Expectation and the value of nothing

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“Expectations carry the day, causing us to ignore contradictory data. We speak in conversations in incomplete thoughts and sentences but we do not perceive it that way. Oral conversation is full of holes, but we don’t hear it that way. If we did, it would be quite disruptive. It is usually efficient to perceive in terms of our expectations. On the other hand, it disguises just how much we actively share what we perceive to fit our image of what is there to be perceived.” – Awakening Your Psychic Powers

I think (and write) a lot about the concept of expectation – but what exactly is it?

We all seem to have an understanding of what ‘expectation’ means. We expect something to happen, to receive something, and there is a level of trust implied in that expectation because, as I have written elsewhere, expectation is on one end of the spectrum and hope is on the other. On both ends, some action or object is ‘promised’ – it’s just that with expectation, we have a stronger sense or assumption, or trust, that we will experience or receive the promised thing. With hope, it’s more distant, just a possibility, and often much more unrealistic. Is that how everyone perceives these concepts? Is expectation always in the “likely, unless…” (sometimes with caveats) column while hope resides usually in the “unlikely” column?

Sometimes it’s practical: things go as expected… until they don’t. And you wonder why. Promise theory aims to get to the root of some of these issues. Even if it won’t solve everything, it is an interesting enough concept to delve into briefly (with an handy animated video, no less!):

“No matter how good the plans or how detailed the instructions our expectations about the world have limitations. Our information is incomplete.

One answer to the question is that the world has both remarkable predictability but also maddening uncertainty. But that’s not helpful.”

Can we immunize against uncertainty?

“What did you expect?”

From Calvino’s Invisible Cities: ““I speak and speak,” Marco says, “but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. The description of the world to which you lend a benevolent ear is one thing; the description that will go the rounds of the groups of stevedores and gondoliers on the street outside my house the day of my return is another; and yet another, that which I might dictate late in life, if I were taken prisoner by Genoese pirates and put in irons in the same cell with a writer of adventure stories. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”” “At times I feel your voice is reaching me from far away, while I am prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present, when all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume. And I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again.”

It’s funny when you’re immersed in something, especially with another person, and when something changes, that other person – almost like an amnesiac, or a cold operator who shuts everything down with emotionless precision, now outside the sphere of shared feeling or experience, forgets or misplaces what the connection once (possibly only in a limited or illusory way) offered to both people. Or when you are part of a project or a job or any activity. Expectation boils down to – to be successful – a give and take.

But failing that, in essence, we can always expect inconsistency, a lack of transparency and, most of all, contradictions, particularly where people and feeling are involved.

Is anyone better at juxtaposing the contradictions and our propensity for fooling ourselves than Pessoa? At our expectation and desire for the new but then being exhausted and annoyed by having to actually deal with the details and complications of the new?

“I reject real life for being a condemnation; I reject dreaming for being an easy way out. But my real life couldn’t be more banal and contemptible, and my dream life couldn’t be more constant and intense.”

“This is true in the whole gamut of love. In sexual love we seek our own pleasure via another body. In non-sexual love, we seek our own pleasure via our own idea. The masturbator may be abject, but in point of fact he’s the perfect logical expression of the lover. He’s the only one who doesn’t feign and doesn’t fool himself. The relations between one soul and another, expressed through such uncertain and variable things as shared words and proffered gestures, are strangely complex. The very act of meeting each other is a non-meeting. Two people say ‘I love you’ or mutually think it and feel it, and each has in mind a different idea, a different life, perhaps even a different colour or fragrance, in the abstract sum of impressions that constitute the soul’s activity.”

