Meandering memories with The Stone Roses

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Sometimes I fantasize
When the streets are cold and lonely
And the cars they burn below me
Don’t these times fill your eyes
When the streets are cold and lonely
And the cars, they burn below me
Are you all alone?
Is anybody home?

It was 1990, and I was in the full throes of my short-lived but passionate anglophilia. I tried to remake my suburban American life in the shape and form of something entirely different, and what better way to make anything new and beautiful – and most importantly – different – than through music? What different sound could I find that could firmly establish this otherness without the freedom to go be a part of some otherness? These were slow times when overexcited teenage musical discoveries were like hard-fought battles with near-exclusivity the spoils.

Lucky for me, I had been obsessed with reaching out into the wider world through my penfriendships, and exchanged letters with Peter, a bricklayer from Durham, England. I will never be able to express the mania, madness, joy that washed over me when his parcels would arrive, filled with cassettes (!) of exactly this otherness I had desperately sought. The first tapes he sent: The Stone Roses’ first – and in fairness near-only – album (the second could never live up to that debut). It transformed everything. He continued to send me more tapes of everything that characterized the ‘Madchester’ scene and other music from the same period. I felt like I had stumbled into a goldmine into which only I had access (it was a while before America was fully on board, and even if enclaves of people embraced this music, it was not as though it made its mark on my community).

I distinctly remember a day, walking home from a PSAT or SAT practice test (or something like that – a Saturday morning sacrificed to standardized testing, in any case), with “Made of Stone” playing on my Walkman. Is it overstating it to say that everything seemed different to me after that time? In some way, it was. It was – even if other friends adopted the music and we shared it – an assertion of my own tastes and identity outside of that of my friends. The first step toward something different. Sure, that something different did not turn out to be moving to England, which, in my youth, I long believed I wanted to do. But it was a big stepping stone to figuring out tangibly that there was a much bigger world out there with a lot of different kinds of people in it. Some of them were working as bricklayers and writing letters to fawning American girls. Some of them were making music and going to raves in a depressed late-80s Manchester.

Today, returning from Manchester, where I spent a few days with my brother seeing The Stone Roses reunion, seeing the iconic Haçienda transformed into apartments and generally taking it all in, I am starkly reminded of how I felt, how it was, to feel such intense feelings about music, about the sense of place (the sense of wanting to be in a different place). It’s been 26 years since I walked through the streets of the town where I grew up, overcome by and elated at this new sound – these new possibilities.

Today I am wandering the streets of Oslo, bound by sun and a few clouds, wondering in some way how I got here. In life, that is. Scandinavia was nowhere on my radar back in 1990, and yet this is where I feel happiest and at home. And listening to the Roses as I walked around the sun-dappled Oslo train station and opera house, I create new and very different memories around these same songs that carried me through suburban American streets and experiences. The songs are the same but are no longer the ones that made me feel lonely but understood – and held the promise of different ‘othernesses’ – and now hold this bittersweet nostalgia in every note and word.

Of course with nostalgia there is also the past – whatever happened to the northern boy bricklayer Peter, who introduced me to all of this and spoke in an accent I could not begin to understand? My best friend from that period, too, where has she gone? I thought of her so much as I wandered Manchester and saw this concert we would have killed to see when we were 15. I know neither she nor I are the people we were then, but the heartstrings were pulled. Hard.

 

Almost Perfect Nordics

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A dear colleague and friend gave me the book The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth. I am only into the introduction so far, but it has already made me laugh some chuckles of recognition:

“But where were the discussion about Nordic totalitarianism and how uptight the Swedes are; about how the Norwegians have been corrupted by their oil wealth to the point where they can’t even be bothered to peel their own bananas; how the Finns are self-medicating themselves into oblivion; how the Danes are in denial about their debt, their vanishing work ethic, and their place in the world; and how the Icelanders are, essentially, feral?”

Scandinavian Women on English-Language TV?

