Sunday, 11 October 2015

Why I Love the Refugee Hospitality Club

There is a Facebook group, Helsinki based, that I’ve been a member of for a number of years. It formed when a couple of central Helsinki neighbourhoods were about to receive refugee reception centres (meaning that the asylum seekers live there too), and the expected NIMBY reaction ensued. The YIMBY counter reaction in turn meant that people began to do spontaneous things for and with the new residents. Pauliina Seppälä was one of the founders of the Facebook group and started it because she noticed asylum seeker kids on the football ground wanting to play. She got her son and other neighbourhood kids to play with them - the whole idea of the group was to initiate similar small actions that were kind and engaging. Some did art projects or film showings. Several of us started to collect clothing for the folks there as needed, especially as the weather changed. It was completely low key, contingent, peer-to-peer. Pauliina and others (sorry, I don’t know everyone’s names but they are no less competent and sensitive) were and are amazingly proficient at letting this action go while gently steering or prodding or nudging action where and when it is deemed useful. She later went on to found the crowdfunding cultural platform Mesenaatti with Tanja Jänicke. (And I in turn have funded a couple of things there.) 

A couple of years ago I was with some expat friends, mainly mothers, and the topic turned to volunteerism. One friend wanted to start volunteering with her pre-teen daughter to stimulate thoughts of societal responsibility and open up her world a little more. She was asking for advice. Some of the women were active in organized charities that were helping families in need, for example, families with very sick children. I think I brought up the example of another friend I knew who was visiting the refugee centres with the Red Cross and performing some needed tasks. That made me think of the Refugee Hospitality Club, which I brought up enthusiastically. It didn’t really get taken up though, by the women… too complicated, maybe, too time-consuming to start creating your own volunteer programme. 

Later I came to think of this conversation when I was watching some mindless American TV show where some character was volunteering in a soup kitchen. It started to really bother me, this nice, neat packaging, and branding, of altruism. It is something I see as *very* American - not European really at all. (Well, unless perhaps by the upper middle class in Europe.) Well-meaning, of course, yes, and generative of positive impacts too, surely, but doesn’t much of this volunteer packaging just legitimize the inequality that leads to the need for volunteerism in the first place? If my friend and her daughter go and do their regular Tuesday night volunteering, they can assuage their middle class guilt, go on and live in their middle class bubble the rest of the week, never truly engage with the problem as it is - nor truly with the people that remain behind the label of ‘needy’. What if, instead, they would put their heads together, maybe with a few of the daughter’s friends, and come up with a couple of fun events at the reception centre? A baking session with all the women, or a sewing circle? Maybe they would need to enlist the help of a translator, maybe not. The activities could be the same over time - or they could redesign their interventions every time, and the planning of them would entail part of the work. I would find that much more ‘authentic’ and fulfilling - even while I do very much recognize the extra time this may take and that we are *all* very time pressed, especially working mothers with school children.

At least I see design students jumping into this kind of activity with ease and enthusiasm - and rarely with hesitation. They grab a mentor when needed to ensure some responsibility and governance; sometimes they get study credits for their interventions - sometimes they just do it for the experience. It’s a pity we have compartmentalized our lives so strictly that everything we do needs to be branded, commodified, packaged for easy comprehension and easy use, every layer of which removes us from the experience itself - the meaning of what we are doing. 

The p2p world is not easy access. The thresholds are not necessarily low even while the door is always unlocked by default. Some of the grassroots cultural organizations in Helsinki stage very interesting events and festivals - and they are usually run in a rather organic way. Seminars are always Bar Camp or Unconference style; festivals are built up in etherpads by many individuals contributing in many different ways. It sometimes makes attending challenging. When should I show up? And where?? I even tried to invite some of the suburban mothers to some of these events - which went over like a lead balloon, as I knew it would.

Earlier this year, the water that had been simmering in the pot for so very long finally boiled over and thousands and thousands of people began to show up on European shores (if they were lucky) in boats and rafts. I have trouble imagining the numbers or how authorities are managing to cope further south. Hundreds have made their way this far north, many entering through Lapland, something I find simply astounding. Temporary reception centres have been popping up all over the city; the Refugee Hospitality Club more than doubled its members in just a couple of weeks. I was following it sometimes in the evenings - people posting the wish to help, others posting the needs for clothing in a certain centre, yet another announcing the training times for volunteers. RHC noticeably stuck to their idea of doing small measures like playing football with the kids, but the moderators were busy grouping posts and sorting information (difficult to do on a Facebook timeline) to make it easy for people to find what they needed. To me, Pauliina and her colleagues really showed their skills as they gently guided this p2p outpouring of support, moderating the group, keeping all members’ focus on what RHC was and what it wasn’t, and directing people to the right channels for action. 

