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.