The Nordic Theory of Everything

NordicTheory“What Americans need, so that they can stop struggling so hard to be super-achievers, is simple: affordable high-quality health care, day care, education, living wages, and paid vacation….It’s not that Americans don’t realize that they need to relax, as Ariana Huffington seems to think. It’s that they can’t afford to.”     – The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, by Anu Partanen

Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist, moved to the United States to marry an American writer and eventually became an American citizen. In The Nordic Theory of Everything, she depicts how much harder it is to get by in America than her native Finland and suggests we’d be better off borrowing some of the more progressive policies of Nordic countries.

I was curious to know what the Nordic Theory of Everything is, just as I’ve always wanted to know more about the culture of my Swedish grandparents – my mormor and morfar, as my cousins and I called them when we were young.

Several years ago, I enjoyed On the Viking Trail: Travels in Scandinavian America by Don Lago, which looks at how Scandinavian values have influenced American culture. I hadn’t known, for example, that community well being and service to others are hallmark ethics of Swedes, which informed Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and other political leaders of Swedish descent. Reading Lago’s book left me wanting to delve deeper into the Scandinavian personality, and Partanen’s book was what I was looking for.

Anu Partanen derived her title from the Swedish theory of love as coined by the Swedish scholar and historian Lars Trägårdh:

“The core idea is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal….For the citizens of the Nordic countries, the most important values in life are individual self-sufficiency and independence in relation to other members of the community. If you’re a fan of American individualism and personal freedom, this might strike you as all-American thinking.

A person who must depend on his or her fellow citizens is, like it or not, put in a position of being subservient and unequal…..the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.”

I’d never been exposed to this line of thinking, and it was, for me, the heart of this book. The theory strikes me as utopian and unrealistic in its purest form, but I agree it would make sense for us to move closer to something like this, especially because so many Americans can no longer afford adequate health care, education, child care, and elder care. Women are still, on average, paid less than men, and many women would be better off with a stronger social safety net, especially single mothers, victims of domestic violence, and those working in low-paying service industries.

I’m quoting Anu Partanen’s more provocative passages, but throughout the book her tone is even-handed. You might think she is squarely in the liberal camp, but her language is not partisan; current politics in America isn’t mentioned, and Partanen has good things to say about the past policies of both Democrats and Republicans.

“…authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal.”

She’s been criticized for underestimating how difficult it would be to adopt policies that have been successful in the smaller, less diverse Scandinavian countries, but my guess is Partanen understands there would be challenges and intends for her book to inspire the conversations we need to be having.

Here are a few more passages:

“…. no one should be penalized in advance by the unlucky accident of having parents who might, for whatever reason, have less than robust finances. Similarly, a wife should not be put in a position of being financially overdependent on her husband. Or vice versa, for that matter. And people should be able to make choices related to their employment without worrying whether they will still be able to receive, say, treatment for cancer.”

***

“….the brutal reality in America today is that being a special superachiever is, more and more, the only way anyone can ensure a reasonably successful life for themselves – regardless of their core values. …The United States is remarkable among the advanced nations for the way it forces its people into lives so stressful they may have to turn against even their own values.”

***

“The harshness of American life helps explain the presence in the United States of a dubious, even predatory, wing of the self-help industry, which profits by selling unlikely promises to the unlucky. It’s telling that self-help gurus hardly exist in the Nordic countries…..Wishful thinking can take a nation only so far. Ultimately hope has to be generated by the actual presence of opportunity. And if it’s really there, it doesn’t require constant psychological energy and enthusiasm, or a constant stream of heroic tales of survival against all the odds, to sustain.”

I’ll close with the words of Lars Trägårdh:

“….social mobility without social investments is simply not possible. So if you start to give up on public schools and a collective system for enabling individual social mobility, you’re going to end up with inequality, gated communities, collapse of trust, and dysfunctional political systems. All these things you see now in the United States.”

What do you think?

The Wonder Garden

The Wonder Garden book cover

“She opens her eyes and looks at the television, a car commercial. An American couple achieves the top of a mountain, commanding a vista. She breathes in and breathes out. It is all right to retreat. She will pull back, she will redraw her boundaries. She will find her balance. When she emerges again, she will be refreshed, reenergized. She will be the best Rosalie she can be. The best and only.”

The Wonder Garden is a collection of exquisite short stories by Lauren Acampora, a new writer whom I’ve added to my “read-everything-by-this-author” list.

I’ve been reading more short stories lately, and I especially like these because they are linked: a protagonist in one story appears as a supporting character in the other stories, so that the collection reads like novel.

