side, the molar over there hurts, too, almost more than the existing broken tooth. Did I mention that I still have one expansive silver filling that needs to be removed soon, too? Yeah, by March I will have paid for roundtrip tickets to Europe twice and back, but those trips will all be in my mouth.
  3. The car will only start acting truly funny when my spouse is out of town. This is also when I will start catching a cold, six more inches of snow will arrive, and (remember lesson #2), I will get a root canal.
I've read a lot of posts on social media lately about embracing every moment of life, cherishing all of it, recognizing that someday, you will look back on this precious time and think, "Those were the good days."

January 2014, I hate to break it to you, but I will never remember you as "the good days." There were some good moments, sure, but please know that you when you are remembered in years to come, it will be with a heavy sigh, and God-willing, it will be with me living somewhere where palm trees thrive.

Listen, February, I don't know if you will be any better, and I am not in the business of making predictions. What I know for sure, though, is that you will be shorter, and your days will be increasingly longer, and that is going to have to be enough for me.

If you are feeling generous, though, could you stop having school pick-ups that look like this?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Negative Freezing

If you had been walking down the icy back steps with EJ and I yesterday morning, this is what you might have overheard:

Me: "EJ, where are your gloves? I told you hat-gloves-scarf when we left, and you said you had everything."

EJ: "They are in my pockets. I'm good."

Me: "It is going to get a little warmer today, but it is still really, really cold out."

EJ: "Mom, I really only need gloves for sure if it is negative freezing."

Me: "What?"

EJ: "Negative freezing. You know how freezing is 32 degrees? Negative freezing is -32 degrees. It was negative freezing when they cancelled school, but today it just going to be normal freezing."

Me: "Hon, it's not going to get over 20 degrees. That is still below freezing, and very cold."

EJ: "Yeah, but it just below freezing, not below negative freezing. I'm good!"

Me: "But you are keeping your hands in your pockets."

EJ: "It's cold, Mom. My hands stay warm there."

Me (under my breath): "Right next to your gloves."

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Speechy, Preachy, Not-Quite-Peachy

Last night, I watched the State of the Union, as well as the Republican response. I will admit, at times, when it all felt a little too thick to spoon through, I switched over to The Fantastic Four for a few seconds at time. A superhero movie—any superhero movie—sometimes feels more realistic than political rhetoric; I doubt anyone suspected that watching a group of radiated super-scientists would seem grounding, as compared to listening to chatter about education reform, when they made that film. Who am I kidding? I'm a sucker for Ioan Gruffudd—he's Welsh and he plays the oboe, so his cool points are through the roof in my ledger. Mister Fantastic, indeed.

I'm also a sucker for a good speech, given by a good speaker, in particular. I love feeling out the rise and the fall of the words. I'm always impressed with a genuine comic relief moment, which you almost never see in a State of the Union—last night's "call your mother" seemed to hit the non-partisan funny bone. Libertarian or socialist, trust me, your mom wants you to call her more often.

What struck me this year, more than the specific policy points—some that made me want to cheer, others that made me highly skeptical—was the intractability of the politics. I get it, if you are in the opposition, you don't stand or clap much. If you are on the speaker's side, you clap and make a spectacle. Okey-dokey. But so many of the items mentioned, both in the speech and in the response, were simply ideals, not even plans—don't we all hold most of those ideals? I mean, does anyone want people who work full-time to live in poverty? People with pre-existing conditions to lose out on health care? Soldiers to go into unnecessary battles? Are those really partisan moments?

And yet, I'll admit, independent-with-liberal-leanings me, sat there unable to see how individuals with the opposing view point could respond/propose as they did. It's not that I can't understand the nuts and bolts of their proposals—although neither side provided much of that last night—it's that I can't understand their underlying values. In all the political rhetoric that has become so commonplace that we don't even register it anymore, there is the recurring theme: we all believe in the same values as Americans, we just don't have the same tactics to achieve our goals. 

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers stated as much at the top of the GOP response:

"Tonight the president made more promises that sound good, but won't solve the problems actually facing Americans. We want you to have a better life. The president wants that, too. But we part ways when it comes to how to make that happen."

President Obama called out several shared American values throughout his address, stating (as we almost always do, no matter which party represents our views) that these are common among all Americans:

"[Millions of Americans outside Washington] believe, and I believe, that here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.  That’s what drew our forebears here."

"And we do [kindness overseas/cultural and economic alliances] because we believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation."

"But for more than two hundred years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress—to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen."

As I listen to political speeches, though, and I watch the response from both sides to the messages, what I come away more and more is that there is no such thing as "all-American"values, as there are no core values that everyone in America shares with equal fervor, or in equal proportion. There is no correct, one-size-fits-all formula for being American, at least where values are concerned.

This came up a lot when I was studying health care policy in grad school: one of my profs posited that as soon as you accept the idea that freedom and equality—both critical, core values of America—are in opposition to each other, and require a constant give and take, sacrifice and gain, etc., you can understand how any policy can get either enacted or stalled in the legislature. I had managed to study political science as one of my undergraduate majors, do a certificate of political study in France, and live in DC for nearly a decade, without ever really confronting that thought. These American values of ours aren't harmonious. In my youth, I had wrapped every value in the flag, thinking of them as a set of beautiful crayons that all mixed together to make the lovely tapestry that is America. I had never thought of them as elements like wind, fire, water, and earth, all critical, but some playing nicer in collaboration with each other than others.

I woke up this morning with post-SOTU bureaucracy hangover, knowing that I should be grateful for the many ways that Americans think and feel, believe and act, etc., but actually just wishing we could all agree about more than just how much we love our generalized Americanness and get some stuff done. At mid-day, when I picked up my book club's next February selection, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America I was actually relieved. This book had gotten a lot of press, and quite honestly, what I had heard on the radio and read in the paper had not made me want to purchase it. Within a few pages of the introduction, however, there it was: the difference in values has been here from the start, and it isn't simply split along party lines, it's split among them, across them, and within them, across regional groups that range from those who value you education/government intervention, to those founded by landed gentry who embraced a slave economy, to anti-government religious freedom-seekers who were skeptical of laws, but highly communal. 

In short, if we are living out our deep, American roots, we have no hope of ever truly having all the same values. Contrary to what we hear in speeches, it may, in fact, be easier to agree on the nuts and bolts stuff than the core, underlying beliefs driving those policies.

It will be interesting to see what else I take from this author's work; what I do know, now, though, is that agreeing to disagree—not just in practice, but in thinking/feeling/believing/knowing/living—may be the most American value of them all.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Cold Metaphor

It's day two of the deep freeze here in Chicago, but instead of staying indoors the whole day, I took EJ over to a friend's house to play for a few hours. Much as I didn't relish stepping outside and trying to get the car to start this morning—she did, good little Honda—I was really grateful for the invitation for our kid. It managed to arrive before we were all going stir-crazy, which is always a plus: as I learned back in college as a summer playground director for my hometown's parks department, "Always quit an activity when you are still having fun, that way, everyone will want to play again."* We will all be able to enjoy another cold/snow day if one arrives, although really, let's all just pray/chant/meditate/beg/implore/invoke/beseech that doesn't happen again, at least this season. I'm crying uncle.