It became apparent that p2p was not the thing to do first now. Reception centres became clear about what they needed and from whom, and the Red Cross became the best route for people who wanted to do *something*. It didn’t become packaged per se, but the sheer numbers of migrants (and the need to protect traumatized people from mobs of well-meaning Finns) just necessitated some top-down action. It has been extremely interesting even while distressing to think we have come to this. 

As soon as RHC started to heat up and the group’s membership began to explode, I began to fear that this enthusiasm would be too short lived. An outpouring of support and then, as soon as the culture shock really begins to kick in, the winter sets in, the limbo of the asylum seekers’ situation stretches into an increasingly uncertain future… the supporters are no longer there. They have returned to their middle class warm homes and well clothed and well educated children. I think, in fact, that *that* is when we will see the strength of grassroots initiatives like RHC: the people who have been there for a while are still there. When the masses have disappeared, the small initiatives and tiny acts of kindness can begin again - maintaining a sense of continuity and enduring support and recognition of the incomers’ plight. Discussions are still going on; clothes are still being collected especially as the temps have dropped to below zero. People from the reception centres themselves have actually found the group and have posted notes of hello, wanting to make friends. It is heart warming. 

I guess I have lived in welfare states for too long to ever be a libertarian or a true anarchist. P2P movements and the ‘social services’ they provide should never allow governments to corrode their basic responsibilities to citizens, in my view. But as we seem to be drifting into some bizarre jobless future, where we will have to design our own lives and jobs afresh as often as needed, the need for skills in social networking appears inevitable - and directly related to sustainability. As crisis replaces stability, only p2p movements will be able to move quickly enough to respond. This will be the unpackaged, unbranded, de-commodified, pre-designed life. Are you ready?

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

My letter to the city committee discussing Vartiosaari today

Dear committee members

I am a long-time resident of Helsinki; this issue is so important to me that I must express myself in English, my first language, rather than poor-grammar Finnish. I’m sure you understand. 

I urge you to consider any decisions you make regarding Vartiosaari and putting housing there. I have had trouble understanding how this option has any benefits at all, financially, logistically and infrastructurally, culturally, practically. It has been presented to Helsinki citizens as if there are no other options, and I find this hard to believe and it means that any future message that comes from decision-makers I must take with extreme scepticism. I truly wonder what it is that Helsinki planning wants to achieve for Helsinki citizens, including future citizens. 

There have been debates and hand-wringing about the housing problem in Helsinki for almost as long as I can remember. I understand this. But housing on Vartiosaari? I find this completely bizarre. It is a site of significant biodiversity, geographically and environmental-culturally unique - to the point that those of us who want to save it from bridges and parking lots tend to over-romanticize its very special beauty. The blasting and plundering it would take to actually build housing there, and streets, and streetlights, and bridges, and the infra for water and sewage… does this make any financial sense at all? If you tell me there are no other options, well, I simply cannot believe you. 

I feel I’m being hoodwinked. It’s not a word I use in English much, I guess in Finnish it would be houkuteltu (huiputtaa, hämäta). Bulldozed into accepting decisions that do not enhance city life but just make things easier for a few. At worst, decisions that provide opportunities for an elite to get want they want (housing by the shore, benefitting the residents who can afford it, as well as the property developers). 

We already saw this in Töölönlahti, an aesthetic and functional disaster-scape of architectural drabness benefitting only large corporations. This is what happens when someone views a site as only lines on a 2D map - a ‘blank slate’. I will take visitors to Töölönlahti when I want to show them a city-like-any-other, a non-descript anytime-anywhere metropolis with no pride in its tangible assets who is ready to sell out to the highest corporate bidder. I will take visitors to the future Vartiosaari when I want to show them what happens when decision-makers are not courageous enough to think things out and work things out with neighbourhoods (regarding, e.g. the design of sensitive, clever in-fill). 

Helsinki is a forerunner in many ways. It can be also in solving the housing problem. Paving over Vartiosaari is the easy way out. We’re better than that.

signed, me

UPDATE. The item on the committee's agenda to develop Vartiosaari according to the city's plan was passed by a vote of 7 to 2. One of those 2 committee members actually emailed me back, saying she tried her best. I greatly appreciate that email, considering that the committee members must have received loads of mails. The Save Vartiosaari Facebook group was imploring people to write: it wasn't too late. There was a flash mob organized aimed to galvanize. 
Maybe it still isn't too late. Maybe something can be salvaged from this farcical process.