“The tedium of the forever new, the tedium of discovering – behind the specious differences we see in things and ideas – the unrelenting sameness of everything…” “…the stagnation of everything that lives just because it moves…”

“To love is to tire of being alone; it is therefore a cowardice, a betrayal of ourselves. (It’s exceedingly important that we not love).” Yes, even within ourselves. We long for love, sometimes to not be alone, but at the same time, feel as though that longing is a betrayal or that we have succumbed to a great weakness. (See the poem “Longing is the betrayal of oneself…” by Agneta Ara for a more poetic take…)

Expectation of superfluity

“this syndrome is a war that nearly every woman faces every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence…” –Men Explain Things to Me

We can also – almost always – expect mansplaining and sexism. It’s almost always a given, unintentional or overt. Rebecca Solnit has published two whole collections of essays on how half the world’s population expects the worst – expects to be silenced or talked over or had its concerns ignored, at best, or expects to be raped or killed, at worst.

In Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, she pretty much hits all the nails right on the head:

“Yes, people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.”

“…billions of women must be out there on this seven-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever.” “…And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t.” “…Dude, if you’re reading this, you’re a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.” (Maybe I fell in love a little bit with this statement because I love starting statements with “dude” when I am at-the-end-of-my-rope frustrated and irritated.

“Think of how much more time and energy we would have to focus on other things that matter if we weren’t so busy surviving.”

Perhaps the remarkable thing about Solnit and her writing is that, despite describing the condition of – and expectation(s) – of, for and by women in society, she nevertheless explores the opposite end of the spectrum: hope. And why? Because, back to the principles of the aforementioned promise theory, of uncertainty:

“To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable. Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future, in Gonzalez’s resonant phrase. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans; hope like creative ability can come from what the Romantic poet John Keats called Negative Capability.”

It is not blind hope, though. It, too, is informed by experience – the times we have ignored logic or signs to succumb to seeing only the reality we wanted – or expected – but if we were to marry the two, could we overcome the stumbling block of the ‘plan’ we can’t seem to abandon?:

“As I began writing this essay, I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.” His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble. Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness.”

“We are by nature optimists, if optimism means that we believe we see the world as it is. And under the influence of a plan, it’s easy to see what we want to see.”

The expected end

We expect death, but we hope it comes for us later, much later. But do we know what to expect within death? Is it, as I have asked before, just an expanse of nothingness forever?

What we do know, as William Empson writes in “Ignorance of Death“: death is “the trigger of the literary man’s biggest gun”. Too true – pondering its manifestations and meanings runs through everything. And yet, as Empson also wisely states, “Otherwise I feel very blank upon this topic,/And think that though important, and proper for anyone to bring up,/It is one that most people should be prepared to be blank upon.”

In Slaughterhouse Five it is: “At that moment, Billy’s high forehead is in the cross hairs of a high-powered laser gun. It is aimed at hm from the darkened press box. In the next moment, Billy Pilgrim is dead. So it goes.

So Billy experiences death for a while. It is simply violet light and a hum. There isn’t anybody else there. Not even Billy Pilgrim is there.

In Calvino’s Invisible Cities: “I thought: “Perhaps Adelma is the city where you arrive dying and where each finds again the people he has known. This means I, too, am dead.” And I also thought: “This means the beyond is not happy.””

In Pessoa: “I don’t mean the mystery of death, which I can’t begin to fathom, but the physical sensation of ceasing to live. Humanity is afraid of death, but indecisively. The normal man makes a good soldier in combat; the normal man, when sick or old, rarely looks with horror at the abyss of nothing, though he admits its nothingness. This is because he lacks imagination. And nothing is less worthy of a thinking man than to see death as a slumber. Why a slumber, if death doesn’t resemble sleep? Basic to sleep is the fact we wake up from it, as we presumably do not from death. If death resembles sleep, we should suppose that we wake up from it, but this is not what the normal man imagines; he imagines death as a slumber no one wakes up from, which means nothing. Death doesn’t resemble slumber, I said, since in slumber one is alive and sleeping, and I don’t know how death can resemble anything at all for us, since we have no experience of it, nor anything to compare it to.”

Also, even one of the new-age psychic books suggests that meditation is as close to near-death experience as we can get – makes me think of my questions on this very topic earlier.