As I stepped out onto our fourth-story porch this morning, wrapped in silk long underwear, thermal clothing, fleece, down, and wool, almost everything but my eyes peeking out, the cold did not feel that bad. As long as the 30+ mile-an-hour wind didn't hit me, it was just a normal winter's day, at least for this year. Once the wind hit, though, it was painful, like some combination of ice and fire and knives and lasers and big sharp teeth, ripping through all the layers in one big wave. When we got downstairs, our gate wouldn't open, which meant that we were stuck. As I tried to jiggle the gate, fidgeting with the remote, I got colder. Even without the wind, anything over a few minutes in this temperature sends messages to the central nervous system that sound something like, "FREAK OUT NOW. THIS IS NOT GOOD. SERIOUSLY, FREAK OUT."

By the time we were able to get some help and pull out of our parking lot onto the icy alley, an idea was starting to form in my frozen brain: the extreme cold is a metaphor for how stress works all the time.

Metaphor work is a big part of what I do when I coach clients and organizations; as someone who uses storytelling to help solve problems, metaphors are my gate-way drug to larger narrative approaches. They are powerful, but ubiquitous, and as they are constantly evoked, they are much more approachable to most people than saying. "Write a story about [fill in the blank.]"  Just try not to use metaphors for a day, and see how long it takes you to use one almost unconsciously. You might begin to feel like you are an artist trying to express him/herself with only a few paint colors, and…bam, there's a metaphor.

If I were to look outside today, it doesn't look any different than any other day. It's bright and sunny, actually, with the kind of clear sky that can come with the deepest cold spells. The bitterness of the weather, if viewed from inside the house, is imperceptible. If I am only out in the weather for a minute or two, and I am well bundled up, I can pass it off as any other winter's day. But if I am out for even a second too long, or am hit by one of the many frigid winds speeding through, I feel as if I am being cut through; the air, which I cannot see, is able to cause physical, crippling pain for an instant. 

When I return home to the house, make myself some coffee or some chai, and thank God for the wonderful heat from our radiators, and the ability to be in a safe, warm home, I might forget about that cold. It is still there, though. It lingers. It waits. It surrounds.

Stress is like that, right? You can manage it in small doses, you can guard yourself with protective clothing to manage it better, and you can take comfort in a warm, safe place to rejuvenate and even forget about it for a moment. But when that stress is there, lingering, waiting, surrounding, all it takes is one event—it doesn't have to be a big event, just something that sweeps through powerfully and sharply, like an arctic wind—to leave you doubling over. You can't see the stress, but the more you have, the more vulnerable you are to its effects, as if your ambient temperature is below zero, and you don't have any available tolerance for wind or snow.

There are a million stress-reduction techniques and habits out there: learn how to say no, participate in physical activity, keep a schedule, get enough sleep, eat well, be honest in your communication, maintain healthy relationships, set goals, find meaningful work/hobbies, breathe, mediate/pray, etc. Sometimes stuff just happens though—your kid gets sick, you lose your job, a loved one dies, you can't sell your house, you have a new baby, you have a new job, etc.—and there is only so much stress you can eliminate. Using the metaphor as a help, I would say that knowing the cold is out there—reading the weather report, and using your head—is sometimes the most powerful step you can take. "Yes, this is stressful. I am not going to deny that. I am not going to walk outside to run a lemonade stand in shorts when it feels like -52 degrees outside. And even though I will bundle up and take precautions, when I feel the pain of the wind, I will use it to push me back to a warm, safe place, even for just a moment, so I can venture out again without hurting."

Stay warm, friends.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Urban Roulette

This weekend, while Chicago was being pounded with more snow, and gearing up for what I am now calling, Polar Vortex II: Revenge of Arctic Air (it's all negative temps around here until Wednesday, the kind that freeze your fingers off), the kiddo was happily off at a sleepover, enjoying kid time, swimming, eating pancakes, and playing with a dog who isn't dying: the full, eight-year old happy package. This meant that Mike and I had whole stretches of time by ourselves, also known as the full, forty-year old happy package.

We thought we would mostly just be relaxing, cozy and warm inside our condo, but instead, we got to play an exciting game of "What calamity is happening across the street?" Mid-morning, we heard sirens approaching—loud sirens, lots of loud sirens, lots of loud sirens that were only getting louder, then were shut off abruptly. Our couch is positioned up against the living room windows, so as the sirens stopped, we scrambled up on to our knees to look out from our fourth-story perch. Sure enough, three fire trucks were posted right outside our building. THREE! We didn't smell or see smoke, but we knew this couldn't be good.

Within a matter of seconds, firefighters were pouring out, carrying what looked like portable battering rams, crow bars, and other types of "breaking stuff down" equipment. They also carried some tanks of who-knows-what, and seemed to be in full protective gear. A man from the building across the street came out, opened the gate, and the firefighters started going in. After a dozen entered, we lost count. Something bad had gone down.

We got worried. We hoped it wasn't something awful. 

It was at this point that the horrible-terrible-I've-lived-in-a-city-awhile thought popped into my head: I hope it is just a corpse.

That's right, in the panoply of calamities that could a) be something that is not a fire and b) solicit three fire trucks, the best case scenario in my mind was that someone had died in their locked condo. Mike voiced my worst fear—meth lab—before I could get it out. Of course, there could be even worse things than a drug lab that could explode across the street from us, we are just too naive to know about them. If AMC makes a thoughtfully-written drama about those realities, we'll get wise, I'm sure.

Quick aside: we live in a wonderful, beautiful, safe urban neighborhood. All of this activity was happening less than a block away from President Obama's house, on his street, as a matter of fact, right within the secret service extended perimeter. Our fears that something tragically illegal could be taking place were not because we live in a bad place, they were because we live in a dense, urban environment, and let's be honest, a lot of stuff must be happening everywhere. If you, like me, watch 48 Hours regularly, you know that even the lovely single-family ranch home down the street in your sweet, suburban neighborhood could house a psychopath, a psychopath who is planning to intricately kill his wife and in-laws, but who you know primarily as the guy who rents the bounce house and makes the best sangria you've ever tasted for your annual block parties. Living in the city, you just increase the ratio of potential outliers with population. You also have fewer block parties, at least where we live.

Back to the story: within a matter of minutes, the pace and look of the firefighters still outside started to change. They looked casual, even nonchalant. We thought, "That must be good, right?" Sure enough, firefighters started to exit the building, first one-by-one, then in pairs, then in groups. Before we knew it, they were loaded up on their trucks. The mystery was unsolved, but we thought the drama was done.

HA! Silly us. The firefighters left when multiple police squad cars arrived.

What could have happened? We don't know, actually. We never saw the cops leave. We hope everyone is okay and doing legal things. Maybe their condo association just wanted to host a "Say No to Drugs" or "Make Sure to Get Your Car/Bike/Dog Licensed" event in the foyer of their building. That would happen, right? Right? RIGHT?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Counted in Tooth Time

Is there any day longer than the one in which you are waiting for your emergency appointment to get the tooth you broke eating dinner the night before fixed? That molar, way at the back of the top of your mouth, already set with a deep filling, and feeling funny for awhile—not painful, just not right—which managed to break while eating an extremely soft homemade hot beef sandwich? Not the tooth you had scheduled to have pre-emptively drilled in February, to take out the silver filling which is expanding over time and slowly breaking the tooth apart; no, this is another tooth, another special snowflake in a mouth full of special needs.

I cannot get this thing taken care of fast enough. It hurts, and I'm drooling. It's not pretty.

Of course, as I think about the pain of the procedure—the drilling, the fact that I can't seem to ever get numb (so cue the multiple shots, plus pain anyway), the noise, the stuffed up nose that makes me feel like I am choking and/or suffocating during the most intense moments of tooth excavation, the anxiety about the cost (I can't possibly have any funds left in my dental insurance after my year of root canal/double tooth pull/root canal)—time seems to fly. Can't I have a few more hours before I need to endure all that? Gulp.