I have a few too many things always going on, so committing to a cause is hit and miss. One could follow me for a couple of years and do a study on how people take up causes - or don't. There's a Symbolic Interactionist PhD in there somewhere. Vartiosaari has been on my radar, but it didn't hit the centre of the screen until I went there last year for Camp Pixelache and it completely stole my heart. (As it does.) Hanging out with a couple of people busting their butts with all kinds of campaigns to save the island has coaxed me out of my researcher's cave. Unfortunately it also brings to mind the fiasco of the Makasiinit, another cause that I co-fought to save, joining the thousands in a human chain around the building (Wikipedia article in English here). (Oh, pangs just looking at that photo of the Makasiinit burning.) Ah, let's not go down that pessimistic path just now. 

So Vartiosaari is a very special island in Helsinki's very special archipelago. Helsinki is built on a peninsula and it feels like the city wants to creep like a mercury blob further and further out to sea. This relationship to the sea defines Helsinki. Its wonderful coastline is for the most part the city's playground and communal summer house. There are almost-secret sailing club restaurants and grilling places dotted along here and there; islands sprinkled with tiny little wooden cabins; right in the south of the city, people promenade in the Helsinki version of the paseo, buying ice cream, walking their dogs, checking out all the sailboats, stopping for a glass of wine. In the winter people take to the ice (while there was still ice thick enough to walk on, in those nostalgic pre-2° days) - walking or skiiing or skating along the coast or from island to island. 
Many of these islands are built up and are reached by motorway and bridge, in such a way that you forget what is island and what is mainland. It all becomes just 'city'. But Vartiosaari is only reached by boat or ferry and there are a only a few wooden houses on it. It is notably richly biodiverse and geographically - well, impressive. Its special character is quite well explained in English here

Helsinki is now suffering from a housing crisis. It seems to be a long-term illness, considering how long I've been hearing about it and how helpless decision-makers appear to be in the face of it. Wailing and waving their hands. After we heard the committee's decision, one of the active Save members wrote that - for those Green Party members who voted to continue to develop Vartiosaari - It's green to build tram lines, two huge bridges, infrastructure, roads, water and sewage pipes, electricity and flats for 7000 people in the middle of Helsinki's most valued island, which boasts nature like Nuuksio National Park and views like Koli National Park.

I mean, seriously. You'd think that Finland had run out of land like it's an inventory sale. You'd think we were living in Hong Kong or something. 

Photo credit Christian Westerback, Helsingin Sanomat, as seen here.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Truth is stranger than science fiction

Tesla's recent launch of the Powerwall just seems like total science fiction, doesn't it? I don't mean the thing itself, although that is worth the amount of social media attention it's getting, and it will be absolutely fascinating to follow, but I mean the aesthetics of the little performance.
The logo on the device. Elon Musk's weird name and his youth. His good looks and charisma, which verges on creepy. His penchant for pumping out offspring (my knowing that based on reading the Wikipedia article).
Tobias Revell tweeted that the Powerwalls look like a row of riot shields. So true!

(I'm getting old. Need to change this font size to Large. You're welcome.) 




Sunday, 26 April 2015

More pain and tribulation

Hey, blog. It’s been a while. I started this blog so I could vent, about injustice, ugliness, the tyranny of uniformity. Explore what it is we seem to be doing, in tiny peer-to-peer grassroots movements, wonder where we’re heading. Bitch and moan about personal stuff like back pain. Internet trolls. Addiction to social media. The lack of time to read a novel. (I know, that isn’t the blog description, but sometimes you just need an outlet.) 

But it seems there have been other channels for all this venting and pondering and bitching, whether in publications or in the pub with friends. Thank dog for friends. 

Still, no matter how lovely and supportive my friends and family are, and how much we laugh together until our stomachs hurt, there is a pit of black stuff deep down that just doesn’t shift. Most days I can forget it’s there, and life is full of moments of small and large joys, intellectual challenges to meet and conquer, or not, piercing aesthetic experiences like the soft fog on the bay in the early early morning with a cup of coffee and hot buttered toast beckoning on the other side of the bridge. Amsterdam in the dead of winter after dark, street lights reflecting in the canals and on the corners of the wet cobblestones. A glimpse through a window of a black wooden table and dinner guests coming in the door. Barcelona in summer, a sharp white wine and supper at 11 pm after a long, long, thrilling day, children still playing outside and shrieking their summer delight. Mexico City in spring, getting served the ‘special’ coffee by the most elegant host in her most charming home, just blocks from the Frida Kahlo museum. Sitting on my hands because of my grubby, ungroomed fingernails, feeling like I’m 12. 

