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Lost in Austin (But Finding My Way)

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“Come, thou shalt go home, and we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting-days, and moreo’er puddings and flap-jacks, and thou shalt be welcome.” ~William Shakespeare (Pericles, II, i)

As I sit in front of a warm fireplace on a cold, rainy November night, I’m reflecting on the fact that it was four years ago this week, the day before Thanksgiving 2009, that I moved from Albuquerque NM to Austin.  The day I arrived was also cold and rainy, and we unloaded much of the moving van in a drizzly haze.  My Dad and I had caravaned in my car and the moving van over two days time to break up the trip.

It was not the best time for me, which had precipitated much of my decision to move.  I was still heartbroken and reeling from a recent divorce, and had decided to leave my anxiety-ridden job of 7 years at a disease management company that was itself crumbling.  It was not an easy decision to leave the city in which I’d spent most of my life, but it seemed a logical one.  My family had been in Austin for almost twenty years by that point; it had taken me two decades to finally follow them.

On that rainy night of my arrival, I moved into a depressing duplex on a dismal street filled with struggling families and broken down cars.  But my family did their best to dress it up and give me the warmest welcome possible.  I was grateful to finally just be here, among them, no matter what the circumstances.  Moving is a big risk at any time, for anyone.  I didn’t exactly outrun my depressing circumstances, and it was quite a struggle to find a decent job in the middle of the worst economic recession in modern history, but I was here, and that was the goal.

A lot has happened in those four years since.  Births and deaths, finding jobs and quitting jobs, leaving that depressing duplex for a new home, stress and setbacks, risk and realizations.  I’ve been privileged to travel during that time to see sights I’d always wanted to see.  I’ve been lucky to make one or two new friends in four years, which may not seem like a lot, but one of the facts I’ve come to realize (and accept) about myself is that I’m not one that makes friends (real friends) easily.  So I’m grateful for that too.

Four years still doesn’t seem like enough time to consider myself an Austinite though.  I still get lost all the time; if it weren’t for my iPhone, I’d have no idea where I’m going in the hilly streets of this city (with no reference points to guide me).  And whether you’re lost or not, Austin’s traffic woes will drive you mad.  The extreme heat and the humidity and the ever-present mosquitoes have been hard to get used to (I’m not sure I ever will) and make outside activities pretty undesirable for me.  I miss the perfect weather and seasons of Albuquerque and the striking beauty of New Mexico landscapes and sunsets.  In four years, I haven’t been able to find a decent Sunday morning breakfast spot like I had in Albuquerque.  The cost of living here in Austin is about double what it was in NM, and I still have to remind myself to call them breakfast tacos instead of breakfast burritos.

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The pink Sandia Mountains lit by an Albuquerque sunset.
I miss you Q.

But there’s one overriding factor that validates all those drawbacks (which are relatively minor), and it’s a pretty powerful one: family.  Every time over the past four years that I’ve been asked why I moved to Austin, I’ve always responded with the same answer: it’s where my family was.  It may not sound like much, but it’s pretty much everything.  It’s hard to beat being near your family.  It hasn’t been perfect, and there have been ups and downs, but we’re here if we need each other, and I’m thankful for that.

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So during this week of Thanksgiving, I’m thinking of how grateful I am for each one of my family members: their love, their health, their support, their proximity, and their help.  Thank you for bringing me here.  Thank you for putting up with my mood swings and fluctuating aspirations.  Thank you for all the car battery jump starts, free handyman repairs, midnight urgent care trips, family dinners and home-cooked meals, babysitting advice, leanable shoulders and listening ears.  I don’t say it enough, but I love you all and appreciate each one of you.  And – you’re lucky you live in Austin, because it’s the only city in Texas I would’ve moved to (it is pretty cool here, in a hot, humid, Austin-weird way).  Thank you for helping me find my way (whatever that may turn out to be).

