Finding my voice

Two days ago, I retracted my acceptance of a senior management position that would have made good use of my skills and experience, covered my health care expenses, significantly bolstered my retirement cushion and provided a salary commensurate with the high level of responsibility and expectations of the job.

I did this after two days in which I was subjected to questions about my political and personal beliefs and my professional associations.  This followed the reactions of a handful of intolerant people who protested my appointment.  They objected to the work of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), one of the world’s most principled humanitarian organizations, in a region of the world that is fraught with complexity and conflict..and, by my association with NRC, they objected to me.  They questioned work I had done with the Norwegian Red Cross in the same region, work I am proud to have done and done well.  They disapproved of people I have worked with, attacking views they had expressed with courage and conviction.  I was destabilized.  I was shaken.

Why this should have come as such a surprise to me is, well, surprising.  From my  comfortable perch on top of the world in social democratic Norway, I had followed the rise of fundamentalism in an increasingly polarized America.  I have lazily expressed my outrage by reposting a Facebook article or a meme from those who have been raising the alarm of fundamentalism for many years.  Such virtue signaling didn’t cost me anything.

On my return to the US, I naively thought that I could remain shielded from such narrow-mindedness and continue to express my outrage from wherever I sat comfortably perched.  I never imagined that I would come face-to-face with it so soon and in such an unexpected way…or that it would be represented by so few who were given so much power.  In the end, walking away from this was pretty easy.

There is nothing like a bunch of reactionary voices to clarify one’s own voice.  This clarity came at a price, albeit a relatively small one for me.  Others have paid a far greater price defending their beliefs and values.  I do not presume to stand among them.  Writing is my therapy and I really just needed to get this off  my chest!

 

 

Living Big

One of my biggest challenges since moving to Houston has been getting enough exercise.  Unlike my life in Oslo, walking is not a mode of transport here.  On an average day in Oslo, my iPhone app told me that I walked between 7,500 and 12,000 steps a day, and this, without counting my running or other exercise.  Here in Houston, I struggle to get in 2,000 steps.  My car, on the other hand, gets a lot of exercise.  I guess that is how she stays so svelte.

Today I decided to use running as a mode of transport to visit my mother who is in hospital at the Texas Medical Center recovering from surgery.   Did I mention that I live only a few kilometers from the Texas Medical Center (TMC)?

The TMC employs 106,000 people who provide medical services to 10 million patients a year.  The TMC comprises 54 medical institutions, 21 hospitals (my mother is in one of them), 4 medical schools, 7 nursing schools, 2 pharmacy schools, and a dental school. More heart surgeries are performed here than anywhere in the world.  The TMC is home to the world’s largest children’s hospital (Texas Children’s Hospital) and the largest cancer hospital (MD Anderson Cancer Center).  And, with a GDP of $25 billion, the TMC is the world’s largest medical complex.  This is BIG business!  Ironically, the medical institutions are part of the Texas Medical Center Corporation, a non-profit umbrella organization.  Someone is making a lot of money at the TMC and, with more than 160,000 visitors each day, I believe it is whoever manages the parking garages.

My 4-km run to TMC began directly across the street from my apartment at Hermann Park.  I am lucky to live so near to one of Houston’s most visited green spaces.  Hermann Park is home to the Houston Zoo, a great running track, a 9-hole golf course, a Japanese garden and the Miller Outdoor Theater.  On any given day, the park is full of people like me whose cars get more exercise than they.  The running trail is lined with gorgeous oak trees dripping with the Spanish moss that is so symbolic of the Southern US and makes me think of swamplands and bayous and crawfish and the blues.

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The Marvin Taylor Trail at Hermann Park

As with most of my running activities, I like to listen to a variety of podcasts.  Today’s playlist included one of my favourites, On Being, an award-winning podcast that describes itself as a program that asks “What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?”.  Despite its somewhat complex themes, the program is always inspiring and always uplifting…something to which I increasingly turn to counter the rather depressing traditional news programs here in the US.

