What's Your Freakin' Problem?

Common Questions about the book
What’s your freakin’ problem?

Your book attacks middle class ease, how would you sum up the phenomenon?
With a symbol – an all too comfortable barstool that doesn’t swivel; it has a cushy back and arm support and a perfectly positioned foot rest. The problem with a barstool like that is no matter how much you drink you can’t fall out of it even if you’ve emptied your wallet and poisoned yourself. We’ve “fixed” the things that allow us to fall when our good judgment fails us. I argue that we’ve fixed the wrong things. I prefer a scrawny, swivel barstool when my wallet is fat and my judgment is on a break.

You’ve said some negative things about self-help books, but in some bookstores your book is in that section. Isn’t that self-deprecating?
Self-deprecating in a circumlocutious way - I grew up in North Jersey, not the city. I admit to the negative self-help book comments. A lot of those books sell a specific formula to the general, and often desperate, public – that seems unfair. There are no 10 steps to happiness that suits the majority or 7 ways to keep your job that will work if your boss wants you gone. This is a way to get people to feel that their situation is comprehendible and controllable, but some things just aren’t and some things aren’t for some people.

I often think of “the grieving stages” this way. Just the name makes one think “Yeah, once I get through those, I’m home free!” Well, the sad truth about the “stages” is that they don’t come and go in order, some of them can be gone through unexpectedly many times for varying lengths of time, some stages may not occur at all and some people go through stages that aren’t even on the list. It’s a general list of how we experience our sadness from loss, not a complete description of our individual loss experience or a prescription for surviving the loss. If that is understood, then there are a lot of self-help books that can be helpful.

Human beings have been decoded by psychology and genealogy to a certain extent, but the general public doesn’t always know which descriptions and prescriptions that these fields offer will be best suited to help them as individuals. For a particular person, happiness (though not permanent) may be attained by using 6 of the 10 steps from a self-help book, 2 from a list of 7 on the internet along with a few pieces of advice from the old lady down the street and a new pet. But how the hell can a person know this?

What’s your freakin’ problem? is more about picking up pieces of our life experience, looking at each one with our thinking caps on and trying to figure out if and how the piece fits into our particular puzzle. The “self-help” book I wrote is not a simple 5 step process that results in short term success followed by more boring disappointment. It’s about the stuff we do, re-do, fail at, succeed a bit with, fail again and then manage to do very well with… and then forget about till we screw it up again.

And, I’ll add that some bookstores and sellers have the book listed in Mind, Body and Spirit as well as Health and Medicine.

When some people read chapters like Letting your man drive or The nagging, picky woman they suggest that you are sexist. How do you defend yourself?
I don’t because to a certain extent I am, but not in favor of any particular sex. I’m sexist more in the sense that I recognize general tendencies and traits associated with a particular sex. What’s important is that I know I am and therefore I put extra energy towards not judging people unfairly. To judge someone unfairly means to not see them as an individual with his/her own ideas and way of being. Each person should have a clean slate when you meet them regardless of sex, race, clothing style, social position, citizenship, etc., but that takes being aware of our own unconscious and conscious discriminating thoughts. I know that sounds like a bunch of politically correct mumbo-jumbo, but it’s what we need to do for each other.

We all think sexist thoughts; even rather enlightened people laugh at the famous picture of the machine where one side says MAN and has an on/off button and the other side says WOMAN and has a whole slew of buttons and knobs for various details and adjustments. A joke isn’t funny unless there is some truth in it.

The theme of your book is “I’m not okay and neither are you.” After having researched and written it do you feel “okay” and are now trying to help others on their path to “okay”?
No, it’s more like I’m saying “Man, we’re messed up even when we know better! Let’s stop pretending that we’re not dorks and skip foolishly down the thinking path together!” Bad behavior runs deep, though it is more predictable if you put some effort into understanding it. My bad behavior still slides into home base a few times a week while I think I’ve got it restrained on second base. This, though, is progress because some years ago it would be sliding into home base before I knew it was up at bat!

That leads me to a personal question… your team?
The Mets. Even when they’re losing, especially when they’re losing. I have to admit I don’t keep up as much with baseball living in a country that doesn’t play it with the same vigor. Soccer is popular in Norway. I’m mostly interested in the World Cup – I like the idea of the players playing on their country’s team rather than being bought by the team with the most money.

Are there any chapters that you regret not putting in the book?
I took out the chapter I always cry when I wear mascara! because I thought people had figured out why that happens and because it had similar content to the chapter Having high expectations. Yet, the other day I was in a café eavesdropping and heard a woman say those very words to her male companion. He made no effort to point out the flawed causal relationship, which indicated that 1. he didn’t know it was flawed or 2. he wasn’t listening to her or 3. he didn’t bother speaking because she doesn’t listen to him anyway or 4. all of the above. I wanted to interrupt with a “Your high expectations for the event are why you put on extra make-up, and not having your high expectations met is the cause of the breakdown not the make-up you put on because you had high expectations”, but then I wouldn’t be eavesdropping anymore. The guy version was called I never get action when I’m wearing my good boxers!