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Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Healthcare.Govin’MeAHeadache

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“He doth me wrong to feed me with delays.” ~William Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus, IV, iii)

Last week I finally took the plunge into shopping for health insurance through the infamously inoperable http://www.healthcare.gov marketplace website.  I already waded through the world of health insurance woes back in June when I quit my job and had to buy a private/individualized plan.  Texas is one of the states that refused to set up state-run networks, so we have no choice but to go through the federal marketplace.  I think I will be able to get a subsidy to assist me with one of the new insurance plans due to my much-reduced income now, but that’s only if I can actually manage to enroll.

Yup, I’m one of the masses of people who is stuck in the healthcare.gov snafu.

The website let me create an application and I entered in all of the multiple pages worth of required information.  Then I signed electronically and submitted it, but had to step away from the computer for a while.  When I logged back in later, it told me that my application was incomplete and asked me to re-enter all the same information I’d already entered earlier.  Yet in another link on the site, it told me my earlier-submitted application had been received and was complete.  It said I had to view my eligibility results before I could shop for a plan, but when I clicked on the link to do so, nothing happened.

So, I re-entered all the required information again. Five more times, actually.  Because each time, when I got to a certain point, it took me to an error screen saying the system was down and to please try again in 30 minutes.  I’d wait that amount of time and try again, only to get the same message.  I finally clicked on the Live Chat Support button and was instructed by an agent named Jacob that he would take note of my frustrations and concerns (really?), but that to get any actual assistance, I needed to call the support phone number on the website. (Apparently their Live Chat option really is meant to just chat, rather than help.)

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“Temporarily,” that’s funny.

So I called the support number, and after going through the automated phone tree that couldn’t understand anything I said (and refusing to complete a customer survey at the end of the call), was hung up on before even getting to a real person.  I called back again, this time agreeing to complete the end-of-call survey (hmmm), and lo and behold a real person finally came on the line.  Shaneece listened to my situation and then told me “Ma’am it’s because the system is down again, mine is too.  In order to proceed you need to clear all cookies, bookmarks, and browsing history from your computer, then restart the whole machine, or else it won’t even think of letting you do anything.”  Huh?

Nothing on the healthcare.gov website had even mentioned cookies or browsing history being an issue or a recommendation if having problems.  But, I did what Shaneece recommended.  And nope, it still didn’t work.  Nine hours later, I was still getting the same error message and was still unable to view my eligibility results.  In 2013, the most technologically-advanced time in history, it looks like I’m going to have to go fill out a paper application at a help center, turn in it, and wait weeks to hear back on what plans I might be eligible to enroll in.  Which I still probably won’t be able to do online.  I may even have to go hunting for an actual STAMP at some point in time (do they still sell those?).

Yup, this is about right. (From US News)

Yup, this is about right. (From US News)

Many of you probably also saw a recent news story about a few guys in California who, in a matter of HOURS, created a completely functional website (www.thehealthsherpa.com) that would let anyone instantly compare premiums for the different health insurance plans available through the marketplace, as well as find out how much of a subsidy you might be able to get.  Very few can even get past the initial bugs in the federal site to view this vital information, but these guys were able to throw it together in less than a day’s time and it actually works all the time.  You can’t enroll for a plan on their site (YET), but you can do your plan shopping and get all the pertinent information you need to then try to somehow enroll through the government’s archaic system.  Why in the world aren’t these guys being employed by the government (and paid lots of deserved money) to make the main site WORK?  Baffles the mind.

I’m not one of those people who gambles on not having health insurance.  But then I’ve never really had to worry about it until now; I was always lucky enough to have it provided through my employer for the past twenty years.  It amazes me to run into people my age who decide to run that risk though; the last few months, I’ve encountered quite a few of them.  And I realize it is a significant cost; I guess if you can’t pay for it, you can’t pay for it.  But in the land of healthcare-cost induced bankruptcies, it’s too scary to me to not budget for it and make sure I have coverage for that just-in-case scenario that may pop up as I get older.

