Mar 29, 2009

Thank God we're not Swedes!

No, this is not the usual cheer roared by Norwegians, but a sentiment stated by US republicans. Today's dead-tree edition of my local paper, Bergens Tidende, has a hilarious editorial on the GOP panic in the US that America is turning into Sweden. Illustrated with a photo from the opening of an IKEA store in Brooklyn. (All quotes are my translation from the printed article. No online version yet.)

"There are terrible rumors about president Barack Obama and his family these days. They are so bad that we really shouldn't repeat them here […]. But, what the hey, we have a duty to inform: […] According to the internet, […] the president and his family are actually - Swedish.

Apparently, the Obamas are trying to Swedify the US. According to the editorial, Mitt Romney wants the US to fight against becoming European. Mike Huckabee thinks Lenin and Stalin would have loved this latest development (i.e. Obama). Mark Steyn warns against a Scandinavian armageddon (says my paper). The excerpt quoted in our paper:

[I]f Scandinavia really is the natural condition of an advanced democracy, then we’re all doomed. And by “doomed” I’m not merely making the usual overheated rhetorical flourish in an attempt to persuade you to stick through the rather dry statistics in the next paragraph, but projecting total societal collapse and global conflagration, and all sooner than you think.

Steyn starts off his own article with a lot of wit, then throws a bunch of statistics at his readers to prove his point, but without telling us what is behind the numbers. To do that, I found an article by Dick Polman, who - unlike a lot of anti-socialist Americans - has actually lived in Europe. (Weird is in the eye of the beholder, of course.)

For me, Steyn's Europe-bashing only reminds me of the America-bashing I've experienced here. So many times it has been suggested to me that the US is an awful country because we allow the death penalty, because we didn't sign the Kyoto agreement, because we have nukes on our naval vessels, because all our actors are too good-looking (yes, really), because we voted for Reagan (a memorable argument at 2 am in the morning while waiting for someone to get their coat), etc. And yet, everyone who has been in America loves it. When they get to experience it first hand, they are positively surprised.

I think people like Romney, Huckabee and Steyn should experience Europe first-hand. I do. I live here, and I just finished my taxes. Sum taxable stuff (incl. an apartment I own): NOK 356,596. Sum all taxes: NOK 92,871. That works out to an income tax of about 26 %, which is about what I paid when I worked in California. In Norway, I pay a 25 % sales tax on most things, but unlike the anti-socialists in the US, I do not have to fork over a huge wad of dough every month for health insurance, and I get five weeks paid vacation every year, partly due to my union. Yes, this American is a member of a union, and you know what? Doesn't hurt at all. No, really.

But just in case the anti-socialists in my wonderful country of birth and mother tongue need more fuel for their anti-Sweden bonfire, my local newspaper's article ends with these helpful statements of gratitude any American who still believes Europe sucks can happily say out loud (again, my translation):

Thank God we have an average life expectancy that is three years lower than Sweden's.
Thank God that we are ten times more likely to be shot and killed in the US than in Sweden. We like a little excitement.
Thank God that we have almost 50 million Americans without health insurance so they don't clog up the system and make the rest of us have to wait longer for our health care.
Thank God that we have an infant mortality rate that is 3.5 times higher than Sweden's.
Thank God that we are the only western nation without mandatory vacation, unlike Sweden, where they get weeks and weeks of vacation, and thank God that we are one of five countries in the world without the right to paid maternity leave, unlike Sweden, where women get 16 months off.

Mar 28, 2009

Earth Hour

I participated. I tunred off my lights, lit some candles and sat in my darkened living room for an hour, listening to a podcast. I'm sorry to say that I did not sit in a darkened neighborhood although my city was an official participant.

Mar 25, 2009

Wordless Wednesday - New office

Wordless Wednesday (Taken with equally new office cell phone.)

Mar 22, 2009

Wanting to get things done

I'm kind of having a blast from the past these days. I remember reading time management books and a lot of other management books some 25 years ago when I was a lowly secretary. While other women's hearts get all aflutter at the idea of a bouquet of red roses or a sweet note left for them on their mirror, mine beats faster standing in line at the local McDonald's watching employees helping each other fill orders, watch the fries, responding to empty dispensers. Or working in an inspiring and efficient work place as outlined in umpteen management books. Back then, I so longed for the power to try some of the suggestions but I had no one to boss around.