It's tooth time, the paradox where time is perceived as both dragging and racing, all with the heart-thumping as a bass line, keeping (worried) time.

I'm pretty sure days like today are why God created the people who created pharmaceutical companies, who in turn created Xanax. I'd like to have an active prescription on file for my own little pile of anti-anxiety meds for my seemingly endless dental emergencies—that's a thing, right? Chronic Dental Mishap-Related Anxiety? CDMRA, anyone? 

I can see the commercial now, with a person walking up to a dental office, trying to open the door, then running away. Cut to a consultation with a friendly, smiling doctor, then a sheepish grin for the patient, holding the prescription and/or pills in his/her hand. Last shots would include the person walking up to the dental chair, sitting down, and looking relaxed. I'm pretty sure that following the dental work, he/she would exit the office and run directly into a sunny field full of wildflowers, smiling from ear-to-ear, with all those recently fixed teeth glowing in the light.

Yeah, I need some of that, wildflowers included.

Appointment at 2:00.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

If Wishes Were Already Hand-Addressed

I mentioned, way back in mid-December, that our holiday cards had not arrived, despite ordering them early, paying extra for shipping, and generally being on the ball about the whole affair.

My first call to the company brought apologies, a discount, and an assurance that their printing problem was being resolved that night, and my cards would be shipped out the next morning.

My second call to the company brought more apologies, a customer service guy who gave me his email address to keep checking up on the problem, and the assurance that the cards—which were just now coming off the printer, so obviously had not been sent yet—would be shipped out the next morning.

My third call to the company was a "if you can't get these to me by tomorrow, I don't want them" call. They assured me that they would arrive the next day, and explained how the printing problem that I had heard about early in the week meant that they had to ship my order to a different printer in an entirely different area of the country, which had caused the delay. Given the fact that my files were electronic, I'm not sure what they needed to ship, but I found it aggravating that I had been told twice that these puppies were on a press, and they apparently had never really been. I was told not to worry: they were being overnight shipped that evening.

They didn't arrive the next day. They arrived, in fact, the day before our Christmas festivities started, the day before I would have absolutely no time at all to do anything with them, much less mail them in time for Christmas.

We thought that, during our downtime in Wisconsin, we could address them. We packed them all up, and got the address list loaded on the iPad. I had purchased the stamps early in December, "to be ready." Ha, ha, ha…ho, ho, ho.

We didn't address them while in Kenosha. We overate and hung out with relatives and took parents to medical appointments, but we did not address holiday cards. I did hand some out in a haphazard, super-unclassy way at our Christmas Day dinner, however, to aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins. This would have made me happy that I had saved on stamps, except that—as I mentioned—I had already bought stamps by the hundred. "I can save the stamps I would have used on these family cards for letters throughout the year," I thought, and figured I'd use up the majority of the postage when we mailed out the rest of the cards, likely when we returned home to Chicago.

That didn't happen, either.

When we did get home, I called the company again, letting them know what a massive disappointment this whole experience was. They offered me another big discount, which I took. They also offered to let me send my cards in to get New Year's greetings instead. I thought, "If I set my mind to it, I can still get these out in a respectable amount of time," so I turned that down.

I did not get them out in a respectable amount of time. I did not get them out at all, in fact. I did not address a single one.

The fifth time I called the card company, it was to say, "You were right. I should have New Year's cards. May I please send in what I have left (90%) of our holiday cards?"

They said yes—whether I wanted new cards or not, I could return the ones that I had ordered for the holidays for a refund—then they emailed me a shipping label. As the customer service rep and I chatted online, I remembered that we don't have a working printer—ours stopped printing black ink around Thanksgiving, and the one we received as a gift for Christmas, on its first trial run, had the exact same problem; an hour and a half with tech support revealed that our brand new printer could not print black ink, either (what are the chances, right?), so it was returned. I asked the customer service guy if I could have the label sent to me via regular mail, and he told me that he was sorry, but they only use email ("We don't print things out." = irony at its finest). He then suggested that I might want to try going to a library, because libraries let people use computers and printers there.


Wanting to stay plucky about this whole thing, I summoned up some new zest for this long project and designed a new card. I found a new picture. I wrote a clever poem. I felt happy that I could make this happen. New Year's cards, what a great idea!

Two weeks have passed. I have not ordered the new cards. I have not gone to the library to print out the label, nor have I finished researching which kind of printer we are going to buy (the stakes are higher after picking out a lemon the first time.) I have not sent the old cards back.

This, my friends, is why people don't send New Year's cards, traditionally. There is no momentum, no incentive, and no driving desire once you have gotten through the holidays and are back in the swing of the regular schedule, except (in my case) not to lose money on wasted postage. Quite frankly, January days are short and the skies are gray and if I have any extra go-to energy, I'm going to use it brew coffee, not address envelopes.

I can't totally give up, though. I'm a sucker for sentimentality, and holiday cards are one of my favorite sorts. With that in mind, please enjoy our holiday/New Year's greeting, created electronically and brought to you electronically, with the card-company middle-man cut out of the process. Imagine this coming in the mail, or don't imagine that—at this point, imagine that the tooth fairy delivering it on a soft spring breeze if that rings your bell, we all know that the winter holidays are D-O-N-E. Whatever you do, please imagine it is sincere, because it is, and no printing delays will negate the (much belated) sentiment.

December arrived, with its lights and its cheer,
Kori said, "Time to make holiday cards, dear!"
She found a cute photo of the whole family crew,
Used the company she'd favored—they knew what to do!

But even though cards were ordered quite early,
They didn't arrive, and that made us quite surly.
We called and we emailed, texted and cajoled,
Waiting for cards was becoming quite old.

"Printing problems," they said, "But, please don't be miffed!"
"We've figured it out, they'll be there in a jiff."
That was a promise they repeatedly broke,
"Shipping tomorrow" was an unfunny joke.

We thought we'd be clever, and make our own cards,
But our printer stopped working, and it all got too hard.
When our holiday cards finally came to our door,
Sadly, the holidays were here no more.

This wouldn't do, we thought to ourselves.
Next year, we're trusting this process to elves.
We'll return those old cards for a refund of money,
Then share this short poem, which we hope you find funny.

So, friends and family, thank you, so much,
For your holiday cards that kept us in touch.
In lieu of a Hanukkah or Christmas wish here,
Team Lusignan wishes you a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

We're Listing

Have you read an internet list lately? You know the ones: "The Twelve Signs You Worry Too Much," "The Seven Things Happy People Do Everyday," or "The Five Foods You Are Eating Right Now That Might Make You Grow Tentacles." Those lists, the ones that seem to be everywhere now, but are particularly ubiquitous around the close and start of a year.

How do internet lists make you feel?

The hubby and I got in a chat about these over the weekend, and as always, being married to a scientist both a) made me really think about the (seemingly innocuous) published list trend in a fresh, new way, and b) took the fun out of just occasionally enjoying the lists mindlessly.

(Sorry, honey, I'm calling you out, with all of your "truth" and "validation" and "but how/why/where/when was the study that shows that conducted?" What a buzzkill. Don't worry, though, you know that I keep you around because you are so cute, and no double-blind study is required to prove that.)

