Culture Shock

When people travel to other countries, they often speak of culture shock. I’ve experienced this myself on many occasions. But I think culture shock, in general, has an unwarranted bad reputation.

Many people think that culture shock is something to be avoided. They use it as an excuse to remain in their comfort zones and not explore the wider world. Culture shock may be a bit uncomfortable, but I believe that just as a defibrillator can get your heart beating again, a culture shock can get your brain working and nourish your very soul.

Whenever I experience culture shock, I learn something about myself and the society in which I live. It makes me realize that there are certain things that I take for granted that other people do not. It makes me look at myself differently. It makes me appreciate what I have. It makes me wonder about the things that I lack. It causes me to think about the fact that there are many different ways to live, and my way may not necessarily be the best way.

Culture shock can be something very simple, such as going into a McDonalds in the Netherlands and discovering that they ask if you’d like mayonnaise with your fries rather than ketchup. (To this day, I prefer mayonnaise. I cannot remember the last time I put ketchup on anything.)

Or it can be something huge, such as not being allowed to rent a car in Turkey until I could show the agency that I could actually drive it around the block. (I then realized that I was seeing very few women behind the wheel there. It made me really appreciate my feminist freedoms.)

It can be rather jolting, such as going from Mexico, where I was the tallest person in any room, and where their extremely close concept of personal space made me uncomfortable, and then going to the Netherlands, where I was the shortest person in any room, and where their extremely distant concept of personal space made me uncomfortable.

I always thought I was a nice person until I went to Canada, where everyone is really, really, really nice. I always feel 1,000 times fatter when I go to Europe. In Croatia, I realized that I really should take the time to relax more. Spain made me appreciate a good nap. The Bahamas made me truly get how terrifying the thought of sea level rise can be. Turkey reminded me that all of civilization is built upon past history. Hungary taught me that some past history can be rather terrifying.

I have never, ever traveled to another country without learning a great deal about myself and my place in the wider world. I genuinely believe that if more Americans traveled, they’d be a lot more open minded. This trend toward rigid, “America first” inflexibility is scary and extremely detrimental.

It breaks my heart that because of COVID-19, we’re all forced to stay closer to home. I suspect I won’t leave the country again until a vaccine is developed, and that’s frustrating because the older I get, the more I realize how little time I have left. I need the occasional culture shock to appreciate being alive.

Dear reader, my wish for you is that, in healthier times, you get a chance to be shocked by the wider world.


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Wildly Inappropriate

Once, I met an employee who worked in another department, and learned she had just had a baby. I congratulated her, as one does. I barely knew her, and doubted I’d have the opportunity to know her better. We traveled in very different circles. This was a random encounter, and I sort of figured that was that.

Later that day, I received an e-mail from her entitled “baby pictures”. I thought that was sweet, that she wanted to show me her baby. So I clicked on the e-mail.

And I let out this shriek that I’m sure made all my coworkers jump out of their skins.

Because what she sent me was pictures of her in the process of giving birth. And by that I mean close ups of all her most hairy private places, with a gooey, bloody baby’s head trying to burst therefrom. It was like a scene from Alien. That image is imprinted on my brain, despite all efforts on my part to exorcise it. Why? Just… why?

Believe me when I tell you that this is a vision that I would never voluntarily see. At the very least it should have come with a warning label. I am not interested in gazing at the nexus of any mammal, clothed or unclothed if I’m honest, and certainly not when it’s in the midst of doing… that. And most especially when it’s someone I’ve only just met.

I mean, seriously, who sends pictures like that? Who takes pictures like that? “Yes, dear, that’s your mother, in the most pain she’s ever been in in her entire life, and look! There’s your mushy little head!”

Every once in a while, someone will do something that’s so wildly inappropriate that I’m rendered speechless. Do they just not care at all about societal norms, or do they enjoy the shock value? Are they completely detached from reality, or are they testing the waters to see what they can get away with? Who knows.

And no, I can’t remember what I said to that woman. I can’t even remember what most of her looks like. Sorry. I just had to vent.


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Sweet Relief

Unless you have no pulse at all, you are carrying stress within you, even as you read this. We all do. It’s part of modern life. It comes from a feeling of being overwhelmed, and thinking that you can’t cope with a situation.

According to Wikipedia, that font of all human knowledge, stress can increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks, ulcers, and mental illnesses such as depression. So needless to say, stress is bad for you.

What I find particularly scary is how easily I fool myself into thinking I’ve gotten used to a certain level of anxiety. It’s as if I am coping simply because I’ve come to expect that I will have to wade through some crap, and that’s just the cost of doing business.