The program is usually an interview format but today I listened to a special broadcast from a theater in New York entitled Stories about Mystery.  One such story was a reading of “The Doctor and the Rabbi“, written by Aimee Bender, a novelist and short-story writer.  The story, read by a great American actress, Ellen Burstyn, begins with:

The doctor went to see the rabbi. “Tell me, rabbi, please,” he said, “about God.”

The rabbi pulled out some books. She talked about Jacob wrestling the angel. She talked about Heschel and the kernel of wonder as a seedling that could grow into awe. She tugged at her braid and told a Hasidic story about how at the end of one’s life, it is said that you will need to apologize to God for the ways you have not lived.

“Not for the usual sins,” she said. “For the sin of living small.”

I don’t know if it was the endorphins kicking in or my romantic association to the Spanish moss but these words struck me deeply and I have been mulling over them throughout the day.

I feel challenged (in a good way) by the notion that it is a moral imperative to live our lives to the fullest, to live big, and that this is what is expected of us; this is our normal.  And I began to wonder what it would look like for me to live this way on a daily basis.  I think of those cheesy refrigerator magnets I so quickly dismiss; “Do what you think you cannot”, “Build your own dreams, or someone else will hire you to build theirs” and “If you can dream it, you can do it”.  What if those kitchen magnets are right?  What would that look for me?  What would that look like for you?

America The Difficult

I have been back in the United States of America for a little over two months now.  That means I have been out of Europe for a little over two months, enough time to start missing things I’ve left behind; things like universal health care, job security, respectable  and intelligent heads of state, and friends.  I will, of course, make new friends and I have many of them in the US, just not yet in Houston.

It is unlikely that I will see universal health care in my lifetime.  Even though the Affordable Care Act is a big step forward, America is decades behind most other industrialised countries in providing health care for its citizens.

Job security for most Americans is a thing of the past and I even wonder how long this will continue to be the norm in Europe.

As for a respectable head of state, 2020 is not that far away and I am willing to ride the “Oprah for President” wave or any other wave that can put a human being who’s like, really smart in the White House.

When visiting, I had the impression that everything was easy in the US.   “America the beautiful” was also “America the easy”; easy because there are a lot of people to make things work, easy because I know the language, easy because stores are open all the time and easy because, well it is America and look how easy it is to become President…

Since moving back here, I find that not everything is easy.  Yes, there are a lot of people to make things work—according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 158 million of them—but this does not always make things easy.  Take my bank for example.  There are so many people to make things easy that each time I call with a simple question, I get to talk to 3 or 4 of them.  A typical call will go something like this:

Confusing Recorded Automated Answering System (CRAAS):  Thank you for calling XXXX Bank.  Please enter the last four digits of your account number. If you are calling about xxx, please press 1.  If you are calling about yyy, please press 2 (and so on and so forth).  

CRAAS:  Please stay on the line.  A customer service specialist will be with you shortly.  This call is being recorded.

Really bad background music plays for a few minutes…

Customer Service Representative:  Thank you for calling XXXX Bank.  My name is John.  May I know who I am speaking with? (Doesn’t John know never to end a sentence with a preposition?)

Roberta:  My name is Roberta.

John:  May I know your last name? (John didn’t give me his so why should I give him mine?)

Roberta:  Bensky

John:  Thank you Miss Roberta (so why did I give him my last name if he doesn’t use it?)  May I have the last four digits of your account number?

Roberta:  9999 (Didn’t the CRAAS already ask me for this?  What has the CRAAS done with the last four digits of my account number?)

John:  Thank you.  For security purposes, may I send a verification code to your phone now?

Roberta:  Yes.

John:  May I have your telephone number (Don’t they have this information already?)

Roberta:  555-555-5555.

John:  Thank you.  Please know that XXXX Bank does not charge for this service but your telephone carrier may charge for this service.  Do I have your permission to send the verification code to your phone now?

Roberta:  Yes.  (Code arrives and I recite it to John).

John:  Thank you, Miss Roberta.  For security purposes, may I know your mother’s maiden name?

Roberta:  (I tell John my mother’s maiden name, but how old-fashioned is that???)

