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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A love letter to libraries, including the littlest lenders on the block

Books, like all knowledge, are meant to be shared

I’ve always embraced the belief that knowledge should be shared. Access to knowledge is requisite for our enlightenment as individuals and our advancement as a society. An ivory tower is about as beneficial as a silk paperweight.

I think my admiration for libraries is rooted in this notion. It really should be a source of national pride that Americans decided long ago that books are a resource so important that they must be made widely available to all people at no direct cost. Here, the written works of authors comprising every genre under the sun co-mingle and wait for an equally diverse clientele of community members to choose their next intellectual treat.

What other product or service do we treat quite like books? What other item in this world can one borrow from a nearly limitless supply with no obligation other than the promise to return it in three weeks time? The concept is a vestige of classic values, all the more valuable for its rarity.

A trip to the library is a family activity: academics, culture, entertainment and togetherness wrapped in one paperback package. I usually can’t escape our local library without the use of a bag or wheelbarrow for my kids’ selections, and that’s after reading two or three books right on the spot. You can’t manufacture that kind of enthusiasm, but you can cultivate it among children and adults.

It also helps to have a bit of whimsy, which was my immediate thought the first time I saw a Little Free Library®. Book exchanges and hand-me-down copies are nothing new, but something about that over-sized birdhouse of a library struck a chord. And once you notice one of them, you can’t help but spot them everywhere.

A Little Free Library® outside of a school in Greendale, Wis.

A Little Free Library® outside of a school in Greendale, Wis.

They carry an element of surprise. You never know what a given library will offer on a given day. It’s an ever-changing inventory sustained by generosity and caring for the common good. And no two libraries ever seem to look the same.

There is also some home-state pride here. Free Little Library® originated in Wisconsin through the creativity of Todd Bol of Hudson and Rick Brooks of Madison and has grown dramatically in four years. You can read their story at littlefreelibrary.org.

Most striking to me is their world map, which shows every registered Little Free Library® location. They blanket the country and have almost limitless capacity for growth.

Just a few blocks from where my family owned our very first house, in Milwaukee, Wis., a woman has a Little Free Library® in her front yard. HER FRONT YARD. In an era where people tend to be more open with strangers online than with live humans sharing the same sidewalk, this is a wonderful throwback to a simpler era. An open invitation to visit. A small touch that makes a row of houses feel like a neighborhood. A neighborhood like a community.

I love that there also is a Little Free Library® right outside the front door of my children’s school. I pass it most days and can’t help but peek at what’s inside. I wonder about who will be next to pick and book, and what stories they may have to tell. Which reminds me, I think I have a few books to share.