That doesn’t mean the stress, with all its toxic side effects, has disappeared. It just means that I’ve resigned myself to it. That’s problematic, because it also means that I’m no longer trying to do anything to relieve that stress. I’ve concluded that there’s no solution, so I just bathe in it, regardless of the pollution this brings into my world. After a while, I seem to forget it’s happening.

But every once in a while, some fortuitous thing occurs that removes a stressor from my life. That happened just this month. And the change within me has been profound. I started off by feeling slightly sick from the sheer release. Then I felt as though 500 pounds had been lifted off my shoulders. Freedom! Sweet relief.

And then there was the inevitable shock that I had been carrying that weight for so long without even realizing it. (Actually, I knew of about 50 pounds of it, but not the full 500.) It makes me wonder what other burdens I’m carrying. No wonder I’m so tired much of the time.

I think I need to work on being more aware of what my body is trying to tell me. I need to address issues whenever possible, even though I hate confrontation. I need to stop walking around with my head in the clouds and take better care of me.

In the meantime, I’m going to go do a happy dance to celebrate my newfound freedom. Woot!

Happy Dance

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Try Not to Let Go

I was sitting cross-legged on my friend’s bed. Cozy. With popcorn and gossip and a mountain view. We hadn’t done this since college. I’d missed it.

“How did she die?” I asked. “I never knew for sure.”

My friend paused for a long time. Then she said, “Everybody had the flu that winter. I mean, even I got it…”

Suddenly my ears started ringing. It was hard for me to hear. And my vision did that telescope-y thing. She appeared to slide away from me. The bed seemed like a football field, its quilt stretching on to infinity.

Why was I getting shock-y all of a sudden? This death was not news to me. Our former college crew leader was only in her 40’s at the time. I had been sad about it for years. But I guess I hadn’t allowed myself to dwell upon the depth of the tragedy. I don’t think I realized how senseless and preventable it had been.

“You weren’t there that last year. She was so depressed. Her divorce was vicious, and her daughter had moved in with her ex-husband. I would find her crying. In her office. In the bathroom. In her car. I think she just gave up. And that flu was kind of all she needed.”

I stared at the quilt pattern until all the colors blurred together. “This isn’t the 1800’s. Forty-year-olds shouldn’t die of the flu. Not in this day and age. I guess you really can die of a broken heart.”

“Yeah,” she said.

I reached out. For the popcorn.


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Sand Dunes in Oregon

Fortunately, I’ve had very few “almost drove off the road” moments in my life. One time I was cruising along in Florida and a really big (as in, larger than the palm of my hand) hairy spider ran across my windshield. On the inside. In my efforts to kill it before it killed me, I missed a telephone pole by mere inches. So the little b@&t@*d almost succeeded.

Another time I was vacationing in New Mexico, and I came around this curve just outside of Santa Fe. And there was this field of llamas. Llamas. Seriously. I had never seen a llama outside of a zoo in my entire life, and now, suddenly, unexpectedly, there were dozens of them, staring at me as I swerved. I bet they get that a lot.

And then just last week I was vacationing on the Oregon coast, and for some reason I hadn’t done my homework. Usually when I take a vacation, I read the guidebooks beforehand. I have a well thought out plan. I know what to expect. I do this because there’s nothing more irritating, in my opinion, than coming home from a trip and then discovering that there was something really, really cool I could have seen or done if only I had been paying attention.

But for this trip I was sort of flying by the seat of my pants. I have no idea why, aside from the fact that I seem to have lost all control of any sense of organization I once possessed. But it was kind of liberating.

So on this particular day I was driving along the coast, stopping here and there at overlooks and state parks. I had spent hours gazing at lighthouses and a variety of configurations of waves crashing against rocks. Each view was more spectacular than the last.

Then all of a sudden I found myself in sand dune country. This probably will come as no surprise to people on the west coast, but for the rest of us, the last thing you’re expecting on an Oregon vacation is to be reminded of the movie Lawrence of Arabia. And yet there it was. One dune even threatened to engulf the highway. I felt as if I’d accidentally driven through a wormhole and come out on another planet.

Come to think of it, “almost drove off the road” moments like these are priceless and unforgettable. I just hope that the word “almost” is never left out.

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One of the many ways we explore the world is with our hands. Before buying an item of clothing, it’s not unusual to touch it first to see how it will feel against one’s skin. On the darkest of nights we extend our hands in front of us in order to avoid bumping into things. We probably run our hands though our hair a hundred times a day. (Go ahead. You know you want to.)