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I wrote up a whole list of Scandinavian male actors who dominate English-language TV but am having trouble thinking of any Scandinavian women on TV at all. And the two who do spring to mind are far

Connie NielsenThe Following / Boss / Law & Order: SVU

Malin Akerman – Trophy Wife / Suburgatory (both RIP)

Connie is Danish but her acting career seems to have been mostly English-language – and Malin was born in Sweden but grew up in Canada.

Who am I missing?

Resistance – Futile

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The stereotypical Nordic model (of society – not a blond girl) is one way to live and certainly is a cushy safety net. But sometimes the pull of Berlin,Cartagena, Dushanbe, Edinburgh, Firenze, Glasgow, and other cities in the alphabet (in alphabetical order of course) is hard to resist.

Acknowledging Humanity and Love

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“Love is not a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” – Fred Rogers

Mr Fred Rogers on love

Mr Fred Rogers on love

It’s no secret that I am a hater. Or at least a surface hater. That is, I am impatient, don’t like crowds, don’t like slow drivers, don’t like the people at the store who block the entire aisle or wait until their huge cartload of groceries is fully checked before getting out their debit card, or people who treat motorway onramps like that is the best possible place for viewing the scenery (i.e., going slow and not accelerating to the speed at which they need to go to merge). I don’t know why I am in such a hurry – but I just can’t fathom why other people are so myopic and inconsiderate – they go slowly (fine) but do so it seems largely because they think they are the only people in the store, on the road, in the world. Thus, I go through life a wee bit irritated, and I cope with this by making my little hate lists, or ranting briefly but not very seriously, about my annoyance. And then it’s done.

(I have never really met anyone who understood this – but when I did, I knew I met my match.)

Apart from this, I tried very hard today to keep things off the hate list. It was the most gorgeous day – warm, sunny, really indicative of why I live here. I had to go out to do a lot of errands, and I am not the biggest fan of Sunday driving in the country, particularly when the weather turns nice, Norwegians come to Sweden in droves – and worse yet, Germans and Dutch will soon arrive. But I kept my cool for the most part. I almost got mad in the grocery store because an old man kept getting in my way. But, despite not interacting with him, I tried to view him in a different light. He seemed to have gone to the store just to get out for a while – and in the end selected carefully and bought himself a bag of loose candy (which all Scandinavians seem to live for). Then he drove himself away at a snail’s pace in an old, original VW Bug. I had passed by the car in the parking lot wondering to whom it belonged (I was parked across the parking lot and had to put my groceries in the car and return my cart and somehow still ended up finishing before this old man got to the car). Once I saw him drive away – slower than slow – it was impossible for me to hate him. He probably owned that car since it was brand new (or at least that is how I like to imagine it). Imagining that he fired up the old car just to go get candy on a Sunday!

This shift in perspective was quite conscious – and although we did not, as I said, interact, acknowledging his humanity made a difference. When I got home, I stumbled on an article that reinforced the same underlying themes. We all follow unspoken social rules and don’t generally make eye contact or strike up conversations with strangers – and I must say unequivocally that this is almost an absolute in Sweden. This article, however, examines some evidence gathered by behavioral scientists who contend that interactions with strangers improve our mood – maybe first by forcing us into a “pretend friendly” mode – but usually by the end of the encounter, the pleasantries and positive interaction has created genuine positive feelings.

“One of the perks of being a behavioral scientist is that when your partner does something annoying, you can bring dozens of couples into the laboratory and get to the bottom of it. When Liz tested her hypothesis in a lab experiment, she discovered that most people showed the “Benjamin Effect”: They acted more cheerful around someone they had just met than around their own romantic partner, leaving them happier than they expected.

Many of us assume, however, that our well-being depends on our closest ties, and not on the minor characters in our daily lives. To investigate the validity of this assumption, our student Gillian M. Sandstrom asked people to keep a running tally of their social interactions.”

