Friday, April 17, 2015

On leaving the U.S., again

Let's start at the beginning: what does a pop tart really taste like? I have been in the U.S. long enough that I should have had plenty of opportunities to find out, but honestly, I've never tried one. And never really felt like trying one either. Especially not for breakfast. I have vastly different ideas about what a good breakfast should and should not entail than what most Americans do (judging only from the breakfast aisle in any given grocery store, naturally).

Well, even if I am leaving I have made sure I'll get the chance to figure out this mystery. I've bought a box of pop tarts. I fully expect I won't like them very much, but at least now my expectations aren't too high...

Don't get me wrong, I approve of a lot of breakfast related things here too. For instance the concept of going out for breakfast (even if I normally would choose a different dish than pancakes, but even I get that this only makes me weird...). Or even better, brunch. One of the restaurants in the vicinity of my hotel in Atlanta advertizes that they serve bottomless mimosas* or Bloody Marys for Sunday brunch. Even if that makes me think of Kenny Falmouth of Monkey Island, it does sound like a sweet deal.

My own breakfast routine most days while I've been in the U.S., however, has been quite a bit more sober than that. I've been in two different hotels in two different parts of the country, but I could always find some channel that showed reruns of old shows - especially "Charmed". Interestingly I never really watched "Charmed" when it was a big deal way back when I was a kiddo (many of my friends did, and I can't remember exactly what made me not watch it, though I suspect it might have had something to do with the fact that we didn't have cable or satelite, and thus a very limited range of channels). Anyway, with all these reruns - and not just this time, but last time I visited the U.S. too, as well as when we went to the U.K. for vacation in November - it seems I have the show pretty much covered. But then, yesterday, the seemingly endless string of reruns ended. The very last episode of the show! Now what will I do for breakfast? I suppose it was only fitting as I am leaving today. Also, I am ignoring the fact that they started over again with the very first season this morning, so I really could watch it all if I only stayed a couple of months more - with three episodes per day that should probably cover it...

Even if I haven't watched it religiously in the past, however, I still know the show well enough to have the benefit of rewatching, as the best thing about watching old shows, of course, is that you don't have to pay very careful attention. So I could walk back and forth, take a shower, get dressed, eat, or even work a little while it ran in the background. While this has been a perfect mode for the minial task of sorting through archive documents as afterwork from my visit there during work hours, I am relieved it is over. My back aches from being slumped over my laptop for long stretches at the time, in uncomfortable seating positions in a hotel bed. My eyes are sore and my head hurts from trying to remember archive codes and sorting the files into their right place. My fingers have paper cuts from old documents, and I am sick of working twelve hour days (even if portions of them have been accompanied by "Charmed"). I even missed out on vacation days during my stay here, as most Norwegians take the whole week of Easter off.

Another good thing about ending my TV-meets-work streak now is that I don't have to watch commercials anymore. We have commercials on most channels in Norway too, but first of all I don't watch all that much TV at home (I have Netflix and HBO Nordic, after all), and secondly, last time I checked our commercials were less disturbing than many of the ones here.

What mostly baffles me are the medical commercials. This and this drug will help you with this and that disease. It will have the following side effects: [insert long list of terrible things that almost always ends with DEATH for good measure]. Talk to your doctor today!

Talk to your doctor? Why would I, as the patient, go to my doctor and explain about some drug? Isn't it the doctor's job to tell the patient what the best treatment for whatever disease or ailment they have should be? I realize doctors in the U.S. are frequently sponsored by the medical companies and thus might have preferences for specific drug for other reasons than what works better, but if that's the case you really ought to find another doctor with a better sense of ethics, rather than presenting the one you've already got with a lecture based on a TV commerical.

But that set aside, back to the commercials themselves. Can we all agree that they are pretty disturbing? Listing all those side effects is obviously something they are obliged to do for legal reasons, but I still find it amazing that someone would take them up on the offer of talking to their doctor after having heard all the horrible things this drug might inflict, presented to them in a voice of an actor you can *hear* is wearing a fake smile (how can you hear that, you ask? Well, just listen the next time one of those commercials are on. You can hear it).