Most of your female readers talk about the chapter on anti-wrinkle creams. You hit 40 and have wrinkles. Does your advice work?
An old lady once told me that being old isn’t difficult, it’s becoming old that’s tough. Adapting to difficult changes isn’t something people are good at, but we do it when we have to. Some days we’re better at it than others. Today is a good day and I’m enjoying my weathered face from my outdoor life. On a bad day I may play pretend and use a little spackle. And I’ll add this wise piece of advice that I heard an old man say to his grandson on a bus in China: “Enjoy the good days because they will end. Enjoy the bad days because they will end.”

Number one piece of advice for couples trying to save their relationship?
A friend once told me, “It’s only the first 30 years of marriage that are difficult.” This saying doesn’t suggest what to do with those years, but it does remind us that we’re not alone in our battle to save an important relationship.

Here are two old fashioned pieces of advice that I’m fond of (one descriptive and one prescriptive):

A woman marries a man expecting him to change, and he doesn’t.
A man marries a woman expecting her to stay just as she is, and she changes.

A husband should learn to remember more often.
A wife should learn to forget more often.

You work with the written word both as a writer and as a translator of medical research, so what is on your night table?
Quite the stack actually… Bill Bryson’s A History of Nearly Everything, Snorre translated to Norwegian by Holtsmark and Seip, Micheal Moore’s Hey dude, where’s my country?, Toril Brekke’s Drømmen om Amerika (to be read), Johnson’s A Shortcut Through Time, a book on cheese making and Rowling’s Chamber of Secrets, which I’m reading to my children. These books are precariously balanced on some children’s books, a pile of Time magazines, Illustrert Vitenskap and a book on yoga.

So you are into yoga?
I’m not a fanatic, but I can see how it’s easy to become one. Like most parents of small children I don’t have the possibility to be fanatical about my own interests. But I’ve adapted yoga for when I can’t do it alone - the result is that my six year old and I have invented double-decker yoga and twister yoga. My goal is to do yoga most days to stay flexible and strong because I have a bad back. In general, I try to use my body for more than sitting - I ride my bike or walk when it fits in, and I walk on natural, uneven surfaces when possible… and I do calisthenics, people don’t really use that word anymore, do they? I also like a glass a whiskey some days.

Current projects?
A teenage version of What’s your freakin’ problem? is on my mind, but everyway I write the different topics that concern teenagers, I see their parents banning the book. I also have a book in the works about a man named Vigrid who comes to Norway to kill someone. Norway, Norwegian culture and Sami culture (indigenous people in Norway) are the background for his rather difficult task.

Name one thing every person should have?
At least one secret place they can go anytime they want where they can be alone and feel safe – an actual place and/or a place in the mind. Below is a picture of one of mine at the absolute ugliest time of year – I don’t dare show you it when the anemone cover the forest floor and all the lichens and mosses are in full color or in winter when the first snow delicately balances on the fall’s spider webs turning it into an intricate Escher-like crystal dome because then you’d all be in my backyard!

Are there any things that you wished you had learned earlier in life than you did?
How to tie a double knot so that I could untie it by pulling one lace and to throw a little toilet paper in the bowl before I poop, so I don’t get splashed.

I was thinking more along the lines of personal interactions.
Right, of course. Not to get embarrassed too easily – that stops us from learning new things about ourselves and others and is a general killjoy. Most people are actually kinder than we think. And not to be too hung up on exactly how something should turn out – we miss out on other equally functional, and possibly more fun, outcomes.

You’ve attacked TV watching, does this mean you don’t watch TV?
I’m against watching TV too much or for the wrong reasons. I grew up in a house where it was referred to as the idiot box and it was seen as a weakness to succumb to its numbing forces. When I lived alone I didn’t have a TV for about 10 years (though I visited friends to watch The Simpsons sometimes), but I have one now.

I’ll watch anything on Animal Planet and I have a few shows that I like on other channels like Myth Busters and CSI as well as a couple not so international ones like the British Heartbeat and the Scottish Monarch of the Glen. The trick is to not watch anything too regularly because then we forget to use our imaginations and to do things with other people and instead watch unreal strangers do things on TV.

You’ve lived in Norway the past decade, any observations about the USA from the expatriate point of view?
My observations haven’t changed much through the years – US Americans live in a big country where they have little real contact with other countries. Because of this it’s important for them to read/listen to information from many sources on the continuum between right and left to get a decent view of a topic. We shouldn’t too easily accept information from a source we trust and we shouldn’t disregard information from a source we don’t often agree with. In other words, we should apply the same stringent logic and decontextualization to all incoming information and get the input from a variety sources. The TV tends to increase unnecessary fear and consumerism and narrows view points. People should use other sources for information like the library and the internet (read something on each of these: Right Wing News, the homepages of your representatives, Democracy now! and the Onion with a genuinely open mind).

Concerning the world and its relationship to the USA: citizens of other countries have a tendency to make fun of US Americans (sometimes for good reason) and then do exactly the same thing 10 years later. This should be embarrassing for both parties. It’s also important to remember that the US American government doesn’t represent the opinions of “we, the people” as often as we would like - we are a varied group of immigrants from the entire world.

Why did you write this book?
I had in fact joked that a book like this should be written, but I didn’t think I would write it because I’m a rather disorganized person. This was actually a bunch of scraps of paper and post-its that were meant to remind me not to keep doing and saying things that annoy others and to not get annoyed at others when they say and do things that push my buttons. When I collected them from all the miscellaneous places they had been tucked, I decided to organize them…