One of the most frightening aspects of quitting my job six months ago was the thought of not having employer-provided benefits.  Deciding to cut loose that safety rope (noose?) was extremely difficult, but it was my choice all the same.  I must reap the consequences, but I also believe that there should be other realistic and affordable options for people who want to break free and try to make it on their own.  Isn’t it ironic that we shake off the suffocating company ropes just to then be metaphorically strangled by constrictive government red tape through a system such as healthcare.gov?

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I’ve worked for all levels of government in my life: local/city, state, and federal. I’m fairly used to red tape actually; not much about it surprises me anymore. Getting bogged down in bureaucratic nonsense is frustrating but feels weirdly familiar, which is a little discomforting. Have I gotten too accustomed to the static non-pace of life as a public employee?  Going forward, can I wear the half-cloak of public service while also stirring the pot of privatized entrepreneurship? A tangled web indeed.

I hope the President and his team can get this embarrassment figured out soon.  Actually, I think he just needs a whole new team – there are a few guys in California who I think may be ready to step up.

Hope some of you are having better luck than me if you’re trying to enroll for a plan.  I’d say keep your fingers crossed for me, but I wouldn’t want you to develop arthritis as a result, which may or may not be paid for by your insurance plan.  Just some good mental mojo sent my way will suffice, thanks.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

The Power of Flowers (and more Lonely Bouquets)

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“It is to be all made of fantasy, all made of passion and all made of wishes…” ~William Shakespeare (As You Like It, V, ii)

In July I introduced you to the worldwide movement of The Lonely Bouquet and showed you in that past post how my nephew Truman and I delivered a few of them around town.  Last week I had the good fortune to inherit some leftover event flowers (thanks to my generous current employer) and fashioned a few more jam jars for adoption:

A Lonely Bouquet waiting for adoption.

A Lonely Bouquet waiting for adoption.

This time I left each bouquet at a local animal hospital or emergency vet clinic, hoping that they would bring just a small touch of comfort to someone who either had a sick pet or perhaps had to make a very tough and sad decision about a pet’s future.  I know what that’s like, and while nothing can take away the immediate sadness, I thought that a free and pretty posey might at least take their mind off it for a few minutes.

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That last picture is where I took my dog Foxy for many visits with her canine ophthalmologist when she had optical cancer, but in addition to it being an eye clinic, it’s also an after-hours emergency clinic.  And it’s where I finally had to take her on that last day when she was in pain and I made the impossible decision to ease her suffering.  It was hard for me to approach the door of that place once again, but this time it was for a good reason, and I hope that either a pet parent or one of the kind staff members were the recipients of the gift.

It’s been proven scientifically that flowers have the power to make us feel better – they have an actual mood-improving effect on our brain waves and emotional functions when we are around them, isn’t that amazing?  Take a look at this picture I snapped of a carton full of wedding flowers from a few weeks ago:

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What is your gut reaction upon first seeing the amazing mix of pinks and lavenders and corals and textures?  For me it’s awe and amazement – it’s like looking at nature’s cotton candy.  And what’s even more amazing to me is that the planner at that wedding actually had us DISCARD and not use these flowers because she said the bride would think them too “pink-y” to go with the rest of the flowers (which were equally as beautiful).  This carton of flowers went directly into a dumpster without any wedding guests (or the bride) having seen them, which is shocking to me.  But at least they’ll live on through this blog!

I’ve been grappling lately with the fate and purpose of wedding flowers.  I know they’ve served their purpose, but it’s still sad to see them go immediately into trash bags and dumpsters either there at the venue right after the event, or the next day when the van is unloaded; it’s still a shock to me as I toss thousands of dollars worth of floral arrangements into a big black Hefty bag as the last lingering guests are still milling about.  Yes sometimes there are a few guests here and there who will take a centerpiece or two home with them, but it’s not common.  Even sadder is when the bride’s bouquet is left behind on some random table next to empty beer bottles…why wouldn’t they want to keep that and take it with them?

