Computer Compassion

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A few years ago my mom sat me down to ask me a question. Given her serious tone and the fact that uncomfortable conversations in my family often start with “a question”, frantic thoughts began racing through my mind. Had she discovered I’d tried smoking? Oh wait, that already happened….high school flashback. No, from her voice, I could tell it was certainly something graver.

After a few seconds it hit me. My palms got clammy as I realized my cover was blown. Somehow she had figured out the dark secret I’d been hiding from my family, my neighbors and all the PTA moms: I’m a negligent parent and, gulp, I sometimes forget to send the kids to school without breakfast or jackets or, on really negligent days, both.

I was about to break out into tears and several mea culpas about my pathetic parenting when my mom jumped in with her question, and to my relief, I realized the conversation was taking a far different..though probably equally disturbing… turn. She wanted to know about technology.

You see, as my mom explained, she had been chatting with her friend Diane  who, according to my mom, is “really good with computers.” What came next left me speechless.

Apparently Diane had told her it was possible to do something called “copying” and “pasting”. Fascinated by this possibility, my mother wanted to know if I knew what this was and if so, if could teach her how to work this magic.

This was the last thing I expected. As my mind raced to determine the appropriate response, I’m pretty sure this was the look on my face.

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Clearly I was in a quandary. I was torn between laughing at how impressed she was by this advancement in modern technology and crying at the realization of how hard her life must have been through this point without the ability to copy and paste.

Luckily I managed to reign in my emotions and did neither. Instead, composing myself, I took the road of compassion and answered her question seriously. After all, I’m no spring chicken myself and will certainly have to ask Elizabeth and Corinne these same kinds of questions. When these moments happen, I would prefer they show similar restraint.

In fact, I think these moments are closer than I’d care to admit. This is based on the fact that I’ve already started losing my mind and, as recent studies have shown, failing to grasp technological concepts closely follows the loss of one’s mind. (This is not to say my mom is nuts…she reads my posts and I still want Christmas presents, so I am definitely, absolutely, positively not saying this.)

My decent into insanity became evident a few months ago when I tried opening my office door at work with my car remote. This was particularly disturbing since my office door doesn’t even have a lock. A few weeks later I tried to use the remote control for my garage door at home to enter the parking structure at work.

I would like to openly blame my children on a daily basis for driving me over the edge, but have come to the conclusion that if I do this, they will conveniently not teach me how to copy and paste. I’m safe as long as they don’t read my blog.

The Volunteer, Part 1: Scalloped Potatoes

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Last year at this time I was experiencing some down-time at work and was able to help out at Elizabeth’s class Thanksgiving potluck party. This was a first, since until that time, my responsibilities creating important looking spreadsheets at work and pretending to be a subject matter expert on those spreadsheets had never permitted me to participate in any of my kids’ school activities.

Fortunately Elizabeth viewed my volunteering as a special treat and not a necessary evil. This is certainly only because she is still several years away from her metamorphosis into a disgruntled teenager. My attendance at the Thanksgiving party would definitely be a special treat for me too, since I would finally have the opportunity to observe my child interacting in the wild with an entire herd of her species. For optimal tracking and observation purposes, I wondered if I should tranquilize her and tag her ear before setting her free at the school gates that morning.

As much as I was looking forward to this event, however, I couldn’t help but feel a certain panic as the date approached. Since I spent my days in the corporate world, I was frighteningly unfamiliar with any aspect of the human condition that took place outside my office building on weekdays between the hours of 8am and 5pm. (With the one exception of the El Pollo Loco drive-thru during lunch hour.) As a result, I found myself intimidated by what would be my certain inferiority as a volunteer.

For those of you without school age children, there is much more parental volunteering these days than when I was growing up in the 70’s. Every classroom at my kids’ school has at the very minimum a room parent, a reading parent, an art parent , a few paper-correcting parents and a handful of other parents that help out with other odd tasks as needed, show up at all the school events and know everyone. When you think about it, it seems like a lot of staff for the teachers to manage; on the plus side, at least they don’t have to do performance reviews for these folks.

Volunteers for most of these roles are solicited during Back to School Night at the beginning of the year, and every year on that evening, my husband and I look at the sign-up sheets in awe of all the names of parents able to make these commitments. (Then we feel terrible about ourselves and go home and drink).