Another point is hard to gauge in my current environment; I just had a conversation about this with a colleague the other day. The seeming social taboo of acknowledging strangers you pass in the street (here in Sweden). (I have encountered exceptions but it is usually because something happens requiring conversation, and then you can’t get them to shut up.)

“Simply acknowledging strangers on the street may alleviate their existential angst; and being acknowledged by others might do the same for us.”

When I lived in the US, it was common courtesy to acknowledge someone passing you on the street while walking past. Maybe not in a big city but certainly in small to mid-sized towns. I never liked it much, but I made eye contact, said hello. It was so ingrained despite my dislike for it that I continued to do it after I moved to Iceland – but quickly learned to stop because I was looked at as though I had said something deeply offensive or threatened the other person. I have comfortably filed right into the sheep herd here in non-confrontational Scandinavia – sometimes it’s sad but it’s how I have always been (as a shy person). I have always relied on other people (and you could always rely on Americans – or even other members of my family, who fall far afield of anything resembling shyness) to make the first move.

Whatever the case, the casual can be difficult to deal with but I am actually a pretty sensitive, shy and loving person somewhere underneath. And when I do love I really love – whether that is a love for my friends, a partner or a cause. I become fiercely protective of those people and things. And, like the Mr Rogers quote above explains, I love actively – it is a constant state of accepting – I may not accept or like everything someone does, but that does not change that the love I feel is unconditional. I also love myself unconditionally, and sometimes that means that even if I do love someone, it is healthiest to move them out of my life – but even that won’t put conditions on how I feel about them. Their role just shifts.

It is all very complex but at the same time strikes me as very simple – whether it is accepting and even embracing the idiosyncracies of strangers in public places and seeing them as more human or loving and accepting those closest unconditionally.

Fear and Love” – Morcheeba

Fear can stop you loving/love can stop your fear – but it’s not always that clear.

Snus in Scandinavia

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I sat down in a meeting room at my office, waiting for the new employee who just joined my team to come in for an introductory one-on-one. She came in, said hello and set down her mobile phone and the telltale round plastic container that can only be one thing – snus.

Snus, for the uninitiated is, smokeless tobacco. Unlike loose chewing tobacco, snus is contained in wee little packets that look like very small teabags.

snus packets

snus packets

The stuff is illegal throughout the European Union – but it’s still legal and highly popular in Norway and Sweden. In Sweden, it’s quite serious business. Back in 1995 when Sweden was poised to join the European Union, the country received an exemption to the smokeless-tobacco-product ban, with some saying that Sweden would have reconsidered EU membership had the exemption not been granted. (The same 2008 WSJ article cites a Swedish member of the European Parliament, Christofer Fjellner, who is selling snus illegally from his office in Brussels as a kind of act of civil disobedience. Fjellner is, according to a 2012 article from The Independent, still at it.)

A similar state of affairs (that is, treating snus as life or death) exists in Norway (Norway is a snus-loving, non-EU country). Several years ago, a former friend in Norway had gone on holiday to Italy with her boyfriend, and the boyfriend was mostly excited about the prospect because it meant he could stock up on snus at the airport duty-free. When the couple had their luggage, passports and tickets stolen, his snus was also stolen. As my friend was phoning the embassy and trying to get things under control, her boyfriend was calling his friends, lamenting the loss of his case of snus. That should tell you about how seriously these people take snus. You’d think the theft of snus was the end of the world.

Perhaps for those legality reasons and the fact that snus is not present anywhere else, I never had a clue how unrelenting and ubiquitous this stuff was until I moved to Scandinavia. Men particularly never go anywhere without it, and switch out the little tobacco packets right in the middle of important meetings, discarding the used packets on the edges of plates or cups or scrap paper. It’s still vulgar and crass to me – but I’ve more or less gotten used to it among men. But women – even though I know they also use snus – and that there are brands and flavors specifically made for and marketed to women – still surprise me as avid users. And even those who use are not generally so dependent that they turn up to meetings with the container of snus in tow, as my new colleague did. (Another colleague saw the snus container our new colleague carries as cause to laugh – she loves it when people do things that are mildly inappropriate.)