From what I’ve witnessed over the last few months, weddings have become such staged, scripted, over-the-top spectacles that unfortunately, significance and meaning can sometimes get lost in the shuffle.  Everything is about getting the perfect photo op, or fretting over whether something is “vintage” or “modern” enough, or fitting into the trends of the day even if it has no ties or significance to the two people getting married.  And this includes the flowers.

I get that weddings are BIG business – always have been and always will be – but it seems to me that very few if any brides actually consider the meaning and significance of flowers they pick for their weddings.  Instead of considering the language of flowers and what each variety represents, or picking flowers that mean something to them for personal or family reasons, it seems most brides these days pick their flowers based on how many pins it got on a Pinterest board.  The flowers are just an accessory, albeit usually a very pricey one, but not one that has any true meaning for most people at the ceremony. (I’m generalizing here of course, but this is just what I’ve noticed is true for most weddings; I’m sure there are those brides out there that do pick their flowers based on personal reasons, I just haven’t seen it that often so far.)

(I’ve read that there was literal outrage when William and Kate got married a few years ago that her bridal bouquet was not big or “royal” enough and that she was slammed by fashion critics for her bouquet being too small for the scale of the event.  Little did they know that every single flower in that bouquet was appropriately picked based on historical significance and family tradition – read about it here in one of my favorite flower blogs by Flowerona.)

Here’s an example: one of the most in-demand wedding flowers is the peony.  Many brides want a lush bouquet full of them, but they’re also one of the most expensive flowers (at least where we are), so not many can afford them.  But how many brides stop to consider that in the Language of Flowers, mischievous and brazen nymphs are said to hide in the petals of the peony, giving it the meaning of shame.  And in China, the peony has become a masculine motif, associated with a devil-may-care attitude and a disregard for consequence.  Yes peonies are breathtaking but one must admit those aren’t the most romantic character traits…

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Peony close-up

One of the meanings of ranunculus, another very popular wedding flower, is ingratitude.  A yellow rose in the Victorian ages could signify infidelity and jealousy.  And the most commonly-cited meanings of the ever-popular hydrangea: “A boaster, Heartlessness, You are cold.” 

Now I get that these originally-prescribed meanings don’t necessarily have to hold true today; a beautiful flower can be just a beautiful flower.  But back in the day, people everywhere knew what it meant to give a certain flower to a certain person.  Why and when did we lose that purpose, that significance?

Maybe I’m just being a flower nerd, but I find this kind of stuff fascinating.  Flowers have their own language, contain their own messages and meanings, can alter our brain waves, and many edible varieties can even provide sustenance in addition to beauty.  They have the ability to soothe, calm, excite, incite, cheer and transport to a state of UNunhappy.  They can speak volumes to recipients even when the sender can’t find any words of their own.  That’s power.

So you can make any bouquet or garden of flowers as you like it; you can have it say what you want to say.  There’s a flower for every meaning.  If it is to be all made of fantasy: the poppy.  If it is to be all made of passion: the orange rose.  And if it is to all be made of wishes: holly. 

By the way: one non-profit charity in England is changing the landscape of wasted/discarded wedding flowers.  Floral Angels recycles and re-purposes leftover event flowers into beautiful bouquets which they then deliver to women’s shelters, senior centers, hospitals and other sites in need of cheer.  Check out their Facebook page here and a big kudos to them for all the work that they do in the name of bringing joy and well-being to others.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Transporting Out of That Pit (And Please Quit Yelling at Me)

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“This babble shall not henceforth trouble me.” ~William Shakespeare (The Two Gentleman of Verona, I, ii)

Last Saturday morning, I had to make an unexpected trip to the Apple store to revive my poor old iPhone after it got hit with a case of iOS 7-itis.  The closest store to me is in an upscale shopping center that is always insanely crowded with both cars and pedestrians.  I parked in a garage, and when I was walking from the parking space to the outside area, a woman in a huge white SUV almost hit me; she was craning her neck around looking for open parking spaces instead of watching out for people crossing, and she had to slam on her brakes when she finally did see me.  As I crossed tentatively in front her and she started to drive away, I gave a polite little wave and pointed to my eyes as if to mime “please watch out for us next time.”

