Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Don't smile! The government is tracking your every movement

A couple weeks ago, mindful of the horror stories about Americans needing to cancel overseas vacations running in the thousands of dollars because they couldn't get their passports renewed in a timely manner, I dutifully sent mine in for replacement.

"Don't smile," the Walgreens clerk told me, "or the State Department will reject your picture and send it back for a retake." The State Department has an opinion on smiling? Is there an "April Fool" in there somewhere?

I don't know what I marveled at more: that fact or the incredible profit machine passport pictures are for a drug store. It cost $7.50 for two dinky pictures that cost probably 25 cents to produce.

In less than two weeks, I had my new passport complete with my suitably reticent facial expression. Where was the processing delay? Someone must have received a no-bid contract to step it up.

I showed my passport to daughter #2. "How cool is this. There's a chip in my passport! Like I'm a library book with an RFID tag or a marathoner running across the mile 18 checkpoint."

"Wait a minute Mom. I thought you would find something like that objectionable. That means the government is tracking you. Doesn't that bother you?" said daughter #2.

"Not at all. That's what passports are supposed to do. They actually have a job beyond being a travel souvenir for cool point-of-entry stamps. The government has a right to track you crossing the border. And another government has the right to track your entry into their country."

"But you were so horrified by the IPASS."

"Well, if you asked most Americans if they would allow their state and federal government to track their movements within the country anytime they left town and drove on the interstate, most of them would say 'of course not. That's an outrage! I believe in freedom and I believe in my right to privacy.' But they happily give up their privacy freedom for 40 cents when they use an IPASS toll transponder to save on paying tolls. 40 cents! That's how little Americans value their privacy rights! Big Brother really is watching you. He's taking pictures of your license plates. He's keeping a record of your movements. Most Americans don't even seem to know or care they're doing it."

Later I was telling my friend about my new passport and musing out loud whether the population of San Francisco and Berkeley were taking this news about RFID chips lying down. The people there made such a row about RFID tags in their library books. They worried that someone with an RFID reader could figure out what they were reading as they left the building. Would an RFID reader near your passport tell people your social security number, your address and phone number, and your most recently visited countries?

"That's not an RFID tag," my friend said. "It's a GPS system. The government knows where you are at all times."

If it is, that hasn't been reported. A working GPS system on every American sure makes for a great big scary urban legend. What has been reported in all the passport stories is that RFID chips can be disabled by sticking them in the microwave. Somehow that makes the idea of Big Brother seem not that big.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Enjoying the Fruits of my Parenting Labors

The greatest joy of an empty nest is watching what your children do with all that teaching. Do they make smart choices? How are their decision-making skills? Truly, there can not be much greater joy than watching your child make a great decision. Daughter #1 has provided me quite a bit of that in the two years since she's left home. Now begins the pleasure of watching daughter #2 grow into adulthood.

Over the last two weeks, my youngest has done a lot of traveling for a senior not yet out of secondary school. She and one of her high school colleagues raised all but $49 of the money they needed to travel to Orange County, California (yes, Disneyland!) to attend a convention aimed at young people interested in journalism.

"Mom!" daughter #2 proudly exclaimed on her return from California. "I was the navigator of the group." When my kids were little, I always made them do the navigating at any airport. They always had to be the one who would tell me in any situation how to get from point A to point B.

A week later, she flew down to Florida on prom weekend because Navy man could not come up for her senior prom so she went to see him for the weekend instead. On her flight back from Pensacola to Atlanta, she mistakenly read her seat number to Atlanta as her gate number. It just so happened that another flight to Atlanta was boarding at that gate further obscuring her mistake. She discovered it too late and missed her flight starting a downward spiral to her day.

When she called to vent, I urged Zen-like acceptance to restore her calm (apparently not a useful idea to a seventeen-year-old). I reminded her that her mistake was costing her merely time since she didn't have to buy another ticket and only had to pay a $50 rebooking fee.

I was about to say "at least you were prepared with an emergency cash fund so you could rebook your flight." BUT AT THAT EXACT MOMENT SHE SAID IT TO ME. Parenting nirvana. We took a moment to feel what it would be like to solve the problem without an emergency cash fund. Then she went on with her day, downward spiral and all.

