Talking about the medium chill and leaving work early … but still paying the bills

I am always tempted to complain, because it is hard to admit that you have it almost perfect, but my work/life balance is almost perfect.  I work short days, with fairly interesting projects at my day job, and hours with my wife and kids and time to write at night.  Oh, and I get paid enough not to worry about repo men and foreclosure.

Thank you Sweden.  Now if only you would learn how to smile …

The medium chill: This is a story from Grist last year, and I love it.  It goes into all the difficulties humans have with stepping off the fast track, eliminating possibilities and walking away from prestige and money.  And it praises relationships and time with family, while being realistic about the annoyances of being a little short of cash.  Even here in Sweden, E and I reach for the medium chill – small apartment, summer cottage with no water, no car, old stroller, not working 100 percent.  And we gain so much.  A quote:

That’s what consumer culture forever tells us: more money/stuff/status means fewer constraints, more freedom, more choices, thus more happiness. The entire economy runs on spending and debt, and for that to work everyone needs to think they’re not happy but could be happy if they just had more sh*t or a better job or a better house. Every “consumer” needs to be running on the treadmill, working toward the next thing.

But social psychologists tell a different story. They point out that there’s very little evidence that, once a certain base level of material security is achieved, more money and stuff make us happier. Gilbert offers one explanation: having fewer choices is often more conducive to synthetic happiness.

Her Key to Efficiency, Arrive Late, Leave Early:  This story tells an expat tale from Paris of a woman who discovered that she was more efficient with shorter work days.  Yes!  Having only six hours to get my job done means I leave very little time for screwing around.  Of course, it puts the pressure on too, but I’ll take that if I can unwind in the sun with my kids every afternoon.  Plus, there was this interesting tidbit about Dads. Once again, I find I am not unique:

More interestingly, she found a third category of men, who were successful in terms of performance evaluations and compensation, but who actually worked fewer hours and were unavailable for the office on evenings, weekends and vacations. These men subtly and skillfully chose the projects and clients that would allow more flexibility – and surrounded themselves with kindred spirits who would cover for one another. But they had also learned that it was better for their careers to remain discreet about their strategy, and so they weren’t role models for the rest.

Bring Back the 40-Hour Workweek:  From Alternet, via Salon, this is a look at why we had the 40-hour workweek to begin with.  And guess what? It was not just labor being lazy.  It was business figuring out that workers work best when they have shorter days.  In the short run, we only get a little more done in hours 40-60, and over the long run, it’s a disaster. :

American workers don’t realize that for most of the 20th century, the broad consensus among American business leaders was that working people more than 40 hours a week was stupid, wasteful, dangerous and expensive — and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management to boot.

Money Is the Root of All Parenting:  But don’t get poor!  Which seems obvious, but is perhaps a good message in the face of all these earthy work less links.  Lisa Belkin at the Huffington Post talks about reports that show that parents lose it more when they are stressed and angry (of course).  And how to avoid that?  Don’t lose sleep about the car repair bill.  Don’t get frantic about bank overdraft fees.

Hard to pull that off if you are poor.  So how to help the poor, or more specifically, their children?

What, then, is the alternative? They start with a few suggestions: “stabilize incomes, provide low-income credit alternatives to deal with the ups and downs of life, or ensure stable housing. These may not be “parenting” programs in the conventional sense of the term. But by freeing up psychic resources they allow people to be the parents they want to be, they allow more traditional parental skills programs to be more successful.”


still scared we won’t sell our house – even after we sold it

We sold our house in Port Jervis, New York in September, 2007, weeks before the bottom dropped out of the real estate market.

We even made $2,000!

We sold it to the very last person to come look at it, on an unannounced visit with the house dirty and laundry hung everywhere.

The house is now worth maybe $30,000 less than we sold it for.