The pain I wrote about in a previous post is past; I am reminded of it sometimes in a dull ache or a numb throb when I’ve overdone something like hoovering or sitting too long in a stupid position or standing for ages at the stove cooking something complicated. When it was at its worst, it was as if there was a long long string of barbed wire running through my ankle, and someone had one end of it and was drawing it out of my leg slowly, excruciatingly. There was no position to take, no way to physically shift, that relieved me or lessened the feeling of a ripping, shredding through my flesh. 

It’s hard to imagine that pain could be worse. I know, I know, I haven’t experienced childbirth, so I’m being an overdramatic narcissist. 

Then there is a brand new type of pain you thought you would never know, the kind that sneaks up on you and smashes you on the head with one fierce and stupefying metaphorical Joe Orton blow, when your life’s love, your soulmate, the only man you ever loved, the one you were going to grow old with, when he tells you he doesn’t want to live with you anymore. This is the kind of thing that happens to other people, not to you. You start walking through the world like a dog with a cone on her head. People start to back away from you like you have something infectious. You pack boxes. Lots of boxes. You pack them alone. You want to leave thousands of thumbtacks on the floor when you leave. Instead you leave a gift-wrapped birthday present on the sideboard for the oldest boy. (Later you learn that he isn't given it until three months after his birthday.) You and the movers carry out boxes to the moving truck. No one is at home - everyone has stayed away. You climb in the moving truck between the movers and tell them you are going to cry. They shrug. You weren’t able to say goodbye to the dog. 

I was in your arms
Thinking I belonged there
I figured it made sense
Building me a fence
Building me a home
Thinking I'd be strong there
But I was a fool
Playing by the rules

You live with the pain for a year. You remove all traces of him to protect yourself. You surround yourself with laughter and beauty and music and books and the goodness of friends, and the stimulation of work. You look deep inside yourself to reach your inner strength and try to figure out your new identity. You do yoga and meditation. You cook yourself tasty meals and make yourself cheesecake. You create, you sing (out of tune), you dance (listing, like an old ship), you take long walks along strange streets in strange cities. You start to do things you never did before. You think you’ve killed all your houseplants when you were travelling for so long, but they start to revive and it seems like they are saying hello to you again. You rekindle old friendships and you spark up new ones, and you learn to like living alone. You hug your divorced friends and they hug you back. They send you short lines of encouragement by email. Keep well. Keep strong. And you do. Then you hear a song by ABBA or Patsy Cline and you crumble to the floor and sob until the salt stings your cheeks. Your hair turns even greyer and the lines around your eyes no longer disappear when you stop smiling. 

Strange, you changed like night and day
Just up and walked away
When she came along
Oh, how strange

You knew this was a part of life. Love is heartbreak. You knew this is the foundation of songs and films. Men are always 24 hours from Tulsa. You saw all kinds of divorces around you. You knew in the abstract that others were suffering, that what you were walking over unseen and unheard in some people’s homes were the remains of their hearts. Some cleaved through, others shattered in tiny pieces, some just a little bruised. But it was impossible to really know that pain, to be able to acknowledge it beyond some yearning or a connection to a common, human ache, at the end of Brokeback Mountain, say, or even, dare I admit it, Dr Zhivago. (Well, it was a long time ago when I saw it, I was young.) Doris Lessing wrote about it, I don’t remember the book. One of the later ones that are about families living in large houses in London with lots of children and their friends coming in and out of the kitchen with its vast table. The main character knows that someone at work is going through a divorce, but her pain is behind a curtain. NSFW. Stop that crying. Don’t show that hurt in your eyes. You’ll affect people’s productivity. They don’t need to be contaminated by your personal shit. Come on. Get a grip. It happens to everyone.

Hurt me now, get it over. 
You’ve got leaving on your mind. 

Got back in contact with an old friend after losing touch for a couple of years. About her divorce, the same kind of betrayal, it happened about 15 years ago, she writes, There will always be a hole in my heart. So maybe I shouldn’t have expected the open wound to heal over in only a year. Today I gave the side table in my entryway a good dusting and noticed that the small crack in the bottom has cloven into a rift, it’s probably so dry in here. It looks like continental plates that have shifted, but, unlike the earthquake I experienced in Mexico City where I stood in the doorway wondering what the heck to do, this was a silent and progressive fracturing. I wonder if the whole desk is going to split in half or if the top will keep it together. I wonder if I have healed, and I feel healthy and happy and I’m on top of the world, and then Sunday night comes and the clouds close in and the traffic murmurs outside, and John Grant sings,

I see you closing all the doors, 
I see the walls as they go up 

and I’m too agoraphobic to go out and too claustrophobic to stay in, and the salt dries on my cheeks while I sit paralysed, and I can’t change the song because of the pain but I don’t want to change the song because Grant’s voice makes me yearn. The laundry needs to be hung up to dry and I sit and look at it in its pathetic damp crumple.  