For me, my day had just taken an decidedly-upward tilt. My child begrudgingly understood that mistakes happen. What we can control is whether or not we are prepared to recover from them with an emergency cash fund. She was prepared and knew to be prepared. Yea!

Sunday, April 27, 2008


If there was ever a word that demonstrated onomatopoeia, its 'vagabonding.' There's just something vague and restless and untethered to the word. I picked up the book Vagabonding by Rolf Potts and found my way to be an expat, and a serial expat at that.

Vagabonding is about using the prosperity and possibility of the information age to increase your personal options instead of your personal possessions. ~Rolf Potts

There is a whole world out there wanting to know English and a whole bunch of people who enjoy moving from country to country to teach it. I learned about Dave's ESL Cafe and the BootsnAll travel network from this book. Those two Internet information providers make even the most committed homebody develop wanderlust.

I have lots of worries moving forward. Will I make enough money, will my house sell, will I be foregoing business opportunities back home, and will the profession be "professional enough." My friends are giving me lots of feedback that I am approaching this in too Bohemian a manner (pun delightfully intended). They keep telling me that I need to do this "the American way" with a high-paying corporate position already in place before I go. They may be right. We'll see. I am convinced though that if I have an open heart and a professional attitude, the Lord will provide. A good friend always says "career desire is an open door."

Saturday, April 26, 2008

My Travel History

I knew I needed to get out of the country when I looked at my expiring passport and I had only one stamp. Over the last ten years, I left the country only once! How did this happen? That trip was fantastic too. It was my first trip to the DR: Dominican Republic. I heard constant happy, melodic island music plus had a wonderful dream fulfilled of riding a horse at full gallop down the beach with my friend. Now that was fun.

Prior to that trip, my adult travel was an amazing month in Europe as a high school graduation present from my mother when I was seventeen. I went to Spain, France, Monaco, Switzerland, and England. Absolutely fabulous! That was the first time it dawned on me that another country could do something better than mine. That thought never occurred to me growing up because Americans constantly meet tons of immigrants who work very hard to get to our country. It must be better, right?

So what did the continent offer that America could learn from: anything the French made with flour (baguettes, croissants, Napoleans...) and Parisian and London mass transit. What a gift it is to provide safe mass transportation to the tween and teen population! Wait - what a gift it is to their previously-chauffeuring parents!

I also went to Cancun, Chichen Itza, and Tulum, Mexico when I was married to enjoy the beach and Mayan ruins.

In my childhood, my favorite out-of-country travel was a deeply memorable trip my family took with friends through Canada on the train. We started in Winnipeg and went west. The adults had private rooms to sleep in and we kids had berths.

How cool we thought we were to sleep in those berths! Cracker Jack candy had done a commercial back then where two people passed a box back and forth between a berth so we had to do it too. Nowadays, there probably isn't a mom alive who would let their kid sleep in a berth with only a curtain protecting their child from anyone walking through the sleeping car.

Chateau Lake Louise in Beautiful British Columbia

Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia

One of our family friends who went with us had this thing for fantastic five-star hotels. Vivid memories of that Canada trip include the Banff Springs hotel, the Chateau at Lake Louise, and tea and crumpets at the Empress Hotel on Victoria Island. Truly, I was blessed as a child.

Actually, group travel with friends is a blast. It's so hard to accomplish since budgets vary. My one cruise was with seventeen people (split evenly between kids and adults) to the Bahamas. In way, for my kids, it was like the train. I let them run all over the ship because it seemed safe. Every meal we would sit with someone different from our group. Everyone could do their own thing or hang with each other. A perfect arrangement!

About a month after we came home from that trip, it made the news that the ship we had been on was repossessed for lack of mortgage payment. All of the passengers, over 3,000 people were unceremoniously dumped in the Bahamas. Ouch. Glad it wasn't me.

I am more broadly-traveled in the United States. When I visit Alaska I will have seen all 50 states. There is still so much to see in my country! I could never tire of it. There's a brand new National Park I haven't visited - the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado. Only about 200,000-300,000 people visit it each year.

