Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The trouble with Finnish people and American television

Americans, by and far, make very good television programs, and Finnish people, by and far, believe that they are all literally true. I know this, because when I go to Finland, people invariably lecture me on what life in the United States is like. They never ask me what it is like - never, once - and they get really mad if I try to correct something they say.

When you live in a small country, it's very difficult to imagine what life in a big country is like. If I try to talk about how there are big regional differences in the US, Finns nod impatiently and tell me they understand; they've seen it all on TV and they point out that it's not like there aren't regional differences in Finland. (There aren't. Those are not differences, they are slight variations of the same thing.) One Finn gave me a long lecture about the "Deep South", during which it turned out he had not realized that any black people live in the South.

Finns know in theory that there are African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Caribbean Americans, Russian Americans, Indian Americans, Native Americans, and many, many, other kinds of Americans. But it doesn't make much practical sense to them. There are more American space aliens on their TV than there are, say, Asian Americans or Latinos. The picture Finnish people see in their mind when they think "American person" is always a white person. A white, stupid person who has married his cousin and goes on the Jerry Springer Show to rant because she is actually a man. Sometimes Finnish people remember there are black people who work in sports or entertainment or deal drugs. One of my Finnish friends told me that as far as he knows, African American people are constantly having barbeques. I told him I know African Americans who are vegetarians, and he shook his head in dismay. This was not what he had learned from Boston Legal.

A well written TV show or movie creates a believable, powerful world that seems whole and real. A multitude of great, well written shows create a powerful illusion of a place called "the United States". It's not the real Unites States, not even close - but it shares some aspects of reality, and it's really engaging and it seems really real. For a person with no actual experience of the United States, it begins to seem like that must be what it's like to live there. If I tell Finnish people something that contradicts what they saw on fictional TV shows, they simply tell me I am wrong or my experience does not represent "real America". "Real America" is Six Feet Under and Sex in the City and Doctor Phil. A lot of people in this world believe that the '80s in the USA were actually like Dynasty and Miami Vice.

The other problem with American television is that it has turned Finns into psychobabbly whiners. Finns have this self-image of being very stoic, quiet and dignified people, but try asking one how they are doing. They simply won't shut up. They complain and complain about how difficult and challenging their life is in one of the richest countries in the world, with free health care, because they are so very oppressed by having to learn Swedish. Finns already thought they were a deeply victimized people (because Russians and Swedes used to take turns running our country until 90 years ago), and now American talk shows have given them the language to not shut up about it. At all. Especially middle-aged Finnish men, you might have guessed, have discovered that their civil rights have been entirely trampled by feminists and immigrants, and they demand therapy.

I saw a letter to the editor in a Finnish newspaper, in Finnish, addressed to President Obama. I swear some people there know more about the internal workings of the White House - from West Wing - than about the Finnish presidency or parliament. Their lives are filled with American stories and American ideas. They participate, amongst themselves, in American debates about American issues with American terminology, thinking that they actually understand America. I'm not blaming Americans for this. The program buyers for Finnish TV stations are, obviously, Finns. The journalists reporting celebrity culture as news are also Finns. The people basing their opinions on fiction and not questioning their own culture are, guess what, Finns. It's mostly the intellectual laziness of Finns that is slowly turning Finland into a cartoon version of the United States.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How to talk to Finnish people about American health care

"You've been brainwashed. Your American husband has brainwashed you." So said a casual acquaintance in Helsinki after I had tried to assert that I, in fact, do have some semblance of health care in the United States. Finnish people like to believe that nobody in the United States has any access to doctors. They think that Americans are all fat, sick and dying, except the ones who are on crack, skinny and dying. This may be Darwinistic wishful thinking. Finns don't have a very big talent pool, so keeping as many people as possible healthily competing in the global marketplace is an attractive proposition, especially if the Americans are failing on that front. Finland has free healthcare and education, and Finns must put some hope in Americans messing up their people as well as their economy. I mean, how else are small countries going to compete? Luckily, Americans put their wet clothes in electrical driers bought with credit cards even though the very air itself dries laundry for free, and drive cars the size of tanks just so they can say they do it, even if it bankrupts them, while eating and medicating themselves into oblivion. So there is hope for Nokia. This I am told by all the Finns who know America better than I do, because they see these things on television all the time where things are made very clear and dramatic. When you live in the US, like me, it tends to be more confusing, and brainwashing is a definite risk, so it's a good thing they set me straight on this stuff.

