Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Writers are revered in Iceland. I like that. The Government pays people to write, and everyone there writes. Of course everyone in the U.S. writes, too. It is just harder to get paid for it. Even getting something published is no guarantee of getting paid for it. Many writers don't really make a living at it. They have their day jobs keeping them going.

The Icelanders have a saying: "Better to go barefoot than without a book". This is good. Books are our friends.


Eric Weiner visits Iceland, a place where the people are happy, in the dead of winter, when there is virtually no sunlight. This of course, is counter-intuitive. What about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Icelanders don't suffer from it. I was in Iceland for three days in 1974 when I was 10 years old in the summertime, when I never saw darkness. It is easy to see why people are happy in the summer, but harder in the winter. Apparently it has much to do with drinking, cooperation and a high inflation rate.

I remember my mother writing a postcard to one of her friends when we were in Iceland that the prices were higher than in New York City. This doesn't bother the folks in Iceland as much as it probably bothers the citizens of Gotham. Everyone in Iceland is related, so they would rather share the burden of high inflation than see a few suffer greatly through being unemployed. The Icelandic people appear to be on to something: "High unemployment, research has found, reduces overall happines much more than high inflation." According to this NPR story having a job when others around you are losing theirs does not make one feel better.

Iceland is one place I have always wanted to return to.

Money doesn't buy happiness

It seems as though the people of Qatar are rich, but not necessarily happy. They don't pay taxes, and some don't even really have to work, but get paid anyway - "ghost workers" they are called. Eric Weiner never really sees the happiness in Qatar. "Comfort is best when interspersed with moments of great discomfort" he observes. I think there is discomfort in being comfortable.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A "Year" on Mt. Rainier

So, it turns out Floyd cheated a little bit on his "year". He did spend four-seasons on Mt. Rainier, but the last one, the fall, actually occured three years after the winter, spring and summer. The seasons are different than what those of us who live in temperate climates might expect. As was pointed out to Schmoe, there is not really a spring or summer on the mountain, just 10 months of winter contained by fall. Nevertheless, flowers bloomed and animals came out of hibernation during the year long cycle. Reading about the microclimates on the mountain made clear that "spring" might come in June in some areas, and August in others. It reminds me of my own south-facing home. Flowers bloom in the front yard about 3 weeks before those in the back. And our snow always melts faster than those of our neighbors across the street. Reading this book I had to keep in mind that while the events described took place in the early 1920s, the writing was done in the late 1950s, and the reading done 50 years after that. Keeping these three perspectives in check was sometimes a challenge. The descriptions of the natural surroundings were awe inspiring. I wonder if people can even write this way any more, since it is so easy to take a picture now and just show others what you saw.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Other books

This month I read two other books: Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenriech - a sort of an accidental "year of" book. Ehrenreich spends the better part of a year trying to find a white collar job while she hires consultants to help with her image, resume and networking gurus to assist in the hunt. She learns what many of her cohorts do: it is a tough job market. After 9 months she gives up. Fortunately for her the exercise was purely academic.

The other book was You Don't Look Like a Librarian by Ruth Kneale. This is about busting tired librarian stereotypes in the 21st century. See the companion website at http://www.librarian-image.net/book/

Do taxes make us happy?

While I identify myself as a Democrat on my voter registration, I am more accurately a Socialist. This of course is very unpopular. When I hear the word "socialist" used on the radio, it is usually spat out, rather than spoken. I have always felt that I wouldn't mind paying more taxes, if I really would get some services for them. It just seems wrong that in the United States people go without health care. I have to pay for private trash pick up because my taxes do not cover this service, which I did not pay for in Maryland, my taxes covered it. I would love to have our public library back, but folks in my town refuse to pay enough taxes to keep it open. I have noticed less civility in Bridgewater since the vote to cut funding of the library and several other town services.

People in Qatar do not pay taxes at all. Weiner describes a study conducted at the University of Oregon which showed that giving money away involuntarily (i.e. paying taxes) stimulates certain pleasure centers of the brain. I understand that volunteering does the same thing. People should be less grumpy and learn to be more generous.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Spring? or Summer?

Schmoe's book is divided into four section sections - one for each season of the year, starting with winter. Spring takes the reader well into July, when the snow has melted enough for the steam shovels to come through and make a trail up to the Parasise Inn. I contemplate all of this now that the equinox has passed, and here in New England I am wondering when summer will come. It has been rainy, damp and clammy for much of June.

Qatar - Maybe money really does buy happiness?

Qatar is Weiner's next stop. An incredibly rich, and very hot nation. Everything is air conditioned, at least for the privileged class, who don't seem concerned with those who are not.


The Rinpoche, a Bhutanese who went on a three-year meditation, tells Weiner to stop reporting and start experiencing. Weiner's description of the encounter is reminscent of many professor/student moments. Weiner writes it all down, every word the Rinpoche says, before he gets the irony of what he is doing. The fact that he "got it" is where the student/professor analogy breaks down.

When I was pregnant everyone told we I would surely want a videorecorder once the baby was born - think of all the things I'd want to tape. My response was that I could either be a part of my child's life, or I could videotape it to watch later. I was stunned at my daughter's school spring show, which was a take off of Blue Man Group - a truly experiential show. From where I sat I could see at least 3 parents taping the show - watching it only through a screen a few inches tall. I am not even sure how they would have been able to identify their own child. I have to agree with the Rinpoche on this one. Put the recording devices down, and do.