It looked like I would finally be able to put the bottle of Jack Daniels down and join in the fun.

On the day of the party I arrived at the designated time and tried to gulp down my fear as I entered the classroom. At the teacher’s direction, parents were setting up serving stations at the kids’ desks. Someone handed me a bowl of homemade scalloped potatoes and a serving spoon. The next thing I knew, the signal was given and the herd began making its way down the food line. I quickly noticed that the wildebeests..uh kids..were strategically bypassing the healthy obstacles on their way to anything primarily made of chocolate.

My maternal instincts kicked in. There was no way I was going to let this group stampede by the nutritious dishes to feed only on sugar. Resisting the urge to tackle them and force vegetables onto their plates, I instead took the approach of a carny, encouraging them to step right up and try the creamiest, cheesiest , most delectable potatoes ever created. I had no idea who actually made the potatoes or what they tasted like, but it didn’t matter. The mom in me was determined to get some vitamins into these kids. At that moment, in my mind, unless  you were lactose-intolerant, you were eating scalloped potatoes.

My potato sales pitch went well, and as I surveyed the empty casserole dish, I realized that volunteering wasn’t scary. It was just about being a parent. Maybe I should rephrase that sentiment; being a parent is scary, but volunteering doesn’t add any incremental terror.

As I digested this enlightenment, I heard a voice ring out. “Anyone want to volunteer to do the class art lessons?”

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Corporate Dream Careers

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In Elizabeth’s elementary school yearbook, the pictures of the graduating sixth graders are complemented by a blurb stating each child’s anticipated profession.  Some common ones are movie star, football player and astronaut. While certainly great dreams, these aren’t necessariy the most realstic goals, statistically speaking. I fear that when these children compare their yearbook blurbs to their actual jobs in 30 years, there may be some disappointment.

To avoid this outcome, there should be a better understanding of all the dream-worthy, yet realistic, jobs out there that kids can aspire to. Elizabeth is only in 5th grade, but to help her and her friends understand the true breadth of fascinating professions before it’s time to commit to their dream jobs in 6th grade, I’ve put together the following descriptions of some positions found in the corporate world:

Facilities Manager

This is a multi-faceted position. First, you are in charge of the physical assets of the company. In hopes of getting promoted, you will spend hours tinkering with the broken photocopier before giving up and calling the professional repairman.

You are also responsible for figuring out how to save space by reducing employee cubicles to the size of a hamster cage. To minimize employee frustration, make sure the now smaller cubes are each outfitted with a hanging water bottle and salt lick. Put an exercise wheel by the printer to encourage a healthy lifestyle.

Lastly, you coordinate entire office moves. As long as you act important, no one will question you on why it took a week to move the coffee machines to the new location and another whole week to move the coffee.

Career Tip: Instill fear among co-workers by holding a clipboard and walking around with people in suits. If you speak in a low voice and point animatedly to various cubicles as you mumble words like “headcount” and “bottom line”, everyone you pass will start boxing up their belongings as they wait for the call from Human Resources.

Call Center Representative

This is the ideal job for those who both love to talk and have a sadistic streak. You are the first point of contact and a stringent gatekeeper. You will enjoy further frustrating already annoyed callers by insisting they don’t need to speak with a supervisor, even though you’ve tried unsuccessfully for an hour to resolve their problem. For added pleasure, put callers on hold every time they threaten you with legal action.

Career Tip:  Increase your performance bonus by changing your voice and posing as the supervisor you finally agreed to transfer the caller to.

Accounts Payable Clerk

This position requires a high attention to detail with little tolerance for error. Your daily mission is to review and process department bills and employee expense reports for payment. As protector of the company’s coffers, you take your job seriously and are careful to reject business trip reimbursements of tips to hotel valets and bellmen without a paper receipt.

Career Tip: Wield your power by routing invoices that don’t meet your high standards to a holding queue. For added fun, don’t  mention this to the person who needs the invoice paid and act surprised when he/she questions you in a state of panic.

IT Manager

This is a job which requires strong technical and no people skills. You are saddled with budget cuts but rather than admit this, you assert haughtily that you can resolve every problem, even finding the coffee that Facilities lost in the move.

