Friday, August 31, 2007

A job and some hope

First week done at the office after holidays. You know, always after holidays it is easy to think that you just aren't not made for working. But after a few days it gets better. And if nothing else cheers me up at the office, my gigantic Disneyland coffee mug (Welcome to the Fabulous Disneyland Resort. Experience the happiest place on Earth!) makes the day.

I have also cheered my week by wearing my birthday present, original campaign badge from Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1968. It is sort of a hologram as you can see from the pic and it states: Kennedy for a better America. I think it is (insert Californian accent here) like the coolest thing like ever.

Robert Kennedy is my new hero. After seeing Emilio Estevez's film Bobby, I realised that I knew embarrassingly little about the Kennedy brothers and therefore I decided to improve my knowledge. And it was an investment worth making. Robert Kennedy's way of doing politics and way of speaking fascinates me. The US would have been quite different under his leadership - you don't see Bush quoting Albert Camus and Ancient Green playwrights that often. As journalist Jack Newfield states in the RFK book I am reading at the moment, Robert Kennedy was one of the very few American politicians who managed to connect with white working class, the blacks and the Washington elite. RFK was impatient, shy and at times even arrogant in his willingness for equality. I like that in politicians - too many "leaders" of our time lack his human qualities. And above all, he had dreams. In a TV interview I saw with him, he defined leadership as allowing people to perform at their best. I haven't heard much better.

"It's class, not color. What everyone wants is a job and some hope." - Robert F. Kennedy 1968 during the Indiana primary

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Stretch...and relax

Day #23: upward facing dog
Originally uploaded by j.lee43
Holidays do have their downsides, not many, but a few. One of them - at least for me - is that exercise does not even cross my mind when living my freedom to the full. And when the routine including the gym hits you in the chilly Amsterdam, it is not a pretty nor comfortable sight.

As my working day today stretched until seven, I decided to go straight from the office to the gym and to the Pilates class. I tried it for the first time a few weeks back and it was tough but fantastic. But going in with no training for weeks and a few visits to Fatburger in California led to the instructor asking me at one point:
"You seem very stiff. What have you been doing?"
"Nothing, I think that is the problem."
"Well, eating."

Pilates class is interesting. The stretches are so tough that people start unconsciously breathing really loud and hard. At first people find it a bit embarrassing and awkward but after the time the class sounds like a birth clinic. Funny indeed.

I have found this sporty type from myself only during the last few years. I absolutely hated sports in school as I managed to convince myself that the slightly stubby kid with thickest of the thick glasses was good only for being the pride and joy of the Finnish language teacher. I kind of regret it now that the way sports was taught in school made me take this long before I realised that by training regularly I could become good in something that I actually enjoy.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Unstuffy diversity

Originally uploaded by Guido van Nispen
My landing to Amsterdam after weeks of holidaying was a smooth one. Uitmarkt is a free festival offering a preview to next season's cultural programming in Amsterdam. Sunny weekend and Uitmarkt made it feel like still being abroad.

Weekend's highlight was the El Hema project by Dutch cultural new media organisation Mediamatic. Let me explain it in short in my own words:

HEMA is one of the key Dutch household brands offering beautifully designed products in low prices. I and most people living in the Netherlands adore HEMA. Somehow their design concept reminds me of IKEA - beautiful does not have to be expensive.

Mediamatic wanted to test with El Hema what an Arabic version of HEMA would look like - what would the logo, the advertising and the products. The exhibition designed into a HEMA shop offered smoked halal sausage, T-shirts, scarves, wine and such. They were clear in their communication -rightly so- that the project focused on the Arabic cultures, not on islam.

When HEMA found out about the project, they sued Mediamatic for abuse of their copyrighted concept. But the story led to a happy end when HEMA realised that Mediamatic's goal was artistic and not commercial and actually the project just showed the importance of HEMA to the Dutch. Mediamatic's Director Willem Velthoven told me on Saturday that the Head of Marketing of HEMA is now in the jury of the design competition, HEMA approves the project and is already considering taking some of the products made by the artists and designers into their collection.