Does the familiar make us happy?

Well, we finally finished reading about Bhutan - a poor country: can the people there really be happy? One American couple Weiner meets points out that if the Bhutanese knew what they were missing they would want what westerners have, but simply they don't know. Weiner points out that 90% of the Bhutanese who study abroad return to Bhutan which completely befuddles the Americans. He also relates a story from an ex-patriot married to a Bhutanese man. When they traveled to the United States and the husband visited a Sharper Image store for the first time. He was fascinated by all it had, but seemed to enjoy it as one might a museum. He looked at everything and marveled at what it did, but did not wish to buy any of it.

I remember learning years ago that the Amish give their young people a year to experience all that they have been denied and then are asked to decide if they want to join the Amish community, or join the "English" - 80% stay with their Amish roots.

I used to be bemused by my husband's grandparents because they bought 3 of everything (coffee makers, television sets and other appliances) they liked in case one broke and they couldn't find another one just like it. At the age of 45 I am beginning to see their point. I was completely frustated at not being able to find a land line telephone that attached to the wall and had a cord. I did finally find one, but it looks pretty chintzy.

In light of this evidence it does not appear that not knowing what we're missing makes us any happier. I think we do just like things the way we are used to them.

Friday, June 19, 2009

To be so hardy

Shortly after Ruth and Floyd arrive in Paradise Valley Ruth determines that she is pregnant. She figures this out on her own, without a doctor, without even a copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting. Although I am only to her seventh month, it appears she dances through her pregnancy without ever seeing a doctor. I contrast the two books I read by A.J. Jacobs for my "year of books" project (see January and May) each of which featured his wife during one of her pregnancies. While in neither case was the pregnancy the focus of the book, it was certainly woven throughout the fabric of the story. In Schmoe's case it is only mentioned casually, and only very occasionally. Heavy lifting, "belly flopping" onto a tobaggan, learning do "high altitude" cooking through trial and error, and virtually no company are all part of Ruth Schmoe's life as she negotiates her first pregnancy. I apparently think more about this than Floyd did.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The things we do for love

Ahh... to be young and broke and in love. My husband and I had a lot of experience with that. Floyd and Ruth Schmoe climbed Mt. Rainier in the winter of 1922 in order to take a job - using only the telephone wire, which was sometimes buried under the snow, as their guide to the Paradise Inn which was to be their home for the year. I used to complain about delivering the Baltimore (Sunday) Sun on foot in Columbia, Maryland, but I had it easy.

Monday, June 15, 2009

"Year of" books catching on

The May 15 issue of Library Journal has this bit about Year of memoirs.

The other book

The second book I have selected for June is A Year in Paradise by Floyd Schmoe. It was first published in 1959. I have received a copy via the Newton Free Library which still has a due date pocket in it indicating it was first checked out in August 1960. Since reading The Geography of Bliss is going so slowly I will start blogging about this one while I blog about GOB. This is a real stretch for my anal-retentive librarian sensibilities, but sometimes a blogger's gotta do what a blogger's gotta do.

The Happiness Project

Reading with my husband is slow going. We are still working on chapter 3. Yesterday he fell asleep while I was reading to him, and we had to back-track a bit. In any case, we are liking reading together and will get through the book in our own time.

Today I learned about another blog of interest The Happiness Project. There is some good stuff here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Posting is going slow this week as I am away from home visiting family in Maryland. I haven't even had a chance to read much. We have gotten as far as part-way through the third chapter, about Bhutan - which has a Gross National Happiness index. You can find out more about this from this New York Times article. The other thing we learned about Bhutan is that they drink instant coffee. How can you be very happy drinking that?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Things I have in common with Eric

From reading the first chapter of his book, and his Contempory Authors Online biography I have discovered that I have the following things in common with the author of The Geography of Bliss:

We both lived in Baltimore, Maryland as children
We are both late-born baby boomers - he was born in 1963; I was born in 1964
We are both married and with one daughter
We have both been to the Netherlands - I still have a pair of wooden shoes I bought there when I was 10
Up until the time that Weiner went to the Netherlands, the last time either of us smoked marijuana was during our junior year of college

Nothing too earth shattering about any of this, just some things I noticed.

Reading aloud

My husband, James, and I used to read books out loud to each other a lot. Once our daughter was born, we read to her a lot, and tried to keep our own reading aloud time with each other by reading Dear Abby, and other short newspaper features. The Geography is Bliss is the first book the two of us have read together in a very long time. The pace of reading is slower this way, but we have had quite a few laughs together in the 30-some pages I've read to him so far. James chuckled when I read a passage in which Weiner described not knowing what to say to someone he was interviewing and used an old journalist trick and asked the interviewee how he got interested in his field of study (in this case happiness). James is somewhat of a local celebrity in Bridgewater as he is a "coffee scholar" and is often asked to speak at functions about coffee, and is sometimes contacted by the local media for an interview. He said they always start out by asking him how he got started.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Near Death experience

Tim Kreider writes in the New York Times about how happy he was during the year following his attempted murder. He cites some research that Eric Weiner also mentions in the first chapter of his book as he visits the World Database of Happiness in the Netherlands.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Eric Weiner on NPR

My husband and I started reading The Geography of Bliss yesterday. I will begin posting soon. In the meantime enjoy this story from NPR.