On ‘Notorious RBG’

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader GinsburgNotorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always reminded me a bit of my grandmother. Quiet. Proper. Often wearing a stern look or serious expression accentuated by flawless hair and pearls. And, retorts at the ready which leave all present to hear them slack-jawed and cowering at their own ignorance. In my family, we often repeated a mantra, ‘Don’t cross Grandma’. I would imagine some variant exists for RBG amongst those nearest and dearest.

Notorious RBG is a must-read for any self-respecting feminist or equal rights activist (Is there really a difference between the two?) needing a beacon of hope and a dose of ‘get up and go’. And, RBG the woman is that beacon during very dark times. This woman. Unlike her, rather than seeing nine women justices on the highest bench in the land, I’d like to see nine RBGs at SCOTUS.

Oh, to dare to dream.

Detailing her life as a young newlywed law student, then graduate of Columbia Law (top in her class) unable to land a job, then law professor (needing to hide her second pregnancy)…, she understands not just in theoretical terms but from lived experience what perceived differences mean and they affect us as individuals and groups. To her, it isn’t simply about disregarding those perceived differences and the ideal roles of men and women; it’s about those institutionalised cateogories and erasing the various barriers and injustices they unfairly impose upon us. Her weapon of choice, however, is the law and the US Constitution. And, this woman plays the long game.

As I was finishing this brilliant, inspiring book this morning, I wept. Not because of anything particularly troubling that appeard upon the page at that precise moment. But, because so many of us are simply too tired to continue fighting for and working towards what we believe is right and just. If this tiny woman could become one of the most inspiring memes of our times, we—who have benefitted from her tireless efforts in classrooms, courtrooms and on the bench—can certainly work just a little bit harder to solidify and make permanent those giant gains she made for us.

RBG inspires for many reasons. And, we do her and all others who have blazed various trails a disservice by simply giving in to despair because it is too damn hard.

One of the appendices features a list of ‘How to be like RBG’. It reads:

  • Work for what you believe in
  • But pick your battles
  • Don’t burn your bridges
  • Don’t be afraid to take charge
  • Think about what you want, then do the work
  • But then enjoy what makes you happy
  • Bring along your crew
  • Have a sense of humour
  • I’ve got my to-do list sorted then.

RBG. However long she graces the Supreme Court and this world, it won’t be nearly long enough to satisfy me. I’ll still want more. But, her legacy. Long may it guide and inspire us all. And, may we all have red hot pens at the ready to sharpen and hone our words. Because words and how we wield them truly matter.

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Happy Finland

What does it mean to be happy? How do we measure it? Ask any one individual or ten random folks, and most likely they’ll have very different notions of how they define happiness.

Finland, in an annual publication from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, ranked first amongst nations on the happiness index. The Guardian perhaps put it best with this:

The UN placing is the latest accolade for Finland, a country of 5.5 million people that only 150 years ago suffered Europe’s last naturally caused famine. The country has been ranked the most stable, the safest and best governed country in the world. It is also among the least corrupt and the most socially progressive. Its police are the world’s most trusted and its banks the soundest.

Not at all a bad place to call home.

Earlier this week, I had a conversation about striving for happiness, that nebulous, elusive ephemeral existence we seek but rarely if ever define for ourselves. The notion of happiness then returned a day later in an entirely separate discussion, again wondering what it actually means to be ‘happy’. And, now, Finland tops the ranking in this year’s World Happiness Report.

Unsurprisingly, the concept—the meaning of happiness—is now foremost in my thoughts.

Beyond any real quantifiable measures and based on a rather subjective comparison of countries and places I’ve called home, Finland by far offers the calmest environment in which to simply be. Life isn’t all rainbows and kittens, naturally. Anyone with whom I’ve had more than a 10-minute conversation about Finland knows that I bitch about lament Helsinki’s weather more than just about anything.

Still, life and living our life centres less on concerns related to meeting our basic needs such as housing, food, etc. than anywhere we’ve resided for any amount of time at all. Our life here remains relatively free from the stress caused by the system in which we live, particularly compared to our lives in Russia, the US and Cuba, respectively. In other words, most of the stress we experience stems from the stuff we have more control over than on anything related to Finland per se.

Finland may not have been on our radar as a potential place to call home, but it certainly has offered us a home and a life in relative calm. And, regardless of how we define happiness or how that definition changes and shifts as we change, we as residents and immigrants face far fewer stresses related to simply living than we have anywhere else.

More than anything, I’m grateful to this quiet calmness in which we exist. And, I’m immensely grateful to Finland for providing it to us. Perhaps more than any other time in our lives, this feels like happiness, in that I feel content.

Thank you, Finland. And, congratulations on yet another milestone.

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Solidarity

I’m of the mind that educational institutions should be palaces — and those who educate should be paid more than just about any other profession. To me, investing in education, particularly through public support to universities and research institutions, helps all of us within and across societies. When we know how to process information and distinguish fact from fiction, we can discuss issues which affect us all through informed debate, and shift our thinking as new information and evidence comes available.