I think Mediamatic has once again mastered addressing stuffy subjects like multicultural society in a fresh manner. The exhibition is popular, fun, beautiful and intelligent and open for visitors until 4 November. I loved Willem's practical idealism when people asked him about the future:"After the exhibition it is up to HEMA and others what happens. We need to move to the next project." I think he is right - there is need for people setting things rolling and people who implement the realisation.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Lessons in America

Originally uploaded by amsterboy
Trip to the land of the hopeful and the free is drawing towards its end. Some reflections on the discoveries on this fact-finding mission:

1. A soft drink in a restaurant should always include a refill. Best of all when your drink is replaced before you finish the last one.
2. The Economist was right: if you wish to understand America, you need to listen to country music.
3. Dependency on cars is not sustainable.
4. There are situations where awesome really is the right word - where British words like fab or brilliant just sound lame. I mean like when exiting Space Mountain in Disneyland.
5. The woman on the plane here who admired Mr Bush and his courage was right in one thing:"We are good and kind people we Americans."
6. I want to understand the United States. I find it inspiring how the American Dream is so strongly alive and the narrative keeps the beat up and going.
7. There is a point in air-conditioning.
8. Los Angeles region is fantastic. It has a beat that I have seldom experienced.
9. The Kennedy brothers are fantastic.
10. What's wrong with Starbucks?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Shut up and read

Breakfast in America
Originally uploaded by Ale*
I have been in the US now for more than a week and haven't posted a single thing linked to television. American television would turn me into a couch potato in a few days. Just the fact that in the house I am staying at they have something like 300 channels. I find it difficult to understand that someone can even concentrate on a programme without flicking through the others for something better.

By watching the current affairs TV programmes, one could easily think that the presidential elections are next week. From Meet the Press to Face The Nation they all concentrate on Hillary or not Hillary at the moment. Yesterday's Meet The Press (political journalists commenting on current affairs) one of the biggest topics was the decline in Barack Obama's popularity. The question these professionals were pondering was whether Hillary is starting to be unbeatable.

Ah yes, professionals. Yesterday's LA Times had one of those articles about professional commentators which I thought were already past times. Professor of Journalism Michael Skube from Elon University of North Carolina (Pulitzer winner) shared with us his concern for the way political discussion especially around the presidential elections is losing its quality. And his blaming finger - as a professional journalist - was pointing of course to blogs.

Some quotes from Mr Skube:
"One gets the uneasy sense that the blogosphere is a potpourri of opinion and little more. The opinions are occasionally informed, often tiresomely cranky and never in doubt." Skube also refers to blogging as "armchair commentary". He refers to a famous piece in a Washington Post in the following manner:"Such a story demanded time, thorough fact-checking and verification and, most of all, preseverance. It's not something one does as a hobby."

Just the obvious remarks to Mr Skube:

1. Have you checked what kind of scum and propaganda is on newsstands under the name of journalism?

2. Seeing the blogosphere as a unity is more than one would expect from a professor of journalism at a time when Senators, Editors-in-Chief and other professional journalists, Chairs of NGOs and researchers among many are blogging.

3. The whole blogging has to some extent challenged the idea of journalism as objective practice. I do agree with Mr Skube that our society needs more in-depth analytical discussion but to claim that can only be done by professional journalists is just silly. Many print journalists tend to think that print is superior to other media but just yesterday we saw at the Paley Center for Media (Museum of Television and Radio) how Sir David Frost mastered in interviews with Robert Kennedy, Muhammad Ali and Richard Nixon.

4. What would you suggest, Professor Skube? That bloggers would shut up? That politicians should stop listening to them? That we should all start writing for print journals? Where does your argument take us?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Right to drive

Originally uploaded by amsterboy
On this holiday driving a car has played a big role. Coming from Amsterdam it is stunning to be in a place where getting around would be nearly impossible without your own car. Lack of public transport is coupled with the sheer size of the city. Just getting across Los Angeles metropolitan area yesterday to Santa Monica and Venice Beach was 45 miles one way which equals to 50 minutes driving without traffic jams.

Halfway we decided to switch our radio station from one of the dozen soft rock stations to public service. In the news they had a piece on the new policy of Beijing for limiting the number of cars on the roads. The city preparing to host the Olympics is suffering from horrid air pollution and has therefore decided that cars with license plates with even last numbers can hit the road one day and cars with uneven numbering on the other. The policy introduced this week has cut the number of cars daily by a million. Air pollution is a serious risk not only for the citizens of the megacity: The International Olympic Committee has signaled that without a better air quality it might be that the long-distance running sports cannot be organised in Beijing.

In Los Angeles the solution is carpool lanes. It does not sound much to qualify for a carpool if you have 2 people in your car but when on the highway it is quite amazing how empty the carpool lanes are and how much time you save by taking it. You realise on the one carpool lane when looking at the four other lanes how much of the driving is done with one person per car. I found the Nordic in me thinking that this is a place for new government policy.

