May Day 2017

Springtime is a riot of “red days” here in Sweden. I’m sure it’s some kind of mass psycho-cultural way to cope with the long, dark winter and springs that take a long time to get started. I have yet to attend one of the Valborg bonfires, or a socialist protest, but I hope those of you had a fun (and safe!) time out.

Stockholm March for Science: Why I’m Marching

I’m marching for science today, and so can you! You can find a local march at the official March for Science website. If you’re in Stockholm, I’ll be a volunteer with the activities at Medborgarplatsen at the end of the march. Come say hi, listen to some awesome and knowledgeable speakers, and try some cool science stuff!

At first blush, the March for Science doesn’t seem particularly relevant to my work as either a copyeditor or a language instructor. For me, though, the two fields are very much intertwined.

First and foremost, the bulk of my copyediting work has been academic work in the sciences, ranging from the “soft” to the “hard.” Science—as in the international practice of engaging in and publishing research—is my bread and butter. I consider myself a junior varsity member of the #scicomm team, and I hope that in some small way my copyediting work is helping further both research in general and the careers of well-deserving individuals. The same is true for tutoring. Many of the students I work with are either scientists (or science-adjacent), or have aspirations of finally working in that role: would-be engineers, biologists, chemistry teachers. While it might be naive to think that speaking a single language would erase any and all conflict, it certainly helps us communicate to and mobilize large groups in a timely fashion, and nowhere do we need timely communication and mobilization than in science. English isn’t necessarily the best tool for that, but it’s the one we have right now, and the more people who can use it, the better.

It isn’t just about my own work, though. It’s also a question of principles. The scope of copyediting generally includes a commitment to facts and the truth, as well as to clarity. A good copyeditor and a good scientist are both skeptics at heart. Neither one is an automaton who thoughtlessly applies rules and nothing more; they both take a look at what they think is correct, wonder if there are alternatives, and constantly come up against their own preconceived notions.

Moreover, since we think, theorize, and discover with language, it is inextricably connected with science. Just as science has shown us that, for example, gender and sex are much more complicated and nuanced than we originally thought, so do our language guardians help put forward and promote that new paradigm by enforcing new language norms that more accurately reflect reality. The (mostly tired, mostly worn out) debate over singular they, for example, isn’t just about social norms or “identity politics”; it is also about how, in tandem with a better scientific understanding, we have changed language to include groups of people who didn’t fit in the original, inaccurate paradigm. It’s about (among other things) physicalbiological norms. As our science improves, our knowledge increases, and how we use that language affects how we spread (or don’t) that new knowledge. On a darker note, this is why “newspeak” was such an integral part of the dystopia Orwell imagined in 1984. As a writer, Orwell understood the power that language has over thought. Language, like science, needs to be open and accessible to everyone so that it can be used as a power for good—eradicating any number of biases—and not evil—desensitizing us to the complexity and humanity of others.

Katherine Koba Marked Herself Safe During the Attack in Stockholm

Today was not a really great day. And even though I’m alive and well, I’m feeling a little shaken. I was on my way to meet a student near Hötorget when everything happened; I ended up stranded in town until well after eight. Thanks to #openstockholm I had a cozy seat out of the wind, dinner with wine, and an Uber back to my apartment in Enskede once things had calmed down. Swedes are accused of being shy, but I’ve always thought that an unfair characterization. I think #openstockholm proved my point.

I also go to a writer’s meet-up right along that stretch of Drottninggatan. It’s so strange me to think that a stretch of the town I visit frequently and often share with friends in low-quality cell phone pictures is now marked by death. Am I going to see skid marks when I meet people for writing and fika next week? Dried blood? Disturbances? Impromptu memorials? There will be no question that I’ll travel into town—I don’t intend to hide or to let my daily life be impacted—but I wonder how much will be changed, and how much will not.

Needless to say, I’ll be putting aside the Friday 5 for this week, even as I recognize I could have been much, much worse off. This is a good time for all of us to check: are we able to help, beyond thoughts and prayers? I’m a registered organ donor, but am (to my chagrin!) not yet registered to give blood. (Blodcentralen is accepting donations, but only for donors who are already registered; I’ll have to feed the vampires another time.) If any of you are A+ and a registered donor, you can give instead of me. 🙂 They have enough for the wounded, but will need to replenish their supplies.


Pic entirely unrelated. I just wanted to look at something cute.

Never Again

I’m writing this post a little ahead of schedule; I don’t know what the situation will be when it goes live. Hopefully better.

The great privilege of being an EFL teacher is that my work brings me into contact with an international clientele. Just since beginning my little business here in Stockholm, I’ve worked with English students from:

  • Hungary
  • Sri Lanka
  • India
  • France
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Spain
  • Iran

That list tilts very heavily towards Iran, actually. I have more Persian* students than from any other country on that list.

As a private tutor, I’ve been invited into my students’ lives in a way that would not happen as a regular school teacher. I work in their homes, I’m invited to their dinners, I meet their friends and family. They’re not just students anymore, or clients. During the lesson, I’m their teacher, but off the clock, I’m their friend. And they are mine.

So I know that my Persian friends have family and friends who immigrated to the United States. A brother, a stepson, a half-brother, a childhood friend. I know that some of them were planning on traveling to the United States in the near future. I know that others were planning on receiving a guest—that brother or stepson or half-brother—who may not yet have full American citizenship. Who may not have renounced their original Iranian citizenship.

All of that makes the recent executive order very personal for me.

I’m now a firsthand witness to how political posturing to appeal to the worst elements of American society has very real, concrete effects on people who have nothing to do with violent religious extremism. The callousness towards Syrian refugees is also disgusting, of course, but it’s not something I encounter on a weekly basis; proximity makes things real in a way that nothing else can.