Finns learn about American health care from incredibly popular American television dramas. They see crowded ER waiting rooms where dying children and raging crackheads commingle as they wait hours and hours for treatment, and that's what they think everyone here has - not just a fifth of Americans. When I tell them about the employer-funded insurance system, they shake their heads in disbelief. A bureaucrat in an insurance office decides what care you are eligible for? That's crazy! Do the bureaucrats even have medical training? Shouldn't this be a decision between a doctor and a patient, like in civilized countries? Finns' bureaucratic nightmare vision of American health care is exactly the same vision right wing Americans have of "socialist" health care. It's a perfect mirror image: left is right, right is left, but otherwise everything is the same. When I show people my elaborate, expensive dental work, paid for mostly by my employer's insurance, Finns point out that my poorer neighbors in this famous West Oakland I am supposed to live in probably don't have access to the same level of dental treatment. How can I smile with my new, white teeth in the 16th best country in the world in good conscience? I don't know what to tell them.

So I do my best to entertain Finnish people with the kind of health care stories they want to hear. I tell them about hospitals with wall to wall hallway carpeting, and they shudder in horror. (Finns regard wall to wall carpeting sort of the same way as amphetamine diet pills: fashionable in the sixties, but fundamentally toxic and dysfunctional.) I tell them about moldy waiting rooms. (Really. I've sat in a waiting room with wall to wall carpeting AND mold on the window panes.) I tell them about doctors who are not so much interested in getting you healthy and out of there, as they are in trying as many expensive diagnostic methods as possible to "eliminate possibilities." Of course they don't want to find out what's wrong with you, because then you would get cured and stop needing their care. This is how I ended up with X-rays, an MRI, medication, and an elaborate treatment plan for my knee before a physical therapist figured out the problem was in my hip and fixed it. The doctor had me convinced that my mild but consistent pain could be caused by any number of serious, life-threatening illnesses that could only be diagnosed using an MRI machine, which happily his clinic happened to have, for a special price only for your insurer my friend. I was worried, so I agreed to the tests. This was a doctor. He's supposed to know what he's talking about. But he never even took a look at my body alignment, which was off so obviously even I could see it when the P.T. pointed it out. Did I mention this physical therapist was not covered by my insurance? Finns love that story. They laugh and laugh and laugh.

I also tell them the story about our (insurance-provided) family doctor who refused to prescribe progestin for postponing my period. Why on earth would I want to do that, he wondered? Because menstruation was incompatible with my weekend plans. What were those plans, exactly? I didn't feel the need to specify - what business is it of his? - so he became increasingly suspicious. He wanted to know if my husband and I "even have sex." Here we have a medical professional who is unable to discuss a woman's reproductive system without thinking about, and demanding information about, her sex life. The doctor seemed entirely confused about birth control pills and low dose progestin pills, and about a woman's right to choose when she goes surfing. He assured me this procedure is entirely unheard-of in all of American medicine, and refused to prescribe the medication. He also refused to give me a referral to a female ob-gyn in the insurer's network, when I said I was not comfortable getting examined by a male doctor. I don't know to this day why the doctor behaved in this fashion. Maybe he felt I was being preposterous for suggesting what treatment I wanted, instead of letting him perform multiple diagnostic analyses with expensive machines and labs. Maybe I needed an MRI to determine that I in fact do have a uterus, or lab tests to make sure I don't have some chemical imbalance that causes frivolous surfing on the weekends.

Undeterred, and by now, quite mad, I booked an appointment at Planned Parenthood. It was the only reproductive health care that was available to me on the kind of schedule I was working with - and besides I'm used to same-day or next-day appointments back home so it never occurred to me that I needed to plan my menstrual cycle months in advance. Planned Parenthood, I tell my Finnish audiences, is a type of organization that provides free or nearly-free health care for people who can't otherwise afford it, so naturally those who can afford health care stand outside the clinic calling themselves "pro-life" and protesting. I exaggerate wildly and describe ducking rotten tomatoes, gunfire and hand grenades to get to my appointment with the female doctor. (In fact, at the Northern California Planned Parenthood I visited, there were no protesters. But Finnish people have seen the near-riot anti-abortion rallies on television and they would call me a brainwashed liar if I claimed there were none, so what do you expect me to do?) I describe talking with a nice doctor whose voice kept being drowned out by gunfire and angry chanting. I describe her tinkling, fairy-like laughter when I told her about our family doctor with the moldy waiting room. "Your doctor is crazy," she said, "in America we postpone our periods all the time! We like to be efficient and productive, and we're not going to let a little menstruation get in our way." Planned Parenthood had ready-made, five-pill period-postponement packets ready to go for clients. I didn't even have to go to a pharmacy. Finnish people sigh in relieved astonishment when I tell them that in America sometimes, cutting edge, modern health care is only available to those who can afford nothing else, and to those desperate enough to visit the pregnant teenagers' clinic. I say I was annoyed, yet proud to pay the full, non-insured price for my health care in support of Planned Parenthood's brave work in the war zone that is American reproductive medicine.

