Said and read – May 2018

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Like last month, I didn’t get as far this month as I’d have hoped. I was rushing to finish two school assignments to close out the term (and launch into the final thesis), which of course meant I was reading a lot of stuff about development/relief work while trying to come up with a plausible topic for a thesis. But there was some good reading during May, and here is the random collection of thoughts on that. In fact this really does not qualify as “thoughts” – it’s more of a list without any reflection (beyond what I did in my head).

You can also find out what I was liking, thinking, reading in April, March, February and January, if you’re curious.

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Thoughts on reading for May:

*FactfulnessHans Rosling et al

Ah, the late Hans Rosling gave us one last gift – this book that is so sorely needed in these times of factlessness. Some hope – the world is actually getting better. It’s just very hard to see. But the numbers, as much as they can be manipulated, do tell us a nicer story.

*The View From Flyover CountrySarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior has been one of the most “factful” and insightful voices of reason since the early days of Trump’s rise. For people who have no understand of middle America and how the Trump phenomenon came to be, Kendzior’s collection of essays puts it all into perspective

*Each Happiness Ringed by LionsJane Hirshfield

Poetry. Beautiful poetry.

*Skinned – Selected PoemsAntjie Krog

More poetry. I don’t think anyone who has ever read this blog imagines that I love anything more than I love poetry.

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Good – really good – but not necessarily great

*The Hummingbird’s DaughterLuis Alberto Urrea

When I started reading this one, I had no idea what to expect; it was a random library choice. It took a while to grow on me but I came to enjoy it a lot.

Without any connection to formal religion, I do feel bound to try for “the selfless practice of love, of good, of service” (as cited below). I am struck by those who claim to be “most religious” who have nothing but hatred and violence in their hearts, and have to dehumanize other groups of people to such a degree to be able to feel that way.

“For God,” she preached from her porch, “religions are nothing, signify nothing. Because positive religions are generally nothing more than words—words without feeling. Religions are practices that focus on the surface of things, that affect only the senses, but that fail to touch the soul, and fail to come from the soul. For that reason, these words and practices fail to reach our Father. What our Father wants from us is our emotions, our feelings. He demands pure love, and that love, that sentiment, is found only in the selfless practice of love, of good, of service.”

*Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media  Suzanne Franks

Somewhat connected to my studies, I enjoyed reading about the way disasters and subsequent aid efforts are reported, what gets attention and what doesn’t and how mystifyingly complex it is.

“The configuration of aid, media pressure, NGOs and government policy today is still directly affected, and in some ways distorted, by what was—as this narrative reveals—also an inaccurate and misleading story. In popular memory the reporting of Ethiopia and the humanitarian intervention were a triumph of journalism and altruism. Yet alternative interpretations give a radically different picture: that the reporting was misleading and the resulting aid effort did more harm than good. This book explains the event within the wider context of international news broadcasting, especially by the BBC, and looks at the way it has influenced the reporting of humanitarian disasters in subsequent years.”

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Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The CircleDave Eggers

This book made me sick – in that good way where you feel moved (whether in a positive or negative way). I was moved by that creepy, crawly disgust that comes over you when you’re sitting in a huge room full of brainwashed people. And you think, “My god, am I the only one who thinks we’re being indoctrinated into a cult?”

“There’s this new neediness—it pervades everything.”

“So many people who don’t want to be found but who will be. So many people who wanted no part of all this. That’s what’s new. There used to be the option of opting out. But now that’s over. Completion is the end. We’re closing the circle around everyone—it’s a totalitarian nightmare.”

*A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind – Siri Hustvedt

This was a difficult book to get through. Some of it was very engaging; some was difficult, but in the right frame of mind, it’s incredible. Perception and context, of course.

“Nevertheless, the larger point that may be extrapolated from Plassmann’s experiment and countless others, which often remains unsaid, is instructive: There is no pure sensation of anything, not in feeling pain, not in tasting wine, and not in looking at art. All of our perceptions are contextually coded, and that contextual coding does not remain outside us in the environment but becomes a psycho-physiological reality within us, which is why a famous name attached to a painting literally makes it look better.”

*The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual EconomyPeter Temin

A key analysis for our fraught times.

“A dual economy exists when there are two separate economic sectors within one country, divided by different levels of development, technology, and patterns of demand. This definition reflects the use of the Lewis model in the field of economic development, and I adapt it in this book to describe current conditions in the United States, the richest large country in the world. This is less paradoxical than it sounds because the political policies that grow out of our dual economy have made the United States appear more and more like a developing country.”