When media ask the question, "Why don't Americans want to point to science to prove/disprove their beliefs?" I can tell you that, sometimes, the answer is, "Because dealing with whole truth is less fun." But is there truth in these lists? There is some, right?

These lists may point to findings in completely legitimate research studies, or might be the product of good investigative journalism. What they lack, of course, is the whole story—the whole truth, placed in the whole context. This was Mike's main point: they aren't exhaustive, they aren't sufficiently descriptive—in short, they aren't enough, especially if you are going to make significant behavior changes based upon them. The lists tend to make us list—we read the items, then sway from one place to another—but do they give us what we need to right ourselves to equilibrium in the end?

So, back to my question, how do internet lists make you feel? 

At their best, for me, they feel like good reminders of things I already know, but tend to forget or not practice as much as I'd like. "Yes, I should just let the little things go if I want a happy marriage, no I shouldn't eat trans-fats if I want to live a long life, etc." At their worst, they feel overly pat and simplified, e.g., "If you want to reduce your stress, do work that you love!" Well, can we all do work that we love all the time? Really? I'm pro-"do what you love," but I'm also pro-"get paid so you can live." Those things don't always mesh, and hearing out-of-context statistics that let you know that you are doomed if you keep working hard at a job that is not the dream you had for yourself when you were eleven is not exactly helpful in—you guessed it—reducing your stress. Devoid of their original research underpinnings, and lacking the support required to get you from point A to point B, seemingly simple pieces of advice can take on new, yucky lives in our heads. What's that phrase, "the only person who enjoys advice is the one giving it?" Behind every list may be a group of people happy that they finished the list and got paid, a pretty good result for any advice-giver.

With all this in mind, I present for you my list, something to think about the next time your gut tells you to click on something like, "The Seven Activities That Promise Wealth, Health, and A Fancy Car by Next Tuesday."

The Top Five Reasons Your Life Is Not Fully Represented In a List

  1. You did not participate in any of the research being highlighted in these lists.
  2. You are infinitely complex.
  3. You can make some of the "good" choices on the list and some of the "bad" choices, and still come out with multiple outcomes—you are not in control of everything.
  4. You can listen to this advice and apply it for fun, but you never need to listen to anything that just makes you feel crummy, for crumminess sake.
  5. The scientist I live with says so, and he is what some people might call, "crazy-smart."
Have fun listing, everyone.

Monday, January 20, 2014

La Matematica

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Chicago Public School kiddos do not have school. Personally, I don't understand why the kids aren't in school, spending the whole day learning about Dr. King, his legacy, fighting racism and injustice, etc. We can just add that to the whole list of things I'd love to see reformed, I guess, and in the meantime, we'll talk to our kid about Dr. King today, in between making homemade cinnamon-vanilla pancakes, limiting her time playing Minecraft, and finally going to see the movie Frozen before it closes.

Because of her free day, I have limited time to write, but I thought I'd share this moment from yesterday, which pretty much typifies the banter around here. After church, we headed out to brunch, and sometime between the point at which we became completely stuffed and our bill arrived, EJ initiated a conversation about her birthday party. You know, for that birthday she is having at the end of July, some six months from now. The fact that her half-birthday is coming up—when did this become a real thing for kids?—prompted her birthday thoughts, and she suggested that she would like to have an Elf-themed party, sort of a "Christmas in July" with a Buddy-approved menu of candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup. "It can be just like the movie, and kids can come dressed as the three kinds of elves: shoe-making elves, elves who bake cookies in a tree, and toy-makers."

She is nothing if not grandiose in her birthday plans, and most years we have had to talk her down from the idea that every single kid will show up in head-to-toe costume. For goodness sake, one year she suggested that we have a party themed, "The Clownfish Guardians of Doom Lake." If my kid got invited to a party like that, and was asked to wear a costume, I might cry.

Once we had listened attentively and then explained (again) that there was plenty of time to figure out birthday plans, we really need not nail everything down on January 19th, she then started throwing out number games. "I'm thinking of a number between..." is her go-to "I'm bored at a restaurant/in the car/in line at the store," cure. When her turns come around, she always picks her age, the number 81 (or whatever her current favorite number currently is—81 is now in favor because it is 9 x 9, I guess), her classroom number, and then the lowest or the highest number in the range, just to be sneaky. Needless to say, when we have our wits about us, we try to switch to another game once a few rounds of not-really-guessing-because-we-know-her-picks have passed.

Yesterday, our transition started with patterns. The first number I asked her to guess was 16, the next was 32, and when I had my third turn, instead of thinking of another number for her to guess, I asked her to see what those numbers have in common, and to figure out what I might pick next. This make math-guy Mike extremely happy, and he pulled us right out of the "I'm thinking of a number game" into "guess the pattern," which let me tell you, is really hard when you can't write the numbers down and look at the list.

This led to a pattern of prime numbers, at which point the check arrived at our table. We described what prime numbers are, and she was intrigued. We talked about how Mike likes our anniversary date so much because it is prime: 7 for the month, 31 for the day, and how I could care less about that. Mike then pulled out his phone and showed her something interesting about prime numbers online, at which point he and EJ spotted another famous number pattern, and she wanted to stump me with it.

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21...

When I guessed it—the Fibonacci series—she seemed disappointed. I'm usually pretty easily stumped by math, so this was no fun. At that point, Mike asked her something like, "Can you guess by his name where Leonardo Fibonacci was from?" which instantly revived her spirits, and she yelled, "ITALY!" as we walked out of the restaurant.

Now, we already have what I would call, "the Italian problem" going on in our house. My dad, a first-generation American with 100% Italian heritage, has convinced our kid, who is 1/4 Italian (thanks to him), that she is "mostly" Italian. While it is true that her 1/4 Italian accounts for the largest percentage of any one nationality in her genetic mix, statistically speaking, it is still only 1/4 of the whole. EJ is totally onboard with his logic, though, and likes to point out everything and everyone Italian, "just like her."

As we walked down the freezing sidewalk to our car, the following conversation ensued:

Me: "I'm worried that you played into the already-overwhelming belief on EJ's part that all good things in the world come from Italians."

Mike: "Don't worry, once she studies the 1600s, it'll all even out."

Me: "Are you saying that the Italians stop contributing to math then, or is this a larger commentary?"

Mike: "It's most of the major cultural endeavors, really. It's like they just start sitting around, drinking cappuccinos."

Me: "Well, why wouldn't they? They'd already developed art, music, culture, math, cuisine, not to mention Roman engineering---what more did WE need to do for the world?"

Judging by my rapid defense, and my rapid adoption of the first person plural mid-sentence, I guess that 1/2 Italian in me makes me identify as "mostly" Italian, too. The whole exchange made both of us laugh, but it cuts to an interesting observation, too: it only takes a little scratch to the surface for beliefs about "who we are" based on "where we came from" to bubble up to the surface, an idea definitely worthy of reflection on MLK Jr. Day, no matter how you add it up.

Friday, January 17, 2014

I Can Only Promise One-Half Authenticity

One of the benefits of working from home is that, when you are having a slow day—meetings are cancelled, work is done ahead of time, etc.—you can get some stuff done around the house, too. Wednesday was a day like that for me, so instead of doing the mountain of laundry I had waiting for me, I made Sunday sauce, the slow-cooked Italian meat sauce that many Italian-American families make in some version. This was a good choice because:

  1. I friggin' hate laundry. I hate it so, so much. I love Sunday sauce, though!
  2. I'm only 1/2 Italian, so sometimes my 1/4 Swedish and 1/4 English/Scottish/Irish/Who-Knows-What "They showed up in America in the 1600s" takes over, and makes me subversive. Sunday sauce on a Wednesday, take that, tradition!

