Category Archives: Personal

Flematic

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I was randomly in Antwerp last weekend.
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There is in fact no other way to be in Antwerp.
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I have this weird fascination with places that are local tourist attractions, but not quite stellar enough to attract international visitors.
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Antwerp is firmly within that genre. Lovely, but like 53rd on most peoples’ ‘Must See in Europe’ list.
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Not that it matters. I was in a trying-to-finish-an-essay fugue state, and I barely did anything I couldn’t have done at home.
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I got up at five every morning, wrote for like seven hours, then ventured out, ravenous for breakfast and scenery.
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Antwerp has a surplus of both, though if you bike far enough in any direction, it starts to look like True Detective.
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But I sort of like that, how Antwerp goes all ugly at the edges.
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It’s a reminder that European cities, no matter how pretty they are in the center, need cranes and shipping containers and rusty train tracks to keep them that way.
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Antwerp got rich after WWII, it was one of the only ports unbombed during the war. This is where a lot of the Marshall Plan donkeys came in.
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Now the port host a different kind of donkey, tourists like me, our dangling cameras, our insipid questions, our temporary interest.
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I realized as I was on my way to the airport that chatting with my AirBnB host was the longest conversation I had all weekend.
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‘What are you doing here in Antwerp?’ she asked. ‘As little as possible,’ I replied.
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‘Well you’re in the right place,’ she said, and handed me the keys.

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Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

Doing Development in Dhaka

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There’s this Bjork song, ‘Pluto’,
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Where she sings ‘I’ll be brand new. Brand new tomorrow’.
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I listened to this song a lot last week, jogging through Dhaka in the early mornings.
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Six am, before the horns and the smells and the stares.
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I always go jogging when I travel for work.
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Headphones on, faster than the walkers, slower than the drivers, I feel invisible, apart, a non-participant.
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There’s this book on systems theory, ‘At Home in the Universe’.
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Where it says that any complex structure—an ecosystem, an economy, all the cells in a living body—are more than the sum of their parts.
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No matter how much you know about the laws governing each component, you can never predict how they’ll react if one of them changes.
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Like, we all know how the post office works.
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And that if all the post offices in the country closed forever, we wouldn’t get our mail.
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But, says systems theory, a million other unforseeable things would happen too. Maybe Amazon.com would start collecting our letters when they bring us books. Maybe we would get rid of paper altogether.
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What would happen to all the post office workers, the factories that make those little carts they carry around, all the stamp collectors?
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Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings, maybe we would look back 10 years later from the carbonized remains of our downtowns and say ‘it all started the day those fucking post offices closed.’
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Or maybe something great would happen. Or maybe nothing.
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The point is, no matter how well you understand any one of the parts, the relationships between them are too complex to predict. When you hold something up to the light, you dim everything else.
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I’m in Bangladesh to do a project on the garment factories.
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Everyone I meet here tells me they are sick of foreigners coming and asking them about Rana Plaza. We are more than our disasters, they say.
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I agree and then I apologize and then I ask them about Rana Plaza.
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This is what I am here to do. This is my place in the system.
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Just days after the accident, they say, the delegations started coming.
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Senators, MPs, CEOs. They tour factories, they express into microphones their melancholy and their concern..
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I am part of the second wave. I am here to fix it. I am here to pull this part of the economy away from all the others and make it better and then put it back.
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One of my colleagues does factory audits here and everywhere and I ask him about what he sees, whether things have gotten better.
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Whenever you raise standards, he says, some companies will become sophisticated to reach them and others will become sophisticated to avoid them.
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That is how it works, he says, we are here to stack rocks in the riverbed. Where the water goes after that…
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And I think about this as I am jogging and I do not feel invisible.
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Maybe he’s right. Maybe calling something complex is just an excuse to ignore it.
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Maybe people who do good, real good, know the limits of their powers and apply them anyway.
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Maybe they look  at Bangladesh, a country trying to hard to make itself a nicer place to live.
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And they learn to listen to the part of it that tells them, I’ll be brand new.
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Brand new tomorrow.

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Filed under Personal, Pictures, Serious, Travel, Work

An Interview With a Therapist Who Was Once Insane

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I’ve got another interview up at Longreads. Here’s a little leftover I couldn’t figure out how to work in:

What kind of issues do you work with in your practice?

Anxiety, depression, a lot of work with addiction—drugs, alcohol, love, sex.

So sexual addiction is a real thing?

Yes it is. People die because of compulsive sexuality. They contract AIDS, they go insane, they destroy their marriages, they spend all their money at strip clubs or on hookers. The definition of addiction is an individual decision about whether you think you’re an addict or not. It just means stuff you’re doing that you don’t want to do and that’s ruining your life. That can be playing online scrabble. Your brain can become addicted to online scrabble. And you’re up all night and losing your job because the chemicals in your brain are dependent on the excitement you get from playing online scrabble. So it’s not about what the behavior is specifically that makes it an addiction or not. It’s the experience of the person with the behavior.

 

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Filed under Journalism, Personal, Serious

How to Write About Tax Havens

Cold Morning in a suburb of Torino, 1955 by Riccardo Moncalvo

I interviewed my buddy Nic Shaxson for Longreads. Here’s a clip:

Last year Shaxson published a Vanity Fair article, ‘A Tale of Two Londons,’ that described the residents of one of London’s most exclusive addresses—One Hyde Park—and the accounting acrobatics they had performed to get there. 

Here’s how it works: If you’re a Russian oil billionaire or a Nigerian bureaucro-baron and you want to hide some of your money from national taxes and local scrutiny, London real estate is a great place to stash it. All you need to do is establish a holding company, park it offshore and get a-buying. Here’s Shaxson:

These buyers use offshore companies for three big and related reasons: tax, secrecy, and “asset protection.” A property owned outright becomes subject to various British taxes, particularly capital-gains and taxes on transfers of ownership. But properties held through offshore companies can often avoid these taxes. According to London lawyers, the big reason for using these structures has been to avoid inheritance taxes. […]

But secrecy, for many, is at least as important: once a foreign investor has avoided British taxes, then offshore secrecy gives him the opportunity to avoid scrutiny from his own country’s tax—or criminal—authorities too. Others use offshore structures for “asset protection”—frequently, to avoid angry creditors. That seems to be the case with a company called Postlake Ltd.—registered on the Isle of Man—which owns a $5.6 million apartment on the fourth floor [of One Hyde Park].

Shaxson argues that this phenomenon has taken over the U.K. real estate market—extortionate penthouses for the ultrarich sitting empty while the rest of us outbid each other for the froth below.

Now go read the whole thing!

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Filed under Journalism, London, Personal, Serious, United Kingdom, Work

Zimbabwe: The Director’s Cut

I have an essay in The New Republic about my trip to Zimbabwe last year, and my weird obsession with how expensive everything was there.

One of the things they tell nonfiction writers is ’employ holy shit details’, and in Zimbabwe there is almost no other kind. A lot of insane statistics ended up in the piece, but even more ended up on the cutting room floor. Here are some of them:

  • In 2003, Zimbabwe was out of foreign reserves to import paper and ink to print more money, and had to switch to ‘bearer checks’, thin pieces of paper in increasingly outlandish denominations. Banks limited withdrawals, and anti-riot police had to be dispatched to prevent bank run.
  • Fleeing the cratering economy, Zimbabweans almost singlehandedly raised retail sales in South Africa by 10 percent between 2006 and 2007. Emigrants in South Africa paid bus drivers 20 percent commission  to take envelopes of cash, sacks of groceries, back home.
  • In 2007 a government order required shops to reduce the prices on basic goods by 50 percent. Instead of stabilizing the economy, it simply reversed the direction of the arbitrage. People bought milk in Mutare for 33,000 Zimbabwe dollars, drove it across the border to Mozambique and sold it for the equivalent of 350,000 Zimbabwe dollars.
  • All this time, the government maintained an ‘official’ exchange rate that was orders of magnitude lower than the black market rate. If you wanted to do anything legally—import goods, change money at the banks—you had to use the government rates. ‘I know a guy who worked at a luxury car dealership,’ my friend Colin told me. ‘These generals would come in and say “I’ll buy this car” and he would have to give it to them for the official exchange rate. He was selling cars for $8, $9.’
  • Between 2006 and 2009, the government slashed 25  zeroes off the currency. I ask Zimbabweans the prices they last remember at the supermarket and they tell me that a loaf of bread was 22 billion dollars. Which doesn’t actually matter, because you had to be connected to secure one anyway.
  • Bank teller wages rose with inflation, and they were partly paid in fuel coupons.  They could also ‘burn money’—buy US dollars at the official exchange rate, then sell them at the black market rates. Bank employees were flying to Dubai, buying electronics and coming back to Zimbabwe to sell them on.
  • These days, Zimbabwean banks are the opposite of too big to fail, they’re too small to succeed. As of January 2013, the entire banking sector held just $3.8 billion  in assets, more than half of which were short-term deposits. While the banks are lending out more than they used to, the loans are riskier, since no one has quite figured out how to run a business profitably here. In March 2010, 2 percent of bank loans didn’t get paid back. By December 2012, it was 14 percent .
  •  A 2013 survey of 150 store owners in a suburb of Harare found that 47 percent of them were using their own savings to raise capital and 13 percent were using their relatives and friends. Only 3 percent were using the banking system.
  • What Zimbabwe has gone through in the last 14 years is maybe the greatest loss of productive capacity and personal wealth in modern history. Per capita GDP fell from $644 in 1990 to $376 in 2011. South Africa’s GDP was 17 times larger than Zimbabwe’s in 1996. It was 58 times larger in 2012.
  • Almost 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s government budget goes to government salaries alone.
  • In 2009 Zimbabwe still had the highest 15-24-year-old literacy rates in Africa, but the aftershocks of the crisis are set to drag that down. As of 2012, only 67 percent of kids finished school, and only 50 percent made it from primary to secondary school.
  • The Zimbabwe stock exchange fell 20 percent after Mugabe’s victory was announced , and some estimates say $800 million in investment has left the country since then.