Society at large in my mind should reward the many, many, many individuals who ceaselessly and unrelentingly dedicate their lives to educating others. It simply makes sense to me, as an individual, as a member of society and as an extended member of the University of Helsinki staff and faculty.

As further cuts to education and research are discussed and pushed forward as sound policy, I am appalled. I may not be a member of a particular union at the university; but I unequivocally support the unions and their members as they strike today. All those who work at and with the university to make it one of the best in the world deserve better. This collective of amazing, talented and indefatigably dedicated individuals should certainly be valued rather than continuously and rather callously put under increasing pressure to do more with stagnant (if not falling) wages and with the added understanding that their jobs and vocations may be but fleetingly secure.

Academic life is no joke. Nor is it particularly lucrative for the vast majority of us who have chosen it. And, most academics do not expect outrageously generous salaries or benefits. However, most of us understand that continual cuts result in increasing burdens on the entire system. Certainly, as employees, we suffer. But, more importantly, those seeking an education and knowledge suffer more.

If I were a member of one of the university unions, I would be striking today. Proudly. And resolutely.

Solidarity, my comrades! Your worth is immeasurable!

Solidarity-fist

Suomi 100 and counting

Independence Day for us Americans is a day of over-the-top patriotism and fireworks displays beyond anything reasonable. Our celebrations, to my mind, mimic the stereotypes most other inhabitants of the world have about us Americans as people—loud, bordering if not completely obnoxious and at times rather unnecessarily boisterous.

Finland’s Independence Day falls on 6 December each year. This year, Finland turned 100, an incredible milestone particularly given that she gained independence from a far larger and more powerful Russia. All of Finland and Finns everywhere have been looking forward to this centennial celebration — Suomi 100 — since last year. Quite rightly. But, the celebrations are still incredibly subdued and rather restrained by comparison to my American garish experiences.

Finland’s celebrations have been rather admirably and typically Finnish—quietly and rather free-from-boastingly proud. More than anything, a quiet pride pervades the atmosphere and celebrations, and it’s really quite moving.

Just about every Finnish company and business has created special items for Suomi 100, particularly the many design companies throughout Finland. Commemorative items to marking this milestone have been advertised and offered. Buildings and landmarks across Finland were lit in Finnish blue beginning on Tuesday evening. That same day, 100 Finnish flags were erected in the Market Square near one of Helsinki’s harbours and many of the landmark buildings. A massive (for Finland) fireworks display closed the festivities yesterday evening. Interestingly, as we walked through our neighbourhood yesterday evening, we glimpsed just about every Finnish television tuned into the traditional Presidential Independence Day reception, broadcast and showing various individuals shaking hands with the President of Finland.

It’s really quite lovely. And, yet, sedate. Much like Finland.

Finns are incredibly proud of their 100-year independence, and well they should be. We’re rather proud to be immigrants to this fine country. To confirm this pride, every single Finnish phone number received a birthday text message yesterday. Rather impressively, the message was distributed in Finnish, Swedish (the two national languages) and English (at least on our phones). What did this message say?

Today Finland celebrates 100 years of independence – Happy birthday everybody!

It’s rather odd to see a message pop up from ‘Suomi 100’. But, it was also incredibly sweet.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to wish Finns and Finland a happy Independence Day in Finnish (Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää!). But, it is an absolute honour to be a resident and extended member of Finnish society.

Congratulations, Finland. Onnea Suomi!

On ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the wake of November 2016 and with a GOP-controlled federal government, many of us from the progressive movement—myself included—questioned how large swaths of the United States continue to elect officials who advance legislation that effectively harms those most in need. They appear to vote against their own self-interests. But, why and how?

JD Vance’s memoir allows a glimpse into the realities for those from the holler—Appalachia and the Rust Belt, regions which overwhelmingly supported the likes of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.

Vance’s tale is one of family, and one which left me muttering, ‘oh no’ and ‘oh dear’ again and again. It is not a rosy or happy tale for much of the book, and parts of his narrative are difficult to read given how utterly awful it is to imagine as a child’s life. Yet, Vance escaped a cycle of substance abuse, physical and emotional trauma and countless uncertainties commonplace within his community and family. His journey, by his own account, is unimaginably unlikely, and he considers himself unbelievably lucky to have not just graduated from a university (the first in his family to do so), but to also have been accepted to and excelled at a leading law school, Yale Law. It is an incredibly unlikely story of the American Dream fulfilled.

Yet, he also poignantly and carefully paints a reality for those of us unaware of the life of those in the holler, even those who left the hills and valleys of Appalachia for jobs in the Rust Belt. Jobs which now no longer exist and no longer guarantee hillbillies or the working class in general a life better than that of their parents. His own mother faired worse than his grandparents, a reality his grandparents apparently struggled with as well. For those like Vance, achieving the American Dream of upward mobility is less a dream than a drug-fuelled pipe dream. That understanding—that working hard increasingly means little towards escaping poverty—intertwines with the physical and emotional pain experienced by many amongst his social and cultural network both in Middletown, Ohio and the hills of Kentucky. Increasingly, dependency on opiates became the norm and the primary means of escape, a heart-breaking reality that becomes inescapable for many and has resulted in far too many overdose deaths to younger and younger cohorts. The life he now lives offered many opportunities to him, whilst simultaneously presenting so many unknowns and uncomfortable moments. He now occupies two social classes, separated worlds away from one another. He didn’t just receive an education in law; he survived an incredibly steep learning curve into the world of the those born to privilege.