It was the crappy house on the nicest street in a gritty little river town on the edge of the NYC train line at the gateway to the Catskills and Poconos.  It was an 1891 Victorian with the most beautiful curves in the attic and the remnants of a barber shop in the basement.   Sitting on the front porch in the spring or autumn and watching the wind in the tall trees was glorious.  We bought it thinking we would stay for years and renovate it to glory.  It had bats and rats and lead paint, which, at the end, was seeping into our daughter’s blood.  It was freezing, with no driveway until we massaged a plan through the zoning board two weeks after NK was born.

The house had been a rental for decades.  Then it sat on the market for years.  A single teacher bought it.  She moved to Florida.  The house sat o the market for another year.  Then we bought it.  And sold it almost two years later after “only” six months on the market.

To this day, I get reverse panic attacks about selling that house, filled with terror that we would still be stuck in Port Jervis, not tucked away safely in our tiny corner apartment facing rocks and trees in Sweden.

How did we sell that house?!?!

How did we get so lucky?  How did we find this safety?


how much obama can sweden take?

NK has a game. It is a morning game. It is a game meant to keep my attention, to keep me from reading the newspaper.

She wants to see pictures of Obama. So we flip through Dagens Nyheter, which is essentially the New York Times of Sweden, and look.

How often do you think we have failed? Never. Not once.

I doubt my old newspaper in New York runs a picture of Obama every day. Heck, I bet the New York Times doesn’t run a picture of Obama every … single … day.

If there is no Obama news, Dagens Nyheter promotes its full on web coverage of the inauguration, complete with … a picture of Obama.

So what is the point, besides making a little girl very happy each morning? That Obama is as popular here in Sweden as you would think. That people believe, even if his policies are to the right of the center-right Swedish government.

I listened to an interview with a Pakistani journalist a while back. He said that European governments, like Sweden, are in a hard spot. Obama is beloved. But he is also asking them to do things like send combat troops to Afghanistan. This is not beloved, though Sweden is complying.

Maybe this is just about hope, even way up here, hope that Obama can pull the world out of its economic spiral, hope that he will bring peace, light and goodness.

He won’t, of course, but that failure should mean one thing.

Lots more newspaper photos.

A Russian New Year in Stockholm

We saw the buses before the fur.  This explains our momentary confusion.

Then we saw the hats.  All the thick fur hats – red fur hats, bear-shaped fur hats, a fur hat with fur flowers.  Then the fur-lined hoods.  Then the fur coats.  Then the leopard print fur.  Fur around pockets, lining skirts.

Then we heard the language.  Ahhh, Russians.

There must have been more than a thousand of them milling around Stadshuset, Stockholm’s beautiful city hall, on New Year’s Day.  Burly men in plain hats, women in fur in exaggerated poses on bare trees.

And I thought that not everyone in Russia is doing badly these days.  And I remembered just how different Russia is.

And now both my wife and I want to go back there.

too far from detroit

I come from a Detroit family.  Both my grandfathers were executives with Chrysler, and it seemed like every single one of my great aunts and uncles worked for GM, Ford or Chrysler, most of them living around Flint, and retiring before the industry went bad the first time in the 70s and 80s.

My cars (either owned or company cars) have been, in order, a brown 1979 Datsun B210, a red 1983 Ford Thunderbird, a white 1993 Dodge Shadow, a Toyota truck of some sort, a 1998 Plymouth Neon, the same Dodge Shadow again and a 2000 Chrysler Sebring.

I must admit I don’t remember the ancient Datsun or new Toyota ever breaking down, except when I crashed them.  The Shadow and the Sebring were fine, while the Thunderbird and the Neon hold special places in my heart but also held special places in the repair shop.

I sold the Sebring for wholesale value, despite the fact that 2000 Sebrings are known to melt down. I think the Indian car dealer in Port Jervis felt sorry for us, fleeing our tiny town in a panic for Stockholm. 1983 Thunderbirds supposedly sucked too.  Same with 1998 Neons.  Sense the trend?

Anyway, even though most of those Chryslers were family cars I bought or were given, I’ve stayed loyal to my roots. After all, I could have sold them and bought, say, a Subaru.  But now … I don’t know.  Letting the car companies fail would devastate the Midwest, huge swaths of the American economy.  I know that.  We really can’t the companies fail.