If you want to get a more full view of what Zimbabwe went through during hyperinflation and the challenges it faces now, here’s some publications that give a fuller picture than I was able to, written by people who know more about economics, about Zimbabwe, than me.

  • Here’s the Consultancy Africa Intelligence report, written by Tapiwa Mhute, who I spoke to a few times, on the causes and consequences of Zimbabwe’s dollarization.
  • Here’s a terrific overview of the path to hyperinflation written, rather randomly, by a graduate student in Japan.
  • Here’s a pretty devastating World Bank report on the problems with Zimbabwe’s infrastructure.
  • Here’s the report on remittance strategies by families in one neighborhood in Harare.
  • Here’s an anthology of articles about the hyperinflation. ‘Negotiating the Zimbabwe–Mozambique Border’ is a complete fucking stunner
  • The debate about what ‘really’ saved the Zimbabwean economy is ongoing and, like everything else in Zimbabwe, is totally politicised. Here’s an overview of some of the arguments.
  • Here’s an African Development Bank report from 2009, telling Zimbabwe how to fix the crisis. Most of it’s boring technocratic stuff but, like most of these reports, the ‘context’ section gives a great overview of the challenges.
  • Here’s the same sort of thing from the IMF and from the World Bank four years later, in 2013. They’re basically giving the same overview I am, only with less Grindr.
  • Here’s a Cato Institute (I know, I know) report from 2013: Why Is One of the World’s Least-Free Economies Growing So Fast?
  • Here’s Tapiwa Chagonda’s fascinating survey of bank tellers and teachers during hyperinflation.
  • Here’s Beyond the Enclave, Godfrey Kanyenze’s searing account of the political factors behind hyperinflation and dollarization.
  • And here’s Vince Musewe’s angry, moving columns for The Zimbabwean, giving a more up to date picture of the conditions in Zimbabwe

I mostly worked on the piece in August and September, and I’m sure more reports and statistics have come out since then, so apologies if anything in the story is outdated.

I’m not a journalist, I’m a human rights guy. One thing I’ve realized over the last 18 months, as I’ve spent more and more of my weekday mornings and Sunday nights working on these little longforms, is how dependent journalists are on the generosity and patience of their sources. For this story, I basically cold-called a dozen or so Zimbabwean economists, told them I didn’t know anything about their country or their field and asked if they could, slowly and monosyllabically, walk me through everything they knew.

Amazingly, all of them obliged, and they were super patient with all of my follow ups and hang-on-explain-that-agains. Colin and Lovemore took a risk telling a foreigner about their economic tribulations the last five years, and trusted that I would represent them honestly and wouldn’t publish any details that identified them. Everyone I interviewed, I have nothing to offer them for their time and their trust except my sincere gratitude—and my crushing anxiety that I may have misunderstood or misrepresented them.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be good at this whole journalism thing, or feel like I have the right to be doing it. I tried really hard to fact-check this story, to avoid giving the impression that my experience was definitive. I arrived in Zimbabwe as an outsider, a tourist. No matter how many people I met, no matter how many reports I read or statistics I double-checked, I departed as one. There is a lot of complicated information out there about Zimbabwe, a lot of conflicting narratives. Mine is just one of them.

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Filed under Essays, Journalism, Personal, Serious, Work

The Best Headphone Songs of 2013

Originally posted on The Billfold

When we write the history of how technology has made us happier, I hope there’s a whole chapter about headphones. Life in the pre-headphones era was a dystopia of un-entertained silences, un-podcasted public transport. Bus rides without TED Talks, old magazines in waiting rooms, flights spent deflecting extroverted strangers. Going for a jog meant listening to yourself breathe. 

Me, I have my headphones on basically always, and my life is objectively the better for it. I know the internet is the place where we’re supposed to complain how we’re cut off from each other, how we hide between earbuds instead of interacting, how we soundtrack our lives rather than experiencing them.

But really, how much solitary reflection do we actually need? And isn’t it better with Robyn singing over it anyway? I still take long, lonely winter walks, but now I listen to a MOOC about the Civil War on the way! The un-examined life isn’t may not be worth living, but the un-distracted one goes by a lot slower.

Anyway, here are all the ways I retreated from the world this year:

Julianna Barwick – ‘Forever’

It’s weird to pick one track off this album, since all the songs are basically the same wavy, overlapping vowel crescendoes. Still, if you want to feel like you’re attending a Methodist Easter service at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, Barwick’s got you covered.

Kanye West – The last minute and a half of ‘New Slaves’

Most of the tracks on Yeezus would be noticeably better without Kanye West rapping on them. ‘New Slaves’ is the only song where wishing ugh Kanye just shut the fuck up for a second actually pays off. Two minutes and 45 seconds in, he finally does, and for 90 seconds gives us the album’s only glimpse (‘I can’t lose, I can’t lose’) of the vulnerability behind all that Versace.

M.I.A. – ‘Y.A.L.A.’

Just because your politics are daft and your lyrics are incoherent doesn’t mean you can’t make a bangin’-ass club jam. The only way to enjoy this song is to resist the temptation to get all Pitchfork about it (Julianne Moore?) and just enjoy the swagger.

Azealia Banks – ‘No Problems’

Azaelia Banks has built a career out of being the girl who beat you up in middle school, and this song (‘you’re a ham in the pig shack’) is the bullyingest three minutes of the year.

Phosphorescent – ‘Ride On / Right On’ & ‘Song for Zola’

The world needs more alt-country. Haha I’m obviously kidding, but this band exists, and by now they’ve established that they have a right to.

Kavinsky ft. The Weeknd – ‘Odd Look’

Because the Drive soundtrack needed more R. Kelly.

Dan Deacon – ‘Why Am I On This Cloud?’

You know that theme that plays in Kill Bill whenever Uma Thurman is about to murder someone? That is what this song is for.

James Blake – ‘Retrograde’

Sometimes I think James Blake only releases albums to see what genre music critics will assign to them. Is this Electro-folk? Emo-step? Why are the lyrics so tender when the music around them is so mean? I’d better play it again to find out.

Lubomyr Melnyk – ‘Pockets of Light’

If I hadn’ta seen Melnyk play this song live earlier this year, I’d think he was using some sort of software to hit the keys this fast. But no, it’s just him, analog, plinking like a court stenographer and reminding you that your talents are generic and unworthy. Like most of the others on this list, this song defies explanation (just when it’s getting boring it’s like hang on, lyrics what?!), but it’s great for making you feel like whatever you’re doing is in slow motion.

Daft Punk – ‘Contact’

After we all got sick of ‘Get Lucky’ and started listening to the rest of the album, it turns out Daft Punk still has a few climaxes left in them. The rest of the album might take place in the 1970s, but these four minutes toward the end are a little reminder that it’s still 2013 somewhere out there.

Tyler Fedchuk – ‘White Light Mix’  

The whole point of listening to headphones is to make you feel like whatever you’re doing is epic and spectacular. Fedchuk, who has been making crackerjack electro mixes at Radiozero for years, created an hour that evokes the feeling of driving through downtown LA, looking for prostitutes to kill.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – ‘Little Moments’

You know how when we talk about economic development, it starts with poor countries attracting a bunch of low-wage sweatshops, then ‘moving up the value chain’ to stuff like design, processing, consulting, etc? The indie-band equivalent is the transition from cheap acoustics to fancy synthesizers, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah finally did the equivalent of joining the WTO this year.

Hunters & Collectors – ‘Talking To A Stranger (Avalanches Remix)’ & The Avalanches (feat. David Berman) – ‘A Cowboy Overflow of the Heart’

So in 2000, The Avalanches put out one of the best albums ever, (Since I Left You), then some of the best mixtapes ever, then disappeared into oblivion (Australia) for more than a decade. Now they are back with a remix of an off-brand Mumford & Sons-a-like and a … poem?

Neither of these should work, but somehow they do. Like the best songs on Since, ‘Talking to a Stranger’ bears almost no relationship to its source material. And this fucking poem. Jesus, if you didn’t already feel alone listening to your headphones around other people, well, now you do.

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Filed under Music, Personal

What Happens When One of Your Coworkers Dies

Originally posted on The Billfold

 

The first thing that happens is someone tells you.