Secondly, why are they always walking on the beach in these commercials? Strolling along the shore, or in a forest, or playing in the garden with a pet or child. Always the same setting. Fake smiles. Super disturbing.

Finally, the most disturbing thing to me isn't the medical commercials themselves, but in combination of another type of commercials: the mass lawsuit ones. "Have you or your loved ones experienced [insert terrible side effect caused by medical malpractise]? You might be entitled to compensation!" I realize there isn't a coherent line from people suggesting to their doctors what medicines to take for their ailments to them suing the doctor (or whomever) for having suffered consequences of malpractise. But it seems to me there is something strange about where the system puts liability. The patient is supposed to advice the doctor, while the doctors and other parts of the healthcare system are forced to focus on covering their butts legally rather than providing the best possible option for the patient. I'm not saying it's necessarily different elsewhere or that I have a solution to this, but I am saying the frequent commericals serve to give a creepy reminder of what a nasty world it can be.

I'll miss things too, though. I might have issues with certain parts of commercial America, but I don't think I'll ever stop marvelling at the selection in stores here. Whether it is grocery shopping or browsing for dresses, I keep finding myself enchanted. It's dangerous for my wallet, but it's making my little shopping heart burst with joy. Every time I visit the U.S. I seem to end up with a new wardrobe and don't even get me started on bookstores. When I came here in 2009 the selection seemed wider (I miss Borders!), but give me a good Barnes & Noble any day, and I'll be lost that day. They even have coffee in there! Why would you ever want to leave?

More important than the things I leave behind (good or bad), though, are the things I'm going back to. I miss my home, I miss my friends and family, I miss the regularity of my daily routine (the normal one, not the one involving "Charmed"), Norwegian language, food and weather (!), Oslo, my apartment, all the things I know and love. Most importantly, I miss my boyfriend. Four weeks is a long time to be away from everything, and even though I've enjoyed my stay in the U.S. I can't wait to go home.

Now I'm going to make the hotel cat who has been keeping me company this morning go back out into the corridor so I don't accidentally pack him, and then I'll finish stuffing my suitcase. Somehow, it gained weight during this trip (see section about "shopping" above).

*Huh. When I googled "bottomless" to find the link for Kenny, Google automatically suggested "bottomless mimosas atlanta". Apparently, this is a big deal here!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

On people I meet

Sometimes you meet people who make an impression.

This week I met one of the Presidents I am writing my PhD on. Jimmy Carter, even at 90, is still working hard, and thus spends a fair amount of time at the Carter Center in Atlanta. However, for a researcher to catch a glimpse of him is still a rare treat. I didn't speak to him, but must admit I was rather starstruck by his mere presence in the cafeteria where he, like everybody else, queued to have a 4 dollar lunch.

Despite the central role Carter plays in my current work, however, he was only one of the people I've met recently that I will remember for life.

Today I met some guy whose name I didn't catch. I frequently don't catch names here, even when people introduce themselves. The Southern accent is foreign to me, and it often takes me a while to figure out what I understood from what people were saying - a lot of it gathered from context rather than a direct comprehension of the actual words uttered - and names tend to disappear in this process (besides, I am notoriously bad at names. Faces, I remember. Names, never held much importance to me anyway).

Anyway. I was trying to catch a bus. At the bus stop, I was approached by Some Guy. Had it been in Norway, I would have shied away from a conversation. But having been in the U.S. for a few weeks, the last of which in the South, the local social code is starting to rub off on me. I've progressed from small talk to conversations with random strangers (side note: Random Stranger at a zebra crossing the other day - he commented on my t-shirt. It's a Harry Potter shirt, with a big, Hogwarts logo on it. He asked me where I'd bought it, and I said London. He was all impressed that I'd been to London - not yet having realized that I wasn't American, presumably. "You speak any French at all, then?" he asked. I could have pointed out to him that this was a rather strange question to ask after having learnt that I had visited the British capital, but instead I just shook my head, wished him a good day upon the turn of the lights and our departure to the other side of the street, and made a mental note that it was far more important to appreciate the fact that we had this nice little talk than to point out to him his obvious lack of geography skills).

