When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Sochi, complain.

Lessons learned from first-world problems

I had every intention, before sitting down tonight, to spend the majority of this post chastising reporters and athletes and anyone else writing or tweeting from Sochi for their snobbery and eagerness to complain about the seemingly countless first-world problems they are experiencing in the host city of the winter Olympics. After all, I have experience from which to speak; plus, the prospect of placing toilet paper in a trash can hardly seems worthy of national news coverage.

I had my high horse fed, saddled and ready to ride, but the universe saw fit to deal me small dose of humility first. You see, writing tonight was to immediately follow Wisconsin’s official state chore – high volume snow removal. Considering the established pattern of this endless winter (massive snowfall followed by polar vortex… lather, rinse, repeat), clearing the driveway after today’s frosty offering was essential before it adhered to the concrete like Play-Doh in shag carpet.

For this heavy responsibility, I have a small snowblower. It’s old. Ancient, really. But tough. And reliable. It’s saved me untold hours and at least as many back aches, and despite its geriatric stature, it started right up tonight like it always does. I set the throttle speed, pausing only to wipe some blowing flakes from my eyes, and engaged the auger. At least, I tried to, but a simple squeeze of the lever caused the apparently fatigued cable that powers it to snap. My heart: sunken. The auger: motionless. My indestructible snowblower: destructed.

I’ll be honest. My first thought was not how lucky I was to have a driveway, or the house to which it leads or the relative health needed to void four inches of drifted snow from the ground. It is a first-world problem, sure. But it’s my first-world problem.

The impromptu workout, however, cleared my head, so by the time I peeled off the sopping layers of snow gear and sweatshirts, I was feeling a little less judgmental of the reports from Sochi. My grumbles about the necessity of self-propelled snow removal technology somewhat diminished my platform for criticism.

And then I read this article from The Wire, and I felt more lighthearted about the subject, even if still a bit intolerant of Americentrism.

I’m grateful for experiences in my life that have taught me that first-world problems really aren’t problems at all. Adapting to life in a country not native to you lends some perspective on the folks with whom we share this little green and blue planet.

When my wife and I were in Ethiopia for the adoption of our son, we stayed in a very nice guest house in the capital city of Addis Ababa. The fact that it had toilets and running water is one of the elements that made it particularly nice. The concept of discarding used toilet paper rather than flushing it is far from unique to Russia. Most people who have booked travel to locations with itineraries lacking the phrase “all-inclusive” can attest to how common that is.

As nice as our accommodations were in Addis, you did not create plumbing problems in a nation with clean water crises by needlessly flushing toilet paper. Similarly, we washed our clothes by rinsing them in the sink in a small amount of cold, soapy water. We wrung them out by hand (until we sported the calluses of a cowboy) and hung them to dry on any available surface.

While it might seem inconvenient to an American guest, it still felt like a luxury in Ethiopia. After all, from the balcony of our accommodations, I could see into the roofless homes of people below who were handling the same tasks in far less pristine conditions.

Experiencing other cultures and living among people whose customs and conventions are different than ours erodes the insulation of entitlement. You can’t truly appreciate the world unless you are capable of embracing the differences that make its residents unique and interesting.

Years after returning from Africa, I am still thankful for washing machines. I understand what it’s like to be without one. In Sochi, the complaints mainly stem from aggravations about the temporary absence of a certain convenience. It would be kind for visitors to keep in mind that they are guests among people who live without these “necessities” every day of their lives.

Now, excuse me while I figure out how much Duck Tape it takes to fix a snowblower cable. That driveway’s not going to shovel itself.

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Anticipating the thaw

Short fiction

By Jeremy Podolski

Eli snapped the frozen stalactite from its moorings on the gutter overhead and raised it in a fencer’s salute, eyes fixed on Sasha.

“Olé!” he offered before attacking the space in front of her with a flourish, like a maniacal poet inking stanzas in the cold, empty air.

Sasha’s shrug was hardly visible through the winter parka and layers of knit sweaters keeping her warm, but she added a deliberate eye roll for good measure.

“Don’t you mean ‘en garde?’” she snarked.

“Touché,” Eli replied with raised eyebrow. He held the tip of the icicle against the dull light of the ebbing sun, as if examining his blade for imperfections, then abruptly bit off the tip and chomped it noisily.

“You are so weird,” Sasha said, turning her back so he wouldn’t see the snowball she was shaping between her purple, fur-trimmed mittens. “What time’s the truck coming?”

“Four. But with the weather, they’ll probably be late.” He quieted then, drumming the shortened ice spear against his leg.

“You know, my iPod better not be in one of those boxes. You said you were gonna bring it over yesterday, but I never saw you.” She heaved the snowball at his chest then, and it exploded in a nebula of powder and ice. The glimmering dust settled on Eli’s dark hair and lashes, salt and pepper lending comic contrast to his young face.

“Well, you’re not getting it back now,” said Eli, straight-lipped, looking professorial. “Besides, I want something to remember you by.”

“You need that to remember me?” Sasha said, feigning injury, surprised to find she actually felt a bit injured.

“No, I’d just rather have your iPod than your ferret or your Vampire Weekend T-shirt.” He glanced around, as if looking for a place to sit, but the narrow strip of yard between their two houses was smothered in undulating, wet snow. He was glad he was still holding the icicle. It gave him something to do with his hands.

“What’s winter going to be like there?” she asked after a long silence.

“I don’t know. Not like here,” Eli said. “I heard it rains.”

“Eli!” An echoing interruption, the husky voice of his father. “Come help me with this sofa!”

“Sorry,” Eli said quietly. “I’ll drop off your iPod before we leave.”

He tossed the icicle toward her, and she clapped her mittens together, clumsily catching the tapered end while the wider base broke under its own weight and disappeared into the drift near her feet. She waited for him to lob an insult, the perfect opportunity to mock her and run, but Eli had already vanished around the corner of his garage, his boots now clomping on the bare concrete.

Rain instead of snow. She’d hate that, she thought. The cleanliness of the white soothed her, hid the desolation left in the wake of autumn. Snow spread like a glaze of perfection over the dead, blemished landscape. Its only drawback was its transience.

An icicle’s existence was even more fleeting – born only in the right conditions – a modest thaw, a precarious edge, a sustaining freeze. She plunged her hand into the snowbank, suddenly anxious to locate the rest of the sunken icicle. It should have been easy; the impression in the snow created by its falling was obvious. All she had to do was grab it. But as she tried to dig, the snow just compressed, becoming like ice itself, camouflaging the object to sight and touch.

The faster and more frantically she searched, the more impossible the task seemed, as if she were trying to differentiate one gallon of water in the ocean from another. Her perspiration chilled her as it mingled with the falling temperature. Sweat and melted snow soaked her mittens until she ripped them off and cast them to the ground. With her bare hands, she reached into the hole she had burrowed to find its walls as smooth and hard as glass. She scratched at them with her fingernails but only came away with thin curls of ice that bit at her numbing skin with frosty malice.

Kneeling now, Sasha looked to the gutter overhanging the side of her home. At least thirty icicles clung to the roofline, virtually identical, none more distinct than the next, but the one she wanted was trapped out of reach. For the moment, it was preserved in its frozen vault. By tomorrow, it would be a casualty of the thaw.

Winter holiday

I am in the remote reaches of Wisconsin, enjoying an extended holiday with precious little access to technology. The snowmobiles are humming and the sleds are perched on powdery precipices of midwinter. I’ll be back among the digital in no time with new posts, but in the meantime, I wish you all a happy New Year.