It’s Tuesday, it’s February, it’s my first day back at work after a week on vacation. I notice the candle in the foyer just as the whoosh of the door blows it out. They never did that for my birthday, I think as I walk past reception.

This is my job. It’s a publisher, we make coffee table books about movies, architecture, political issues that lend themselves to stock photography. Most of us think of ourselves as writers, though that is not really what we do anymore.

Dominic is the one who tells me. He and Naomi are here already, sitting at opposite desks, leaning in like they’re playing Battleship. Dominic bikes here from some distant suburb I’ve never heard of, then showers and changes into the same thing every day: pressed white shirt, pastel v-neck, khakis, loafers. I’ve never been here early enough to see what he’s wearing when he arrives.

“Hey there Mike,” he says. His Dutch accent sharpens the th’s into d’s. Hey der. He turns off his monitor and swivels toward me.

Naomi looks up, holding a mug dangling two teabag strings. She moved here three months ago from Australia, she still has that new-hire enthusiasm, the “let’s make great books!” gusto we’re all waiting to wear off.

“Well hello, Mike!” she says as I de-layer at my desk—hat, scarf, gloves—and turn my computer on.

She’s about to say something else, but Dominic gives a little traffic-cop hand wave and she stops.

“Mike don’t open your e-mails,” he says.

That’s when I notice that our office has a candle in it too.

“You need to know,” he says, trails off, starts again, “that Colin has passed away.”

“Colin in marketing?”

“Correct.”

Colin Schwartz. The guy at the back of the external-relations office, a sliver between two big iMac screens.

“Oh fuck,” I say. “How?”

Last Monday, Dominic says, Colin didn’t show up to work and didn’t call or e-mail to explain where he was. On Tuesday his boss told HR. On Thursday the office manager went to his apartment to see if he was home. No one answered her knock. She called the police. They forced open the door and found his body.

“Oh fuck,” I say again. “Was it like a heart attack or something?”

“Well, as you may know, Colin was depressed,” Dominic says. “He had some emotional problems. So it looks like…”

“Oh fuck,” I say. “Are you saying he killed himself?”

“Nothing’s clear right now.”

“They had a meeting yesterday and the MD told us,” Naomi says. “Everyone in marketing went home.”

I stare at my keyboard for a second, type in my password, open Outlook. There’s the official announcement from our president, the meeting cancellations, the invite from comms to record memories of Colin.

“OK Mike,” Dominic says, and swivels back to his desk.

“So, um,” Naomi says, “how was your vacation?”

The next thing that happens is we are terrible.

“I don’t want to say I saw it coming or anything, but it’s not exactly out of the blue,” says Bill, who runs our Twitter feed.

The roof of our building is the size of a soccer field, but we’re bunched together by the door, hoods up, facing away from the wind. Bill is the only one smoking out here, the rest of us are just listening.

“They were working him too hard,” says Will, one of the copy editors. “Marketing’s way understaffed.”

I barely knew Colin. He sat two offices down from me, but we never worked on anything together, never laid eyes on each other after 5 p.m. Our relationship consisted, in its entirety, of work-related small talk in the break room, his lunch rotating behind us in the microwave. Ding, stir, have a good rest of your day.

After Dominic told me, I spent an hour thinking things like, Was it something I did? Could I have reached out to him? Then I spent at least twice that long thinking, Of course not, asshole.

“I was on a conference call with Colin two weeks ago. He stopped talking in the middle of a sentence and just started breathing really loud,” Bill says.

I’ve been having conversations like this all over the building. It’s Wednesday, it’s right after lunch, it’s been two days since they announced Colin died. And this is how we’ve spent it: Bunched up in corners, whispering things to see if they are true.

Sarah from finance wonders if Colin’s death has anything to do with the department restructuring. Mark in HR heard Colin didn’t take a vacation for the last two years. Tina from photos heard Colin moved here to study at the London School of Economics, but dropped out.

None of these people knew Colin any better than I did. We’re just magnifying what we know, zooming in on the crumbs as if it will reveal where they lead.

“You know they changed his job title without consulting him.” Bill says, and the rest of us nod solemnly.

I wish I could say I was the grown-up here, the one who pointed out that none of us really knew Colin, that his death was none of our business, that we should all get back to work. But I wasn’t.

“He was gay,” I say. I only found this out yesterday, when Dominic mentioned Colin’s boyfriend had been notified. “Do you think that has anything to do with it?”

“The weird thing is, Colin never struck me as the unhappiest person here,” says Jessica, the receptionist. “I would have put Colin way down the list. Like, look at Chris in Online. That guy puts in earbuds when he walks to the bathroom.”

“I saw Lucy talking to the external relations director yesterday,” Will says. “I think she’s applying for his job.”

“Oh shit I hope it’s not her,” Bill says. “Remember that presentation she gave at the annual meeting last year?” I smirk along with everyone else. Bill lights another cigarette, giving us all permission to stay out here at least five more minutes.

The next thing that happens is we mourn.

It’s Thursday, it’s 10 a.m., it’s our weekly staff meeting. Colin’s picture is projected on the wall. The senior management team is sitting in suits at the big conference table, each with their own box of tissues.

I’m leaning against the wall. There’s only room in here for about 50 chairs, most of us are standing. Naomi is in sitting down next to me, she’s already crying.

The managing director starts talking, the only voice in the room. He tells us how this is going to work. For the last two days, comms has been recording employees talking about Colin, how they want to remember him. Today we’re going to watch the video.

“The speculation has to stop,” he says. “Colin died of natural causes.”

He nods over to the comms director, who hits play. The video begins with Colin’s work—excerpts of promos he made, books he launched, conference presentations he gave—then the rest is testimonials from his colleagues. They’re edited together in reverse hierarchical order.

Interns, then assistants, then peers, describe working with Colin. The time they bumped into him at the printer, the time his soup exploded in the microwave, the time they sat together on a bus from the airport to a conference, each with their headphones on.

Story after story, they’re all like this, proximity aspiring to intimacy, and it’s clear that no one here knew him, not the people in his department, not his managers, not the people he had lunch with and traveled with. They talk about his cluttered desk, his e-mail forwards, his cocktails at the Christmas party. They try to pull a person out of the time he spent here and they can’t.

“I always said hi to Colin when I passed him in the hall,” says someone on the video.

Naomi stops crying. She makes a little sound like she’s surprised, like she’s discovered the exact borders of her compassion. She takes a shallow breath, puts her purse on her lap, starts looking through it for tissues.

Colin’s boss is on vacation this week. He recorded a message by webcam. He’s lying on his side on a hotel bed. He talks about the clarity of Colin’s press releases as palm trees shudder in the wind behind him.

“I wish I had gotten to know him better,” he says. “He seemed nice.”

That comment, those three words, and I jerk my head away from the screen. I look out the window and there is a huge piece of bird shit on the windowsill. People on the screen keep talking, managers and directors now, but their memories of him are all the same hellos and bump-intos and chit-chats, and I realize this is it, this is what he left behind, his lunch and his e-mails and the clever thing he wrote on his boss’s birthday card. I close my eyes and the video goes on and on and then I open them and everyone around me is crying.

The last clip is the MD, chest heaving. He’s telling the camera, us, how Colin prepped him for his first TV interview.

“Don’t gesture so much,” Colin told him, “Gesturing looks awkward on TV. Emphasize with your words, not your hands.”

The MD did his interview, a whole hour, with his hands in his lap, as instructed. And afterwards he asked Colin, “how did I do?” and Colin said “You were like a statue up there! Why didn’t you use your hands?!”

And we all laugh, and the camera stays pointed at the MD, and his smile fades, his eyes go wet, he lets out a sob and the camera turns off and the screen shows Colin’s picture again.

The next thing that happens is it makes us close.

After the staff meeting, we shut the door to our office and Naomi asks me if I knew anyone else who died. I tell her about my godmother who got brain cancer when I was 12.

“Did you know her well?” she asks.

“In whatever way kids know adults, I guess. We spent a lot of time together when I was little. I mostly remember her mac and cheese.”

Then I ask Naomi and she tells me about the principal of her Catholic school who died in a car accident when she was seven. It was her first funeral, and she raised his hand in the middle of the eulogy to ask a question. As she’s telling it she lets herself smile a little, and I realize I never knew she went to Catholic school.

It’s like this the rest of the week. Maybe it’s because the MD asked us to stop speculating, or maybe everyone else saw the video like I did, felt the same urgency to populate this place, but we stop talking about Colin and we start talking about us.

On the roof, Bill tells me that his parents died when he was 22. He had just finished his first triathlon, and was so tired he fell asleep on the note his roommate had left on his bed. He woke up, pulled it out from under the covers and read it, still in his little running shorts.

In the break room, Jessica is hanging up a picture of Colin. She tells me that when she was 10 years old she accidentally took a big handful of children’s Tylenol because it was flavored and she thought it was candy.

“For years, my parents thought it was a suicide attempt,” she says, yanking out a strip of scotch tape.

On Friday Dominic and I walk to the train station together and he tells me about the cat he buried in his backyard when he was seven.