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Coincidences

*Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineGail Honeyman

For the entire week before reading Eleanor, SD was overdosing on semi-recent episode of Law & Order: SVU because he wanted to watch one of his man-crushes (Raúl Esparza) in action. He was especially interested in finding out whether Esparza’s sartorially smart ADA Barba wore his vest (waistcoat in UK English parlance) properly, i.e. with the bottom button left unbuttoned). He was delighted to discover that the “sexy bastard” did indeed don his waistcoat exactly as prescribed.

One wouldn’t think that this kind of detail would surface again in the same week. But as it happens, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was offered up to me after spending months on the library waiting list. I didn’t really have expectations and didn’t know what the book was about. It’s not exactly my normal reading fare, and I don’t have my finger on the beating pulse of contemporary popular fiction. I, in fact, knew nothing at all about it (except maybe that Reese Witherspoon had scooped up the film rights, which, yeah… tells me nothing about the book. Or maybe it does).

I started reading and almost immediately, the titular character echoes exactly the same things SD and I were just talking about:

But last night, I’d found the love of my life. When I saw him walk onstage, I just knew. He was wearing a very stylish hat, but that wasn’t what drew me in. No—I’m not that shallow. He was wearing a three-piece suit, with the bottom button of his waistcoat unfastened. A true gentleman leaves the bottom button unfastened, Mummy always said—it was one of the signs to look out for, signifying as it did a sophisticate, an elegant man of the appropriate class and social standing. His handsome face, his voice . . . here, at long last, was a man who could be described with some degree of certainty as ‘husband material.’

Indeed, a few pages later, one woman character called another “hen“, and I realized, to my surprise, that this book is Glaswegian through and through. SD is a Glaswegian (and I’m an ‘honorary’ one), and almost no one else (other than Scots in certain parts of Scotland) refers to women as “hen”.

SD and I stumbled across so many of these random coincidences – talking animatedly about some (often obscure) detail only to have it pop up again and again in the ensuing days. (Strangely, we had only the day before I read this discussed how Smirnoff vodka is not top-shelf stuff, and yet SD encountered a lot of customers when he worked in bars who turned their noses up at much nicer vodkas for some reason. And what happens in Eleanor? I had only intended to purchase two bottles of Glen’s, but the promotional offer on Smirnoff was remarkable. Oh, Mr. Tesco, I simply cannot resist your marvelous bargains. And that’s ultimately why I mention this book… the strange coincidences that overlap my own conversations and experiences. (The book, too, acknowledges the delight of such serendipities):

I shook my head, and was about to discard the newspaper when a small advertisement caught my eye. The Cuttings, it said, with a logo of a bullet train hurtling along a track. I noticed it because the answer to twelve across in yesterday’s crossword had been Shinkansen. Such small coincidences can pepper a life with interest.

But did I like the book? I love that its canvas is Glasgow without being painfully obvious like many books that make a show of being set in a specific place, going over the top with ‘local’ details, as though it’s necessary to prove the writer was there. I’m thinking here of Douglas Coupland‘s overreach for authenticity, for example, in Microserfs; some people find the level of detail engaging; locals reading his books will nod in agreement with the accuracy, but he always goes a little too far, right over the thin line of what is clever, coming across as artificial. In Coupland’s case, as in most cases, I find it smug. I feel a need for something more subtle – like Honeyman’s use of Glasgow).

The book, though… I have mixed feelings on the book itself and on how the character of Eleanor Oliphant comes across and develops. It’s not bad at all; perhaps it is just not quite my style. I can buy into the lack of self-awareness or lack of worldliness in which Eleanor has cocooned herself. But after spending more than half the book creating this well-meaning, but not pleasant and mostly deluded (or at best uninformed) character, I don’t quite understand how, seemingly suddenly about three-quarters of the way through the story, this awkward woman who plowed through the world following her own routines, saying everything that came into her mind and judging everyone harshly with little or no self-reflection, is questioning, self-aware, confronted by a moment of clarity about herself and her delusions.