When you can expect nothing: A gift horse, full of surprises

Maybe we don’t always have expectations – penis size, for example, is apparently a crapshoot. One can hope, of course, but pop culture will caution about expectation in either direction.

Vonnegut’s preternatural obsession with cocks and their sizes (appearing in both Slaughterhouse and in Breakfast of Champions) is another reflection on how our society prioritizes and values this all-important fact. Size matters, even when this particular size is confidential and invisible. He has just made it visible.

From Slaughterhouse: “Montana was naked, and so was Billy, of course. He had a tremendous wang, incidentally. You never know who’ll get one.”

No, in fact you just never know… until you know, that is. But you really cannot have any expectations in this department. In Breakfast, there are stats provided about multiple characters on these matters.

And then there is Lars von Trier, famously bizarre film director, who claimed that actor Willem Dafoe had a “confusingly large” member, which called for a “stunt cock” in Antichrist. (And this becomes slightly more confusing for me, reflecting on watching The Last Temptation of Christ and recently wrapping up my reading of Reza Aslan’s book Zealot about Jesus of Nazareth. By the way, even Aslan refers back to Dostoevsky when it comes to faith and religion – does anyone not fall back on Dostoevsky?! Hard to reconcile it all somehow.)

Oh, and then there are always the poor micropenises.

Trust (in) me

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The lone driver on long stretches of increasingly snow-and-ice-covered road, I encounter the salt truck. We two alone in the dark; my exhaustion pushing me onward, just minutes from home, his important middle-of-night work the only thing that makes these drives feasible.

I consider, while coasting up the snowy dirt driveway, that this provision of service (salted roads) is an act of (civic) trust. We assume the roads will be cleared and salted in the event of snowfall. And it happens. Earlier in the day, I had been transfixed by an article by technologist/scientist/researcher/writer Mark Burgess. While not explicitly about trust, and all it entails, the article’s philosophical underpinnings focus on cooperation and its role in facilitating work and the system(s) in which we humans operate (and place trust). Clearly it’s a good deal more complex and interesting than I am making it sound. (Read it. I mean it.)

Trust comes into it because, as framed, it is clear that trust is a kind of exchange on which we go on to build relationships and dependencies. We know this.

“There must be something valuable about relationships, after all the brain consumes about 20% of our energy at rest, which is a huge penalty for the meager capability of better living together. The reason nature endures this extraordinary cost is surely the unexpected survival benefits of managing these long-term relationships. Relationships are not just social, they are cognitive. As we interact over time, in many different contexts, we aggregate rich information and build up a complete picture of something, by integrating the multiple experiences into a single model that could not be discovered by single ‘transactional’ encounters. In short, we learn to know someone or something as what we call a friend. Long term cognition, with integration of contextual characteristics, is the very complement of cooperation, allowing us to know and recognize individuality. This is why brains are the key to cooperation.” (Italics mine.)

See what I mean? Fascinating.

In recent weeks I’ve thought deeply on the subject of trust and what engenders trust, how it is born, fostered, squandered, ruined, reclaimed, and how much is programmed by the ‘rich information’ as described in the article (and cumulative memory, i.e. “I did not trust Bob from the beginning, and I was right not to” or “I trusted her and she betrayed me; therefore, I will never trust you or any other person who comes along after her”). While this is tangential to the Burgess article, it still struck many nerves and sparked a lot of internal discussion for me, despite my inner dialogue having little to nothing to do with socioeconomics, work or civil society. (The article is well worth the reading for what it relays on all those topics.) In fact, the article read to me, despite its semi-technical sheen, as deeply human.

“The capacity to form a relationship is the capacity to remember past behaviour, recognize it in another, to assess it, and to cache it as a trust score to guide future expectation.”

Once trust is born and deepens, what shows or proves the viability of its connective tissue? Here, Burgess writes about “Asking for help: exceeding our limits by borrowing”. Yes, in a work-related and societal sense, we must ask for help (implicitly, such as with the understanding that the salt truck is going to come and leave behind a clear road). But also, do we feel we are reaching a deeper level of trust with an individual when we cross that barrier, feeling comfortable enough to ask another for help?