“I dug him up two years ago,’ he says, “and he was just a box of bones.’ He makes two fists, huge in his mittens, to show me his size.

The next thing that happens is it’s all over.

Monday morning, in the corridor past reception, I walk past marketing and hear someone say. “Did you see Jessica crying at the staff meeting? She barely even knew him.”

Dominic is already here, and I wonder if his khakis, his pianist posture, are the things I would say about him if he died.

“Did Naomi send the invite last week for the meeting with research?” he says.

“I don’t think so,” I say. “With everything happening last week, she must have forgotten.”

“Well if people are going to be here,” he says, “they might as well be working.”

It’s not that we forget, it’s just that we’re done remembering together. As the memorial fades from memory, as the tasks pile up and dwindle, as we all settle back into our boxes on the org chart, our dead colleague becomes just another thing we think about but don’t say.

The last time we talk about Colin at work is in a budget meeting. It’s March, it’s six weeks since Colin died, it’s me and Dominic in a conference room with Marketing, getting an overview of our spending before the quarterly board meeting.

“What’s this 40,000 that appeared in the budget in February?” Dominic asks.

“That’s Colin,” says Bill. Dead people don’t get salaries, so Colin’s appears as a surplus.

“OK,” Dominic says. “And why has this travel spending figure been adjusted?”

And that’s it, we just move through the rest of the budget. I think about looking up, making eye contact across the table, sharing an acknowledgement of the moment that just passed. Instead, I just keep my eyes on the Excel sheet, keep following the numbers with my pencil.

The last thing that happens is Naomi quits.

“I’m going back to my old job in Adelaide,” she says. It’s April, it’s Friday, it’s two months since Colin died. We’re sitting on the stoop of a church near work, holding paper coffee cups with two hands, watching rain drip from the awning.

“Why?” I ask.

“Do you remember Colin?” she says.

I tell her I barely knew him.

“Neither did I,” she says. “But do you remember the week after he died?”

We talk about the memorial, everyone crying, how we were with each other afterwards, how we’re not anymore.

“I keep making these pledges to get to know people here,” she says, “and then in the very next second I know that I’m not going to, that it’s too hard. At least back in Australia I have family waiting for me at the end of the day.”

I feel like we should hug now but we don’t. I stand up, take the empty coffee cup out of Naomi’s hand, throw it in the trash.

It’s later, it’s after Naomi left, it’s me and Dominic in the break room, his lunch rotating in the microwave. He’s looking at the picture of Colin posted on the wall.

“It’s too close to the microwave,” he says. “The steam is going to make it come down.”

As if agreeing, the microwave dings.

“Here,” he says.

He leans in, grabs it from the wall, moves it higher, sticks it back to the wall. “That’s better.”

He grabs his soup from the microwave, stirs it.

“OK Mike,” he says. “Have a good rest of your day.”

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Filed under Essays, London, Personal, Work

Why Is Zambia So Poor?

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I have a piece in Pacific Standard Magazine (well, the website, not like the magazine-magazine) about my trip to Zambia:

Like Tolstoy’s unhappy family, every poor country is poor in its own way, and everyone I meet has a narrative, a creation myth, for how it got this way and why it remains so.

I will spend the next 10 days meeting NGO activists, government officials, and business representatives. They will tell me that Zambia is terrible, that Zambia is fine, and that Zambia is getting better, respectively.

I’m not here to determine which of those statements is true. I’m here for the numbers, the information I can’t get back home. Somewhere between the handshakes, the spreadsheets, the PowerPoints, the annual reports, a story will emerge about Zambia, a story of a country watching its mineral wealth disappear, a country making everyone rich but itself.

I can tell we’re getting close to Kitwe because the number of people crossing the highway increases. The highway has no streetlights, the only light is from the cars, and about halfway there we start to see silhouettes of people in twos and threes running across the road. Our driver never slows down, even as the groups increase to six, seven people, crossing our headlights, stopping in the road to let a car whiz by, running again. I could ask him to slow down, but instead I just look.

There are people there who know a lot more about Zambia’s poverty than I do. If you’re interested in making a donation to any of the organisations I profile in the essay, get in touch and I’ll give you their info.

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Filed under Essays, Personal, Travel, Work

University Rankings are Terrible. Now Can We Stop Doing the Same Thing With Countries?

The release of the US News & World Report college rankings is as good an excuse as any to talk about the sheer ridiculousness of organising complex institutions into rank order and pert decimal scores.

The criticisms of the index itself are nicely summarized in this Atlantic article, but for those that don’t have time for the full Gladwell, they are basically of two kinds:

  1. The ranking is flawed. The methodology constantly changes, schools juke their stats, it’s based on bullshit surveys that only measure the school’s established reputation, etc. The data might be good enough to distinguish Harvard University from  Southern Methodist Tech, but there is too much noise to say that Yale is better than Princeton or that Oregon State is better than Penn State.
  2. Most of the information we use to determine the quality of education isn’t readily measurable. How good are the teachers? Do students get enough personal attention? Is the campus social life welcoming or cliquey? If you list everything that made your college experience positive or negative, you won’t find it in the number tables of these rankings.

A few years ago I was working at a human rights NGO, and one of my jobs was preparing reports for multinational corporations telling them about the human rights situation in countries where they were thinking of operating.  You want to open a shoe factory in Kenya? Here’s what you need to know about gender discrimination, corruption, occupational health and safety. Here’s how you make shoes there without violating human rights.

Sometimes companies would ask us for big packages of countries, 10, 20, 50 at a time.

‘Can’t you just give us a ranking?’ they would ask. ‘Tell us which country is the worst of that list, and we won’t make shoes there.’

Or, they would suggest, better yet, give us an index. If you tell us that Bolivia scores 8.2 out of 10 and  Iran scores 8.3 out of 10, we can make our decision on quantitative data rather than just putting our finger in the air.

‘But that is putting your finger in the air,’ I would tell them. ‘It’s just us doing it instead of you. Bolivia and Iran, their politics, their demographics, their economics, they look nothing like each other. Two numbers isn’t going to make that go away.’

This is one of my beefs with the Failed States Index, the Economic Freedom Index, the Human Development Index, the Corruptions Perceptions Index, the dozens of other indices that purport to rank countries according to some difficult-to-measure variable.

The problem is, countries have all the same problems as colleges. The data out there isn’t strong enough to justify precise determinations, only broad tranches. Yeah, Norway is less corrupt than Angola, but I don’t need an index to tell me that.

But is Norway less corrupt than Denmark? More developed than Switzerland? Given the limited data and even more limited number of indicators these indices use, the answers to those questions are a re-statement of your methodology, not a useful analysis of the conditions in those two countries.

I used to try to tell the companies this, that any attempt to rank countries according to their ability to prevent corporate human rights violations would be like trying to rank kittens according to cuteness. After you separate them into the already-obvious tranches, it’s just a judgement call, preferences disguised as data.   

‘But it would be so much easier for me if you could do that anyway.’ Only one corporate person ever actually said it this directly, but afterward I started hearing it, in subtler ways, from the others.

Eventually I realized that the only reason the companies pushed so hard, why they insisted so strongly on  rankings and scores over information and analysis, was because it made it not their problem anymore. They didn’t have the credentials to pull 50 ‘good’ countries from 100 uncategorised ones, so they used us to push the responsibility away. ‘It’s not me saying Bolivia is an 8.2,’ they could tell their boss. ‘A human rights NGO said it was. Making shoes there is totally approved. 

I don’t know if high schoolers use college rankings to decide where they should get educated. And I don’t know if multinational corporations use country indices to decide where they should make shoes. I just hope that in both cases, they know that most of what they’re seeing is either totally obvious or entirely unsubstantiated.

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Filed under America, Personal, Work

The Time My Landlord Ratted Me Out to the Cops

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Originally posted on The Billfold

The door buzzer rings at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday.

“Politi!” the intercom shouts in Danish.

“What?” I say.

“Police!” English this time. The buzzer rings two more times.

I have been renting a room from Inge for four months now. She is in her mid-60s, tall and blond and slender, the glowing grandmother in a Nivea commercial. The only thing that shows her age is her voice, a Beverly D’Angelo baritone that hides consonants behind long vowels. “Be here tomorrow at seven,” she said yesterday. Be hee tomohh at seh-hen. “We need to go over some house things.”

“What is this about?” I ask the intercom. Inge’s not even here, her door is open and her bed is made. She must have slept at her boyfriend’s last night.

“Police!” it says again. “You have to let us in.”

I buzz them in and crack the door.

As I listen to two pairs of footsteps coming up the stairs, I make a mental list of crimes I have committed recently. I bought a bike from a flea market. I downloaded a torrent of Ratatouille. I regularly throw away wine bottles I should recycle. I know Denmark is socialist and everything, but do they really send cops to your house for stuff like this?

We only live on the second floor but they’re panting from the climb, and I can smell that they’ve been outside smoking cigarettes while they waited. They have matching denim jackets and beer bellies, both in their mid-40s, both massive, but one is slightly rounder than the other and has a fake tan. They look like they just came from the stands of a soccer game.