I am not saying this is not possible, nor am I saying that there is not character development leading to this (Eleanor starts to change, slowly, seeing that the world is bigger and offers more possibilities than she had allowed herself to imagine. She becomes more social and starts to live, all the way through). But the suddenness of her being slapped in the face by reality does not feel earned or quite realistic. We might have gotten there at some point. But how does she go from blind and deluded certainty about something outlandish to instantly waking up to one’s complete disconnect from reality? Is the suddenness intentional? I don’t know.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

Happily (!) I didn’t hate anything enough to include something in the ‘disappointment’ category.

Images by SD 2018

“This is basic”

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As I smeared some Boursin cheese onto a giant, round flatbread from Sweden’s Liba Bröd, I suddenly remembered my long-ago introduction to Boursin and a whole lot of other things that are not the norm in America. A French ex who always had Boursin and 1,000 other types of cheese at all times, exclaimed, shocked that I did not always have Boursin, “But… this is basic!” This was one of his most frequently repeated expressions. Every time we jointly encountered something that was normal, everyday and basic to him but unknown to me, I got, “But this is basic!” (pronounced of course like “bey-zik”). There were other things that were basic to me – like knowing that there is oil in the engine of a car – that he did not know.

But what is basic to one is not basic to another. Also, what we are “brainwashed” to think – or not to think independently about – is another thing. I talked to someone about Iran and how he had no idea how nice, forward-thinking and technologically enthusiastic Iranians are. But why would he? That’s not the image Americans get about Iran and its people.

What is basic and should be well-understood to everyone: when writing online SAVE SAVE SAVE. Or write in a Google Docs or Word or something first. I wrote a long and fairly well-researched post about Brexit consequences and lost the whole thing. I have not been so angry at myself in a very long time. Idiotic… but basic.

Lunchtable TV Talk: The Following

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The Following is the best show on television! Just kidding. April Fool’s Day!

I have written many times about TV’s worst show, The Following. It makes law enforcement look like bumbling idiots (thanks, real law enforcement does that quite enough on their own). It leads viewers to believe that the diabolical cult leaders/serial killers are geniuses – but they are not particularly smart either.  They are just conscienceless and usually a step or two ahead of the law. And not even charismatic! Sometimes I ask myself if maybe I have been conditioned by too many police and legal procedurals and somehow imagine that investigations and catching bad guys is easier than it is. Maybe Kevin Bacon leading this team of FBI field operatives is exactly as murky as FBI investigations get. I don’t really know. But I know that it is not really entertainment, except for a self-torturer like myself, who watches weekly to find out what new level of stupidity and depravity the show will fall each time.

Kevin Bacon at his best…

The only remotely interesting part, which has been the case all along, is questioning how all these different people have been brainwashed to follow along with the cult of Joe Carroll – and now Carroll (the main baddie) is in prison, and the people pulling the strings … well, I don’t know where loyalty for those guys comes from. And the whole thing is scary in that you have to wonder how the world could possibly sustain this many psychopaths. The show constantly introduces new characters – hard to keep it all clear. It has taken the focus off “mastermind” Joe Carroll, who seems less crazy all the time given the cast of characters to appear since he exited the stage. (Michael Ealy is the latest, and it’s a pretty weird role for him. This is no Sleeper Cell.) There are a lot of echoes of far superior shows, such as Dexter and Hannibal, mixed in here, and even a tinge of the recent The Fall, in which Jamie Dornan is a serial murderer but also turns out to be a “normal family man”, like Ealy’s new character – but it’s like retreading old ground and treading water. Nothing remotely original here.

In light of viewing the recent HBO documentary on Scientology (Going Clear), I am not as inclined to doubt that insecurity and longing for belonging drive people into the arms of predatory cults and endow these followers with a sense of superiority (before stripping them down in the same way an abuser does with his abused). A cult around a serial killer is not really any different. Even in particularly gung-ho corporate environments, you get a lot of people who subsume their own identities and personalities and go beyond even “enthusiastic corporate cheerleader”.

I wrote earlier to a friend: “I wonder, being an antisocial non-joiner of anything myself, how people get so caught up in anything – whether it is a political party, a religious dogma, a corporation, a fraternity – whatever it is. And having this sense of self (as an antisocial, non-joiner) would I even be aware, or conscious, if I did join something? We have such powerful ideas about who we are that I wonder if we even see who we are.”

I find myself freaked out by things like crowds of people who start out applauding randomly and without any rhythm but end up clapping in a frightening group-mentality unison. It is not a big leap from there – people’s tendency toward sameness and wanting some kind of belonging and harmony – to see how people end up tethered to something insane through a combination of blind devotion and sheer lack of ability to think for themselves. Is that what compels people to watch and love The Following? That people fool themselves into thinking they are immune to brainwashing?