Career Tip: Stay ahead of the game by pretending to be extremely busy and hiding behind voice mail, so you can never be held accountable for these untruths. While you will be well compensated for your technical savvy, if you get hit by a bus, no one will send you flowers…though this might be because Accounts Payable won’t reimburse sympathy gifts.

IT Support

This is an entry-level position with a steep learning curve. Although you will be hired for your many degrees in computer science, when you hit the real world you’ll receive no training on how to deal with end users in a live production environment.

Career Tip: Be sure to figure out ahead of time who you can blame when you accidentally remove users’ access and delete their files.

Marketing Director

This is a job for high energy, goal-oriented individuals who don’t let rules stand in the way of a good idea. You’re tasked with coming up with creative strategies to get new customers. To do this, you do your best to alienate the legal and compliance experts who have to sign off on your wacky ideas, by acting like you know how to do their job better than they do.

Career Tip: Make everything a “marketing emergency” so no one will have time to realize how bad your idea really is.

First Day of School – My Epic Fail

 

The beginning of a new school year is full of unknowns. For instance:

  • How much homework will my child get? In other words, at what time do I have to start nagging in order for the homework to be completed by bedtime?
  • Will my child still be obsessed with becoming the Olympic tetherball gold medalist and resume begging me twice a day to install a tetherball court in the backyard? Everyone knows you can’t downplay the importance of home training for future Olympians.
  • Will the class bully give my kid the finger as a “back to school” greeting? Yes, this actually does happen. Just ask Elizabeth’s buddy Dominic who was the recipient of one such middle finger.

Yet, as I found out this year, the biggest and scariest unknown is whether I will be taken down by my own mental decrepitude on the primary school playground…and drag an unsuspecting first grader with me.

My kids were brimming with excitement yesterday, the first day of school. It was their opportunity to finally see all the friends with whom I had miserably failed to organize play dates during the summer. Furthermore, since they are still young enough to like to be seen with me, they love the fact that on this day and this day only, parents are allowed to accompany their children onto campus.

After the first day, of course, things resume to normal, which usually means pushing the kids out of the car without coming to a complete stop in order to make my 8:30 am meeting. This is the real reason I bought them helmets and knee pads a few years back; the scooters were just a cover.

Upon arriving on campus the first day, the protocol is to go with your child to his/her assigned teacher’s spot on the playground and line up in an orderly fashion. The teachers then make their way down their respective lines and introduce themselves personally to each child. I love this and find it to be a very warm and welcoming touch. This is, in fact, much better treatment than you generally receive when you start a new job in the corporate world, where it is not uncommon to spend the first two weeks spinning your wheels in a futile attempt to:

  1. locate the bathroom
  2. find a chair that’s not broken
  3. determine how to effectively gag the person who whistles loudly outside your door all day long
  4. obtain access to a computer so that you can meet the deadlines you know you’ll have if you can ever figure out who you report to

Because Elizabeth had to go to the upper grade playground for her meet and greet and Corinne had to go to the primary grade playground for hers, Thomas and I decided to divide and conquer. He took Elizabeth, and I took Corinne. Taking Corinne’s hand, we made our way to the appropriate line and took our places. Soon after, I saw a familiar face approach and take the place in line behind us. I turned and gave Connor a big smile and warm greeting.

Now, Connor is a shy boy who cried every day last year when his mom dropped him off at kindergarten. Since it appeared that his mom had ditched him this morning to accompany his little brother to pre-K, my maternal instincts took over. I peppered him with compliments, telling him how brave he was and commenting on how much he had grown over the summer. When it was clear that I had managed to coax Connor out of his shell in a matter of minutes, which was record time for this kid, I beamed with pride.

It was right at this point, where Connor and I had established a true rapport and were ready to face the day united, that I heard Corinne shout out excitedly in the other direction, “Hi Connor!” I turned my head and, sure enough, the real Connor had arrived.

I looked back at Fake Connor. Fake Connor looked at me. We both took another look at Real Connor. It had all become clear to me. Halfway through my conversation with “Connor”, Corinne had asked me who the kid was that I was talking to. I brushed off her silly question, because it was obvious that she had suffered summer amnesia and forgotten what her classmate looked like. But it was I, not Corinne, with the brain decay.

Once the truth had set in, I bowed down in utter defeat and asked Fake Connor to identify himself, for his sake and mine. He shook his head in true, first-grader pity and told me his name was Cody, and he was new to the school.