John:  Thank you, Miss Roberta.  How may I help you today?

Roberta:  I am wondering why I was charged $43.00 for something called “foreign exchange rate fee”?

John:  I do not see this charge on your credit card.

Roberta:  It was charged to my debit card.

John:  I’m afraid I only deal with credit card issues.  I will now transfer you to a customer service representative who specialises in debit card issues.  Please stay on the line.

Roberta’s internal dialogueOMG! WTF?

Really bad background music plays for a few minutes…

John:  Thank you for waiting, Miss Roberta.  I have explained your situation to my colleague, Jane, who will help you.  Thank you for calling XXXX Bank and have a wonderful day.

Roberta’s Internal Dialogue:  Well, it started out wonderful but is rapidly going downhill…

Jane:  Hello.  My name is Jane.  I am here to help you.  May I have your first and last names and your mother’s maiden name?

Roberta’s internal dialogueOMG!  WTF?

I feel it is important to note that (1) this bank HAS MY MONEY; (2) this bank USES MY MONEY WHEN I AM NOT USING IT; (3) this bank MAKES ME PAY TO USE MY MONEY; and (4) a reliable consumer magazine RANKS THIS BANK HIGH ON CUSTOMER SERVICE.

Why can’t banks be more like Lexus dealerships? (see Buying a Car in Texas – Part III (finale))

 

 

 

 

 

Buying a Car in Texas – Part III (finale)

The Good News

I bought a car  Yes, I did it.  I bought a car…an SUV…a Lexus.  I wasn’t planning to buy a Lexus.  I was planning to buy a Honda or a Toyota.  I gave Honda their chance.  I gave Toyota their chance.  Neither of them won me over…neither of them came even close.  In the end, Lexus won me over with a quality product, professional sales people, solid pricing and cars that, according to my “car therapist/brother-in-law” Phil and my friend Marsha, last a very, very long time.   I would venture a guess that there are far fewer Lexus vehicles in landfills than Toyotas or Hondas.

img_6296.jpgHere are some of the reasons I bought a “pre-owned” 2013 Lexus RX350:

  1. Lexus listens to its customers.  When I told the salesperson Stefanie my budget, she presented me with three options that were within my budget…not even slightly over my budget.  Lexus knows how to listen to its customers.
  2. Lexus knows what people like.  When I drove the RX350, the first thought that came to mind was “I feel as if I am driving on a cloud”.  I had never driven on a cloud before.  It is nice to drive on a cloud.  I think everyone should drive on a cloud.
  3. Lexus cares about its products.  The car was spotless, had new tires, new brake pads, and comes with a full 2-year warranty that covers EVERYTHING.  Stefanie also informed me that the car comes with free car washes forever and free oil changes.  When I asked her if the car also comes with a unicorn, she smiled and, after only a slight hesitation, said “yes, and fairies too”.  For a moment, I actually believed her.
  4. Lexus cares about its customer’s backs.  Their seats have fully adjustable lumbar support.  It is nice to have lumbar support.  My back is happier with lumbar support.  I think everyone should have lumbar support.
  5. Lexus knows how to take care of its customers when they wait.  While I was waiting for the financing paperwork to be completed, Stefanie ushered me to the on-site coffee bar where a barista took my order (a double cortado), prepared it on a genuine La Marazocco machine and offered me a full-sized whole-grain muffin.  There was no charge.  I know, I know, the cost of these services is built in to the car pricing.  I don’t care.  I like having a great coffee and a healthy muffin while I am waiting for financing.  I think everyone should have a great coffee and a healthy muffin while waiting for financing.
  6. Lexus gets financing for the customers.  Honda turned me down.  Six banks have turned me down.  Toyota got me financing but it took 3 days.  Lexus got me financing in an hour.
  7. Lexus bathrooms are decorated with oil paintings.  I know, this is not at all important when buying a car and probably does not affect performance.  But how could I not mention it here?
  8. Lexus knows how to treat its customers.  Stefanie, Christy (the financing person), and Chris (the technician who “trained” me on the use of my new vehicle) are all adult human beings and they treat their customers like adult human beings.  They do their job and they do it well.  Lexus knows how to treat its customers.