Forgive me in advance; this will be a sweepingly generalized observation. And it is a bit off topic, but I did think about the fact that the adults I knew as an adolescent – people like my parents and others their age (40ish middle-aged people) – always seemed to be on some kind of spiritual search. Some discovered religion, some New Age guru stuff (which hit a peak in the late 80s), some Scientology – but whatever they did or did not discover, I wonder if people of my own generation are as inclined to the midlife crisis and this hunt for greater meaning. All humans, I think, hunt for greater meaning, but I also feel there are generational components at work. The Baby Boomers seem to have invented the midlife crisis (maybe life in the western world was actually too difficult for these kinds of “identity crises” prior to the post-war generation – people were just busy with the business of surviving). My generation, the so-called Generation X, has never enjoyed a long period of success and prosperity (economically, societally), so we kind of just expect to make back-up plans for our real plans and just ride out whatever the outcome is. In that sense, as we are all in the throes of or entering middle age, we might yearn for some kind of connection, but I don’t see people en masse (and it might just be because there are fewer of us) looking for answers in an organized way.

Back to the point, though. I don’t know why The Following is popular or why it keeps being renewed. Was I poisoned by misguided expectations? My mother had been watching the first season and told me she found it “disturbing” and “chilling”. I expected to be somehow spellbound by this show, but it’s just stupid. By extension, I am stupid for continuing to watch.

The American way – a light extinguished

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“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-Emma Lazarus, from “The New Colossus”

I like to ignore the realities of America now that I don’t live there, but it is true that what happens in the US does affect the world.

Brainwashing in the US begins early. Most people don’t think of it that way – and even rather anti-American people I meet in Europe sometimes think I am going too far when I describe the US system as a form of slavery (especially if one compares it to actual slavery, which of course is an entirely different, toxic and horrifying institution/monstrosity). It might be better to call it indentured servitude, with the indenture owed to student loan companies and increasingly inhumane workplaces. People are too brainwashed to know that that is the machine they are a part of – indoctrinated into the idea that they are would-be millionaires (as John Steinbeck said, ““Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”) or that “anything is possible” if they work hard enough – and taught from an early age to value material goods over anything else, so that, unless they are actually hit by real hardship, an average American thinks he is prospering because he managed to buy … a new Jeep or something.

I often tell the disembodied and soulless story as one in which you are born and are told from the earliest time that you must get an education, so you go to public school (or whatever form you attend) and basically learn how not to think while a lot of nonsense is hammered into your head and creativity is systematically removed – stay in line, be quiet, color inside the lines, do what everyone else is doing, no that is not the right interpretation of this, there is only one right answer and only one way to get there). Then you are told you have to go to college or else you will not get a job. You go into great debt to do so. Naturally after that your hands are tied by the debt, so you take whatever job you can get rather than whatever job will make you happy – but you are also convinced that you will be happy if you buy the aforementioned Jeep. And of course unquestionably America is the greatest country in the world (and if you question it, get out because you’re no patriot!), so it does not matter that you don’t have the money or time to travel to see the world. You have a Jeep you can drive around with since you have cheap oil! And since you are stuck wherever you are anyway paying your student debt, you might as well do what everyone else does. Buy a house. Get married. You might start to question whether you are happy in your job, but you know you won’t find another one easily anyway … and now you have a kid or two, so you need to stay in your job to keep your healthcare. Then you play the tug-of-war with yourself about whether you can be a good parent, whether you have enough money for their daycare, whether one of the parents should leave their job (if there are two parents, of course) until you enroll your own kid into the same system that produced you just the way you are now and the same story repeats. And repeats and repeats.

This story, even if it differs from individual to individual, is somewhat amazing to incredulous Europeans, who actually don’t think of the details and intricacy of how this average American mind is formed/created. They often just imagine that “Americans are dumb” (broad strokes of generalization, of course) but fail to take the whole system into consideration. When I tell this story to the average American, it is equally amazing because the semi-awake one never thinks about the fact that each chain in the link of his life is some spot where he has been further handcuffed into the, shall we say, chain gang? University costs – mostly free in much of Europe – healthcare – largely free in Europe – daycare subsidized by the state – lots of vacation time and maternity/paternity leave … sure, taxes are slightly higher (but honestly not that much) – and most do not feel like they are enslaved by their jobs. You can leave any time without risking health coverage. These too are generalizations, especially in this era of steep austerity cuts and unemployment at unheard of rates in much of mainland Europe (Scandinavia is not quite in the same position).