As Karma would have it, I ran into Real Connor’s mom a few minutes later. She had in fact ditched her son to take his brother to pre-K. After a quick tallying of pros and cons, I decided to reveal the morning’s prior events to her before someone else ratted me out. After all, I could not be certain how many witnesses there were to my mental downfall, or if Cody was inclined to keep this little misunderstanding to himself. Besides, I was also fairly certain that Corinne could not be trusted with such sensitive information.

As I gave Real Connor’s mom the play-by-play, she laughed sympathetically. However, I could tell she was simultaneously wracking her brain to figure out which medication she should suggest to me.

I think I would have preferred it if she would have just given me the finger.

Preparation for Parenthood

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There seems to be a general consensus that having pets is a precursor to parenthood and somehow prepares you for the experience. While I admit there is some validity to this concept, in my experience it is not completely true.

Yes, like kids, pets do steal your food and trash your house beyond recognition. However, unlike your offspring, your tween pets don’t usually talk back to you when you say something they find offensive or stomp their feet and slam the door to express their frustration at the fact that you don’t believe they’ve really brushed their teeth.

I actually found my wedding to be better preparation for parenthood. This might not be an obvious connection but hear me out.

Much like parenthood, a wedding is full of surprises. For both of these pivotal life events, you plan for a year and yet, despite your efforts to coordinate everything perfectly, you quickly learn that nothing actually turns out the way you had anticipated.

Here are some detailed comparisons to illustrate my point:

Wedding: Drunk “professional” photographer takes goofy, off-center pictures.

Parenthood: Kids figure out how to bypass your phone security to take inappropriate pictures of you in the dressing room at TJ Maxx.

Wedding: The insulation at the church is so poor that you and the entire wedding party have sweat running down your faces, leaving you with expensive pictures that are off-center (see above point) and unattractive. Even Photoshop can’t save them.

Parenthood: You can’t post selfies without people asking if you’re feeling ok.

Wedding: Pastor realizes there is not enough bread for Communion and secretly sends the Best Man to the grocery store in the middle of the ceremony.

Parenthood: When tucking her in, your child informs you that she is assigned to bring the caramel topping to the class ice cream party the next day. You drag your husband out of bed and send him to the grocery store.

Wedding: You keep getting whisked away during dinner and miss out on the delicious buffet you paid to enjoy.

Parenthood: You come from work starving. As you approach the second hour of helping your child prepare for her math test, you start wondering if they sell edible flash cards.

Wedding: Wedding cake mix-up has you and hubby sharing carrot cake rather than your specially-selected favorite marble cake.

Parenthood: Lean Cuisine on Saturday night sounds good; no actual cooking is required! If you buy 4 microwaves, you can have everyone’s dinner ready at the same time.

Wedding: Wedding coordinator forgets to have you throw the bouquet, ensuring no single people at the reception will ever tie the knot.

Parenthood: Two-year old daughter throws epic tantrum at Hometown Buffet, ensuring no single patrons will ever have children.

Wedding: Evening ends with a trip to the local bar.

Parenthood: Evening ends with a trip to the local bar.

So, clearly my wedding prepared me better for parenthood than did my pet rabbits. That said, the rabbits did teach me some helpful parenthood coping strategies. Next time Elizabeth exclaims loudly “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND”, I won’t freak out. Instead, I’ll stare at her blankly for a moment, and then I’ll hop past her haughtily on my way to chew on the sofa.

My Life in Kindergarten

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This time last year I found out I work in kindergarten. This was particularly surprising since there aren’t actually any children in my office building.

Let me explain. It was Back to School night at my children’s school and we were in my 5 year old’s classroom. There was a nervous and excited buzz in the room, as my husband and I, along with the other parents, sat down on the little blue chairs and waited anxiously to hear about the expectations for the school year…and of course, whether or not the teacher would announce that our child had already clearly established herself as the genius of the class.

After welcoming everyone, the teacher began explaining the life of a kindergartner. As her presentation progressed, it began to sound strangely familiar. Yet, try as I may, I could not put my finger on the connection. I knew it wasn’t because I was relating her words to detailed memories of my own year in kindergarten. I can barely remember last week, let alone events from the 1970’s. Instead, a much more disturbing truth slowly dawned on me. My daughter’s days in kindergarten were not much different than my days at work in corporate America.