I don’t share much of Vance’s world view nor can I really fully understand the life he has lived thus far. Yet, much of this book resonated with me. And, much of what he has to say about how to address the shrinking idealism of the American Dream and how we can recover some of the ideological distance that divides our discussions today made sense to me. Rather than focusing on what divides us, perhaps we can all retrain our lens on what unites us. It may be a seemingly insignificant or impossible task taken at the individual level. But, each individual action and reaction when taken collectively can affect change, at the personal, community and societal levels.

JD Vance’s memoir illustrates this rather nicely, whereby any one of the actions in his own life undoubtedly made a profound difference to where he is now and might have lead him on an entirely and far less hopeful path.

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On World AIDS Day 2017

1 December every year is World AIDS Day.

This year’s theme is ‘My health, my right‘. That is, one’s right to health represents a fundamental human right, and one’s right to health encompasses and extends to rights to sanitation and housing, nutritious food, healthy working and living conditions, education and access to justice. All of which are accessible free from stigma and discrimination, and free of violence.

I may no longer devote much of my working life to issues surrounding HIV. But, I still very much believe in continuing to focus on the response to HIV and ensuring that no one is left behind in our local, national, regional and global responses to HIV and various other related issues.

On this World AIDS Day, much like each and everyone before it, my thoughts are with all those living with HIV first and foremost. My thoughts are also with those who have died far, far too young and long before they needed to. Their faces remain at the forefront of my mind on many days, but particularly today.

I also extend my thanks and gratitude to all of those who tirelessly continue to devote their voices, time and indefatigable energy to making sure others are not left behind. All those who work on HIV-related issues ensure that people living with HIV continue to receive the attention they need, at times desperately so. From activists to policy makers to aid workers to healthcare professionals, those working on HIV also ensure that those affected by HIV are placed at the centre of discussions on HIV policy, funding and programming, and highlight the necessity of inextricably linking access to health as but one fundamental human right.

Health. Gender equality. Freedom from harm. The freedom to make decisions about one’s health and one’s own life. Respect and dignity. These are but a few of the words which come to mind on each World AIDS Day. And, they represent a world we can look forward to, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Here’s to all those living with, affected by and responding to HIV. You deserve so much more than one day each year. You are worth so much more than one day on a calendar. May we collectively never forget your worth.

AIDS ribbon tree

#TBT thankfulness

Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday in November in the United States, has always been my favourite holiday. I love the gluttony of eating heaps of food which never really feature on menus at other times of year (cranberry sauce, anyone), which inevitably lead to the most interesting leftovers (turkey, mashed potato and cranberry sauce sandwiches on homemade rolls FTW).

But, more than anything, I love the opportunity to spend a day eating, drinking (whether alcoholic or not), being merry and giving thanks to whatever we have for which we are truly grateful.

There’s something simplistically magical about a day devoted to just simply enjoying and reflecting upon the many riches we all possess but typically disregard as unimportant the other 364 days of the year. Annually, the day leaves me more than full regardless of how much I actually eat.

This  year, once again, it’s just a typical cold and grey Thursday in November, as I spend yet another expat’s Thanksgiving far from my home in the United States. This year is just another working day for me, with no real plans to eat turkey or any of the other Thanksgiving-like trimmings. Yet, I’m perhaps more grateful than ever and dare I say rather more emotional this year compared to others. This week and month have provided ample and stark reminders of just how different our fortunes are from a mere five years ago.

In short, despite the absence of a feast, my cup and plate runneth over.

Earlier this month, we had to reapply for permanent residence in Finland. Within two weeks, both of us had our reissued cards, valid for another five years. And, both of us  breathed incredibly loud sighs of relief.

In the moments between receiving our new cards and sending off the old, we both were amazed at how far we’ve come from that hellish time not that long ago. Looking at the photos which identify us as the owners of those cards, our journeys show. We can see how much happier we are. We can see how much less stressed and fearful we both are. We can see how much healthier we both are.

The journey has been hard. It has been heartbreaking and spirit destroying at various moments, and it has challenged us and our resolve at times.

But, we’re here, and we’re both grateful. Enormously, tremendously and inexpressibly grateful.

So, as many friends I miss desperately and family I love dearly sit down with others to eat, drink and be merry, here’s my #ThrowBackThursday of thankfulness. It seems only fitting to share it all with all of you since you’ve helped make it a reality. May I never forget the journey itself or how far I’ve come. May I continue to enjoy this journey through life for years to come, even in the face of obstacles and detours along the way. And, may I continue to be surrounded by insanely supportive folk who help me get from there to here regardless of the starting position or finish line.

Always grateful…

 

TBT