Sunday sauce, for me, starts with a nice chuck roast, cut into pieces, dried off, salted and peppered, and seared on all sides. Then there are onions, chopped roughly, to pick up all the meaty fond at the bottom of the dutch oven. Garlic, spices, tomato paste, then cook, cook, cook. More fond = add wine, Wednesday's was a pinot noir, but I'm not choosy. Put meat back in, then...wait for the weirdness...add some milk. Yeah, that's right. Milk. Cook the milk down until no liquid remains, and you've basically cooked the milk solids until they are nutty, then add crushed tomatoes, and broth or water (as necessary). Bring to a simmer, lower the heat, cover, cook forever, and/or all afternoon, in a low oven.

When it is done, you get this:

Eat me, in all my meaty goodness.
Just this sauce, with a spoon, is really worth the time. I say spoon, because thanks to the glories of melted interstitial fat, the meat falls apart just by looking at it, no fork and knife required. I didn't stop here though, because all this magic was made to be served with a once-a-year family delicacy: braciole.

Every culture has some kind of "meat pinwheel," and this is ours.
When I was a kid, I hated braciole. Kids can be really, really dumb, especially when it comes to deliciousness. Braciole was made for our big family Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter celebrations, and all of us dumb "don't know what is good for us" kids would watch the adults fight each other for extra pieces, wondering why they would fight for something so yucky. I mentioned all the D-U-M-B, right?

My Uncle Al, my dad's brother, used to be our benevolent helper, whispering in our ears as we got served our slices that we shouldn't balk, we should just say, "Thank you," and then he would be happy to come and get our portions later so we didn't have to eat them. What a hero, right? We thought so! No one wanted to be told by Nana that they were ungrateful for the food that they were served, and this eliminated that whole risk. Look obedient, skip the offending food, everyone wins. Once we got smart enough to eat braciole, his slow-braised gold mine got shut down.

Around junior high, the knowledge kicked in: miss out on braciole, miss out on the big shebang. I have memories of my cousins and I sneaking into my aunt's dining room, before the meal was served, to grab a piece of hot braciole in our hands, then somehow run to another room to eat it—no plate, no utensils, no napkin, no manners—without being observed. Hot, dripping with meat fat, falling apart tender, covered in tomato sauce—this was never a good plan, especially dressed in holiday finery, but we didn't care. Our uncle had mentored us well: whatever it took to get extra slices was worth it.

As an adult, at some point my need to learn to cook for myself in order to stay alive morphed into a need to cook to be creative, to be inspired, to be alive in the bigger sense. Cooking and baking new foods brought adventure; cooking and baking family recipes brought connection. I thought a lot about braciole—at first, I thought about how I had no clue how to even spell it, much less make it. It wasn't one of those recipes we wrote down, it was something that was passed along, and I hadn't asked for my own braciole-making class. Then, in 2002, while I still lived in Arlington, Virginia, I started watching Lidia Bastianich on PBS, observing her Italian techniques, trying to replicate things that my family had been making for years. She then came out with a cookbook specifically for Italian-American cuisine—not Italian cuisine, but the hybrid cuisine created by people like my family, cooks using Italian techniques and respect for ingredients, but with access to the ingredients that were most available in the United States when they immigrated. I had to have the book. I bought it the first week it was on the shelves, and low and behold, I found (her version of) a family treasure right on the first page of the beef section.

Need to make something you love in your favorite (American) Italian restaurant?
Here's your book.

Braised Beef Rolls, aka "Braciole," with the spelling I had only guessed at
confirmed for me in the opening paragraph.
Lidia's version has a bread stuffing inside, which is different than our family's, but the general idea is there. Take some beef, take some pork, take some hard-boiled egg, take some herbs, wrap it up, cook it forever in sauce, slice it and be in heaven.

The PBS series starring Lidia began featuring recipes from this cookbook, and I would try them out as I saw her demonstrate.  When I discovered, quite at the last minute, that she would be speaking and signing books at a Border's bookstore in Falls Church, I took time off of work just so I could leave early enough to make it there from DC, book in hand. When I got to talk to her, I blathered on about how I felt like she was teaching me things that my Nana, now suffering from dementia, and years from actually cooking our meals, could not. I told her how I could now make oven-roasted vegetables that tasted like those made by my Aunt Ellen, my grandmother's sister, and a killer cook in her own right. I even attempted to use some of the Italian I had learned in college. Basically, I sounded like a star-struck idiot. She was really kind, though, and told me how pleased she was that I could now pass all this along, too, and to keep cooking. Then she signed my book, and I started to breathe again.

Grazie, Lidia.
Over the years, I have gotten a lot of cookbooks, and I have gotten rid of a lot, too, because I couldn't keep every book just for one or two recipes. The internet is now so handy, too, I can find things from recipe books and Cook's Illustrated (my go-to cooking magazine, which I wait for in its print version with excitement each month) online, printing out or cataloguing only what I need. A few books have made the cut, though, including this one by Lidia, as well as a few of her others, too. At forty, I've embraced learning all kinds of cuisine with the zest that I had for first learning both Italian and Italian-American foods back in my twenties.

Mom 100 was a gift from my kid for Christmas, because, as she put it,
"You are a cooking mom, Mom!"
You'd think that with all of this fine cooking writing backing me up, I'd have made braciole many times by now. The truth: I never have, and I've never had to, really. I've made our Swedish family's cinnamon rolls with my mom and, when she was alive, my grandmother, more times than I could count, but that's a whole other set of blog posts. Braciole is still on my cooking bucket list, but for now, remains truly a holiday treat with family, made by family. Knowing how special it is, my dad makes extra braciole, which he freezes, vacuum seals, and sends home with each of us every Christmas. Featuring thinly sliced, pounded flank steak, bacon, hard boiled egg, parsley, oregano, basil, salt, and pepper, all cooked in sauce until it is barely holding together, Andreoli-family braciole is probably the best gift we get every year. That's what I sliced into on Wednesday, and served in the meaty sauce deserving of its greatness.

All rolled up and ready to go;
Dad sends us home with one of his braciole every Christmas.
(This only look dirty if you have a dirty mind, btw.)
Cut from its strings, sauced and heated, ready to eat
One of the great things about cooking is that you can always, always learn more. There is no end. I'm sure this is what frustrates some cooks, too, always realizing you could do it better next time, but since food often still tastes good even when it isn't at its best, the risk is pretty minimal, from my perspective.

I like the challenge of cooking, and I like the idea that someday, I'll make braciole on my own, just like my grandmother and my dad have done. I like that once I've made it once, I'll make it again, and practice it, and maybe even put my own spin on it. I like the idea that I can take my own comfort in making my own comfort food, all while stretching my brain and being creative. And quite frankly, I just like how braciole tastes, especially with a nice glass of wine. 

The parsley makes the finished pasta look classy;
the unwiped sauce from the side of the bowl
makes it look like I'm a cook, not a chef.
Rombi, meat sauce, fresh parmesan.
This is how food looks in real life, not in cookbooks.

There are vegetables in the sauce, and fruit in the wine,
and I promise I ate a great big healthy salad the next day.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Going Along in (What Feels Like) Dog Years

A lot of folks have been asking me lately about our dog, Ada, namely, is she dead yet?