I’m wondering if they’re even cops until they show me their badges. They push past me and  invite me into my kitchen.

“Have a seat,” the one with the fake tan says in Danish.

“Can we do this in English, guys?” I say in English. I’ve only lived in Copenhagen for a year, my Danish vocabulary is somewhere between kindergarten and George of the Jungle.

“Your Danish is fine,” he says in Danish. “You know why we’re here, don’t you.”

“I lost my wallet last week, did someone find it?” I say, struggling to get the words out in Danish.

“You stole credit cards and ordered a bunch of shit online,” fake tan says. “We know it was you.”

“Wait, what?”

This is the point where, later, my coworkers at the human rights NGO where I’m working tell me I should have stopped the conversation. “Why didn’t you ask for a lawyer?” “You had the right to an official translator!” “Did you get their badge numbers?”

But there, at the kitchen table, this accusation is so outlandish, so obviously some sort of misunderstanding, that I forget all about my rights and my shitty Danish and why these cops are even here. I just want to convince them that it wasn’t me and for them to go away.

“… Nuh-uh.” I say.

“Yes you did,” fake tan says. “We traced the crime back to this apartment.”

“We need to confiscate your computer,” the paler one says. It’s clear they’re already convinced I’m guilty. Being here is just a technicality. “Where is it?”

I lead the cops to my room.

“Two computers,” fake tan says like David Caruso. Gotcha. Paleface takes out a notepad just to write that down.

“I bought a new laptop in January,” I say. “I just haven’t gotten rid of the old one yet.”

“You sure about that?” fake tan says, as if I have just told him I can walk through walls.

“What exactly do you think I did?” I ask.

“You’ve been stealing credit cards, ordering movie tickets online and then returning them to the theaters for cash,” he says.

Huh?

“The transaction was done from the wireless network in this apartment.”

“But our wireless network is unsecured,” I say. Inge asked me to put a password on the Wi-Fi ages ago, but I couldn’t read the Danish on the configuration well enough to set it up.

“And you’re the only one who has the password,” paleface says. He might as well have put on shades. Case closed.

“Wait, no, there’s no password,” I say. “Anyone could use it. All of our neighbors, anyone at the café downstairs.” I sit down and open up my laptop. “See, there’s our network. No little padlock icon next to it.”

“No. The internet doesn’t work that way,” fake tan says. “You need a password.”

Their certitude is not cracking. Either this is a tactic, the Danish version of good cop bad cop, or they genuinely don’t know that open Wi-Fi networks exist. I don’t know which possibility is worse.

Our network is unsecured,” I say, trying to italicize as I speak. “Do you guys really not know what an open wireless network is?”

“What were you doing the night of November 15th?” Fake tan says, changing the subject. Paleface makes a kind of “booya!” face. We’ll ask the questions, punk.

“That was four months ago,” I say. “I have no idea.”

“If you can’t prove what you were doing that night, we’re arresting you right now.”

This is where I remember about my rights and stuff.

“No you’re not,” I say. “I am not stealing credit cards online. I have a steady job, a decent salary, savings in the bank. It makes no sense I would go through some amateur-hour scam just to make, what, an extra few days’ pay? I don’t have to prove I didn’t do this. You have to prove I did.”

Except that my Danish was hella shitty, so what came out was more like, “No, you never. I no steal. I have job, lot money. I no prove, you prove.”

The cops looked confused.

“Your whereabouts on November 15 please,” fake tan says.

I sit down to check my e-mails, scrolling through November to find a concert ticket, a dinner invite, something indicating where I was on some random weeknight last year. I’m still hoping I can just make this go away.

The cops are standing behind me, watching my screen.

“Wait,” fake tan says. “You said you bought that computer in January?”

“Yeah.”

So how are you checking your e-mails from last November?” Bam, the jig is up. Paleface starts writing furiously in his notepad.

Oh my god it’s not a tactic.

“Are you kidding?” I say. I try to express the situation, but my Danish isn’t cooperating. “Mail no lives on computer. Lives on Internet.”

“We’re taking these,” he says. “And your router. Now: Where’s Inge’s computer?”

 

Inge.

That’s why they’re here.

I can imagine the conversation: The cops contact her, tell her there’s suspicious activity on her internet. “That’s strange,” she tells them. “The only person with the password is this random 25-year-old immigrant…”

No wonder the cops think it’s an open and shut case. They must have asked her to serve me up to them. That’s why she asked me to be home this morning, why she’s not here now.

“We have Inge’s permission to confiscate her computer.”  Paleface says.

I take the cops into Inge’s room.

“That’s her computer,” I say. She has an old iMac, it’s a lump of pastel blue on her desk.

“Where’s the computer?” fake tan says.

“Right there, on the desk,” I say.

He crouches like he’s about to crawl under the desk. “No, the computer.”

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

“That’s the computer.”

“That’s the screen.”He was using the voice for when you explain appliances to a four-year-old. Mr. Refrigerator makes things cooooooold. Mr. Oven makes them waaaaaarm.

“I’m looking for the compuuuuuter,” he says. “Where the daaaaaata goes. Do you understand?”

“I know what a computer is.” I say. I used mine to hack credit cards, remember?  “The computer is inside the monitor.”

“They put it inside the monitor?” he says. This was February of 2008.

“Yes, it’s all one unit,” I say.

“New technology, huh?” he says. Paleface is nodding, impressed.

I blow the dust off the keyboard and hand it to him. “Do you mind if I get your badge numbers?”

 

They come back two weeks later.

Inge has been sleeping at her boyfriend’s most nights. On the rare occasions when she’s home, we make small talk like nothing happened. The weather, the laundry, how’s work.

Seven a.m., the intercom buzzes again,  this time Inge’s home. The two cops are at the door, holding our computers. I’m confident I’m not going to jail (“If you do, the European Court of Human Rights is going to hear about this!” is a constant refrain at work), but I’m worried they’ll find Ratatouille, as well as some, um, other stuff I would rather not defend my possession of in open court.

“So you know I wasn’t stealing credit cards?” I say in the doorway as paleface hands me my two laptops.

“The case is still open,” fake tan says, putting Inge’s iMac down on our welcome mat. “You’re still a suspect.”

“You know it wasn’t Mike,” Inge says in Danish. “You told me that earlier on the phone. It’s my fault for not having a password on the Wi-Fi.”

“We’ll let you know when we close the case,” fake tan says.

Me and Inge never talk about how she gave me up to the cops. I’m not even all that pissed off about it. She genuinely thought I was the only person with the password. I probably would have given me up too.

As I help her carry the iMac back into her room, I tell her the cops had never seen one before.

“Oh great,” she says, “they should be solving this case any minute now.” We never hear from them again.

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Filed under Denmark, Funny, Personal

Letting Stress Win: A Commencement Speech

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Originally posted at The Billfold 

The best advice and the worst advice I’ve ever gotten were three words long.

The best advice was ‘avoid the treadmill’. It was 2003. I was coming to the end of a master’s degree in a subject (political philosophy) and a city (London) I was ready to leave. I was 22 years old.

Rebecca was the advisor at the community college student newspaper where I worked between and after classes three years earlier, and we had—pre-Facebook!—stayed in touch through undergrad and now grad school.  She was visiting London and invited me to dinner.

I had two months left until I completed my master’s and my visa expired. I had no idea what I was going to do, or even what I wanted to. There was the prudent thing, moving back to the States, getting a job, starting a career, buying a house, leasing a Camry, nothing wrong with that.

There was also, however, something I had come across two weeks earlier while drinking wine and Googling Nordic underwear models: Universities in Scandinavia are free.

I told Rebecca all this (minus the Googling), and that I had found a program in Aarhus, Denmark—a master’s degree that as soon as I said it out loud I realized sounded even vaguer and more destitution-promoting than the master’s I already had.

‘European studies!’ I said.

Rebecca asked if I had ever been to Denmark, and what was my logic for considering this an option. I admitted I had none, it just sounded cool and I wanted to try it.

‘So I have to decide,’ I said. ‘Prudent, or Denmark.’

‘Mike,’ she said. ‘This is an easy one: Avoid the treadmill.’

I knew what she meant, but I asked her to elaborate anyway.

‘You have a whole life of working ahead of you. Going home is easy. Getting a job is easy. Going to, whatever country this is, Denmark, making an impulsive decision and living with it for two whole years, that’s hard. This is what your twenties are for. As you get older, the hard stuff only gets harder.’

‘And the easy stuff gets easier?’ I said.

‘No,’ she said. ‘That gets harder too.’

The way stress works is, when you’re presented with a threat, your body produces adrenaline, a kind of internal crystal meth, that gives you the energy to escape or fight or defend yourself or pull an all-nighter or whatever you need to do to neutralize the threat. While the adrenaline is pumping, other functions—sleep, appetite, afternoon horniness—shut down while your body gives you enough energy to deal with the crisis at hand.

This makes sense, right? If you’re living in an environment where every once in awhile you need to run away from a lion, chase a gazelle, defend your village from the next tribe over, you need a system that takes precedence over everything else. You can’t be stalking a mammoth and suddenly be overcome with the urge to pee.