I have been driving my new (for me) pre-owned vehicle for several days now.  I am happy.  I think everyone should be happy.  I think everyone should drive a Lexus.

The Bad News

Trump is still President and I spent a sleepless night worrying about getting health care coverage by 1 January 2018 because of my decision to settle in Houston rather than in Austin.  In the end, I think it will work out.  But I am not used to worrying about such things and, for a civilised country, it is disheartening that I or anyone else should have to worry about such things.  The Affordable Care Act is a blessing (thank you, President Obama) but there are still some hoops to jump through to get it working for me as an unemployed individual moving back to the US after 26 years.  I’ll write about that another time.

*  * *

For now, I will sign off with wishes for a peaceful and meaningful holiday.  May you find oil paintings in all public bathrooms you happen to visit and may all your journeys be on a cloud.

cloud_9

 

Saturday Morning Musings

Saturday 9 December

7:30 a.m.:  Coffee in bed, browsing the internet for cars (yes, I’m still looking but have survived surprisingly well without one so far).

8:50 a.m.:  Breakfast at Cenote, “East Austin’s Neighborhood Patio Cafe” while waiting for the local branch of the Austin Public Library to open at 10.00.  I will pick up two books I had reserved:  Getting Started in Consulting and The Gates of the Alamo.  A book for the future and a book about the past.

9:57 a.m.:  At the door of the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library, I am impressed to see a small group of young men waiting with me.

10:00 a.m.:  The sliding door opens.  The group of young men rush past me and head directly to the restroom.  They live on the streets of Austin and the restroom is a place where they can attend to their needs in privacy and with dignity.  I have traveled throughout the developed and developing world and I have seen people living on the streets of Bangalore, Oslo, Colombo, Paris…still, the sight of them in one of the world’s richest countries depresses me.  It is heartening to observe the library staff who are kind and polite to everyone who enters the doors here.

Houston?  Why Not?

It has now been a few weeks since I came to Austin and I’ve just returned from a week visiting friends in Washington.  I have now decided to settle down in Houston rather than in Austin.  After years of visiting my parents in Houston and thinking “I could never live here”, I have to come realize that I could actually live here/there.  Here are some salient facts about my soon-to-be new home:

  1. Houston is the most ethnically diverse metropolitan area in the United States.
  2. Houston’s economy is larger than that of Norway and Sweden.  In fact, only 21 countries in the world have a GDP larger than Houston.  Houston is home to 26 Fortune 500 companies, many of which are in the oil and gas industry and thousands of people are  employed by the Port of Houston, NASA and the Texas Medical Center.
  3. Residents of Houston eat out more times a week than in any other city in America
  4. Houston is one of America’s “fattest cities” with an estimated 34% of the population classified as overweight (see 3 above)
  5. Houston has one of the best culinary scenes in the country (more than 10,000 restaurants representing more than 70 countries and regions of America) (see 3 and 4 above)
  6. It is home to the largest medical center in the world with 54 medicine-related institutions situation on 1,000 acres of land with an average of 7.2 million visits per year.  There are more heart surgeries performed in the Texas Medical Center than anywhere else in the world (see 3, 4 and 5 above)
  7. Houston is the fourth most populous city in the nation with 2.3 million residents (add one more in a few weeks’ time)
  8. Houston has the third largest number of languages spoken in the US surpassed only by New York and Los Angeles
  9. The first traditional Hindu Mandir in the US was built in Houston.. The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir was assembled like a puzzle. Consisting of 33,000 pieces of Italian marble and Turkish limestone, the temple was carved by hand and took 28 months to build.
  10. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is one of the biggest rodeoNutella Ballss in the world, attracting 2.5 million attendees each year.  It is also known for serving foods like deep-fried Nutella Balls and fried Twinkies (see 3, 4, 5 and 6 above).
  11. Beyoncé is from Houston.