No, no one has been that indelicate, crass, or thoughtless, I promise. I know that's the real question, though, being asked by people who love us and love her, typically said with a tilted head, and voice pitched from high-to-low in a soft-spoken, "How is she?" Even if you are asking online, I'm guessing your head is tilted in that "Awh" pose we humans do so instinctively.

I can't blame you, friends. I know what readers here might be thinking, something like, "Geez, Kori, you told us back in November that your sweet old-lady dog was dying, and we got really sad and supportive and in the thick of things with you, and now, here we are in January, and…well…what gives?"

What can I say? Our dog is a punk.

This is not news to anyone who has met her—she has always been sweet, but determined, friendly, but independent, part of the pack, but not one to give up her stance easily. She is, even in the slow haul to death, faking us out and giving us the runaround, all while being gentle, affectionate, and adorable, just to keep us appeased.

Things were looking really, really dire right before Christmas. Ada had rallied over Thanksgiving, as I reported here, and was comforted by an occasional pop tart from her indulgent owners. We had gotten our hopes up, but then she began losing weight quickly again, having trouble eating/keeping food down, and sneezing a lot in a face-contorting way, occasionally spraying blood all around like she was auditioning for the lead role in an all-dog production of Stephen King's, "Carrie." During the weekend EJ was performing in her dance school's staging of "The Nutcracker," Ada gave all of us a show, too, including my visiting parents, as a clot in her nose set her sneezing, leaving our living room, hallway, and bathroom looking like the site of a massacre.  All of these symptoms are consistent with our vet's hunch that she has a nasal tumor—look up "canine nasal tumor" on a web browser, and find yourself reading through comforting gems like this, "Nasal Tumors—A Slow and Insidious Killer."  There's a word you never want used to describe a medical condition: insidious. 

This author also said slow, though, and we weren't so sure she was right on that front. We almost hoped she wasn't, given how wretched watching our pet suffer had become. After the bloodiest, no-food-for 48 hours span mid-December, we were sure that Ada's final trip to the vet would be that week. We prepped EJ. We took pictures of them together. We got ourselves as prepared as we could be, crying like big sobbing messes.

The vet told us, "You'll know when it is time, come in when you know." We didn't know if this was a relief or a burden—what if we don't know, if we never know, and we have to decide, anyway? Once a dog is at least fifteen years old and counting, there isn't a whole lot of life left to miss out on, but still, you never want to say goodbye sooner than necessary, right?

We became more and more grateful that Ada was making the choice easy for us, even as we were sad that she was sick, and then, guess what?

She rallied again.


Maybe she was inspired to go alpha when needing to compete for the food that my parents' dog eats while we were visiting them over Christmas. Maybe it was seeing her family all together, and getting lots of pets and snuggles from her whole extended pack. Maybe it was just that, after weeks of medication, her stomach really did feel better, and her nose was actually a little clearer. We have no idea what tipped the scales for her in a positive direction, but we liked it, so we didn't question it. We bought her some of the food she likes to eat while at my parents' place in Wisconsin for our home, and she started eating regularly. We noticed she was more spry going up and down the stairs. We laughed at how silly we were thinking she was dying just a week before.

Over New Year's, Ada really became more like her old self, albeit a grandmother version of that self. We had house guests, and EJ was excited to pull out her trundle bed for our kid guests to sleep on. By night number two, all the kids were crowded in EJ's bed, and the trundle was taken by old lady dog.

What are you looking at? Every dog has her own twin bed.
Seeing how much comfort she took in that bed, and knowing that once winter break was done, we'd have to put it away, I purchased a dog bed for her. I know, I know, the dog is fifteen, she's never liked dog beds, why on earth would I spend money on one? I'm a sucker, okay, a sucker for the old lady dog. She stayed true to form, though, flat-out refusing to sleep on a dog bed, even though one had been purchased especially for her and her sore elderly joints. Grandma Ada doesn't care about my whims or my budget, she sleeps where she wants. No amount of bribing or treats would make her place a paw on that dog bed, although she did eventually acquiesce to sleep next to it, as if it were her own personal canine body pillow, but only if it was placed on the trundle. Don't believe what a diva she is? Here's photographic evidence:

I bet some other dog would sleep on a dog bed.
I'm not that other dog.
I am nothing if not determined, and even at her sweet old age, that kind of stubbornness demanded my attention. "You will be comfortable, dog! You will sleep on a dog bed that I get you because I love you! You will be spoiled!" ran through my head. My head is a little nutty, I'll admit.

I returned the offending dog bed this past week, and bought another that is very flat, with an orthopedic, "egg crate" foam, encased in a soft barf-and-blood resistant cover. I think it is actually meant to go in the bottom of a crate, but I thought it might be good for Ada just thrown on the floor. I didn't give up, and guess what? I won the battle of wills. HA!

It's no trundle, but thanks anyway, Mom.
Oh, yeah, that's the stuff.
So, that's the update. Is all well? No, not really. Grandma dog has stopped eating her dinner reliably every night, sometimes just picking at it, even though it is the "good" food. Her digestion is getting all wonky again, and my hubby and I are regularly having the chicken-and-egg discussion, "Is her digestion messed up because she isn't eating all her food, or is she not eating all her food because her digestion is messed up?" The sneeze—the horrible, insidious sneeze—seems to be picking up, too, although so far, not with a trail of gory blood spray following behind. She's heading in and out of the yuck, and we just have to play it by year. 

It's not her time yet, but time could be called this month, this week, or tomorrow, even, depending on how all her symptoms conspire together on any given day. For now, who wouldn't love having this sweet sleepy-headed face around, right? Yeah, that's what we think, too.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

You Aren't What You Like, You Are What You Do

My husband and I had a revelation a few years ago, when our daughter was around preschool/kindergarten age. Without intending to do so, we had become small talk liars.

Whenever we were asked, in pleasant "getting to know you" conversations, "What do you like to do for fun?" we recited lists that included things like "going to movies," "singing and playing oboe," (me), "reading science fiction," (Mike), and "traveling."

And while, technically, all those things were true—we did love those activities, and still do—at the moment of our revelation, we couldn't even remember the last movie we had seen, as paying for a film, parking, and babysitting was a $150 outing, something we simply couldn't afford. Travel consisted only of occasional trips for grad school conferences, road trips to visit our friends in our old stomping grounds, Northern Virginia/DC, and of course, moments with grandparents both in our hometown and (when we were really lucky) Florida and Arizona.  I hadn't been in a singing performance group, sadly, in ages, and my oboe playing and singing were now reserved for the music classes I taught babies and toddlers, as well as an occasional gig at a wedding or funeral. As for fiction, Mike was so swamped in PhD work, surrounded by scientific papers in almost every room in our home, the idea of reading fiction was actually comical to him. On those occasional plane trips to visit relatives, he packed bulky computing or neuroscience texts, in lieu of light sci fi reading for fun.

Had we been really reflective, when asked, "What do you like to do for fun?" our answer would have been, "We like to crash like exhausted heaps on the couch and watch television together until we can't stay awake, roughly one hour later. We like to have conversations with each other when possible. We like to have occasional moments entirely to ourselves, with no responsibility—no kid to watch, no chores to do, just an hour or two to ourselves. We like playing with our kid. We like to read funny things on the internet. We like going out to parties or dinner at a restaurant when we can get free babysitting, but we don't like going out too late, because we are too tired. Mike likes to go to the gym and I like to cook, and both of those things can be done every day, so we are grateful."