The problem, of course, is that stress isn’t something that only gets activated by extreme, once-a-month stressors. It’s something you activate yourself, something that reacts not to the objective threat level but to what you perceive as a threat.

These days, we don’t get hunted by lions all that often, but we do get hunted by bosses, partners, deadlines, bills, kids, early closing hours, late public transport, insomnia, status, proliferating Netflix queues. Since our bodies can’t differentiate between a lion and an overdue car payment, adrenaline becomes a kind of routine. We coast on it 9-to-5, deadline to deadline, and squeeze the tube even more over the weekend to get us through the neighborhood barbecue, the water park outing with the kids, the difficult conversation with the wife.

Like everything else that’s good for you once a month, adrenaline when you use it every day is a kind of poison. They do autopsies on people who were constantly stressed out and their pituitary gland is the size of a turkey baster. Constantly suppressing your immune system, ignoring your appetite, boosting your heart rate, these things are like fast-forwarding the aging process. People who are constantly stressed out are more likely to get cancer and strokes. Stressed out kids end up shorter as adults. When you turn off everything but your emergency generator, the normal stuff rusts and brittles.

Robert Sapolsky, the guy who I’m basically stealing all these insights from, studies stress in baboons in the wild. He says he can tell the difference between short-lifespan baboons and long-lifespan baboons by one thing: How do they act when they see a lion 200 feet away?

Short-lifespan baboons, the ones that that use adrenaline the way we use drip coffee, see the lion in the distance and immediately activate their stress response. A lion! Shit! What am I going to do?!

The un-stressed baboons—the ones eating fresh berries and complaining about the morals of the next generation of baboons into their twilight years—they see the same lion and go ‘meh, he’s 200 feet away. He’s yawning, grooming, he doesn’t seem all that interested in me’ and they stay calm. No adrenaline, no panic. They keep an eye on the lion—they’re baboons, they’re not stupid—but they don’t get all adrenaliney until there’s a genuine threat.

We all know that refrigerator-magnet phrase, ‘Give me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,’ or however it goes. For me, it’s never been the courage that’s hard, it’s the serenity.

In 2004, I applied to the master’s program in Denmark. I filled out the application, photocopied my old diplomas, wrote my admissions essay, mailed them off. Two months later, a letter came saying I was accepted. And then I started freaking out.

I don’t speak Danish. I don’t know anyone in the whole country. Where am I going to live? What am I going to do for living expenses? All of a sudden, the treadmill started looking pretty good.

It was five months since my conversation with Rebecca, and three months since my U.K. visa expired and I had moved back home to Seattle. I was working (OK, temping) at Microsoft as a copy editor, and living with my parents.

Steve was my boss at Microsoft. Former journalist, weekend kickball player, suburban dad, never missed a day of work or a misspelled word or a subordinate’s birthday. Totally a long-lifespan baboon.

And he gave me the worst advice I’ve ever gotten: ‘Trust your gut.’

He said it after I went into his office and told him everything I just told you: I was accepted to this program in Denmark and I had no criteria by which to judge whether this was a good idea.

‘You don’t need criteria for these sorts of decisions,’ he said. ‘It’s all about doing what feels right.’

It may not have been obvious to Steve, but I am firmly the first baboon. I see a lion—an unpaid bill, an unread e-mail, an uncalled acquaintance—not even 200 feet away, a mile away, on the horizon, barely visible to the naked eye, and my adrenaline spikes. The year I was living in London, I couldn’t get to sleep one night because I suddenly remembered I had forgotten to book a flight home for Christmas. It was May.

Like every American, I heard this stock advice—’Trust your gut’, ‘Be true to yourself’, ‘follow your instincts’—all the time growing up, variations on the same Hollywood catechism, the pledge of allegiance to individuality we get installed on first bootup.

And the thing is, this advice isn’t necessarily bullshit. There are probably people out there whose instincts are all kindness and extroversion, whispering directives of generosity and serenity into their ear. Some people, I imagine, search their innermost desires and find the charm of a CEO, the selflessness of a Mormon.

I search mine and find the pessimism of an amputee, the selfishness of a viking. I am constantly at war with my instincts, trying to project-manage away the anxiety, the me-firstism, the adrenaline they send me. Trusting my gut, really doing what I felt, would mean curling up into a ball until all my obligations—jobs, friends, family, personal hygiene—gave up and disappeared.

For Steve, trusting his gut would have meant doing the right thing. For me, it would have meant doing nothing at all.

After my meeting with Steve, I came home and I made a list: Stuff to Sort Out Before You Move To Denmark. Spend one hour every morning before work studying Danish. Post concerns on university message boards. Find potential friends in Aarhus on social media (OK, gay personals sites), talk to them on IM. Find out what ‘European studies’ means.

It was work, but it worked. Six months later, I moved to Demark and started my program. Two years later, I graduated and got a job in Copenhagen. Four years after that, I moved to Berlin. Two years after that, I’m still here.

And yes, I’m still anxious. I still have to remind myself that my gut is cruel and manipulative, and should not be trusted with any decisions that affect us both. But just as amazingly, I still feel like I’m avoiding the treadmill. I work at an NGO that sends me to weird conferences and exotic countries. Back home, I rent, I bike, and don’t own anything I need to insure.

Moving to Denmark is the best thing I ever did. Not because I loved everything about it, or because it made me a less anxious person, or because I assimilated into it like a mermaid to a fairy tale. I didn’t.

It’s the best thing I ever did because for me, it was more awesome than staying in my hometown, moving commas around for a living, commuting in that Camry.

And that’s it, that’s my own three-word advice: Do awesome stuff.

Maybe it’s not moving to Europe, maybe it’s learning to play the piano, speaking Esperanto, writing a novel, becoming a professional wrestler, who cares. Find things you will someday want to brag about, things that would impress you if someone else did them, and do them.

If you’re like me, the furrowed-brow baboon worrying about his pension in his early 20s, find out what your awesome is and make a plan for doing it. Rules, lists, indicators, push notifications, whatever helps you pull rank on the lies your gut tells you.

If you’re not like me, if you’re the baboon polishing an apple and smoking a cigarette while the lion in the distance walks steadily you-ward, ignore me. I have no idea how your brain works. Just stop telling the rest of us to listen to ours.

Maybe I’m supposed to say that it’s really about being able to tell how far away the lion is, shrinking your pituitary gland through meditation or Pilates or multivitamins or whatever. But nothing I’ve done has made me any less anxious, no achievement has led me to that serenity I read on the bumper stickers. With stress inevitable, anxiety unavoidable and awesomeness finite, all I can do is work on tapping the one I might be running out of.

And if I’m in the middle of doing so and someone tells me to be myself, trust my gut, follow my heart, I have a built-in answer: ‘I can do better than that.’

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Filed under America, Berlin, Denmark, Essays, Personal

Your Lion Eyes

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Today I went on a safari!

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Which, as it turns out, is basically Jurassic Park, but the animals are younger and it doesn’t all go horribly wrong.

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The look on its face is ‘argh I can’t eat you’. This is the same face I have when I walk past bakeries.

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It looks disappointed to be the only animal in this park that can’t kill you.

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They purr when you pet them! For an extra 100 bucks, you can cuddle with them for an hour. This is 50 percent more than I usually pay for simulated intimacy, so I passed.

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I did not know this, but our guide told us ostriches are extinct in the wild, they can only be found in captivity. And, if Berlin is any indication, the frozen aisle.

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These looked majestic and powerful until our guide told us the car behind us had paid extra to hunt them.

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They seem to not like engine noise, so about 80 percent of my photos are of antelope butts.

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‘Are you done shooting?’ the guide asked. ‘The other car is about to start shooting.’ I hope it cost more than the cuddles.

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Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

I’m Not Here: The Billboards of Zambia

I’m in Kitwe, Zambia, this week, and one of the constant sources of bafflement and entertainment is the billboards. They’re everywhere, but mostly vacant, and mostly advertising themselves.
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‘Advertise here’ billboards are nothing new, of course, but what amazes me about these is that each one is different.

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On the way from Kitwe to the Ndola airport, an hour’s drive, you see about 65 of them, and they never repeat. Each one has a different message, a different photo, a different font, even though they’re all advertising the exact same thing.

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I keep trying to think of an economic explanation for this, a reason why they wouldn’t be at least partially standardized. It seems like a lot of extra work to design and print 65 billboards one time each, at least as compared to one billboard 65 times.

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But the world is full of mysteries! Maybe they want to show off their range, maybe they want to try to catch your eye in as many ways possible, maybe they have a bored PR intern. Or maybe they just want to increase the world’s supply of stock photos of adorable children. As corporate responsibility goes, they could do worse.

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Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

Bleg: Anyone Else Going to Zimbabwe Next Month?

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I’m going to be in Zimbabwe for most of June. Does anyone out there in the internet ether want to hang out in Harare, or know anyone who could help show me around? DM me on Twitter or write me at michael.hobbes.bln {at} gmail.com. Thanks y’all!

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Leaving the Internet Will Not Make You a Better Person. Neither Will Anything Else.