The stories are wickedly funny, psychologically complex, dark, uniquely American, and occasionally bleak – but leavened with an understated joy in the ebbs and flows and seasons of life. Living in suburbia and having raised children there, I find them so resonant.

Fictitious Old Cranbury is John Cheever and Mad Men territory, except post 9/11: an upscale Connecticut town on Long Island Sound, the home of a few have-nots but mostly haves. There is a memorial dedicated to five fathers who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and were killed on September 11.

The houses of Old Cranbury form a motif that further links the stories. The restored salt boxes and farmhouses, pretentious mansions, and humbler ranches fitted with granite countertops and fake shutters reflect their inhabitants’ aspirations and obsessions.

Acampora has compassion for her characters, but she can be scathing, too. Rosalie, for example (see above quote) is the type of hyperactive suburban mother who does everything and knows everyone and gives over her life to her five children: she is on the school board, she is prominent in the PTA, she hosts a book club, she makes themed halloween costumes for the entire family, including her brain surgeon husband. She is a good Christian woman who understands she has been greatly blessed and decides to host a poor Bangladeshi foreign exchange student for a semester.

There is a wonderful turning point in the story when the student, Nayana, expresses her sympathy for Noah, Rosalie’s youngest.  Rosalie is puzzled by this, and Nayana explains that Noah had revealed his true history to her: he was adopted into the family, having lost his birth father in 9/11. Noah’s story is sheer fabrication and Rosalie is horrified, having seen to it that her children have lacked for nothing.

Confronting Noah, she is undone by this previously unseen side of her son: it may as well be true, he says, because his neurosurgeon father is never around, implying that Rosalie, too, is lacking as a mother. Concurrent threads in the story reveal that the all-male members of the school board condescend to Rosalie and, most chillingly of all, her husband seems to view her with contempt.

I disliked Rosalie and was highly entertained by her, but at the same I recognized that, though she works hard and means well, she is an aging, marginalized woman in what is still a sexist culture. She is in many respects a throwback to the 1950s, pre-feminist, stay-at-home wives.

Another story is about a young single mother who meets a brain surgeon (yes, Rosalie’s husband) and really believes he will whisk her away to a glamorous life in Paris.

The brain surgeon gets his own story, and we find out he has a few really bizarre secrets of his own.

I loved the aging artist and his wife who transcend themselves to make one last work of art.

Then there’s the newly married advertising executive compelled to leave his job so he can follow his animal spirit.

And the 50-something real estate broker caught in traffic who decides to just stop; she turns off the ignition as cars maneuver around her and spends a long night in the driver’s seat, reviewing her life.

Here is a couple who live as though it’s the 18th century and regularly attend early American reenactments. I recognize this ritual of the children leaving home after a holiday visit:

“The next morning, Cheryl and Roger drive them to the airport. They embrace at the security gate. Both parents resist the itch to remind and advise, to command their son to complete the semester, to tell their daughter to skip Afrikaans. Instead, they let their children pull out of their arms and join the security line. They watch them remove their shoes and put them on the conveyer belt….They watch their children pass through the metal detector’s trellis and, on the other side, give a brief wave and disappear around a corner. They will sit together for the six-hour flight, then part ways in San Francisco, one aimed south, the other east. By the time the sun sets in New England, they will be speeding over freeways their parents have never driven, along the lurid blue coastline at the edge of America….”

In another story, the young adult children of some of the characters we’ve met go to a music festival, including Noah, Rosalie’s son, now a few years older. I love the final image in this passage, where we see Old Cranbury from the perspective of a young person who grew up there:

“Eventually, she will distance herself from the incident, tamp it into a story she tells at parties. She will put herself apart from the man who died. He was fundamentally different, she will rationalize, not from Old Cranbury, unanchored by good parents and constructive surroundings….Far off to the side, before the parking lot, Bethany notices a gathering of people on an open field. This would be the morning yoga session, offered to those able to rise early enough, still interested in breathing. The rows of people move in sync, adopting the same poses, configuring and reconfiguring their limbs like children experimenting with their bodies. Bethany watches as they all bend at once to plant their hands upon the bare field, then arch up in unison, a hundred arms saluting the sun.”

Oh, and, by the way, we haven’t seen the last of Rosalie, who rises like a phoenix in the final story.

Lauren Acampora lives in a suburban town much like the one she depicts. Her husband is an artist, and one of his works is the cover art for The Wonder Garden.

This is one book to add to your holiday wish list, and it’s a great book club choice.

Here is a video that features Lauren Acampora and her husband:

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