It may be an exaggeration to say that I “got used to it”. It is just something I accept, as I dodge all the used little packets strewn across city sidewalks in Gothenburg… and try my best to overlook the used, dried-up packets people leave on the edge of dirty dishes. I am still struggling to find out how it is so widespread that it is acceptable to use all the time. Somehow I feel as though tobacco products should be reserved for breaks – go outside or at least don’t be digging around your gums in the middle of business meetings. Couldn’t it be a bit more… subtle and discreet?

In truth, I should not complain. I would prefer the snus habit to smoking – particularly as statistics on the matter show that “the risk of dying from a tobacco-related illness, such as lung or oral cancer is substantially lower in Sweden than in any other European country” – which is thought to be because of the dominance of snus over smoking.

Tobacco use in Sweden*

Tobacco use in Sweden*

I think the disposal aspect of both smoking and snus packets is most disturbing – I don’t want cigarette butts OR snus pouches littering the sidewalks. I want litter to be disposed of properly no matter what it is.

The world is not anyone’s garbage can or ashtray.

*http://www.eusnus.eu/the-eu-ban/

Made in Sweden – It might surprise you

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Most people have clear ideas of things that are Swedish – Volvo, IKEA, Abba. It’s also easy, being in Sweden, to imagine that everyone knows what’s Swedish and what isn’t. But I realized that there are a few things that are very much Swedish that a lot of people (outside Sweden and Scandinavia) don’t realize. Even some really major companies.

H&M (Hennes & Mauritz) – Late last year when I was in the US, a giant new H&M store was opening in a shopping mall near where my parents live. I had to explain to virtually everyone that it’s a Swedish giant. No one I talked to seemed to have a clue. One person thought it was Dutch; another thought, improbably, Korean. But no one guessed Swedish.

Spotify – Spotify has spread all over the world to become almost like the “Google” of streaming music, i.e. synonymous with the idea of streaming music the way Google is with search. But people outside Scandinavia seem blissfully unaware of the Swedish roots of the near-ubiquitous Spotify service.

Skype – Skype revolutionized instant communications. But again, an everyday convenience and household name technology is not recognized outside northern Europe as a Swedish invention.

Tetra Pak –You probably use Tetra Pak or some facsimile of it every day without knowing it – but probably did not know that the paper-based packaging, developed in Sweden, was a revolutionary change in packaging.

Electrolux – the world’s second-largest appliance company. You know, all the white goods!

And a little older …

Celsius scale – Swede Anders Celsius invented the 100-point thermometer scale used globally.

The Lone(ly) Immigrant

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The roughest part of moving to a new country on your own – without a real reason, going somewhere without a support network – is the making connections and friends. You do not often meet the kind of immigrant who moved to a new country just because he or she wanted to. If not following love/the heart, following a career path or deciding to study abroad (which is its own protected cocoon that barely counts as “living abroad”), you are just out there somewhere, on your own, adrift in this new place with no inside track on how to meet people or interact. The whole thing is a wild ride, a learning curve, negotiating the place between who and where you are and who and where everyone else is… finding a comfortable place in between.

I am too headstrong and naturally weird (other people’s assessment more than my own) to “fit in” anywhere I go so have never been one of those zombies who moves somewhere and professes love for a place without reservation. I don’t go native. I am who I am – and I won’t impose me on others, but I don’t want to be too changed by them either.

Long ago when I volunteered (oh, the sense of adventure) to be an immigrant, I struggled with the whole maze of bureaucracy and adjusting to the little things that make up a new place. You never really think about how things operate elsewhere. Things that seemed like second nature where you came from are often done in a completely different way elsewhere. The mind is conditioned to think that the way it’s done wherever you came from is “the right way” – but part of adjusting and assimilating is not just finding out how these things work but also acknowledging that perhaps the new way is better or more efficient.