I really admire people who are dedicated to their hobbies and passions, who always find a way to make them work, even at their most stretched—their most poor, their most time-pinched, their most stressed. It can only be a good thing to keep yourself happy and motivated by pursuing the things that most matter to you, especially in lean times, in order to stay the person you want to be.

We aren't really good at that, the hubby and me. We tend to let work/daily life/family life snuff out our interests, and we have to thoughtfully practice finding ways to keep doing the things that delight us. Last year, I bought Mike an art class as a present, and it was a big hit. He thought he would keep at it, but then admin snafus and enrollment weirdness at the art center nixed the next section of the class, and it fell off the radar. A few years ago, I took up improv classes again, having stopped when I was roughly 38 weeks pregnant with EJ; the first section was fun, but the second was so difficult to get to with traffic crossing town, I was so stressed I couldn't loosen up to enjoy it.

Mike still loves to go to the gym, I still like cooking, too. We're working on the rest.

So it was interesting to me when, yesterday afternoon, I was asked about this blog. "Why are you writing the blog? Is it for work? For fun? What are you writing about, really?"

I found myself rather tongue-tied. This blog is structured for everything, but also not directly for anything, either. It's a commitment I made to myself at my birthday, and I earnestly hope that it leads to more writing and consulting work; at the same time, I am not writing it strictly for work purposes. I write about things that are funny, that happen to me in real life; I write about things that are troubling, sometimes worries or anxieties, other times straight-up difficulties. I write about being a mom, but this isn't a mom blog; I write about my work, but this isn't a work blog; I write about my experiences with the city and the weather and the schools and the weird wonderfulness of living, but I wouldn't be able to put myself in any category based on any one post.

How does one describe that?

When I got home, I realized the answer is simple: I write this blog, because writers write.

I am a writer, not because when I'm asked "What do you like to do?" I respond, "I like to write!" I am a writer because I am writing, each day, writing, practicing, writing, then writing some more. It takes a decision, dedicated time, and a commitment to write even when I struggle to find a subject, and what I think I'm producing isn't great. I'm just going to do it, anyway, every single work day. Why?

Because writers write.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An Open Letter to Comcast/Xfinity

Comcast, yesterday, one of your customer service representatives scolded me for being unprofessional on the phone, for being angry, for raising my voice. He was right—unlike my conversations with just about every other company or service (health insurance may be the one, occasional exception), when I talk to you, I am tense, impatient, and downright seething. Whereas other representatives laugh and chat with me, send me notes with paid bill receipts thanking me for my kindness, drawing smiley faces and stating, "You made my day!" interacting with you leaves me a version of myself I really despise.

You don't know me, but one of my core characteristics is kindness. I believe in giving the benefit of the doubt, and in being friendly whenever possible. I also have a pretty nice sense of humor. Sadly, almost none of your staff currently get to experience me at my best.

My behavior is my responsibility—no one can make me feel angry, I control my own feelings, I understand—but here's the catch: your behavior is your responsibility, too, and I think that, if you reviewed cases like mine, you might feel pretty remorseful.

Comcast, we have had a difficult history, and the story is ongoing. Please take a moment to read this summary of my experience with you, and then listen to my proposal. Let's fix this. Let's find the way for both of us to feel good about our service arrangement.

At least a decade ago, back in Arlington, you attempted to send me to collections and ruin my credit because you had a mailing label problem, which resulted in a large portion of your customer base (including me) unable to receive our bills. I believe one of your customer service agents told me, "Receiving a bill is not the way you know that you owe us money, you should keep track of the dates and amounts in your head."

The commonwealth of Virginia had a lovely consumer hotline I could call about you, at which time I discovered that you had a giant room in your facility filled with return-to-sender bills, all due to this mail-label glitch. The government stepped in on my behalf, and I was given an apology from you, as well as a guarantee that I would not have my financial history ruined due to your own problems.

Once we moved to Chicago for graduate school in 2004, our truly storied history began. It took roughly four years of constant calling, appointments, cable boosters, new equipment, and general frustration before you decided that, yes, you should put an outdoor cable box closer to our unit, as the existing cable box in our alley was at least three times the recommended distance from our unit for us to get a reliable signal. During that process, many, many of your technicians told me this was the only fix—the issue, on our end, was getting this information to the right people in your chain of command to make this happen, and as I learned, anyone above the first few layers of customer service is shielded from direct customer interaction.

During that four-year time frame, I was also told, repeatedly, that for a new box to be installed, I had to get more of my neighbors interested in having cable. One customer does not a problem make, even if that customer is paying for service that is not being received. I suggested that, if cable was working properly, more people might actually be willing to pay for it, and as it turns out, many of our building neighbors now use your services.

Things evened out for us—your service was good, and our internet provider was poor, so we decided to add your high speed internet. This was our golden age of company/customer relations.

Fast forward to the blizzard of 2011, and during a power surge that knocked out power to our building mid-storm, our modem was fried. Once power was back up, we realized that we had no internet. At the time, we did not have smart phones, so without your service, we were well and truly cut off from the web. We called in for service, set up an appointment, and no one showed up. We repeated this. Nothing. This happened four times I think, maybe five? Two weeks of extreme frustration later, someone finally figured out that the original customer service agent added a code/forgot to add a code/miscoded our request, which meant that our service was instantly dropped when it got to the field. During that time, though, we were told, yet again, that no one from customer service could contact the local Chicago techs to see what the problem was—it was literally impossible for them, as they were given none of this contact information. Just one call to the local Chicago techs would have revealed that they had not received any of our service requests due to this coding error, but instead, we were unable to work from home for over ten business days.

When a tech finally did come, you're really going to love the outcome: he couldn't fix anything, because he didn't have any equipment for us loaded on his truck. A day or two earlier, my husband had determined that the problem was not with the modem, but with the power cord leading to the modem, and had replaced it with a similar one in our home. It worked, although we weren't sure it was the correct longterm fix. Since your tech guy had no way to help us (remember: no equipment on the truck), he took a quick look and said, "Okay, just use that, I think it will be fine." 

I'm not writing today primarily because of those past problems, though. I'm writing because of our recent four-months-and-counting "conversation" about our intermittent internet service. As I know you know—because wow, we have just talked this to death, haven't we?—almost every day since August, our internet service goes in-and-out hundreds of times an hour. This means uploading, downloading, streaming, and live chat are all difficult, if not impossible at times. As I've also let you know, both my husband and I work from home—we get paid to be here working, using the internet as our communication connection—so this problem is costly and damaging to our work.

Since August, we have had four service visits, all of which resulted in techs determining absolutely nothing wrong at our home. When we call you back, attempting to let you know that this must be a system problem, we are told that the only thing you can do is to send out a tech, and he can contact a lineman. The techs have contacted linemen, of course, and the problem still isn't fixed.

We have been offered new bundle deals during this time, in order to bring our monthly costs down, and assuage our anger. One manager in your retention department, I believe, suggested that I could get the phone package, never even use the phone, and save at least $10-15 per month. I agreed, stating that he was right, I would never use the phone—if the internet was this wonky, why would I also rely on your company for my phone service?—and he said this would be fine. Once I received my bill, I realized that our cost had gone up by a few dollars, not dropped, so I called back in to have the price I was quoted honored. You let me know that you can't just take my word on it, and I was out of luck. In addition, my previous price was no longer available to me, so I was informed I might as well keep all the new services.

Sigh. You see where this is going, right?