The first topic covered was behavior management in kindergarten. The concept centers around a large color chart. Each child has a clothespin with his or her name on it. The clothespin is clipped on Green at the start of the day. Green designates a neutral color. During the day, if the child is paying attention and working diligently, that child is complimented and his or her clothespin is moved up the chart to a “better” color like yellow, orange or red, which is the best of all colors.

At work, if I do a good job, my boss compliments me…and silently moves my clothespin up the career chart.

In kindergarten, if a child is not focusing on his or her work, the child is reprimanded and must move the clothespin down to blue or purple. If he or she hits another child, the clothespin goes straight to the dreaded color pink, and the kid’s parents are called.

At work, if I spend the day surfing YouTube and don’t turn in my PowerPoint draft, my clothespin moves down the career chart. If I slap someone in IT for not providing me the right data for my PowerPoint draft, then the Human Resources Department is called.

The teacher then went on to discuss her motivation techniques. When a child does a really good job on a project or exemplifies good listening skills, he or she gets a “super worker treat”, which is a piece of candy. When the class as a whole does well, the teacher puts little toy bears in a jar. Once the jar is filled, everyone gets to choose a prize from the classroom Treasure Chest.

Hmm…if I do well, I get a bonus at the end of the year. If my company does well, I get an even bigger bonus from the Company Treasure Chest.

She next went on to talk about class activities. They make colorful art projects using different shapes like triangles, circles and rectangles. I, on the other hand, create colorful PowerPoint slides that have arrows, boxes and bullet points.

The class participates in regular story time. All the children gather around in a circle on the floor while the teacher reads aloud. When she has finished telling the story, she asks the children a series of comprehension questions.

In my world, we refer to this as a meeting or “conference call”. I often lead such meetings. For example, I might explain during such a call that my team has suddenly been tasked with performing a time-sensitive review of ABC product. To do so, I need XYZ data. I will then follow up with questions to assess comprehension. For example, how quickly can you get me that data…i.e. did you understand the meaning of time-sensitive?

There are even parallels to the playground. In kindergarten, children ride around on tricycles and climb up and down the ladders on the play equipment. Similarly, I drive my car through miles of traffic across the county, jostle for a spot in the parking garage and have to walk down 4 flights of stairs.

So, as you see, my daughter and I actually have very similar days. We are rewarded for good work, do colorful projects with shapes, have story time and run up and down stairs. For those who worry about the quality of our public school system, you can rest assured. It is indeed preparing our children for the real world.

Plumbing and 3D

For Father’s Day, we got my husband a plumber. Since this was an unforeseen present, we didn’t have time to wrap him.

At issue was the tree next to the sidewalk whose roots were clogging the sewer line and causing the overflow pipe in the front yard to fertilize the geraniums. This was truly a sight to behold; it’s not everyday that you see flowers wrapped in toilet paper.

As our testing revealed, the clog was so bad that any water run through any pipe in the Money Pit, err…house, came out the front. It’s a shame we didn’t have more notice or we could have figured out how to funnel the water and toilet paper to the dying grass. (It’s tricks like these that can help your garden thrive during a California drought.)

Uncertain how quickly the plumbing company could send someone over and having drunk a fair amount of coffee, we were forced to flesh out several contingency plans should we hear the call of nature. We agreed the easiest solution would be to pile in the car, drive to Starbucks and try to inconspicuously use the facilities without buying anything. Not only are we cheap, but consuming anything would certainly lead to greater bathroom necessity.

However, we also needed a longer-term solution, should this turn into a serious plumbing problem. I decided such an incident could be classified as a disaster, and we would therefore be justified in breaking out our disaster preparedness kit with its big, yellow bucket that doubled as a toilet.

On the other hand, why go in a bucket when you have a pool, which everyone knows is really just an oversized toilet. This really wasn’t such a bad idea, particularly since we knew from experience that Larry the Pool Guy could neutralize anything (and was likely a chemist with the CIA in his younger days). Of course, if we could hold out until it was night and the neighbors were in bed, we could just go directly onto the grass. With all of these possibilities, things were looking up.

As it turns out, no drastic measures were required. Instead, an emergency plumber arrived promptly and after 3 hours of industrial snaking, declared victory over the tree.