Well, at some point I knew that I would never use the management skills offered in the books because I wasn't going to become a manager. Years later, however, a system appears that doesn't target people in management, but anybody who has to make a lot of decisions and work on a lot of projects. Listening to Merlin Mann's interviews with David Allen tells me a couple of things: Today's work place has changed and there are very few secretary to delegate things to. The work place demands that workers be more self-sufficient and also independent. The other thing is that today's time management systems are not just about work, but about your whole life, including carving out the time to figure out who you are and why you're here.

So I bought the abridged audio version of David Allen's "Getting Things Done" to get me started with reducing the overwhelm I've been feeling at work. Laying in the bath tub with my iPod plugged into my ears, listening to a lot of common sense, I also heard David Allen say something else: It's ultimately about who you are, and where you want to be as a spiritual person. He did not use those words, but he did suggest them by saying there is more to life than just reducing work piles and achieving goals; you're trying to reduce the work and achieve goals so you can explore yourself. And in one exchange with Merlin Mann in the podcast (iTunes link), he said that the nice thing about the GTD-system is that if a regular worker implements it, it can positively affect the rest of the team or department and inspire the manager to adopt it.

These thoughts echo many other teachings I've been exposed to including spiritual teachings which basically state get yourself healed, and the world will instantly be a better place.

Here at home I will also try to practice the system. It will dovetail nicely with FlyLady's system because they don't clash and both ultimately have the same message: Get what you need to do done without feeling overwhelmed or overworked.

Mar 19, 2009

Good questions

I enjoy Oprah's Soul Series radio podcasts and have just listened to her interview with actor Rainn Wilson.

At one point during the interview, Rainn gave a good list of "life's big questions", and I feel like trying to answer them:

What does your soul look like? I love Oprah's answer in the interview: "My soul […] looks like everybody I see." As for me, I find I am stumped by the question. It leads me to another question: Why does my soul have to look like anything? But you know, Oprah's answer is a good one because it echoes the truth that the world that we experience is a reflection of who we are. But the soul is beyond our everyday lives and our bodies; it is who we are when we aren't humans, inhabiting these bodies. It is what keeps us alive, even when mind and body fail us. It is the spiritual equivalent of a heart beat. And that has lead me to my answer: My soul looks like a breath.

What do you miss most about being five years old? During the interview it seemed the question was really about what do you miss about being a child, which was a bit of a relief for me because I can't remember what it was like to be five years old. Rainn's answer was that he missed not being jaded. I don't feel jaded, though I can have moments where I feel like saying "whatever" in the same world-weary tone the young use. But that isn't how I really feel about the world. I can still be awestruck by the world around me. Take today for instance: I was fascinated by a moth resting on the wall of my building and blew on it to see if it would react. My breath made one of its wings ripple a bit. I wasn't expecting that. A moment of absolute wonder. So I don't miss having the mind-set of a child. What I do miss about being that age is being small enough to crawl into someone's lap and be held there. I miss sitting on someone's lap.

If you could ask God one question, what would it be? Oprah responded with "Why?" as in "Why are we here?" which turned out to be Rainn's last Big Question, so I'll answer that first:

Why are we here? Rainn's faith (baha'i) states that we are here to be of service but also to prepare for our spiritual life. The analogy was just as a baby in a womb is growing limbs and eyes and ears in order to function in this physical world, we are growing in spiritual ways in order to function as spirit. We are learning compassion and service and reverence for life. I have read many similar answers to that question so I wouldn't ask it, myself. Simply put, we're here to experience God and God's creation up close and personal through the material.

So back to that one question I'd ask God: I'd ask in what way I am like God. I would ask that question because I think the answer would teach me about the nature of God - and therefore my own nature. In fact, I think I will ask that question, because I am very curious about the answer.

Later in the interview, Oprah asked a thought-provoking question of her own: What do you want your life to represent? In your encounters with everyone, what do you want the message of your life to be? Shortened down to:

What is the message of your life? Oh, wow… Who thinks of that? Rainn hadn't but part of his answer was that he wants to have a great time and be living in God's will at the same time. He wanted to merge having a kick-ass time with the music turned up loud while serving God which is also the same as serving humanity. Oprah was thrilled by his answer. Her own goal this year is to be more in that space where God is, but while still having a good time. Their answers suggest to me that they think goofing around, laughing, cranking up the stereo and generally having fun seems counter to being spiritual. I, however, do not believe that one is opposite of the other. Quite the opposite: Delight and joy and living in the moment are spiritual qualities. When you are completely happy, you are in divine space. Granted, people like Eckhart Tolle come across as very calm and even-tempered and unruffled and many of us associate that kind of demeanor with spirituality. We expect being spiritual to be like living in a monastery: Quiet, contemplative, calm, low-key and patient. But this actually runs a bit counter to Rainn's earlier statement about a tenet of the baha'i faith: Creativity is akin to prayer. Art is communicating with God. I would imagine so is the appreciation of art.