At the same time, a bug in your system made it impossible for me to log in to my account online. It was a bug—I know a bug when I see one, thank you very much—but I was repeatedly told it must be something on my machine. I did all the troubleshooting with you, several times. I let you know that I had tried to access my account using several browsers, through our computer, phones, iPad, and my parent's PC in Wisconsin, and none of those had worked. At that point, you said you could set up a ticket for me, but only if I could provide information I could not access, because…wait for it…there was a bug making it impossible for me to access my account!

You had a work around, though—you could call me to confirm I was who I said I was. You called. Nothing. You called again. Nothing. You asked me if my call waiting was working, and I said yes. Then, when I asked which number you called, you told me it was my Comcast phone number. When I told you that I never use that, and was told I would never need to do so, you let me know that was now my official number with Comcast for troubleshooting, so unless I hooked up a phone to it, I could never receive any help. You then agreed to send me a pin number via the mail, as that might be enough security clearance to proceed in the future—you weren't sure, I still might need to hook up that phone, but the pin could help.

After this pre-holiday exasperation, I just acquiesced. Our service was awful, there was no fixing it. I watched the mail for the pin number to arrive. I didn't even bother calling when we had hours of terrible internet, it was just not worth it. Once the holidays passed, though, and we were back in the full swing of work, I had to call again, as our service was just too awful to ignore. As per usual, my ticket could not be escalated in anyway, all that could happen was another technician visit.

On Sunday, we got lucky, and a really great technician came to our home. He spent two+ hours here, going through everything, problem-solving, essentially determining that nothing was broken on our end (as other techs had), but also eliminating a booster that might have been causing problems. He told me that, using his diagnostics, he could clearly see that our connectivity was horrible, and we should be credited for all the disruptions to service. Then he did the ultimate kindness for us: he called your help line to get us access back into our account. I listened as you asked him to do all the troubleshooting I had done, when you told him it must be my computer or browser, and I observed as he was able to get you to do something you wouldn't do for me: try to get in yourself, and determine that yes, there was a bug that needed fixing. This tech also had me speak with his supervisor, who listened to all of my experiences, and seemed to want to follow-up on this case, should I still have problems.

Unfortunately, yesterday morning, less than twenty-four hours after this service call, the exact same intermittent, interrupted internet problem that we had become all too accustomed to occurred, resulting in my need to call customer service yet again. 

During yesterday's call, I started with repairs, who transferred me to billing, because I had asked for at least some money back for the service I was not receiving, based in part on what your technician had advised me to do. Billing seemed irritated that I was trying to talk to her, and kept telling me I had called the wrong department, as she couldn't adjust my bill, only repairs could. She then transferred me back to repairs, who scheduled another service appointment for me today, then told me that I would need to be transferred to billing to get any help with a credit, but he wanted to inform me that I would not receive any credit until our problem had been resolved by a technician. That's right—I was transferred to three people, and then told that I should continue to pay full price (a BIG BILL, by the way) for my service while it DOESN'T work, but once you fix it, I could get some money back. He also let me know that if the tech arrived today, and the problem was on our end, I would be charged for the visit. I had to agree to this in order to even have service scheduled.

As you might imagine, it was during interaction #3 with repair department rep #2 that I really lost my cool. That's when I got the lecture on behavior.

The thing is, your company inspires a feeling of hopelessness, and hopelessness makes people defensive. I don't need to feel anymore futility when I ask for help from a big system: I send my kid to a Chicago public school, I know what it means to feel like no matter how loud you scream that something isn't working, and how much your local unit (your school) wants to address something, the folks in charge at the central office will not listen.

Following yesterday's call, I filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. I couldn't detail all of our history, but I hope I captured the spirit of my experience, as well as enough detail to help you understand how you can take responsibility for your crummy service.

This morning though, there was a glimmer of new hope. The supervisor I spoke with on Sunday, sitting alongside the amazing tech who came on Sunday, called me up, stating that they noticed I was back on the list for service, and were concerned about the problem. The supervisor apologized for not leaving me with his number on Sunday, said that our modem was now going to be watched for a month, sending alerts to him whenever the connectivity fell off, and asking me to call him whenever it dropped off significantly, so he could get as much information as he could to fix the issue. He is also sending technicians out to investigate our outdoor boxes, external devices, etc.


As I've noticed throughout our hours of communication over the years, there are many people in your organization who really want to help. They are kind, and they certainly don't deserve to be yelled at by disgruntled customers who are losing their minds due to continual administrative runaround. Talking to the tech and supervisor today reinforced my belief that, had anyone in your customer service department been allowed to bypass all the scripts and procedures and structure, and simply put me in touch with local technicians, so much hassle and agitation could have been avoided.

Reaffirmed by my core belief that organizations can always learn, grow, develop flexibility, and make the world for employees and customers better, I am going to propose a radical ongoing solution:


I have mentioned many times during my irritated phone calls to your company that I am an organizational development consultant, and as I work with your system as a customer, I find that I am continually hitting wall after wall of completely addressable problems—problems I have helped to eliminate at other organizations. They aren't necessarily easy or comfortable to fix issues, but fixable, they are. I like helping companies fix problems—it makes me incredibly happy, actually—and I'd be all-the-more joyous to do it for a company with so much potential to positively impact so many people.

I specialize in story work, in behavior change, in shifting ways of thinking to increase learning, satisfaction, and overall effectiveness in the workplace. Should you wish to use my services, I would be more than happy to do the following, as a start:
  • Listen to the stories given by customers reporting repeated/unresolved problems: you state that your calls are recorded for training purposes, and I could use those tapes or transcripts to identify and code patterns in customer stories that could be addressed by different resolution techniques.
  • Listen to the stories of customer service representatives, asking them to identify times at which they realized that the help that they were able to offer was insufficient; I would seek to find out how providing an ineffective solution made your employees think and feel, and determine if they felt the procedure could be modified to better meet customer requirements.
  • Help implement a constant improvement system with incentives for all customer service agents, which would allow them at any time to suggest real-time alternative service improvements that could be both a) beta-tested across areas and b) recommended for the client who inspired the response (i.e., the "new solutions" team could call the specific client back to try the suggestion within 48 hours); think of this like members of an assembly line being able to stop the line at any moment to suggest an improvement/identify a new problem, with every member of the crew enfranchised to think, be creative, help, etc.
  • Investigate ways to escalate or localize service for repeat problems, without overloading the local systems. Create feedback loops between national customer call centers and local technicians, develop brainstorming events across these specialities to instigate new learning.
  • Add novel questions to the customer service troubleshooting arsenal based upon the stories evaluated and brainstorming sessions held, allowing representatives to track additional levels of customer (dis)satisfaction. For example, based on my experiences, I might ask a customer like me any/all of the following: "Since you began having problems, have you seen commercials detailing the Comcast/Xfinity service guarantee? What is your reaction to or impression of our company when you see them? How do you feel we are living up to that guarantee? What would you need us to do to meet that promise? What would resolution look like for you?"
That's just a start, Comcast. Think of me like a crime-scene investigator, where the stories of your customers and staff are my clues, and the crime committed is poor service, both technical and interpersonal. This is a preventable crime, I promise, we just need to sort it out. I'm up to the task. I'm good at my job. 

I don't know what is next for us, Comcast, but of course, I don't know if I'll even have internet access right now when I go to hit "publish" on this post. I will tell you this: I want to help, I don't want to yell. Call me, and I can forward you my resumé and a list of individuals you can call who will recommend me. I can also send you a copy of my master's thesis, all about how organizations can help inspire individual change among their employees, and in turn, benefit from those changes as a community. 

I'm ready to help. Let's make this work.