At which point she slammed on her brakes again, rolled down her passenger side window, and SCREAMED at me “Excuse me, I stopped for YOU, you ASS!”  Then she peeled out going full blast – in a parking garage.  I know several other people around me also heard her screaming.

I stared at her in disbelief, my mouth open.  She’d almost hit ME, and she was the one who was upset?  I shook my head, I couldn’t believe someone could be so brazenly rude and say something so mean like that to someone who had done NOTHING WRONG.  The other people around me stared at me, wondering what I’d done to incur such a rant.  My immediate thought was: what is wrong with people?? 

Not so long ago, I probably would have yelled something equally as horrible back at her as she sped away.  But instead, this time I found myself just feeling sorry for that woman.  Whatever was going on with her and in her life must be pretty bad for her to be such a miserable, angry, ticking time-bomb person.  Don’t get me wrong – I hope I don’t have to cross paths with her again.  But I do hope she is able to get a handle on her anger issues sooner rather than later so that others don’t have to face her misplaced wrath as I did.  I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to let go of her anger’s effect on me fairly quickly (although it obviously had an impact on me as here I am writing about it several days later).

I said to someone the other day “I guess we never really know what’s going on in other peoples’ lives,” and isn’t that the truth?  Even with people we see all the time, like coworkers and friends and family members, there may be something happening behind the scenes that is tearing that person’s world apart…and most of the time we never even know that the bottom is falling out from under them.  I’ve been guilty of this myself.  We all do such a good job of hiding and faking and covering and disguising.  And for what? 

The problem is, when you have to work so hard at keeping things under wraps, your psyche usually sprouts pressure-induced leaks that you have no way of stopping.  Those leaks may show up as rage episodes directed at innocent bystanders, or sometimes even physically manifest as stress-induced illnesses or disease.  Sadness, frustration, pain, anger – none of us want to have these emotions much less talk about them.  But speaking just for myself, I know that the times in my life when I’ve admitted I need help to manage life’s downturns, and then sought that help through either a therapist or counselor – well, I credit those professionals with helping to pull me out of the pit, more than once.

There’s no shame in seeking help and kindness from others; in fact, it seems much more shameful to purposefully exclude others from times of personal darkness.  This just leads to more isolation and more anger, which then leads people to lash out like that woman did to me the other day.  Is it possible I’m giving her too much credit?  Maybe instead of going through something awful in her life, she’s just an unhappy bad seed in general.  There are those kinds out there too.

But if you are going through something that leads you to do things or say things (or throw things) that you then regret doing or saying (or throwing)…well then maybe it’s time to let someone else help you too.  It can be anybody, but just don’t suffer in silence alone.  You don’t have to do that.  We supposedly have the power to be more connected to others right now than any other time in history.  So start connecting.

On a totally unrelated note, when I was waiting for my own personal genius in the Apple store a few minutes later (and why in the world hasn’t Apple’s PR team already jumped on that link to Depeche Mode’s most famous song, it would be a brilliant ad campaign for their Genius Bar), I witnessed something amazing: a family at the kids table (who were also waiting for their own personal genius) was cooing over their marvel baby – he could barely stand, had a pacifier in his mouth, and couldn’t have been a year old yet – who was swiping, unaided and unprompted, through pages and apps on an iPad and using his tiny little fingers to open games and perform actual technical functions.  I found my Star Trek nerd self geeking out over this and believing for the first time that the kids being born today might actually be using tricorders and transporters in my lifetime.

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Make it so, babies.  Engage.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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