- so conversations with random strangers - and with this new social code guiding my conduct I've talked to everyone from grocery store clerks to the hobo in the park I pass each morning (he just wanted to know if there was a fee to go see the Jimmy Carter museum. I told him I believed it was, but that the grounds were free of charge, and beautiful, so well worth the walk).

Thus, talking to Some Guy at the bus stop wasn't all that strange for me anymore. And I am glad I did.

This was a man with a storage of stories, and the key to open them all at once was simply being an active listener. I learnt all kinds of interesting things about the city of Atlanta, the specific area of Atlanta I'm staying in, African-American history, the Democratic party, and about Some Guy himself. He gave me pointers about things I should see before I leave, showed me a picture with him and Obama (who recently visited the area, apparently), and even shared his hotwings with me. When the bus finally arrived (it was very late, due to a lot of traffic over a Barnes & Noble booksigning with Google later informed me was a YouTube phenomenon - there were crying teenage girls queuing all around the block for YouTube Guy), he told me to pay attention to the driver, as she was a character all of her own.

She was. Talking to herself, yelling at traffic, and making conversation with the passengers made for an entertaining bus ride as well. "What's that guy doing in the Mustang?? Oh, noooo, you didn't!!!" I probably would have given up on the bus without Some Guy, It was worth the wait.

When I go home in less than a week I'll be glad to retract back into my Norwegian shell, where we don't make conversation with strangers unless absolutely forced to, and where the only small talk you make on a bus would be to ask the passenger next to you to let you out if they haven't already noticed all the subtle non-verbal signs you've given them the last minute or so (most do. In all my years of using public transportation in Oslo, I've probably only had to ask about five to ten times, if that).

Until, then, however, I am glad to have been let out of my shell for a while. It makes for good stories. It makes me appreciate the world. It makes interesting things happen, and it makes me learn things I otherwise would have never known.

I was startstruck when I saw President Carter, but most of my time here I've been struck with awe of the extraordinariness of ordinary people.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

On midwestern adventures (part three)

Five years ago I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan to visit my friend Tami. Little did I know that I someday would be coming back for work (and to visit Tami again, naturally).

So far it's been mostly work, as you kinda have to put in long days when your job sends you to the other side of the world for a few weeks to gather material for your research project. You don't wanna come home short on material (so, naturally, I bring home way, way, waaaay too much). However, I did get to hang out with Tami and some friends of last weekend, and this weekend we'll get together again.

In the meantime, my only adventures have been walking around on campus, on my way to the archive. They have geese there. And squirrels. On campus. Geese and squirrels in search of an education, no doubt.

Gesse. Because, geese. 

Squirrel. And some nut who didn't realise her mitten-cup-combo was in the shot...

Column. With a certain phallic quiality, as columns tend to have. 

Crocus. And a surprisingly ghost-ish tree shadow for mid-day. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

On the transvisual transgressions of the transatlantic tranquilizer trajectory.

I spent all my creative energy on that title, so now all that is left is for me to pretend I really meant to and compose a short text devoid of any creativity whatsoever.

It shouldn't be too difficult.

I am, after all, trying actively on a daily basis to subdue creativity to get non-creative things done (insofar there exists such a thing as a non-creative anything). I am getting good at it. Well. Not necessarily at getting the non-creative things done, but at subdue creativity, at least! Hooray!

Now, let's not be bleak. This is a good thing.

Creativity is overrated.

Well, no it's not. I don't actually mean that. I already revealed that I at least on some level believe creativity takes a part in most anything human beings do (not that this belief necessarily demonstrates the importance of creativity, though).