But touch can also be reciprocal. There’s nothing quite as disconcerting as discovering that the touch you are giving is not the touch the other person is receiving. That’s happened to me several times in life. I once reached out to pat a friend’s shoulder in an attempt to comfort her, and she recoiled and said, “Don’t touch me!” Another time I went to hold someone’s hand, a thing I’d done with this person dozens of times before, but on this day he was just not in the headspace to do so. Another friend enjoyed being touched, but had been beaten so often as a child that you had to make sure he saw it coming or he’d flinch.

And then there are those times when you touch something expecting a certain sensation and you get another one entirely, as when you think something will be cool and it burns you. Electric shocks are like the anti-touch, as is being stung. Injuries to the hand can feel like a reproof.

Is there a word for that instant of giving a touch and then receiving something back? That moment of exchange, when you are either accepted or rejected, hurt or comforted? If there isn’t, there ought to be. That thing, that transition, that interchange is what allows us to thrive as living creatures. Without it we wither and die.

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Why Are We Shocked?

As more and more women come forward with rape allegations, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to maintain any warm and fuzzy feelings for Bill Cosby, America’s favorite dad. There’s nothing worse than having an icon fall from grace, but there you have it. It happens all the time. Not only are none of us perfect, but quite a few of us are, frankly, despicable.

And Mr. Cosby certainly isn’t helping his case by showing not only an utter lack of remorse, but a litigious response to the scandal. But that shouldn’t shock us, either. This is a pattern that most scumbags follow until the pressure becomes too great. That’s why I never take remorse seriously. It’s rarely a natural and sincere reaction.

And then you have the Honey Boo Boo scandal. There is a reason I never watched that slow motion train wreck of a show. But to hear the allegations that her mother is dating the man who sexually abused this child’s older sister makes me sick. But again, why are we shocked? A certain percentage of mothers are horrible. They put their own misplaced desire for love ahead of the welfare of their children every single time. It has been forever thus.

We’d like to think that the human race is civilized. No one wants to believe that the veil between us and violence is wispy thin. We want to maintain that illusion of morality and decency. But rape and abuse happen. As a matter of fact, I haven’t known a single female who hasn’t been abused, either physically, sexually or emotionally, at least once. The actual chaos in which we live is obvious if we only care to acknowledge it.

On some level, we all know that. And yet no matter how often we see human beings behave deplorably, we can’t quite seem to get used to it. I kind of wish we would, though. As sad as it would be if the entire world became more cynical, I think we would be more apt to take appropriate action if our utter shock did not dull the edge of our outrage.


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Major Scandal… Once Upon a Time

Several decades ago, before I was a bridgetender and was still an office drone, there was a major scandal at my place of work. It seems that the director of personnel was found in the supply closet with a secretary from another department. And both were married. Gasp!

Aside from the fact that the head of the personnel department, of all people, ought to know that there are certain plates on which one should not place one’s pickle, this got messy on a whole lot of other levels too. First of all, it could be perceived (although I honestly don’t think it was the case in this instance), that the secretary was attempting to garner a leg up, so to speak, on any promotions that might be in the offing. Second, this particular secretary had a very violent, aggressive husband, and no one was looking forward to seeing him come through the door, loaded for bear. Our geriatric security guard would not have been able to handle that.

After about three days in which this was the sole topic of conversation at the water cooler, the director of personnel resigned. He was trying to save the secretary’s job, but she was a bit of a hot head, and walked out in protest. One minute they were there (albeit in the supply closet), and the next minute, poof! Gone. No goodbyes, nothing.

This kind of made me sad. These were both very good workers and nice people. Why they chose to act so stupidly, unethically, and inappropriately is beyond me. But today’s scandals eventually turn into tomorrow’s vague memories. People have very short attention spans. It’s funny how importance is also impermanent.




Are you @#%&!^+ KIDDING me???

I was just watching the movie Pretty Woman, and in it, Richard Gere as Edward Lewis says, “It’s just that, uh, very few people surprise me.” Julia Roberts as Vivian Ward replies, “Yeah, well, you’re lucky. Most of ‘em shock the hell outta me.” I’m with Vivian.

It seems that I walk around in this little bubble of existence in which I’ve created these very simple and straightforward rules that I expect everyone to happily live by. But life is never that neat, clean, and orderly. I’m constantly befuddled, bemused, horrified, delighted, confused, and/or disgusted by people. The things that they say and do seem so random and unexpected that it rattles me.