I remember seeing once a documentary about urban planning where they compared cities designed for horses and once for cars. This has its impact on the width of the road and the visual stimulants by the road. Los Angeles and most American cities are clearly designed for cars whereas most European cities can be experienced also by walking. My hometown Helsinki is somewhere in the middle.

Having said that, yesterday's trip to Santa Monica was amazing. Cute little shops in all imaginable colours, sunny beach, ferris wheel on the pier, skaters, surfers, cafes with only organic products, women with Botox lips and men talking on ther mobiles loudly about "his last film that sucked big time". California.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Don't forget the Super Shuttle girl

It is like a different country. I mean California compared to Texas. Today's stroll on the sunny Laguna Beach with the supertanned surfers and yesterday evening's fat-free frozen yoghurt at Golden Spoon in Irvine, Orange County is worlds away from the loud drunk named Ross floating down Guadalupe in a tube shouting "Yeehaa", the no-attitude openness or the steaks of mid-Texas. Even the slogans are from different worlds. When a shop in San Antonio sells T-shirts saying "Don't mess with Texas", even the font on the license plates in California communicates sun and chilling.

Our first encounter with the local was exciting. As we waited for our shuttle bus to Orange County, the girl handling the orders decided to brighten up her and our day with a chat. "Welcome to LA! You did not expect to run into a crazy black girl, did ya!" Or that is what I think she was saying. My education in Queen's English was leaving me in the cold with her thick accent.

In the 10 minutes of waiting she told us the story of her life. By now I am fully convinced that every American has a good story to share. Hers was a moving one but spiced up with Jennifer Hudson-like body movements and shaking of the head and hand. The Super Shuttle girl - as she called herself - had come to LA from New Orleans after Katrina, lost her uncle and aunt in the catastrophe and had been forced to stop her studies in medical assistance. But the American dream was relived again in her final remarks as we boarded our shuttle for the two-hour ride across town:"I am gonna get back to my studies but it is hard. But I tell you, I am gonna make it here. So you boys, I am telling you, don't you forget the Super Shuttle girl!"

She popped into my mind today while watching morning television. One of the 300 channels played once again the dumb-ass remarks of Barbara Bush as she was visiting the shelter for the Katrina victims:

"What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

Monday, August 13, 2007

Texan is a state of mind

Let's see. What did I know of Texas last week? Lemme think. Oil. Dallas. Cowboys. John Wayne. Rodeo. Country music. Stetson. Did I mention oil? Home of Bush. Cattle. Republicans. Guns.

Two days in Texas. One full day to go. What is Texas now? Breath-taking scenery. Christian radio stations. Vineyards. Some of the kindest and generous people I have ever met. "So you're a yankee? But you can become a Texan by just saying so." Beer. Tubing down the Guadalupe river (see picture). "I am not sure if joining the United States was a good idea." More than 40 degrees Celsius. Rufus Wainwright sweating like a pig performing Judy Garland songs in drag outdoors in the music capital of Texas. Air-conditioning. Democrat history. BBQ. Fireflies. Gasoline 1,99 dollars per gallon. Female governors. Fried okra. Taco Cabana. Y'all and you guys. "You speak five languages. Dear if I would speak five languages, I would get so mixed up in my head that I could not get a word out." Pride. Fish tacos and margaritas. Big Bend. 2 days in a car to get across the state of Texas.

They say often that Americans know little of the others and simplify too much. Dear, it goes both ways.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

This is what I call public service

The day has been spent packing. Tomorrow morning i am off to Texas and California for a holiday which I dare to say is well deserved. Even if Amsterdam is turning into a sunny city after all, I cannot wait to board Continental Airlines tomorrow. And how cool is this: I am flying to George Bush Intercontinental.

Gladly my American friend reminded me of checking my insurance policy. As we can see in the Presidential Debates, there is no such thing as universal health care - especially not for visitors like me.

Over lunch today I had a good chat with a friend of mine over public services. We were trying to compose a liberal political agenda consisting of compassion, certain universal services, empowerment of individuals and pure liberalism. The lunch was so inspiring that the debate will definitely continue.