As I move into my 57th year on this earth, I have come to know a bit about myself and a bit about life.  Here is what I am pretty sure of this Saturday morning:

  1. I can change my mind whenever I want to and no one will die because I did.
  2. There is no perfect place to live but there are places that feel good, especially those where family and friends are close by.
  3. Living close to a green space where I can run has become a priority for me in my search for an apartment…that would not have even entered my mind 7 years ago.
  4. Living in a State where it is legal for licensed permit holders to carry a gun openly causes me more concern than if I lived in a State that did not allow this.
  5. Buying a car is a horrible experience…it just is…there is no way around it.
  6. Buying a bike is a pleasant experience…I want to buy one every day.

 

 

Buying a Car in Texas: Part II (or how not to buy a car in Texas)

I write this from the outdoor patio of Clark’s Oyster Bar where I have treated myself to a most perfect meal of lobster roll, slivered fries with rosemary and homemade sweet and sour cucumbers, all washed down with a glass of crisp Muscadet and topped off with a perfectly pressed espresso.  I really needed a treat today and I could not have found a better one.

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Solace at Clark’s Oyster Bar

If you are following from “Buying a Car in Texas: Part I“, you will know that I had settled on purchasing a somewhat sensible compact SUV with excellent safety features and a quiet ride. According to Consumer Reports, one of America’s most reliable sources of product testing and ratings, I should buy a Honda CR-V or a Toyota RAV4.   Armed with this in-depth online knowledge, I set out to buy one of those.

 

In preparation, I researched things like “what to look for in a car”, “how to negotiate the price of a car”, “what to consider when test driving a car” and “Austin’s best Tex-Mex restaurants” (that last one because I am always looking for a good Tex-Mex restaurant).  I had a checklist and a budget, both of which provided a useful baseline from which to measure how far away from them I would move in the end.   It was time to venture out into the oh-so-treacherous world of car dealerships.

My first dealership was nice enough but we did not see eye-to-eye on anything.  Clearly, our astrological signs were totally incompatible.  Although we gave it a good try, it just was not meant to be.  We parted friends but I do not expect we will see each other again.

My second dealership tried to meet my needs on several levels and I started to believe there might be a future for us.  However, a second date of mind-numbing boredom led me to the realization that we do not share the same values or approach to relationships.  I decided that a clean break was best for us both and I walked out, not looking back.

I met my third dealership online.  After exchanging a few pleasantries, we agreed to meet the next day.  My more modest expectations resulted in a few successful test drives.  I was impressed that he allowed me to drive the vehicles on my own.  He was not clingy and I liked that he valued my independence.  We were able to discuss openly our expectations of the relationship upon which we were embarking and we shared past mistakes, without judgement.  There was just the sticky issue of the dowry.  I left our first date feeling confident he would be able to propose something acceptable.  He promised I would hear from him the next day.

Alas, there has been no word from him: no email, no text message, no phone call.   I have, of course, considered the possibility that he got run over on his way to work or that he contracted a rare Texas flu that has resulted in total amnesia.  Most likely he is already in a relationship with another make or model.  Crushed, I sought solace in the arms of Clark’s Oyster Bar.  At least Clark did not let me down.

There has been one bright spot in this oh-so-treacherous world of car dealerships:  I had a solid and supportive shoulder to cry on in the form of my brother-in-law, Phil in Winnipeg.  Phil was at the receiving end of several frantic phone calls from dealership parking lots and more than a few text messages (my sister Carolyn played an integral role in facilitating these sessions).  Had it not been for his sound advice and calming words of wisdom, I would have abandoned all hope.

Yet, I knew there had to be someone out there for me…and I think I’ve found him.

Ray at Bicycle Sports Shop has introduced me to the pleasures of Specialized pedal-assisted bicycles.  In a city famous for its hills, I found it impossible to resist such temptation.   Ray and I spent two amazing hours together riding up and down hills, he a steady companion at my side showing me not only how to keep a steady course but also encouraging me to shift gears every now and then and, most importantly, to enjoy the ride.  I think Ray and I definitely have a future together…