For example, one of my dearest friends is sweet, kind, generous and supportive, and lovely to be around. But every once in a while, twice a year at most, if you accidentally say something that pushes him out of his comfort zone he goes straight for the jugular. The reaction is so harsh and so extreme it tends to rock me back on my heels. It’s as if suddenly I’m in the presence of someone entirely different, a guy I call “Hostile Man.” Once the initial shock wears off, I think to myself, “Oh, it’s you again. I don’t like you. Go away.” And very soon my friend will be back again.

These brief insights into people that pop my safe little bubble of reality tend to stay with me. Here’s a few that spring to mind:

  • Upon telling someone recently that the love of my life had died unexpectedly of natural causes, all alone in a parking lot, leaving me devastated, she said, “Try not to let it bother you.” (She meant well. People don’t always know what to say in these circumstances. But still… really?)
  • I met a 35 year old British woman recently who had never heard of the Beatles. (Talk about living in a bubble.)
  • Rob Ford, the Mayor of Toronto, after being caught smoking crack on film twice, still refuses to leave office. (Oh, where to begin.)
  • The people of Toronto, upon hearing that their crack smoking mayor refuses to leave office, have yet to descend on city hall with pitch forks and torches, tar and feathers, and send the loser packing. (Torontonians are known for being extremely polite, but come on.)
  • When a mother I know was told by her daughter that she was being sexually abused by her stepfather, the mother said, “Oh, you’re making too much of it.” (There are just no words for this.)
  • When my bridge was being painted with lead paint and our building was enclosed within the massive paint tent and we expressed out concerns, my head supervisor said, “Well, if you get lead poisoning, all you have to do is drink milk.” (That must be an annoying realization to everyone who has suffered through Chelation therapy.)
  • When I asked a fundamentalist Christian friend of mine, who also happens to be a lesbian, why she would continue to cling to a religion that considers her an evil freak, she tearfully replied, “I’ve just resigned myself to the fact that I’m going to hell.” She told me this while on her way to church. (How profoundly sad this makes me.)
  • When a friend found me in tears because I’d just dropped my laptop, destroying it, and had no way to replace it, he bought me another one. Just like that. (I will be in awe of this person for the rest of my life.)
  • A coworker who drives a Mercedes convertible asked me about the old Hyundai hatchback I used to drive. I said, “Why on earth would you want to know?” He said, “Oh, I’ve been thinking of getting a second car, one that I wouldn’t mind getting scratched or stolen, to drive around in the less desirable parts of town.” (Such a tactful and pedestrian worldview.)
  • Speaking of cars, one of my teachers in high school, widowed,  bought her first car at age 50, and kept getting stranded because she would forget to fill it with gas. (Poor thing.)
  • When my grandmother, a devout Catholic, lost a baby at childbirth, she sought comfort from her parish priest. He told her that her baby was doomed to spend all eternity in limbo. She never set foot inside a church again. (People seem completely unaware of their ability to profoundly impact the lives of others.)
  • And then there are all the people who, despite the overwhelming evidence of their very own eyes plus the endorsement of 97 percent of all climate experts, refuse to believe that global warming exists. (Speechless.)

You just never know when people are going to blow your mind.

Richard Lindzen climate-change-denier

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Bad Words

I used to work with someone who would get horrified if we used the word “toilet” in the log book. As in, “The toilet overflowed and needs to be repaired.” She said that the only acceptable word to use is “commode.” Oh my. Such fragile sensibilities must get bruised quite a bit in a world where one no longer wears gloves and pillbox hats.

I’ve always been amused at people who are bothered by word use. Words, in and of themselves, have no moral, ethical or emotional content. Words are words. They have definitions. That’s it. There is no such thing as a “bad” word. Cursing doesn’t cause you to be cursed. People who get worked up by word use have an overactive need to control or feel superior.

What makes words objectionable is the intent behind them. If your intent is to shock or offend or embarrass, then that is what people should take exception to. Hate speech isn’t defined by the vocabulary. It’s a verbal expression of a person’s nefarious objective.

I once wrote a blog entry about one of my pet peeves, gender-specific curse words. Don’t ever call me a b**ch unless you want to be deleted from my life. But it’s not the word itself that bugs me. It’s the implication that adding “female” into the mix makes the insult even worse. So I’m not upset at the word, I’m upset at your mindset as you’re using it.

Words are tools. Tools can be used for good or evil, but at the end of the day, they’re just tools. It’s the hand that wields the tool that is to blame for what it creates.


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