All of that is easy enough to accomplish – it is a matter of changing the way you think. But making genuine connections with people – locals or other foreigners – is so much more difficult than that. Moving to Scandinavia especially (not the warmest or most social place), it’s hard to break into the already formed social circles and make even acquaintances (although forming lasting friendships does mean something when you finally get there). I have never been a really outgoing or friendly person, so making friends has always been difficult.

At one point almost ten years ago I decided I had nothing to lose by attending a course for immigrants who wanted to start businesses in Iceland. It was a three-weekend course, quite inexpensive and perhaps would lead me to forming a business (I was already actively freelancing). The course was a bit of a joke; designed and run by Icelanders, they automatically assumed all the immigrant attendees wanted to open restaurants. That’s right –that is all we’re good for. Food service. People from all over the world took the course – people who were highly educated, had been working in professional fields in their home countries – but yeah, we all want to open a food cart.

What I had not banked on was meeting three people who actually changed – and elevated – my quality of life. Two Australians and an Italian – people who became my best friends and who still are.

It happens – but the life of an immigrant can be a lonely one.

“Get a grip; this is the world we live in”

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History is written to say/it wasn’t our fault” -Sam Phillips – “Love & Kisses”

Which side of the fence are you on?

I am going to start this post by writing that I am well-aware of the gross oversimplification of everything I am writing. It is a train of thought I am following without delving into any specific issues in a meaningful way. I just had a lot of thoughts following Nelson Mandela’s passing on the nature of justice, race and humanity that I wanted to express, however disjointed and surface-level they are.

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, and even during his life, he had achieved a kind of sainthood status, untouchable… which is fine except that he was human. A great human, yes. But, as some media outlets have reported, he had a lot of “non-mainstream” things to say that exposed the hypocrisies he saw in all kinds of things, such as, and perhaps most notably, American power/hegemony. Most of these key statements are left out of the soft version of his obituaries, and the powers-that-be who might be less than comfortable with that part of Mandela can easily ignore those things.

His death brings forth the question, for example, “Who is a terrorist?” It depends on who asks the question. Who defines what a terrorist is – and how does that change? When Nelson Mandela went to prison, he was seen as a terrorist. Many South Africans of all races went to jail and fought for his  cause and the cause of racial equality (making it something of a “badge of honor” – at least according to the South Africans I have known who had criminal records for political agitation and protesting) to have a criminal record within the apartheid system. What better evidence is there of the commitment to social justice or to any cause of conscience? The whole concept of a criminal record automatically carrying a negative connotation is flawed because the offense makes a difference.

Nelson Mandela was branded a terrorist. But then, the United States labels all kinds of countries, people/individuals and organizations as terrorist or as official sponsors of terrorism. The other day, out-of-touch old man US Senator John McCain threw a fit because President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro at Mandela’s memorial services. SO WHAT? McCain shook hands with Qaddafi at some point. These labels assigned conveniently to people who are enemies of the state one day and the next are not are arbitrary and self-serving.

Many would cite Palestinian organizations and individuals as terrorists, and Israel certainly treats them like they all are. But who is the real terrorist in that scenario? How can a country occupied by people whose forebears went through something as ghastly as the Holocaust ever treat another people in the ways the Israelis treat the Palestinians? Isn’t that kind of treatment another form of terrorism? What is the difference between armed resistance and terrorism? Or even just resistance versus terrorism? We have seen history filled with people who resisted, armed or not, who seem to be called terrorists for their way of thinking, for their ideas. What about, for example, the Kosovo Liberation Army that sought independence from the Yugoslav union in the 1990s. Compared to the military apparatus of Serbia, from which it aimed to secede, you could hardly call the KLA a well-armed adversary. Serbs will tell stories about all the “terror” perpetrated by the KLA, but in the end it was the Serbs who were found guilty of violence and terror by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia.