“Much as we value the predictability of total information that comes with our autonomous self-sufficiency, we cannot always manage everything alone.”

In society as in individual life, it can be challenging to accept that one is not the self-sufficient island s/he imagined. I can only speak for myself, but that level of interconnectedness and comfort – and trust (implicit or otherwise) – that would empower me to ask for help has often felt very remote. And, despite advising others to maximize their potential and abilities and resources, etc. by asking for help, I have rarely taken my own advice.

We can see, though, that sometimes it is only through the combined effort or resources of more than the individual that we exceed our limits – in positive ways. We cannot always see all the possibilities – or cannot reach them – on our own. How is jumping over that barrier made palatable though? Is a deeper trust enough?

Yes – but also no. Burgess – and experience – tell us this.

“Paradoxically, there is dark side of cooperation, which is that dependency invalidates promises: because dependency delocalizes agency and information.”

In individual/human life, it strikes me we could interpret this as the old frustrating refrain of two people co-existing in an unbalanced relationship, where the burden to do/plan/handle/organize everything falls to one partner. It may well be that the other, non-responsible partner has no clue that this is a burden and appreciates that the responsible partner has been handling everything: this is his/her trusting the other in ever-deeper ways. But it has not only made the relationship lopsided and created resentment in the responsible partner, it has also created this dependency in the non-responsible partner that, as Burgess describes, removes agency and information.

No, this is not a thorough or even particularly thoughtful examination or analysis of Burgess’s work – certainly not through the lens of scientific thought (I didn’t delve much into the “de-personalizing trust” part of the article, as I was fixated on the personal level of trust). It’s just that the article excited the brain and made these odd connections. I’ve been riding this wave of emotion and human interaction in recent weeks, and that influences how I read and hear everything – seeing applicability where perhaps there isn’t any.

*All quotes from Mark Burgess’s “Banks, Brains, and Factories: How rich information alters the economics of cooperation and work”, available in full on his website.

Photo (c) – Paul Costanich.

 

Ring It In – Happy New Year 2014

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The new year is here. Isn’t it required to reflect on what the previous year held? I do this frequently enough in my near-quarterly letters/life soundtracks, but year-end reflections aren’t bad.

Last year someone kept trying to tell me that I am his port in a storm. The problem is that I don’t think he knows what that means. He is someone who gets himself into trouble – or at least into unwise, uncomfortable situations – and panics, and then wants to press the red button to eject and land safely in my port.

The other problem with this “boy crying wolf” thing is that it also takes advantage of me and my willingness to be, as he drunkenly put it once, “the easy option”. I am neither the port in anyone’s storm nor the easy option. I suppose this is in large part where all my cynicism comes from – especially in recent years. I always had the “consolation prize complex” but it grows worse as people actually, blatantly try to use me. I look at every interpersonal situation and ask, “What’s this person’s angle? What is s/he looking for?” I would in 2014 very much like to meet a person I can instinctively trust without questioning their every action and word. And dispense with those who do not fit these criteria.

To get away from this doubt and take a few steps back from the cynic who always steps out in front of the more understanding “real” and unfiltered me, I will have to cut out the existing influences that always leave me questioning. Some people cannot be trusted – on so many levels – and there are just certain elements that I don’t want in my life.

An extension of this is my approach to friendship. I have always considered myself a good but vulnerable friend – sometimes extending myself way too far for people who ultimately don’t care that much (or as much) about me. Friends, as much as I love and treasure them in the moment, do come and go. In earlier life, people were fickle; we all change and can’t cling to the past. It does not mean that I don’t miss some people from 20 years ago who have disappeared and become the types of people who do not exist online (thinking here of Terra – I came across the Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy” video and laughed, thinking about how she and I used to joke that she wanted to stick her tongue between Roland Gift’s crooked front teeth. Checking out the video again now, I am struck by how the other band members look like blokes who might work at a gas station or tax office). Memories.