And it's not even true. I don't subdue my creativity. It just feels like a natural part of the process. A process of "growing up", "having a job", "writing a PhD-thesis", "being a normal human being" (except for my belief that "normal" "human beings" actually are "creative" all the time. Except everything, really).

This text turned bleak despite my intentions not to let it. I meant to have it cheerful and happy, in order to present a joyous view on the world (of which there are too few, generally, I think), exemplified in the fact that it's spring (yay!); that I get to go abroad for a month, tomorrow (yay!); that there exist such a thing as semicolons (yay!); and that today we had a solar eclipse (though I didn't see it due to clouds and general indoorness, so yaaeii?).

I'm going to the U.S.

For a month.

I have in the past been eager to travel.

I have in the more recent past been less eager to travel.

I have this time again found that eagerness, but then also, the less eagerness lurking behind.

I get to travel but I have to travel.

I get to see lots of interesting documents but I have to see all these documents.

I get to be all by myself but I have to be alone.

But there are more redeeming factors this time around. I get to hang out with an old friend. I get to visit a new part of the U.S. that I have been eager to see. I get a preview of summer before returning home to full spring. And when I return home I get to stay home. I can travel more, but I don't have to.

Away, away, o'hoi and away!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On long time, no see

People tend to resurface.

I met this girl, we used to know each other. We said "hello". "How are you?" "What are you doing now?" and that was it.

I met this girl, we never really knew each other. We said "hello". "How are you?" "What are you doing now?" and that was it.

We got out before it was too awkward. The first just before. The second just after.

There was nothing there, other than a mutual agreement that we could not pass each other without acknowledging that we had once known/not really known each other.

We met, we talked, we moved on.

As I was swimming, I saw it floating by, and I picked it up.

I made a scheduled appointment to see someone I used to know. I still know him. But I almost never see him.

I tried to make a scheduled appointment to see someone I used to know. I might have known him. I might still know him. But I almost never see him.

We are actively rekindling what we used to have/still have. We are trying not to make it too awkward. The first because it would ruin everything. The second because we already made it awkward, and then we fixed it, and then we made it awkward again. And then we fixed it.

We'll meet, we'll talk, and then we will move around it for a while.

As I was swimming, I dived down to pick it up and hopefully bring it back to the surface.

I am travelling across the ocean to visit a friend I have not seen in five years.

We have stayed in touch without concern for the distances that divide us. Awkward has never been one of those distances.

As I was swimming, I moored it to the shore, and now I am returning to pick it back up again.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

On a police car, four helicopters and a Canadian mountie

I must be going crazy, and I'm drinking peppermint-chocolate tea.

No, bear with me here. I could be going crazy. There is no sure-fire way of telling. My hair is too long. Or rather, it's in need of a cut. Not necessarily a get-much-shorter-cut, but a get-rid-of-the-split-ends-cut, for sure.

Jess is failing high school. It's before he becomes Peter Petrelli, so he still has that to look forward to. Or not. I don't know what happens to P. Petrelli in the end, as I never made it past season three.

My knee is making a weird noise. Icky. Rory is valedictorian. And I don't know what "valedictorian" means. I could google it. I know the gist. But there are red pandas in the world, and my boyfriend bought me a comic book.

Nick Offerman's "American Ham" is really great. But then Nick Offerman is really great too. And ham is okay, I suppose. I'm not a huge fan, even though ham is probably my favourite breakfast meat. I'm not that big a fan of "pålegg" in general. (I'm sure I've explained the oddity of the Norwegian concept "pålegg" before, so I'm not doing it again, In case I didn't, you can google it, or worse, take my clue from the valedictorian debacle and decide that you probably know what it is and remain in ignorance, while you distract yourself with another episode of "Gilmore Girls").

The turtle is staring at me judgingly. Probably because it knows I should be transcribing Henry Kissinger's notes instead of sending myself angry Facebook messages. Yes, I do that. Cruella can be truly cruel. Mari replies in kind (which is to say, not kindly).