That said, many people believe in causes, to the degree that they would die for them. At what point are those causes deemed morally just by the mainstream? That is not to say “majority” – but by a loud and vocal enough mainstream that whatever the cause is becomes bigger and favour for one side or the other of a cause tips in one direction or another. Apartheid is an easy one for the liberal, equality-minded person.  On the whole, it is wrong, and there are no two ways about it. On the surface, of course, the United States ended slavery and race becomes less divisive all the time. After all, the first African-American, truly multicultural president was elected to the highest political office in the nation. I personally did not think that would happen in my lifetime. But these strides do not mean that race is not still an issue. For some people, for reasons I cannot begin to understand, it is. Whether or not people in American society face a lack of opportunity or are more likely to experience poverty, etc. Is tied to race or is a multifaceted problem that is more socioeconomic in nature, with race playing one part in the bigger picture, I cannot say with any degree of expertise. It is always much more complicated than just one thing. But to say that there is equality would be complete and total bullshit.

The point, though, was to say that some issues carry a certain moral certitude (even if this is only in hindsight and the passage of much time). Slavery and apartheid are two such issues.

But then, something like gay marriage has been, at least in the United States and some of the more conservative parts of Europe, illegal without much to push the issue either way until recently. In 25 or 50 years (??) it may be that we can look back on the fight to love and marry whomever you want to and shake our heads at how it was ever a question. In 25 years, maybe this “moral certitude” will creep in. The tide in much of America has shifted away from trying to legislate gay marriage into non-existence and has been replaced in many cases by total indifference and in even more cases outright support. I am well aware that there are large swaths of the population who will never support it, never accept it and will fight until the day they die for a Constitutional amendment to try to ensure that marriage is a man-woman thing. But assuming that the current trend continues to move forward on the path it is currently on, at some point perhaps gay marriage will become passé. Wouldn’t that be something? It’s so common no one bothers to comment on it or think about it. (It’s a little bit like that in Scandinavia already – it just does not matter who you are paired up with. It’s your life.)

But many people believe in causes and take them to extremes. Some of those causes are questionable but clearly meant something to the people involved in them. As an example, I watched the film The Baader-Meinhof Complex, based on the true story of the Red Army Faction (or Baader-Meinhof Gang), which conducted its own acts of “protest”, mostly in the 1970s, in militant and violent opposition to the then-West German government (which they considered fascist). It was considered a terrorist organization, and most of its activities were indeed violent. But they did indeed believe in their cause. But cult leaders and their followers also believe in a cause. (Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and suicide-by-KoolAid in Guyana; David Koresh and the Branch Davidians who were killed by US federal agents at their compound in Waco, Texas, etc. The list could go on.) Did a cause like the Red Army Faction start off with such terrible intentions? Or is it just the tactics that eventually make the cause insupportable?

Anyway, back to race and the general state of affairs in the world we live in. Most alarming is that while we want to believe in the triumph of “racelessness” – Mandela “united” and reconciled a nation left in tatters thanks to apartheid; Obama became president in a fairly racist country… some of the (somehow) more unexpected racism comes from places that seem, at the same time, both improbable and common – beauty pageants. Not to start down the road of “what is beauty” (which is also a minefield) – but when an Indian-American woman won the Miss America title a few months ago, there was an uproar in social media channels that re-exposed the raw reality of American racism and the tendency toward discrimination. And why? Today I see that the newly crowned Miss France, who is mixed-race (white French and Beninese), is experiencing the very same hatred from all these anonymous sources who insist that she is “not French”.

But – short of exploring the complex questions of national identity (what makes someone a citizen and what makes them essentially that nationality or what makes them feel at home in that country?) – how is she any less French than any other? And in America, the “melting pot of the world” as is so often falsely cited, how is a woman of Indian origin any less American than someone of Irish origin or of Japanese origin or any other origin?

Basic questions because they demand basic answers. This kind of discrimination is so patently stupid and hateful that I cannot bring myself to analyze it further. All I want to do is slap the people who are most vocally hateful and say, “Get a grip – this is the world you live in.” I long for a day when all people are so obviously mixed in terms of race and nation that things are never obviously cut and dry.

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.