I don't know who I thought I was.
I guess I tried to love you because I thought I could afford
To take the risk and take a chance.
I do not know who I thought I was fooling.
I must have felt invincible in your arms
Like I could take the whole world on

The laundry needs to be hung up to dry so I finally get up and hang it on the rack and then I turn on the news and get into the shower so I can wash Sunday night away and get between the fresh clean sheets that smell like childhood and the future. 

But it's easier for me to believe that you are lying to me
When you say you love me and when you say you need me.
Yes, it's easier for me to walk away and get on with my life
If I believed that you were deceiving me,
If I believed that you'd be leaving me one day, be leaving me one day.

Tomorrow I will put on my clean Monday morning face and clean weekday clothes whose fibres have been rid of the old skin and decay; I’ll clean my inbox of the detritus and I’ll clean my desk of last week’s dust and I’ll clean my brain of the last bits of Sunday night’s maudlin squalor and I’ll open a fresh new clean sheet of Word and life will begin again. 

Friday, 26 July 2013

Top 5 Things My Mama Never Taught Me

To clarify, I was never raised as a girly-girl, and I'm pretty sure my mum (or mom, whatever you prefer) was not a girly-girl either. All that time and concentrated focus on grooming - hair, nails, accessories - not to mention the notion that females are there to attract male attention and boost male egos - no, not for me. I can lament my lack of ability to put on make-up in any competent way but it doesn't stop me from having fun, or even to attract male attention when I want to. I do despise those Inspirational Quotes and Ho Ho Humour pics that go around Facebook, but I do chortle at the ones poking fun at women's magazines and their persistent attempt to make us women feel inadequate. You know the ones: HOW TO GET A BIKINI BODY: PUT A BIKINI ON YOUR BODY.

And weddings. That's just another can of worms. I don't understand why a woman wants to spend so much money on one day, wearing a white dress that has, let's be completely honest, NO significance in the 21st century, being handed like chattel from one man (her father) to another (her future husband), and then having some shaman (that has, let's be honest, no significance in the 21st century) say - to everyone's absolute glee, "I now pronounce you man and wife." You're a wife while your little hubbie can still be a man and have other external relationships in society.

OK, enough moaning.

I must put in the disclaimer that my mama would surely and happily have taught me how to cook, and she certainly did all the cooking in the household like a traditional mother, but it just never came up because I never expressed the inclination. I never really got into foodism until my 30s. And now I'm addicted to episodes of Come Dine With Me.

Anyway. On to the list.  

5. Other woman: "Oh, your Mama used to make the best [insert name of Mama's famous dish]! Didn't she teach you how to make it??"
Um. NO.

4. Other woman: "I just love [insert ethnic heritage relevant dish that Mama often made]. Didn't your Mama show you how to make it?"

3. Other teenage girl: "You're still using pads? Didn't your Mama show you how to use tampons?"

2. Other woman, tucking in the tag of my shirt that had been sticking out: "My Mama always told me that women have to look out for each other."

and at number 1. Me: "When I shave my legs in the shower I always miss spots because I'm not wearing my glasses."
Other woman: "Didn't your Mama show you how to shave by feel?"
Yeah, RIGHT.

And now I'm trying to remember why on earth we were talking about leg shaving in the first place.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Pain and tribulation

What is it about debilitating pain that makes me come up with fake advertising slogans and twee memes? - It's not pain as much as a total lifestyle cramp. - Codeine. For where the caffeine can't reach.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Smart people and future-fear

This was circulating last week: Edge's annual question What *should* we be worried about? by 150 of the world's "smartest people" and especially Motherboard's synthesis

I won't point out the obvious (e.g. about 80% of the list were male, who also seemed to have mainly Anglo-Saxon names) (ok - I just did point out the obvious)... nevertheless, it makes truly compelling reading. 

For fun, here is a word cloud of Motherboard's list 

and here is one including the names and titles/affiliations

'Science' and 'technology' loom large, unsurprisingly, and 'unable', but 'won'?

Anyway, I'm happy there were plenty of physicists and editors involved.