Speaking of which, that reminds me of an experience I had in a Norwegian church during a Christmas mass at about age 10 (and I may have told this story before): A choir of 7th graders sang two very beautiful hymns very beautifully. When they were done, the congregation let out a collective sigh of appreciation. I lifted my hands, ready to applaud but noticed that no one else did. The minister got up on his pulpit and said, "Wasn't that absolutely lovely?" and the congregation answered with a heartfelt "Yes!" The minister then said, "I'd give them a round of applause if we weren't in God's house." At those words, a door shut inside me. If God cannot allow one group of people to show their genuine appreciation of another group of people, then I have no use for that god. That shut door led me to search for other spiritual truths and other spiritualities, and several years later, I learned that God would indeed want us to show appreciation for each other; joy is a divine emotion. Later, the Norwegian church loosened up and now allows applause, but I no longer attend.

Towards the very end of the interview, Oprah told of the time she was asked the question, "What do you know for sure?" She was so stumped by it, it stayed on her mind for days, and was the direct reason her column in her magazine "O" has that question as its title. I once thought about that question. It morphed into "Why do I know what I know?" at one point. I decided that what my head was full of opinions, impressions and personal experience. That the so-called facts in my head, placed there by family and school, were second-hand information. I actually had no way of verifying the truth of them (not even 2 plus 2 equalling 4. In math, you can get it equal 5, if you want). History, language, math, physics, politics - only with deep study of these subjects could I hope to verify what I know about them, and until that happens, I have no choice but to lump my entire education in with the other fuzzies of opinions, experiences and impressions. So what do I know? I know that God answers my prayers, because it keeps happening. I know my family loves me because I have evidence of that. And that's what I know. Those two things. Everything else is subject to change based on the next sound-bite that comes my way.

Finally, a last question from the podcast: What absolutely delights you? Ideally, I think this question should be answered with a very long list. The best thing to experience is delight in many things, big and small, every day. My current delights are offering (after a long absence) a new post on this blog, the podcast I just listened to, been inspired by and have quoted from, and the sun brightening the walls of my living room.

Rainn Wilson was interviewed in connection with his new website for discussing the Big Questions:

Instead of tweeting, I'll blog

Once again I was lured into some Web 2.0 way of communicating with friends, and once again, it just doesn't suit me. I am not interested in telling you the minutiae of my day. I have no gene for exhibitionism. I am speaking of Twitter: It gives me the opportunity to tell you I'm at home or at work or bored or happy. And although I haven't found my friends' tweets boring or redundant, I also haven't found them, well, useful. (Nothing personal, my dears; it's just that the important stuff is on your blogs or in your e-mails, anyway.)

Twitter is for me the cyber-space version of small talk at a party. The superficial hellos, how-are-yous, with questions about who you know here, do you like this song, have you tried that green dip. Better conversation is impossible because of the din of the music and all the others shouting their "ice-breakers". I can't do small talk. I want real conversation, some bona fide story-telling and some laughs. If there's nothing to talk about, then I want to be dancing. I have actually left parties because nothing engaged my brain or my feet (and to avoid eating all the green dip out of boredom). Getting drunk just isn't enough for me.

So I'm leaving the cocktail party. I've had my fill of fancy drinks with umbrellas in them, the purpose of which is only to make the parade of women in black dresses and the men who ogle them a bit more interesting. I'd rather blog - the cyber equivalent of getting into an in-depth conversation over the next half hour with the stranger who went to the kitchen at the same time you did and with whom an instant connection was forged while hunting in the hostess's cupboards for a glass without a stem for that drink of water.