I have become a lot better at letting go of the past, or so I imagine. But the “port in the storm” guy is evidence that I don’t completely let go even when it is the best thing for me.

Therefore, in 2014, I need to start thinking about what is really best for me in the long run. Not what fills a few hours of loneliness in the middle of a Saturday night, not lingering on things that are dead just because there is not something else to replace it. I need to devote that attention to the friendships that are very much alive and want the nourishment.

I would like to embrace sincerely the whole “age isn’t everything”/“you’re only as old as you feel” concept. I give it a lot of lip service, and I genuinely feel like other people at my age are still young but experienced – the best combination. But because I have been feeling like I was 72 since I was 8, I feel positively decrepit now. It does not help that my body has betrayed me in such underhanded and uncontrollable ways – in ways that are actually fairly devastating to me, even if in all the cliché ways. The healthiest thing I can do in 2014 is give up on dreams that are next to impossible – and even if they could be within reach, they come at far too high a price. I am happy with me and just have to be happy being only me, whether I feel 72, my actual age or 8.

On a related note, I came across a brief article on CraigConnects.org about things Craig Newmark did after the age of 35. There is a lot of emphasis placed on youth, especially in the world of fast-moving start-ups, as though only people under 35 are creative and risk-taking enough to put it all out on the line. But maybe other attributes matter more – I agreed with Newmark’s points about experience making a difference, and life’s greatest rewards coming when you accept and embrace who you are. I know that I am and always have been like a 72-year-old lady who bakes a lot of stuff, writes a lot of old-fashioned letters and postal cards and can be a nerdy librarian type with a head full of all kinds of references that no one needs. And I like it – I like me – like that.

Beyond this, I have written before about how it is never “too late”. Nothing is too late until you are dead – and if this year slapped me across the face in any way at all, it was to remind me that death comes suddenly, unexpectedly. We all know this in an abstract way. But most of us don’t confront it – with our young child or young wife snatched away from us without warning. It is a cliché to say that we should live our lives, each day, as though it is our last. It would also be irresponsible to advocate that kind of complete reckless abandon. But these sudden losses are cause to evaluate seriously each part of our lives. There are things we must do to get by, but for example, if you are miserable in your job – you have to find a path to get out. If you have a business idea, find a way to start it. If you always dreamt of getting a master’s degree in architecture, what’s stopping you? If moving to France was your dream, what steps can you take to move toward your Gallic future? I am fully aware that people have debts, obligations, family, legalities and a laundry list of other obstacles to doing whatever they want. But you can make almost anything happen if you really want it. It’s said that nothing worth doing is easy – and usually this is true. You can make a change.

As a woman for whom “change” is a mantra, I learned in 2013 that even if one can make a change – or a lot of changes – change is not always the answer. Make change judiciously. As I have written elsewhere, I made a lot of life changes, which were needed because I needed to get out of the complacent rut I had been in. But the changes I made were made more because they were the options I had in hand – not because they were the right choices or things that would make me happiest or most fulfilled. Important to note and remember – just because you make a change, regardless of how big it is, does not mean you cannot reverse it. Almost nothing is absolutely permanent, so you can always make another change. I try to advise people along these lines quite frequently because people are often paralyzed by fear, and fail to change as a result, too scared of things not working – possibly scared that they will work – or scared of the things that may change as a result of the first change. Indecision can kick your ass and drag you behind it. As long as you don’t decide, you are floating and never taking your life into your own hands.

I started this new year doing something out of character for me, and I think it is important to test your boundaries sometimes – even if you don’t enjoy it. It is the best way to find out how well you know yourself and sometimes whether you can grow and become more than you imagined. Life is, after all, about the experience, which includes both the good and the bad.

If you can, start every new year with a kiss. And finally, don’t settle for stale crumbs when you could have the whole cake.

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.