It’s a been a year now since I “surfed the web” or “checked my email” or “liked” anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I’ve managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I’m internet free.

And now I’m supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I’m supposed to be enlightened. I’m supposed to be more “real,” now. More perfect.

Paul Miller, writer and lifelong techie, went a year without using the internet. No e-mail, no Facebook, no Google Maps, no Expedia, nothing.

And everything started out great, let me tell you. I did stop and smell the flowers. My life was full of serendipitous events: real life meetings, frisbee, bike rides, and Greek literature. With no clear idea how I did it, I wrote half my novel, and turned in an essay nearly every week to The Verge. In one of the early months my boss expressed slight frustration at how much I was writing, which has never happened before and never happened since.

[…] As my head uncluttered, my attention span expanded. In my first month or two, 10 pages of The Odyssey was a slog. Now I can read 100 pages in a sitting, or, if the prose is easy and I’m really enthralled, a few hundred.

It seemed then, in those first few months, that my hypothesis was right. The internet had held me back from my true self, the better Paul. I had pulled the plug and found the light.

It’s funny the kneejerk admiration we have for people who voluntarily opt out of technology we’ve had for less than two decades. Miller got regular fan mail from admirers, an outpouring of ‘good for you’ sentiments in his PO box every week. When I first read his ‘Goodbye Internet’ post a year ago, I remember my  reaction being ‘good for this dude!’

We have this weird conventional wisdom that the internet (by which we usually mean its more superficial representatives: Facebook, Buzzfeed, LOLCats) is a burden, a cacophony, the sirens enticing Ulysses toward destruction with a beautiful song.

Whenever anyone complains about the internet–the constant distractions, the oppressive connectivity, the instant gratification–I wonder to what degree they’re engaging in a kind of poorly aimed nostalgia. I remember the pre-internet era like this too,  a time when friendships were stronger, books were shorter, concentration was easier.

Some of this is undoubtedly true. But it is also true that before the internet I was fifteen years old. The processing power of my  desktop computer is not the only thing that has changed since then. Going to college, getting a job, moving to other countries, these things affect friendships, reading habits, ability to concentrate just as much as the internet does.

I  wonder how many of the people congratulating Miller on leaving the internet are old enough to have had lives without it.

By late 2012, I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.

A year in, I don’t ride my bike so much. My frisbee gathers dust. Most weeks I don’t go out with people even once. My favorite place is the couch. I prop my feet up on the coffee table, play a video game, and listen to an audiobook. I pick a mindless game, like Borderlands 2 or Skate 3, and absently thumb the sticks through the game-world while my mind rests on the audiobook, or maybe just on nothing.

It’s hard to say exactly what changed. I guess those first months felt so good because I felt the absence of the pressures of the internet. My freedom felt tangible. But when I stopped seeing my life in the context of “I don’t use the internet,” the offline existence became mundane, and the worst sides of myself began to emerge.

So heartbreaking!

It’s like the Malthusian trap works at the level of the individual. Something changes in your life and you find new habits, new energy. You think you’re riding an incline, productivity and happiness increasing upward toward some new you. But then, your personality and your habits and your vices adjust. The incline plateaus, and before you know it, you’re staring at same monsters you thought you had turned away from.

This week is the two-year anniversary of my arrival in Berlin. This is the fourth time I’ve moved to a new country, and every time, the same thing happens.  The first few weeks I explore, I meet new people, I take in the new stuff and jettison the old. The first three months go by like a year, all the novelty and adjustment stretching each day into an accomplishment. Then it all speeds up.  Six months go by, a year, and I look around and I find myself in the same life I had in the last country.

This isn’t actually so bad. I rather like my life, and I’ve been able to build social groups (thanks Facebook!), stay in touch with  old friends (thanks Skype!) and entertain myself (thanks Grindr!) in places I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t constantly feel like a new me was just one more country away.

But still, Miller’s experience and mine make me wonder if we think about self-improvement the wrong way. Maybe it’s not about changing where we live or what we do or how much we internet. Maybe it’s about changing how we respond to what’s already around us.

Or maybe we’re proof that it doesn’t actually matter. Even the most profound changes in your external circumstances will only result in short-term changes before you adjust and invite the old you to return. Maybe that fifteen year old kid, the one with the lifelong friends, the stack of books books completed and absorbed, he’s still here, no matter how emphatically adulthood tries to ostracize him.

Strangely, I find all this somewhat comforting. If that kid isn’t going to make an exit anytime soon, maybe I still have time for a few more.

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Filed under Personal, Serious

What Is ‘Semi-Industrial’ Food?

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One thing that fascinated me when I was in Portugal was the ubiquity of the ‘Pastelarias’, the little cafes—one espresso machine, four or five wooden tables, pastries behind glass—on nearly every corner.

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But the ubiquity wasn’t the most interesting thing about them, it was the uniformity.

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Each of them appeared to be an independent business. They didn’t have the same brand name or the same décor.

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What they did have, though, was the same pastries. Not, like, a similar selection. The exact same pastries. Same size, same shape, same flavors, same perfect little char-marks on the custard, everything.

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It wasn’t til I saw the same pastries in a grocery store that I started to get curious about what was going on. Most of these little hole-in-the-wall bakeries aren’t big enough for proper baking equipment, and seem understaffed as it is.

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I was convinced that all these cute little bakeries were actually frauds, they were getting shipments of pastries from some suburban warehouse every morning, putting them in the window, tricking me into thinking they’re all charming and artisanal.

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I imagined some vast conveyor belt near a suburban motorway. Chinese workers sweating into hairnets, mechanically charring an endless line of snack-size custards.

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It turns out it’s not as bad as that. In a random bookstore I came across a coffee table book called ‘The Design of Portuguese Semi-Industrial Confectionery’, and I learned some things:

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First, Portugal not only has the highest number of food establishments per capita, but also has the highest percentage of people who eat breakfast outside the home every day. This is why, I eureka’d, it’s the only European country I’ve been to where cafes are open before 8am.

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Second, there’s not some beltway warehouse making millions of pastries every morning and trucking them into the city. It turns out there’s a standardized baking school curriculum, and a strict licensing regime for confectionery makers.

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Not only that, but a lot of the pastries are made with powders and mixes (even the eggs, ew), minimizing the time and skill required to make them.

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These three things—high demand, standard methodologies and effort-free production—mean pastries are a viable and profitable business model.

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Due to the country’s history as a trading post where a lot of these recipes originated (the book’s version was that when Portugal Inquisitioned out the Jews starting in the 16th century, they all went to Vienna and became bakers), this business model is supported by government policies on opening hours, licensing, taxes, etc.

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If you’re gonna pick something for government subsidies and high standards, you can do worse than pastries. Still, I don’t know if bags of Bisquick and buckets of egg whites are any more edifying than a giant suburban croissant factory.

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The sustainable food movement wants to increase the availability of food that is ‘local’, ‘handmade’, ‘fresh’. These pastries are all of those things, at least technically, but there’s something about the process that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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Metaphorically speaking, I mean. Literally, the taste they leave in my mouth is delicious.

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But maybe that, more than anything, is what foodies should be afraid of.

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Filed under Food, Personal, Pictures, Travel

On Quitting My Job

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Last week I was in Lisbon for work.

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Well, one day for work. I went the weekend before and walked around before I had to get my game face on.

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This is my last business trip for my current job. I put in my notice last week.

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They say changing jobs is as traumatic as losing a loved one or getting a divorce.

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I’ve never had either of those things happen to me, so I have nothing to compare this to.

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Lisbon is a good place to walk around and ruminate.

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The city is basically a series of hills, installed to allow it to view itself.

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Even the locals look impressed.

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For about 300 years, the Portuguese were a major European power.

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Profitable pillaging, royalty in the tabloids, franchises in Asia, Africa, the Middle East.

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At the time, Portuguese people must have thought it would go on forever. Conquest, expansion, power, wealth. Just follow the trend line from past to present to future.

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Then in 1755 an earthquake shook Lisbon to the ground.

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The empire never quite recovered. While Lisbon rebuilt itself, it lost its colonies to resistance, competition, neglect.

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Now, for all its charms, Portugal is a minor power, alone, its former colonies still speaking its language, but no longer singing its anthems.

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I was in Portugal to have meetings, shake hands.

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Knowing it would be the last time didn’t make me do it any different.

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‘Looking forward to working together’, I would say, realizing later I was lying. 

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My boss asked me why I was leaving, and I told him ‘I think I’ll be happier doing something else’.

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and he said, ‘You’re young enough for that to be a good reason. But just.’

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I’ve got a bunch of projects lined up, but nothing permanent.

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When I tell people I quit, the first thing they say is ‘You’ll be fine!’

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I think that’s true. This weekend, looking outward from Portugal, it sometimes felt true too.

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I’m not afraid for my future, or of it. I just wonder if that’s what you think right up until the ground starts to shake.

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Things I Thought While Hanging Out at a Fancy Spa

Yesterday I spent all day at a fancy spa. I’ve never done this before (a birthday was involved), so the day ended up being a kind of experiment to see if I’m the kind of person who might in the future.