I like seeing people happy. I think that is a sign I may not be going crazy. Or at least a good quality. Also, my laptop is running out of battery, and I'm starting to be annoyed at Lorelai. A little. We'll make up.

I suppose I should get to the point if there is one. (Or, I could plug in the laptop. That would avoid the need to make some sort of point.)

I've come to realize that one of the biggest challenges of my current line of work is to actually go to work on the days when it just isn't working. When I'm not working. Not being capable of working. When all I can do is be disgusted by the world and myself and watch "Gilmore Girls":

I've also come to realize that the valedictorian is the one wearing a slightly different robe than the rest, who holds the speech during the graduation ceremony, and I actually cried a little, during Rory's speech. It's an emotional episode.

I don't have a point, and my tea is getting cold. I might be going crazy, but at least there is another season to watch and new days to fail and fall down and stand up again. And maybe enjoy the fact that the title of this post does not match its content. Again.

Friday, August 29, 2014

On socwardness (part three)

As I've claimed on this blog before,  I am generally a fairly socially adept person, with some notable exceptions. No, really. It's partially a personality trait I've had since I was quite little and somewhat baffled realized that other people occasionally enjoy my company(!), and partially a skill I've developed through the collection of experiences I sometimes refer to as "life". It's cocky of me, though, to claim "life" taught me social skills - at least the kind of social skills I am trying to get to explaining here (I just get caught up in digressions sometimes, not that you didn't know that...) - as probably about 80 percent of them I acquired during my last stay in Japan. Working at an embassy doesn't necessarily make you diplomatic(!!), but you'd have to try extremely hard to avoid a major part of our job if it doesn't make you at least a little bit more equipped at small talk. The kind of small talk that arise in social settings that involve (some) alcohol, pieces of food intended to be eaten in a single bite ("finger food" is a ridiculous name for it, at least in Japan, where there always are chopsticks available), and clever little gadgets that attach your wine glass to your plate so that you have a hand free for shaking or exchanging business cards (of course, you are really expected to do the latter with both hands in Japan, so the really ought to make a gadget that attached the plate and wine glass directly to your body, and then somewhere which wouldn't be affected by all the bowing you also will do. I'm thinking hip or knee).

This kind of setting frequently arise when you work in an embassy, and thus you become extremely good at talking to people you barely or not at all know about mundane subjects (remember, no politics or religion!) for a relatively short time. At the end of my stay in Japan I was almost as good at small talk as the average hair dresser (which is saying something - think about it!).

However, this skill/personality trait doesn't necessarily translate well to other types of social situations, and especially not the one I'm about to describe: Friday lunch.

"Friday lunch" might sound like a specific concept the way I just put it, but in reality it isn't. It's lunch, on a Friday. However, the difference between Friday lunch and Any other day lunch is the simple fact that Friday is the day before the weekend. And thus Friday lunch invites a certain go-to conversation (or, if you will, small talk, to tie it in with the digression that introduced this particular point).

Every single Friday, at lunch time, you stand at risk of being asked "so, what are your plans this weekend?".

Now, I realize I outdigressed myself a little today, as this isn't normally what I think of when I say "small talk". Technically, the dictionary defines it as "light conversation" or "chitchat", but I frequently add "with people you don't know very well" to that, as I find that the moment you know people well enough to have proper conversations with them, you tend to stop with the small talk. I still occasionally have lunch with people where I do definitely practice small talk (by any definition), but since I work in a place with a manageable number of colleagues I find we usually have fairly meaningful conversations during lunch. Which is nice. However, even when you know people this well conversations inevitably every now and then hit a lull, and someone needs to find something to keep it going. On Fridays this will, often, be the above (and below) mentioned question.

"So, what are your plans this weekend?"

To me, this is an incredibly tricky question.