But I wish we could, to be honest.  These companies aren’t banks.  We don’t need them to buy houses or finance businesses. Someone will make cars in America because Americans will always buy cars.  We simply need banks more, even if the people running the banks are more evil than the misguided dolts running the car companies.  Why are these three CEOs even allowed to come back to Washington to plead their case?  Why have they not been fired?  Why has the UAW not made even bigger, splashier concessions?  Do these people get it?

People here in Sweden are terrified for the futures of their car companies, Saab and Volvo.  GM will sell Saab and Ford will sell Volvo now.   This is good.  The government has refused to nationalize them.  This is good too.  Saab will do better with Tata Motors of India, or anyone, than with GM.

Swedes love humility, to an often comic extreme.  But right now humility seems refreshing compared with the hubris and laziness out of Detroit.

the flat world outside stockholm

You want to see what Thomas Friedman calls “the flat world?” You want to see a post-American world not dependent on any one center? You want to see the breakdown of the European idea of the nation, of the “folk”?

Come to lunch with me.

I work on the farthest outskirts of Stockholm where maybe 30 years ago they built expanses of apartments for the working class. They built out the subway too, coming out of the ground past the inner suburbs through the forest finally to Kista, which used to be a farm, I think. They also built a really big mall.

Like most of these outer suburbs across Europe, Kista quickly filled with immigrants, with Somalis and Iraqis and Turks and Kurds. Usually, these suburbs languish, either boiling over like in France or stagnating or become a rather lively incubator for a new Sweden. Whatever happens, it is out of sight.

But then Ericsson ran out of space south of town, looked around and settled on Kista. Bam, hello Sweden’s “telecom valley.” Now on one side of the tracks, you have all the immigrants in their apartments, and on the other side, you have an army of men and women in black suits working in telecom and IT and whatnot. And not just for Ericsson. Kista is a sprawling moniker now for working in the tech industry, for any number of companies. Stockholm’s tallest building is there, and it is not an Ericsson building.

I had lunch with my wife in that building today. Sitting in pink chairs on a pink shag carpet looking at exposed steel beams and mood lighting, she compared it to something out of Star Wars. But the real action, we agreed, is in the mall. For there, the two worlds meet. Every day, the masses of mostly white businessmen and women merge with older unshaven immigrants sitting in circles, with Somail women covered save for their faces, with running children of every possible color.

There is no real interaction, everyone in true Swedish fashion gliding around each other, paying no attention, tolerant but not really engaged. There is no tension, for the mall is nice for both, for the housing has been renovated and immigrants in Sweden seem to do pretty well. And the tech suits love the food court with its Persian, Indian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish, Italian, American, Swedish, Middle Eastern, fast food restaurants.

Kista is immigration from the south to the north. It is the interconnected world of telecom. It is sprawl but with buses and trains. It is isolation and mingling.

Oddly, in the end, it gets boring. Nothing really happens.

the long slow wave of economic despair

You don’t read about Sweden and the financial crisis much.  For a long time, we sat here and pondered the world going to hell, seemingly untouched, happy drinking coffee as the sun disappeared.  No banks going under.  No weird Icelandic-type bankruptcies.  You read stories in the New York Times about how the US needed to use a Swedish model (from an early 90’s economic/banking crash) to

Well, the wave finally rolled over us here.  Massive layoffs.   The real estate market has frozen, though not crashed. Lots of newspaper stories on the outrageous pensions and salaries of the CEOs of state-owned companies.  Americans seem to have a fair tolerance for high paid executives.  Swedes have none.

So I have signed up for the union unemployment insurance and worry nightly about the year-long waiting period.  For the safety net is good here, but not that good.  With a second baby due soon, with the reduced salaries of parental leave on the horizon,  we are talking budgets and cut backs and, perhaps oddly, buying  big stuff (we are talking IKEA rugs, not high def TVs) before it all goes bad.

The dark seems a bit sinister now, full of shadows.  Though maybe I will now learn to appreciate the warmth of candles …