The general theme here, though, is that there is a tremendous freedom to this and an impetus to then really think. But how could an average American be expected to think with that whole backstory forming and informing his life?

The American lifestyle and system creates a certain kind of constant fear. Fear of losing one’s job, fear of violence, fear of being sued, fear of in any way being out of step with the norm. I thought about this one night as I was driving my long-distance commute back home and saw a guy hitchhiking trying to get from a town called Bengtsfors to Årjäng (none of which will be familiar to or mean anything to anyone reading this). It may not be charitable of me not to have offered a ride since I was driving right through Årjäng. But hitchhiking is dangerous territory. I have no idea if this guy posed any danger, and maybe anywhere in the world, it would be foolish to chance it, but even if it were almost a guarantee that it would have been safe, I still would not have done it. You can take an American out of America but not shake the full American paranoia out of them. I have more than my share of this paranoia, assuming that everyone has bad or dangerous intentions and ulterior motives. Being American has taught me never to trust anything.

Maybe it is crazy and sounds like I am looking for the boogieman around every corner, particularly in the working world. Somewhere in me, I find it fun to search and apply for (and interview for, if called) jobs. It did not start as a fun hobby – it was more out of necessity when I searched like mad to find a job (as was always the case in my earlier life – applying for 100 jobs and getting maybe one interview or something). But eventually when I did not need to worry about it anymore and did not need a job, I decided it was partly fun, a bit of a game and one can always use interview practice (and potentially a free trip somewhere). But it was partly this paranoia showing its face – companies go under, companies downsize, industries change – you need to be ready and out there and know what the bloody hell is going on. Be ye ever ready, right? And I am.

Before the big crash of 2008, I was living in Iceland and actually went on a lot of interview trips around Europe… Dublin, Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, London, a few times to Helsinki… cannot complain. While it is not always practical, it usually pays off. I have never once been blindsided. If you are paranoid (and/or American) enough, you will always see the writing on the wall and READ IT.

One of my freelance/side “careers” has ended up being job counselor/life coach/resume-and-interview consultant. Not that I ever wanted to do that. Europeans especially need a bit of coaching in this department because they have never experienced the dog-eat-dog American work culture (and I hope they never reach a point that they experience something quite like that). But Europeans are too soft, and there is no doubt that some things in Europe are slowly moving in a more American direction (although I don’t think it will ever go to the extremes). In my last job, there was a huge reorganization a few years ago, and something like one-third of the company was laid off. When this happens, employment laws offer considerable protection, and most decent employers extend protection and assistance beyond what the law requires. Despite the “helping hand” and the clear signs everywhere that change was afoot, those affected by this first reorg (which they euphemistically called “right sizing”) were completely blindsided because they have never been taught (how nice for them) to read the signs of what is coming. I think most aware Americans in a corporate environment are always paying attention to little things because paying just a bit of attention may pay dividends one way or another. Of course Europeans might be told pointblank that change is coming but never imagine that it will have any effect on them. Many of them were devastated in the first round of layoffs, even though they were poised to get at least half a year of pay (even if they got a new job the next day, they would still get the full pay). And the Norwegian economy was not affected much at all by the global economic downturn – so most people found jobs immediately. Their sense of panic was almost cute in its “working world naivete”. Not that I think it is great that I am so on my toes and ready for anything all the time.

It turned out for the best, of course, when I was sort of part of a later “right sizing” process. I was, as always, prepared. It was rather hilarious when my manager called me to give me the “bad news” – kept saying stuff about how I must feel so devastated and would feel it when the shock wore off. But all these strategies and acute situation awareness enabled an automatic prewarning. I was not shocked; I was not surprised. I was ready.

As we know (or should know), life is not defined by work – or should not be. Somehow, this is where American life and “ideals” derail. Increasingly, people work and work and don’t get anywhere and won’t be able to afford (in terms of time or money) some way out of the situation they are in (this is probably already the case, and I am just out of touch). When I consider that people who work in the service industry do not come close to earning living wages, I am appalled. But the system is set up this way – to glorify and maximize corporate profit, to supply consumer demand for impossibly cheaper and cheaper goods sold in stores staffed by people who cannot afford to eat.

Lovely. What a happy Thanksgiving, America.