The lunch date was good groundwork for the afternoon visit to the new main library of Amsterdam. One can only congratulate the City of Amsterdam for an excellent investment. Openbare Bibliotheek is a strong example what good public services are. It has a lot of chilling out areas, it has lots of light, it is free, it is multi-functional (classical books, huge DVD collection, café, study rooms, newspaper and magazine hall etc) and a beautiful location on the waterfront

I remember a Finnish MP who I value highly (Irina Krohn) said once cleverly that a public place is not one where you need money for a cafe latter. Openbare bibliotheek shows how to give your citizens genuine value for money.

Mr Mayor, today I am proud of being an Amsterdammer tax payer.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

My Finland

Haags Gemeentemuseum
Originally uploaded by pieter007
I made my way today to The Hague in order to see the retrospective of my favourite Finnish artist, Helene Schjerfbeck. Apparently the exhibition at Gemeente Museum is the biggest ever outside Scandinavia. I was expecting seeing the National Gallery collection but they had managed to compile works from a number of collections which offered new experiences even for a Finn.

Schjerfbeck is extraordinary just in the way that I have always loved in Finns. She is subtle, clear, modest and peaceful. Her works - especially the self-portraits - show an introvert approach to the world around her. In her paintings the background often disappears which allows the person to stand out in the full. Schjerfbeck stands the test of time. It is fascinating that in the beginning of 20th century her way of capturing ordinary women was perceived as radical and unappreciated. Now she is one of the few Finnish artists that actually is world class.

As my Italian friend pointed out in the exhibition:"You know, just think of it. A person isolated, introvert, not having children would be often seen as more a baggage than a contributor to the progress of our society. And this person who was seen as asocial has left behind this magnificent contribution to the society."

Monday, August 06, 2007

Sunny and proud

Originally uploaded by Geoff Coupe
After being quite convinced that the Queen had cancelled summer in the Netherlands, this weekend was a welcome breath of warm air. The heat wave coincided well with the second biggest event in Amsterdam (number one is Queen's Day), Canal Gay Pride. The police estimated that more than 350.000 people gathered mostly on the Prinsengracht canal to see the boats.

A Finnish friend of mine who works for a gay and lesbian organisation was in town for a seminar and she asked if I would like to join one of the boats of the Dutch gay and lesbian organisation COC. I instantly decided to give it a go and did not regret that for a second. It was fun with people mostly from the international projects of COC so the boat was filled with people from Poland, Armenia, Azerbaidjan, Kirgistan, Moldova and a bunch of other countries where being gay is still a risk and a struggle. It was nice to witness how much they enjoyed the boat ride in the sun through a cheering Amsterdam.

I heard from my friend that Amsterdam's Gay Pride is turning again slightly more political without losing its jolly tone. Fantastic event altogether.

Today was my first real holiday day. I must confess that I haven't done much. I stayed at home mostly with the terrace doors open, listened to music and read books. Every now and then I felt slight guilt for not doing anything but remembered usually rather quickly that hey, this is what holiday is about.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Abandon the dress, sister, we are going mountain biking

gay pride amsterdam
Originally uploaded by anthropia
As Amsterdam prepares itself for one of the biggest celebrations of the year, Gay Pride, an email of a friend of mine could not have come on a better moment. He sent me a link to Adventure in Manhood which offers extreme sports with other guys for men who wish to be cured from SSA, same-sex attraction. Pfff..... Googling the Arizona-based organisation brings out quickly the conservative Christian undertone. And apparently the gay...oh I am sorry, anti-gay....oh, sorry....SSA treatments work, says Chris:

"AIM increased my sense of belonging. Having men who don't have SSA on this weekend helped me to mimic their words, actions and beliefs. I believe this is what separates AIM from other weekends I've done. Just to feel accepted by other men and to see that they have the same worries and fears that I have."

In Amsterdam the canal cruise of the Pride boats gathers hundreds of thousands of viewers, straight and gay and whatever. It is adopted as part of what Amsterdam and rightly so. Pride is a fun event to witness. Sense of belonging can apparently be reached using other means as well.

I met yesterday a friend of mine who works for a gay and lesbian organisation and we talked about the concept of solidarity. During the Amsterdam partying it is fairly easy to forget that in many European countries similar events are regularly banned or taking part poses a great risk to personal safety.

It is somehow sad to see rather often gay men living in the affluent centre of Amsterdam who strongly distance themselves from the whole LGBT agenda and claim that they have never suffered any discrimination. Anti-immigration sentiments are not unknown.

For many the Pride is another excuse to party. And while there is nothing wrong in having a good party, it should not be forgotten that quite some people were beaten up before one can in 2007 in the centre of Amsterdam stand on a boat in a drag outfit and shout:"Freedom!"