Here are my findings:

  • Spas, as a business model, seem to be primarily about positioning. The spa we went to had a bunch of hot tubs, some saunas, a ‘steam bath’ (I felt like broccoli) and a big pool so salty you float . It was all very pleasant, but at least three of those things are readily available at municipal pools all over Berlin. A spa day costs $30, entrance to a swimming pool costs around $4. We paid, essentially, to say we went to a spa rather than a swimming pool. 
  • Since this is Germany, the nakedness was mandatory and ubiquitous. The norm at spas seems to be: If you’re sitting or otherwise stationary, you must be naked. If you’re in motion, you must be wrapped in a towel. I don’t care to speculate as to why this is the case.
  • After living in Northern Europe for eight years, my relationship with nudity has gone through phases. When I first moved to Denmark, I was like ‘I could never go to a sauna oh my god me naked is horrifying.’ Then I did, then I did again and again and again (you get invited to saunas a lot when you live in Denmark) and I got used to it and started to sort of like it. That freedom nudists are always talking about is a real, if fleeting, thing. Then that wore off, and now I’m just indifferent. Naked, not naked, whatever. 
  • I am aware of the irony that my comfortableness being naked is, as I get older, negatively correlated with how good I look being so. 
  • The only thing I actually like about nakedness-mandatory situations at this point is looking at other people. Maybe I’m not supposed to like admit that or whatever, but the human body is totally fascinating. The diversity of proportions alone is worth a coffee table book, or at least a Tumblr.
  • The only that really surprised me about the bodies yesterday was how much plastic surgery was on display. Lots of inflated lips, tucked tummies, stationary boobs. I may be the first naked gay man to say to another naked gay man ‘oh my god: these tits’ in a semi-public setting.
  • And another thing: It’s genuinely meaningful that no matter where you go in Berlin, you’re likely to see gay canoodling. Yesterday the big salty pool was primarily peopled with couples holding each other and floating around like slow-motion bumper cars. Some of the couples were straight, some were lesbians, some were gay dudes. No one seemed to notice or care.
  • The other reason the gayness stood out for me is that it was really the only thing you can tell about naked people. Without clothes to tell you someone’s social class or category—goth, chav, rich prick, hipster, etc.—you really don’t have anything to go on. I was alarmed at how disconcerting I found this, and at the relief I felt when I realized I could use eyewear, flip-flops and reading material to categorize people. Phew.
  • It’s sort of funny how spas have this quasi-therapeutic framing. You often hear people (OK, northern Europeans) talk about how sitting in the sauna all day ‘pushes out toxins’ and is ‘cleansing’, as if those concepts exist and have meaning. 
  • Part of the package yesterday was a massage, and my masseuse, thumb-deep in my kidneys, kept saying things like ‘oh you have so much tension here’. When I told her I was a runner, she told me she’d pay special attention to my legs to ‘loosen them up’. Spending a Sunday in the sauna is a super-pleasant, and massages are objectively the best thing ever, but I think the health benefits are less based in scientific evidence and more based in the human need to think that anything weird and slightly taxing must have a purpose beyond itself.
  • I don’t know if this is related to the previous point, but after six hours I was exhausted. Exhausted like I had just run up a hill, rather than sat in various configurations of warm water underneath one. And so ravenous!  

Conclusion: Hella fun, hella doing this again. Just next time, I’m bringing higher-class flip-flops.

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Romania Wasn’t Built In a Day Either

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Last week I was in Bucharest, Romania.

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It sounds all exotic. Dracula! Dictatorship! Problematic EU accession! But really, it’s just a normal city. Restaurants, traffic, outlet stores, teenagers in trackpants drinking cider at bus stops.

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I basically sat in cafes all week, watching it go by out the window.

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The only actual like Thing I did was visit the Parliamentary Palace.

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Which is apparently the second biggest building in the world, after the Pentagon. It’s basically the size of Rhode Island, and just as superfluous.

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Ceausescu started building it in 1983. The idea was to have the whole Romanian Communist Party working in one place. He also built big residences next door so everyone could live in one place too. If this sounds like a good idea to you, you have never had a job.

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Ceausescu was overthrown (and executed on national TV!) on Christmas Day 1989. The building wasn’t finished yet, so the new government had to decide what to do with it.

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Most of it is grand corridors and rock-hard ballrooms. Great for a wedding or corporate conference, but not so great for the 98 percent of your life that is not those things.

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By the time the new, democratic government took over, the country had already fed billions of euros, millions of man-hours, to this beast. Our tour guide told us these are the world’s heaviest curtains. And we told him that is the world’s least interesting fact.

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The new government couldn’t just walk away from something 80 percent finished. So they basically said ‘haters to the left’ and kept building.

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Now only about 70 percent of it is used, and it costs millions of euros every year to maintain. They’re constantly criticized for the cost, the waste, the sheer pointlessness of it all.

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The rest of my time in Bucharest I spent repeatedly realizing how happy I am not to be a politician.

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You work your whole life to get into the halls of power, then when you finally do, you find they’re full of unruly foster kids.

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Messes you didn’t make, but have to clean up.

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Suddenly a cafe window seemed like a pretty good place to be.

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Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

Getting Circumcised at 22

Josh:
oh, so something significant happened today

Mike:
yaaa?

Josh:
but it’s happened, so you need to contain your judgement
i got circumcised

Mike:
youre kidding

Josh:
it’s always bothered me. even when i was in foreskin-rich denmark
made me self-conscious, and made it hard for me to have sex

Mike:
like, logistically or aesthetically?

Josh:
logistically
i had like a lot of foreskin. enough to make a condom like work its way off 

Mike:
but don’t they say getting circumcised reduces feeling?
or something?

Josh:
yeah. they do, and I expect that
but i mean, my inability to get off was not because there wasn’t enough sensation
it was just because the really sensitive tissue was getting covered up

Mike:
ahhh
what did the docs say about pros n cons?

Josh:
i mean, nothing really. he told me about the surgical risks
rare but horrifying
gangrene, accidental amputation of penis, etc
and it’ll be swollen for a while
it wasn’t that painful tho. like, a lot of fucking needles
but i didn’t feel a thing from the actual cutting

Mike:
You cant have sex for awhile I expect

Josh:
no, not for a month or so

Mike:
what do people say who’ve had the procedure?
like online n stuff

Josh:
ppl seem generally satisfied if they wanted it
less so if it was like, an emergency

Mike:
so it’s a good thing!
will your boyfriend notice any difference?

Josh:
I mean, yeah i should think so
he was anti at first
thought if it wasn’t broke, don’t fix it
but he realized it was important to me

Mike:
it sounds like it was objectively broke

Josh:
yeah i guess just not broke like, i didn’t have phimosis
i am concerned i am gonna get super hormonal or something
from not having sex for so long tho

Mike:
can you fandangle yourself in the meantime?
I guess not, right

Josh:
not for at least 2 weeks, maybe longer

Mike:
I wonder if you’ll be like WAY productive
Like, write a novel and learn French and do a million pushups because sex isn’t an option

Josh:
yeah i locked off all my porn
i need to wait till the bandage is off at least
i have to keep that on for 10 days

Mike:
will there be scars?

Josh:
yeah it’s hella wrapped up right now
there may be some scarring, but this dude is the fucking best
which is why it costs $2500 out of pocket

Mike:
woah

Josh:
and i had to travel
but i feel like I don’t want to fuck around with this
this is my dick, i want the best

Mike:
hella prudent, son

Josh:
yeah i could have had it done locally for like $600
but seriously some of those adult circumcisions look REALLY bad
like railroad track scars
uneven skin, etc

Mike:
do you get to choose like how much skin they take off?

Josh:
yeah, i showed my like desired outcome
that was the other big deal about going to a specialist
if you go to a local urologist, they just have the way they do it
and you don’t really get a say
so yeah, i have confidence in this place

Mike:
is it a circumcision-only clinic?

Josh:
no, but they do a lot. a couple hundred a year
urologist. does the usual urology stuff too
vasectomy, prostate stuff
all the male employees except for the doctor were gay
and the one who was like prepping me
was using this iodine stuff that’s like orange?
and he’s like, “this’ll have some dye to it, sorta orange, it’ll match your pretty lil hair”

Mike:
super appropriate

Josh:
i know
but he actually put me at ease
even tho he was kinda hitting on me
like he talked about his boyfriend
and asked how mine felt, etc

Mike:
ok that’s nice
he’s one of Our People

Josh:
he did make the whole thing a lot easier
if inappropriate
he also let me take a pic
of the foreskin after the procedure
and offered to put it on a “to-go” container
i declined

Mike:
ew ew ew ew ew ew
I see that you have stopped typing
You had better not be uploading that photo right now
seriously
DO NOT send me it now or ever

Josh:
it’s really not that gross

Mike:
again: DO NOT upload the photo of the foreskin
I need to die never having seen that

Josh:
it kind of looks like a thin piece of seitan

Mike:
nope, I’ll trust you, never wanna see it

Josh:
but i wanted like some record of it, you know?
not preserved in a jar
but something
that thing served me for 22 years

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Filed under America, Funny, Gay, Personal