First of all, it is, like many other reasonably generic (as opposed to situational or you-specific) questions, reciprocal in its nature. You're supposed to ask it back. The agony here is to time your answer so that it won't be too long since the original question was asked before you return it. Nothing says "socward!" like ending up spending a disproportionate part of the conversation on yourself, thus not allowing the other party/-ies to participate (thus not making them "parties", as much as an "audience").

Seemingly, this timing problem might be solved by simply limiting your own answer to a few well chosen points, and then let the other party be a party. However, when the question is being used as a conversational catalyst you don't want to keep your answer too short either, as this will quickly put an end to the entire conversation. Consequently, you will have to find some kind of middle way, and that can be tricky. (I believe this particular situation has given rise to the conversational technique "But enough about me; what about you?". )

Secondly, however, you also face the age-old problem of ugly truth vs spiffy façade. You can, obviously, admit the ugly truth, and it might be refreshing that someone owns up to his/her plans of spending the entire weekend in their jammies, watching bad television and eating junk food. In reality, however, there appears to exist a social convention that dictates that even though people realize this is what you mean, you have to camouflage it into something akin to "oh, you know, nothing much. Just have some me-time. Wind down from the stressful week, really. Maybe go for a walk."

If you go all in façade-wise, though, you might also invent a few cool weekend activities you plausibly could attend. I have never gone this far down the road in trying to impress a colleague with my interesting life, but I may have indicated once or twice that I was planning on going to a party I was invited to (but didn't intend to actually go to) or maybe concretized extremely vague plans with some friend I knew never really would show up.

However, this brings me to the third of the problems the question brings about. Because debating whether to be frank or deceitful isn't just a question of façade. Sometimes it is also a matter of self defense. When you know someone well enough for them to ask what you are doing this weekend, it is often a risk that you also know them well enough for them to ask the following:

"Oh good, so nothing special, then. How about...?"

And then they have the audacity to suggest some alternative activity, frequently involving themselves!

As you have now revealed that you are not otherwise occupied, and thus you do not have the option of turning their offer down politely. Either you have to accept (against your will), or you have to tell them that you simply do not want to do whatever it is they are suggesting (as opposed to the kinder "Oh, I really wish I could, but I already planned X" which you could have answered if they hadn't already forced out of you that you weren't).

This is problematic for several reasons. You might really want (and need) that "me-time", even if it only involves jammies, junk food and jelevision. You might have a very good (or bad) reason to not want to do that particular activity - say it's a wine tasting and you cannot drink alcohol due to a medical condition, something you might not be too eager to reveal; or maybe you're being asked to help someone move, and you simply don't want to. The latter may not be a very good reason, but it should nevertheless be your prerogative to choose whether you want to do something or not. Finally, and this last one is bad, you might not want to do any kind of activity with that particular person. I have occasionally been attempted befriended with people I do not wish to be friends with. It sounds awful to say so, but it's still true. Now, I don't want to be cruel - just because I have no desire to hang out with someone doesn't mean I want them to know that. I don't want to offend someone, and at any rate it might not even be personal (say you're working with them and you feel your professional relationship might be hurt by a personal one; or maybe you simply cannot manage to keep up with the friends you already have, and don't want to add to the burden), but even when it is I still rather let someone down easily than be forced to tell them upfront that I would rather spend my weekend doing absolutely nothing than be forced to hang out with them.

Basically, no matter how you spin it the second question is deceitful, as it isn't what you set out to answer when you replied to the first question. Except, with time I've been accustomed to the possibility of getting that second question, and thus I will (as described, in detail) feel more than a little skeptical when the first question is posed. As a consequence, my response, more often than not, will be the following:

"There are several things I'm considering, but it's not set in stone yet. Why?", which leaves me with a handy (if somewhat cynical) solution to problems 1-3.

I realize my statement from the beginning of this post [" I am generally a fairly socially adept person"] may seem odd in light of the wall of text since. However, I stand by my initial comment. I am generally a fairly socially adept person. The fact that I am also a grumpy and cranky fart who does not always appreciate this particular skill/personality trait of mine is not contradictory to that.

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