Take a stand

There was a time, what seems like long ago, when political party affiliation wasn’t quite so starkly divisive. When an individual aligning as a democrat spoke respectfully to an individual aligned as a republican. When discussions of policy could take place and consensus could be reached. When cooperation was rewarded and legislation truly was bipartisan or nonpartisan.

When any interaction did not descend quickly into a mud-slinging insult-trading tirade, ending with both individuals storming off like petulant children who didn’t get their favourite ice cream cone because they behaved badly.

Those were good times.

I’m no longer surprised by any policy decisions from this administration. Angry and sad, yes. Outraged most of the time, yes. Incredulous, yes. But, not surprised.

What keeps me awake at night and leaves me utterly gut-wrenched is the knowledge that people I know support seemingly inhumane measures. More so, these individuals I respect mightily continue to twist themselves in knots to support actions which go against everything they previously believed in to justify this administration’s actions. And, the knowledge that there are far too many others just like them.

It’s left me oh so weary.

This latest battle, separating children from their parents at the border, … I don’t have the words. I cannot understand how anyone can justify this. And, yet, they do.

A quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr has been on repeat in my head for what seems like days. ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.’ Attempting to find the context and its origin, I discovered that it isn’t actually a direct quote, but a paraphrase. The original text stems from a sermon King gave in Selma following Bloody Sunday, another dark day in our history:

Deep down in our non-violent creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life — some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. He died…

A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.

— Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., Sermon in Selma, 8 March 1965
Regardless of party leaning or affiliation, regardless of creed, regardless of degrees of separation from your own ancestral immigration to the US, can we not set aside those differences and agree that this, children, are worth taking a stand for?
GettyImages-973077510-980x550

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

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.

View all my reviews

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.

cfeb91a0f68e4165a12c3111a4e752a6

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.

View all my reviews

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