How will this play out? If I’m invited to join in on a family vacation and pick up some stamps in my passport from Tehran, will I be denied entry into the United States? Will green cards be revoked, and loved ones repatriated? Will their friends and family be forced to renounce their Iranian citizenship?

A line from the cult Easter egg song “Still Alive” packaged at the end of the video game Portal goes:

We do what we must because we can.

I’ve twisted it a little bit, and periodically quote it when JV and I discuss politics.

We do what we can because we must.

I have the great privilege of American citizenship, and it’s clear that it’s no longer enough to just vote. I can call, I can write, I can protest—and now it’s clear that I must. Not only for all kinds of good, vulnerable, voiceless people I can never meet or know, but for the Persian students and friends I sit down with week after week, month after month, year after year. How could I do anything less and still be able to look them in the eye?

*I opt for the word “Persian” in this post because that is the word they use to describe their language and their culture.

Winter Solstice 2016

On the eve of the shortest day of the year, I’d like to extend my sincerest wishes for a happy holiday (whatever you celebrate) and a healthy, prosperous new year. Personally, while I grew up celebrating Christmas, living in Sweden makes one acutely aware of daylight hours, for good and ill. Even with the now-ubiquitous extension of electricity to include outdoor as well as indoor lighting, there is a certain inevitable sobriety to a sun that doesn’t rise until 8:44 and sets as early as 2:48. (I can’t imagine how I’d fare up in Norrland!)

Truth be told, this is the first new year that I’m actively dreading. Sometimes I’ve been reluctant about the holiday–uncomfortable with the passing of time that the occasion so very obviously marks–and other times I’ve been excited. But this year I’m actively resisting 2017. I’ll mark all my usual traditions (cheap champagne and The Big Lebowski), and be grateful that I came out of 2016 (what a year!) relatively unscathed, but when the calendar rolls over there won’t be any relief, excitement, or anticipation. Just the grim realization that we have work to do.

But I won’t be a Debbie Downer; there is much to celebrate and remember.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

What’s in a name? “Alt-right,” white nationalism, and the AP.

Like many Americans, the results of the recent 2016 election left me feeling hopeless. I’m deliberately avoiding words like “stunned,” “shocked,” or “speechless,” as all of them would imply that I was somehow surprised by this turn of events. I was not. The moment of shock for me had been earlier in the year, when The Donald was crowned as the Republican party nominee. This was the depressing and inevitable triumph.

Language matters. That’s the lesson we can take away from this. Language matters and rhetoric matters. One of the significant issues surrounding The Donald’s ascent into power is the question of the so-called “alt-right,” the building populist movement built on the idea of white American (male) superiority. The AP’s official stance on the nomenclature is heartening.

Over the next four years, it will be imperative to be precise in our language, accurate in our descriptions, and mindful of our sources. The AP’s stance on the use of “alt-right” is a necessary tool in that tool kit. As John Daniszewski puts it,

We should not limit ourselves to letting such groups define themselves, and instead should report their actions, associations, history and positions to reveal their actual beliefs and philosophy, as well as how others see them.


Bob Dylan Wins the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature

First of all, I’m always amazed that Bob Dylan isn’t dead yet. I think this is because I’ve always been under the impression that he was well in his 20s or even 30s by the time he appeared on the music scene. The truth is that he was closer to 18, so I suppose it’s actually not surprising at all that he hasn’t shuffled off this mortal coil.

I’ve already talked about my favorite lyricists back in April, to celebrate National Poetry Month. You might notice that Bob Dylan isn’t on the list. To be perfectly honest, he’s never been one of my favorite musicians or lyricists. Funnily enough, the night before Dylan’s win was announced, he was a topic of conversation among myself and a few of my friends, specifically related to protest and political music. I brought up Edwin Starr’s “War” and Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” (but then promptly forgot the lyrics, oops!). One friend countered with:

“Okay, but like, Dylan. Ugh, I hate Dylan. I like The Band so much better.”

“Well, I’ll give you that. Dylan writes great songs for other people to cover, but I can’t stand his voice.”

When the Swedish Academy announced Dylan’s win the very next day, I was almost tempted to email an article about it to said friend. (I didn’t.) I still felt a little like a kingmaker, though. My trash obviously makes people Nobel Prize winners. If you have a favorite author who you believe has been snubbed for a Nobel Prize, get in touch with me and I’ll do my best to tip the scales in their favor for 2017. 😉

All jokes aside, though: even though I don’t particularly care for Bob Dylan, I’m not particularly upset over his win—not on the grounds of him not being a “proper” writer, anyway. There is something to be said about the moral obligation of literary prizes to award deserving but unknown writers, and Dylan’s celebrity, as well as his artistic chops, have been well-established by this point. This is the same awkwardness that underlies Neil Gaiman’s 2016 Hugo for best “Best Graphic Story”: Neil Gaiman has garnered enough acclaim by now to comfortably coast on it for the rest of his life. (That’s another post, though. Some extenuating circumstances make Gaiman’s win a bit different.)

Perhaps the sad truth simply is that more people deserve a Nobel Prize than can possibly win one.

Announcement: Traveling

This week and next I’ll be in the US for my little brother’s wedding! Some blog posts and Tweets are scheduled in my absence, but (obviously) I won’t be getting any work done. I’ll see you on the flip side!

If I’m going to post an old photo of my brother, it’s only fair that I post an old photo of myself and my bowl cut as well.

More News: Global LT

Fresh on the heels of my admittance in Stockholm University’s Academic Swedish course comes my hiring at Global-LT.  They provide businesses around the world with a number of language-related services, including language lessons, cultural sensitivity training, and translations. I am now one of their contracted English tutors in Stockholm! (Not translating, sadly—at least not yet.)

I’m excited for this opportunity to work with business professionals and meet new people!