To celebrate our functioning toilets, we decided to go see Jurassic World the next weekend. Not having seen a movie in a movie theater in about a year, Thomas and I were excited to experience how the rest of the world lives. We left Corinne with my dad and stepmom but figured 10 year old Elizabeth could handle the content. After witnessing the horrors of our 1960’s plumbing, I doubted  she would be fazed by a few dinosaurs eating people. The people-eating was in 3D, but then again, so were the contents flowing into the front yard the week before.

This was the first time I had seen a film in 3D and I must admit it was impressive. In fact, I found myself wondering if I could figure out a way to do my PowerPoint presentation at the next month’s Board meeting in 3D. It certainly would be harder to ignore me if my bullet points were floating in the air in front of them. I made a mental note to give IT a call.

Opening Remarks

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This blog[1] was my cousin Wayne’s idea. If you find it as ridiculous and nonsensical as I do, then I’ll give you his contact information and you can complain to him directly. Wayne is a writer/director/producer, so if you are indignant enough in your complaint, you might land yourself free tickets to his dinner theater (which is excellent, by the way). In fact, maybe if I complain, he’ll send me free tickets. I’ll give it a shot and let you know how it goes.

Background

In all fairness, I suppose I can’t completely blame my cousin. After all, he was just trying to help me find a more suitable forum for my middle-age ramblings[2]. You see about 10 years ago I had taken to expressing myself (that is, dumping on everyone) through an annual Christmas letter. After all, it was cheaper than therapy. However, as I got older (better said, as my kids got older), my life became increasingly more dramatic – which meant I needed more cheap therapy – which meant longer, crappier Christmas letters. Unfortunately, like with many things, holiday letters have a point of diminishing marginal utility. Statistical testing has shown this point to be about 4 pages. In other words, if you send people holiday letters longer than 4 pages in length, they will find more utility in using it to line their cat’s litter box than in reading it.

I knew I had reached this point when I stopped receiving Christmas cards from people with cats. The true enlightenment came however when I started getting requests to provide my letter in an audio format. This request came exclusively from people who had no cats or litter boxes to line, which meant that they were forced to read it and more than likely would need to take a day off work to get through the whole thing.

I try to be accommodating and took this request seriously. After careful consideration, though, I was forced to admit that an audio version was out of my league. Although I had joined Toastmasters over a year ago, I was doubtful that I could get through a 12 page letter without peppering every pause with at least one “uh”, “um” and, the real signature of failure, “you know”.

The logical solution was to simply send out mid-year update letters. This worked for awhile, but it proved not to be a viable long-term solution. This year the jig was up. It was clear to anyone who read my June update letter that an update to the update letter would be forthcoming. This was mainly due to the fact that we had purchased a house that everyone started affectionately referring to as “The Money Pit”. In Italy they have a saying about the city of Naples[3] which can also be applied to our money pit: “le storie non finiscono mai” which translates to “the stories are never ending.” How many updates to updates can you do before physics steps in and you go back in time? Luckily, right when I found myself on the edge of the swirling black hole of update letters, my cousin entered with his blog idea.

Birth of the Blog

Wayne was a child computer genius. In elementary school he could do pretty much anything with his Tandem computer, and I secretly suspect he may have invented hacking. Consequently, he has automatic credibility regarding anything computer-related, including blogs. In all honesty, it didn’t take much convincing. I was almost immediately on board, since being a blogger clearly meant I could quit my job compiling boring statistical information into PowerPoints and instead could drop my kids off at school and hang out at Starbucks drinking vanilla lattes all day.

Whether or not anyone actually reads this will be seen, but at least trees and everyone in my address book can breathe a sigh of relief.

[1] For disclosure purposes, this may not actually meet the definition of a blog, since I don’t actually know what a blog is. Using the term “blog” makes me feel cool, so I’m going to stick with it.

[2] Yes, I’ve already started to ramble in my 40’s. I’m certain my kids will catch on by the time they’re in high school and start making plans to move abroad…permanently.

[3] On second thought this may not actually be an official Italian saying. Well, in any case, I can personally confirm that at least one Italian has said this. His name was Carlo. Sorry Carlo, I don’t remember your whole name or I’d give you more credit. After all, that was 20 years ago.