Feel free to join me in the kitchen and get a break from the clamor that is the Twitter party in the living room. Leave a comment of 140 characters or more. Or less. :-)

Mar 14, 2009

Health care

My friend Alice has gone on a rant about her experiences with health care in her neck of the woods (and her desire for socialized medicine that we living in other countries enjoy). The same day she ranted, I had been to see my doctor. Here is my comment on Alice's blog about that:

Contrast what you say with what I experienced today (as one of those people living in another country - thanks for the linkage!):
I’ve been feeling overwhelmed at work and took a sick day off yesterday to see if that would help. It didn’t (bad sign: wanting to cry today because someone asked me a question). So around 9:30 AM I went down to my doc’s office and asked if my doc could see me at all today. Oh, joy, he could, at 1 PM (he was on time, too!). They set up their day in such a way as to leave about an hour free for emergency consultations. For like when you throw your back out.
Anyway, left his office with a 100% sick-leave for what’s left of this week, and 50% sick-leave for all of next week. If I had needed a referral, then I could risk experiencing the appointment-rescheduling dance and it might be weeks before I saw the specialist. But for primary, emergency matters? I see the doc immediately. And he answers to only one “insurance company”: the government itself. Total cost for me today for my 10 minute visit? NOK 160 (it’s actually co-pay; the government foots the rest of the bill). In spending power that’s the equivalent of $16 (current exchange rate: $23). If I get more than NOK 1780 in medical visits for the year, the government starts paying me back. Howzat?

Now, my own experience with Norwegian health care is quite limited, basically amounting to nothing but sick-leave notices when sick with the flu (or, as is the case this time, stress). The one and only time I got a referral to a specialist was so long ago (20+ years) that I can't remember any details. My other experiences with Norwegian health care have been in regards to my grandparents and their health care, and of course, the elderly are the biggest users of health care. My experience with our local hospital when my grandpa and my grandma have been patients there, is that it is a good hospital with wonderful staff. We may have been lucky, however. Grandma, for example, broke her hip and was operated on immediately, at the age of 92. The newspapers have many stories of other hip-breakers forced to wait in pain, fasting, for days before anyone even looks at their injury or are even denied surgery because of their advanced age. I suspect that there is more to the story than shear incompetence or ageism on the hospital's part, but these are the myths Norwegians are served about their health care. At any rate, Grandma always received the care she needed, also from Norway's in-home care system.

The Norwegians complain about their system. They do. (And the newspapers follow up.) They grumble about the short time allowed with the doctor, after waiting way past the appointment time. (To my surprise, my doctor was on time Wednesday, and after I rattled off the condensed version of what was wrong with me, he followed up with questions, so I ended up giving him the long version.) Not to mention how hard it is to get an appointment in the first place! (I know that my local doctor's office is quite busy. 3-4 weeks to see my doctor when not an emergency.)

The Norwegians complain about the corridor patients, the ones relegated to sleeping in the hallway because the rooms are full. Never a good situation for someone so sick they have to be in a hospital, because the hallway is full of noise, nurses and visitors going to and fro, and without the amenities a regular bed gives you: A reading lamp, a phone, a nightstand, the buzzer to summon the nurse. One co-worker's father ended up in the hallway and was given squeeky toy to summon the nurse with. Not a bad solution, until you realize Dad was actually too weak to squeeze anything. Mind you, the nurses themselves are good people, well-trained, hard-working, underpaid, mostly part-time workers. Uh, I digress. Point is, like in the US (see my second comment on Alice's blog), the problem isn't the medical training; the problem is the delivery system.

There are too many sick people and not enough money or space to accommodate them. It is not a unique challenge to socialized medicine. The US is struggling with it, too. And there is the odd statistic that shows that Norway has one of the most expensive health care systems in Europe, an oddity considering that Norway doesn't offer free dental but the much less costly UK system does, and Norway has a system equal to Sweden's, but Sweden's costs less. However, no European country spends as much per capita on health care as the US does. What is interesting is what the solution may actually be: More socialization.

Norway has slowly been following in the UK's footsteps, in embracing privatization as the plug to stop the drain from government for such things as road and building maintenance, health care, and public transporation. Formerly state or city-owned agencies were privatized and forced to compete on the open market. I can't tell you how many times the local city bus company has morphed since they stopped being wholly owned by the city of Bergen - without any improvement in service. (I'm one of the lucky ones who is near busses that run at least every half hour, also on weekends. But I digress again.)

