Monthly Archives: June 2013
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.’
‘Advertise here’ billboards are nothing new, of course, but what amazes me about these is that each one is different.
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.
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.
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.
The problem with visiting Denmark in May is that it makes you think you regret leaving.
I moved to Berlin almost exactly two years ago. Last week, I visited Copenhagen for four days, the longest I’ve been there at a stretch since 2011. The buildings were adorable, the sun was slanty, the locals were height-weight proportionate, I started to have moments like ‘why did I ever leave this magical place?’
Then reality kicked in and I realized why I left and I would never move back.
On Friday night, on my way home from dinner, 9 pm, 10 tops, I biked past three different groups of people carrying someone too drunk to walk. Sure, it was Friday, and fine, if I lived in a country whose most famous export was Aqua I’d probably be drinking too, but get it together, Denmark.
One of the reasons I quit drinking three years ago was how normal it is here, how essential for basic social life to function, how acceptable Danes find slurred Fridays and slept-through Saturdays. All week no one spoke to me, not even to hold a door open or say pardon me. After 10 pm, with grandpa-breath and teetering, they won’t shut up.
Which brings me to…
The Social Culture
One of the things I was looking forward to about my little trip was visiting all my old haunts, places I used to drink coffee or smoke shisha or—OK, those are basically the only things I ever did when I lived here. But anyway, I visited my old cafes and everything looked exactly the same, right down to the baristas, but there was never a flicker of recognition, never an acknowledgement that I came to these places regularly for years.
Then I remembered that at the coffee place closest to my house, the one I went to probably twice a week for two years, no one ever once remembered me, never once remembered my order, asked me if I lived nearby. I would sometimes try to start it off, all ‘how’s business?’ after I ordered my same old Americano. We would chat for a few minutes, then next time I came in it was Memento, no recognition, no ‘Americano, right?’ After awhile I stopped bothering. Six years into this country, I realized that resignation, that learned misanthropy, is called ‘being Danish’.
Ahhh, Denmark, the Mississippi of Europe. While living here I was constantly confronted by casual ugliness (‘you’re visiting Turkey? But it’s full of Turks!’), bone-headed public policy (If you want to marry a Dane and get a visa to live here, you have to speak Danish and your spouse has to pay a $10,000 bond), and Mad Men-era political discourse (one of the political parties ran an ad this year that published the names of all the foreigners who had been granted Danish citizenship with the tagline ‘One person on this list is a danger to Denmark’s security’).
Just in the four days I was visiting, two friends told me about ethnically motivated beatings that had taken place in their neighborhoods and two other friends told me they were moving to the suburbs because the local schools didn’t have enough white kids left. Another friend got mugged recently, and the first question everyone asked when he told them was ‘were they black?’
This shit is exhausting. Sometimes living here is like following your Republican friends on Facebook.
There’s nothing more depressing than living somewhere no one wants to be. Expats in Denmark are so miserable that the government launched a state-funded website specifically to create diversions (singles nights, English book clubs, flat landscape appreciation societies) to make living here more bearable.
But expat unhappiness in Copenhagen is so dense, not even light can escape. Get three expats together and it’ll be about six minutes before it descends into variations on the gripes I’ve just named (and I didn’t even get to the weather!). Get two together and they’ll you their secret plans to move back home, maybe start over again somewhere as rosy as Denmark once seemed. Get one alone and he’ll tell you he’s desperate to leave, but the jobs are too good, the romantic partners too perfect.
Yeah yeah, I’m being too harsh. Every country has problems, Denmark’s are just different from the ones I grew up used to. Overall, Denmark is quiet, introverted and socialist, my three favorite things. Also, if I ever want to spend a weekend being drunk, mean and discriminatory, at least now I know where to go.