I get a lot of my health care when I'm on vacation in Finland, because it is simpler and faster than begging the insurance company and calling around looking for a doctor who will take me in a few month's time. The Finnish, "socialist" health care is much less Soviet than that, and also there are no wall to wall carpets. The Finnish doctors I go to listen to my cautionary tales about American medicine with what can only be described as train-wreck fascination. I do my best to confirm their existing impressions of the third world state of American health care, and they promise to never ever vote for politicians who want to hurt our imperfect, but basically sane, "socialist" system.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Critical Mass West Oakland Style!

Today at at little before 7 PM, an awesome procession of scraper bikes passed by our house. It is too bad we were not able to capture the music.

The event was called the Bikes 4 Life Peace Ride.

Thanks, guys - that was very enjoyable! We hope to see you in our neighborhood again.

Ethnic Estonian Sneakers

Indrek Kaing is an Estonian advertising professional and folk dancer, who wanted to show off the colorful patterns of the traditional outfits off stage, too. He designed a series of sneakers based on regional fabric patterns. Each pair of sneakers says which area of Estonia the pattern is from.

Traditional patterns are all the rage in Estonia right now. The sneakers - as well as mini skirts, vests, and other garments based on folk wear - are the thing to wear this summer.

You can get your pair of patriotic, ethno-centric Estonian fashion accessories from the Rahvusmeened website.

And via this link, you can watch several dozen Estonian girls inexplicably folk dancing in their underpants.

(Item spotted on Helsingin Sanomat, Finnish newspaper, where you can see a picture of Indrek Kaing which I did not post here because he looks kind of dorky.)

Myrtle Street Labs: West Oakland is full of freaks who blog

Some dangerous-sounding hippie has started another West Oakland blog. Oh, no!

(Okay it is actually my husband.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Dwell thieves get National Design Award

Michelle Obama today presented the National Design Awards, and Dwell magazine was a winner in the Corporate and Institutional Achievement category.

Which basically means that I should have gotten the award. Because when I had my previous blog, I sent fan mail to Dwell, telling them I feel like I should give them an award because they are so awesome, and on my blog were posts about the Pimp My City Design Contest, and some other thing which I now forget, which topics then appeared in the next issue of Dwell, when they could have simply hired me to write for them.

Michelle Obama, award please!

I dedicate this post to Stephen Colbert.

We glow

In case you thought that not every single word here at Myrtle Street Review is true, there is now scientific proof that humans actually glow. Meaning, we emit visible light.

"The researchers found the body glow rose and fell over the day, with its lowest point at 10 a.m. and its peak at 4 p.m., dropping gradually after that. These findings suggest there is light emission linked to our body clocks, most likely due to how our metabolic rhythms fluctuate over the course of the day."

Some humans also naturally glow more than others. You know who you are.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pigeon Attractor Migrates

The pigeon attractor has been moved from its location to an undisclosed place after giant, swirling, funnel-shaped pigeon clouds darkened the skies, caused electrical blackouts, spiritual disturbances and political discomfort. Many people claimed to feel an odd ringing sensation in their tooth fillings, and some insisted they saw Jesus in the cloud of pigeons. This was not only reported by religious people; the pigeons were in fact exhibiting hive mind-like behavior and forming patterns representing images of Jesus, Marx, Engels, Freud, King, Obama, Guevara, and inexplicably, Jerry Brown and Richard Nixon. People didn't really freak out until Nixon. At that point, bypassers on Highway 80 alerted radio stations, and the media attention in turn out distressed residents, workers at CASS metals, members of the political class and police. The pigeon attractor was removed in the dead of night by unknown individuals.

The pied pipered pigeons have followed the pigeon attractor, and you may have noticed fewer birds in general in West Oakland.

We suspect the birds as well as the device are in Berkeley.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ee i ee i Oakland

In case you didn't know, Ghost Town Farm is the interesting blog of the enterprising Novella Carpenter, who wrote the recently published Farm City - The Education of an Urban Farmer. Her urban homestead is right here in West Oakland, in Ghost Town - complete with pigs, goats, bees and turkeys. Reviews are calling the book "utterly enchanting", "very, very funny", and "an engaging inquiry into our culture's complex relationship with food".

This is one of the things that continues to blow my mind about West Oakland: the multitude of creative, revolutionary, brave and righteous approaches that people are taking to food equality, nutrition, social justice, urban life and environmental protection. So many active, resourceful, inventive people who are in it with all their hearts. The City of Oakland has jewels for residents.

If you haven't yet, get the book and read about a fascinating woman's transformational life. Then have your own revolution. The personal is political, nowhere as much as how we eat and create our homes.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Dumping of the Debris of Bill

On Sunday morning at about nine someone dumped a bunch of stuff in front of our door from a gray truck. It appears to be belongings of a fellow named Bill. In the following post, we will take a more detailed look into some of the fascinating specimens found among Bill's stuff.