Recently, a Norwegian report [PDF] came out showing how both Scotland and New Zealand reclaimed their health care systems after a few disastrous years trying a free market model. Scotland brought their NHS (National Health Service) back under the purview of the politicians rather than subject it to competition and brought costs down (by c. GBP 610 million which is about USD 850 million). The simple conclusion: Coordination is better than competition. The US system has failed to produce any coordination or consistent practice in spite of being a market-based system.

There are simply some things that should be given a uniform function and financial support in a society: Health care, communications and education spring to my mind.

Mar 12, 2009

Tagged for a deserted island

Sparkling Red has tagged me with a meme about what I would take if I were on a deserted island. At least its deserted. Drives me batty when people say "desert island". Hey, that'd be Catalina off Los Angeles, and there's people and mini-golf and boats and hotels and bars there!

No such luck this time. I'm on a deserted island.

"Your ship has sunk. You have, of course, been stranded on a deserted island. You have salvaged a copy of the King James Version of the Bible and a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare. Nothing else. “The very next day you find one of those Arabian Lamps in the sand. Of course, you rub it and, of course, a rather grumpy Genie appears. “‘Let’s get this straight - there is a recession going on. There are restrictions on the three wishes now. I don’t do water or air transport now so no boats, planes or magic carpets. As for electronics, forget it. There isn’t the infrastructure on this island. “‘I can let you have one book and I mean one VOLUME, one essential item and one luxury item. Now hurry up and make your choices, I have to get to those five other islands you are going nominate.”

I'm impressed with Spark's answers. She impresses me with her creativity and her practicality. I'm starting to think that my first request for the genie is to have him bring me Spark. ;-)

Well, let me take a stab at this: I already have the Bible and Shakespeare (why, oh, why would I salvage those useless things???), so my other book may be something like "Science of Mind" or just to make it really fitting, "Mostly Harmless" because that's where Arthur Dent gets stranded for years and learns to do nothing except make perfect sandwiches. No, wait. I know: An illustrated encyclopedic dictionary, preferably the one I grew up with (why didn't I take it with me?), with quotes and sayings in the back, grammar rules, and more. My necessity would be fishing gear including the knife to gut the fish (I know how to do that; it's the fishing itself I'd have to learn), and although I'd like Spark's moisturizer (and a lifetime supply of tampons - obviously, men think these things up; it's never enough with three choices for a woman), I think I'll go for my beloved glass nail file as my luxury item.

I'm not tagging anyone else. It's a deserted island with no electronics so you've never even seen this.

Mar 10, 2009

Scavenger hunt

I have participated in NicoleB's scavenger hunt. My finds can be seen here. Whee!

Mar 9, 2009


Heard at work:

The Finns invent things, the Swedes manufacture them, the Danes sell them, and the Norwegians buy them.

Mar 5, 2009

Being fascinated by old stuff - if it's old enough

My evening outing to Bergen's cultural history museum to hear a lecture about its collection of mummies and the recent CT-scans taken of two of them, prompted yesterday's Wordless Wednesday and a reminder about an interest I once had: Archaeology.

I don't get the fascination with antiques. But make whatever the object is old enough - like a couple of millennia - and I am definitely curious. So when the museum offered a lecture on a 3,500-year-old man and a 2,000-year-old woman and their respective X-rays and CT-scans, I was there. (The photo shows the woman's mummy and her sarcophagus lid; the writing tells us her name was Teshemmin and she was a priest's daughter.)

The interest has faded but not entirely gone, and at one point I considered majoring in archaeology. I happily took Archaeology 101 in college and enjoyed all the knowledge being stuffed into my head - until I realized that if I really wanted to pursue this subject, I'd have to do field work. Out in the hot sun somewhere, digging patiently and carefully through layers and layers of dirt, millimeter by millimeter, using a little brush to move dust to see if an object is just another rock, or an actual shard from the desired century. And sitting with that little brush, having to be ever so careful, was the one thing I could never imagine myself doing.

So I never took Archaeology 102. I ended up "majoring" in psychology, instead. Y'know, in some ways archaeology was the more psychologically interesting. Archaeology attempts to understand how people thought, felt and behaved through the items left behind: buildings, graves, tools, art. The jackpot for an archaeologist is often uncovering the ancients' equivalent of the city dump. Imagine what today's garbage will tell future patient people with tiny brushes about us!

Mar 4, 2009

Wordless Wednesday - 3500 years old

Wordless Wednesday More about whose X-rays these are here and here.