I am currently living in Illinois and there is TONS I have yet to see here: the new Lincoln Presidential Library, Starved Rock State Park, the Palisades State Park along the Mississippi, actually the entire river road on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, the exhibit the Mormons created at Navoo, Illinois documenting their massacre (always important to expose myself to someone else's point-of-view), and all the ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago. Actually Chicago is so fantastic I could spend a month there and still not see everything I want to see. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Chicago.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan

In every state, it seems there is this secret, hidden part of the state that is fairly non-commercial that only natives know about. In Michigan, it's the western coast of the mitten. What drop-dead gorgeous scenery! Only Michiganders and Chicagoans are in on the secret. The rest of the country thinks Michigan is all about declining manufacturing and union troubles because that's all the news they ever hear about the state. In Illinois, the secret place the natives know is the southern forests. Most Illinoisans don't even get down there.

Sunset on Garden of the Gods in Southern Illinois

Friday, April 25, 2008

I Knees to Do This

Today my amazing and accomplished mother, age 72, goes in for a double knee replacement. She put off having it done curtailing her mobility, slowly and inexorably. Mom felt recovery from surgery might interfere with serving as a hospital trustee or her term as President of her Rotary Club. Last year when I saw her she wouldn't go into a grocery store to shop because of the pain in her knee joints. Finally, when she couldn't walk last week, she realized she had better go in and have it done. Her doctor hadn't even tried to talk her out of waiting for the surgery. The pain would do all the talking necessary. He just got a bemused smile on his face when she figuratively cried 'uncle'. "I guess Rotary will have to wait," he said.

How many years of great knees do I have? However many I have, I do not want to use them on the all-American trip from the car to the mall entrance. I want them in service helping me hike Austria hut-to-hut, or exploring some Czech national park I've never heard of, or pounding the pedestrian pavement all over Prague.

Already, I've lived three years longer than my father. I hope I have a good ten years until the grandchildren come and I am needed back home. I want to make every single one of those years count.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Getting There

So what possibly could keep me from my romantic notion of Prague?
What stands in the way of me moving and taking up residence in one of the most beautiful baroque cities on Earth if that's what I've a mind to do?

In a word: logistics.

Between me and the Charles Bridge stands the work of fixing up my home, selling my possessions, and executing my home sale. Hands-on, concrete stuff!

I can do hands-on, concrete stuff, honest, I can. In the past, daughter #1 would always help move me. She could pack a moving box that would exhibit the grace of a Bento Box. Daughter #1 is grown up and gone.

I live in the world of ideas. Hands-on concrete stuff seems like a lot of work without the fun. My feminist self is secure enough to wish I could just punt on leading this effort and defer to my imaginary husband who tells me what to do! But oh, there's a problem. He's imaginary. I guess I have to lead after all. Ugh.

I don't think I'll every own this much stuff again.

Hello Great Big Beautiful World!

In 37 days I finish my most important life's work: raising two beautiful, accomplished daughters.

My youngest daughter graduates from high school and soon joins her older sister in adventures of the collegiate kind (yes, you're allowed to ask me what daughter #1 got in calculus). Of course, one is never really finished being a parent but my role becomes more supportive and will be contributed from a lot longer distance.

Soooooo, what to do with myself?

It's time to follow through on an idea I've been attracted to ever since reading Ernest Hemingway in high school. Back then, I thought Ernest Hemingway was IT because of his machismo. I loved reading his simple declarative sentences exulting in manly activities like running with the bulls, shopping at Abercrombie and Fitch for his next safari, fishing by a good clean stream, and defending the free world from facism.

I could literally feel the sunshine on Ernest in the sidewalk cafes of Paris as he mused in his moleskin notebooks about Hadley and the baby and his next story. If I could have I would have zapped myself right there, ordered up an absinthe, and joined him in watching the parade of interesting humanity walk by.

I'm a bit wiser now and can see through the machismo for what it is: misogynistic alcoholism.

Yet the romantic idea of being an expat in Europe has not lost even one iota of it's romance. That idea has remained for thirty years. The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast - could two books be more wonderfully tragic and appealing to a young girl? It's time to find out for myself.

I hope to be an expat in Prague by August 1, 2008.

Wish me luck.
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