The Debris of Bill

The condom wrapper appears to have been dumped before Bill's items, as it seems to have been stepped on and quite ground into the street. Among the recent-looking items are several real estate agents' cards, such as Ann Stanley's at First Pacific Mortgage. Is Bill planning to buy a house? He may go to rock concerts or perhaps he visits construction sites. A well worn pair of mismatched earplugs was in his belongings.

Bill appears to be planning to refurbish his bedroom. A plan is drawn on the backside of a greeting card. The colors include latte and white, and among the details are black piping and a new headboard.

On June 1st, Bill had $3616.01 in his bank account at Wells Fargo. That's pretty good, we congratulate Bill on not spending all his money.

He seems to have gone golfing at the Indian Valley Golf Club with his friends Bob, Mike and John, and checked out something at the Lexus of Marin in San Rafael - or maybe Bill Lamphert is actually his own name.

On May 10th, Bill had a dental appointment in Donald W. Guttman's office, and from the same picture we also learn that he listens to The Traveling Wilburys and it looks like his friends Bob and Tom made a mixtape for him with monkeys on the cover.

The undated card signed by Bill's friends, among them Dave Cormoran, Chad Bennett, Jeff Kline, and The Boys, tells us that Bill is a hospitable host, likes surfing, and is or was about to participate in Survivor (the TV series?) after he threw this party for his friends. Bill also appears to be a fan of the game of cribbage.

We wish Bill all the best in his endeavors and are grateful for this opportunity to get to know him better, but we wouldn't mind if whoever dumped his stuff would come and pick it back up.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Save our sounds too!

The BBC has an amazing project on their website, Save Our Sounds. Basically it's an interactive map with sound recordings of fascinating, disappearing, mundane and moving sounds from all around the world. Listeners can send in their own sounds and are especially encouraged to send in sounds that they may think are endangered.

If you decide to send some Oakland sounds to the BBC, please notify the Myrtle Street Review at myrtlestreet dot review at gmail dot com! We would love to learn how and what you hear in Oakland.

Garry Knox Bennett - for your local furniture punk needs!

Garry Knox Bennett courteously responded to my fan mail! I asked him what kind of music he listens to, if any, while he works (secretly hoping it was Social Distortion). Bennett said he listens to music continuously, Ipod and regular - across the board, from classic to country, lots of R & R ('70s) and everything in-between. As eclectic as his work.

His work is also on view locally at Tercera Gallery in Palo Alto and semi-locally at Winfield Gallery in Carmel - so hurry up and grab some if you've got the means! Or just go see and enjoy.

The constructivists are now post-minimalists

The constructivist street art exhibit on the big building on the corner of Peralta and Mandela Parkway has been dismantled and replaced with this post-minimalist piece. It is clearly meant as a commentary on the fleeting character of our endeavors and the infinite interblending of shadows and boundaries, concrete and abstract, that characterizes the human condition.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reincarnating McMansions

A very clever Australian project will take apart a McMansion and rebuild it as two appropriately sized, zero-emissions homes. Also, one hopes, less hideously ugly.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

National Night Out is Coming Up!

National Night Out is on August 4th, and our block will naturally be throwing an awesome event. Stay tuned for details. Meanwhile, you can visit the National Night Out Online Superstore and buy some crap if you feel like you need a baseball cap or glow sticks.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Garry Knox Bennett: Furniture as Punk Rock

Garry Knox Bennett became infamous in the craft/design community in the seventies when he created a beautiful cabinet with exquisite joinery and drove a twisted two inch nail through the front of it. It was his comment on the craft fetishism of much of the contemporary studio carpentry scene, and it drove the furniture nerds up the wall.
Right now is a great opportunity to see a whole bunch of Bennett if you're in DC. He has designed 82 chairs and counting, 52 of which are currently being exhibited at the American University Museum at the Katzen Center, in an exhibition called Garry Knox Bennett: Call Me Chairmaker.
The now out of print book on Bennett - titled Made in Oakland - has a really great essay on the history of the maker end of the American design scene and especially the Bay Area influence on it. You can get the book used or order it through his website. It's really worth getting to know Bennett's work and the great writing on it.
Some of my favorite earlier pieces are his hilarious lamps, which look like empty tin cans full of various crap - except some of it lights up.

Pictures from Garry Knox Bennett's websites and Limn.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Like a Wine Club but for Art

Compound Gallery in Oakland has launched an excellent new service, Art in a Box. For a mere $30 or $50 a month, you get a monthly shipment of fine art directly to your home. Innovative, thoughtful, and awesome!
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