Menu Close

Category: Featured (page 2 of 3)

Heaven’s Gate and the Church of Sweden

20110829-081557.jpgDespite the “no advertising please” sign that is posted on nearly every door and mailbox in Sweden — including mine — it seems like it’s still okay for the Church of Sweden (Svenska kyrkan) and a number of schools to put their pamphlets through my door.

The picture on the front of this magazine from the church (which shows the shoes of some people kneeling while wearing churchy clothes) immediately reminded me of the Heaven’s Gate cult.

Heaven’s Gate was a California mass suicide in which all the “victims” got saved from the cleansing of the Earth by being beamed up to space.

You see, a lot of people don’t realize this, but the planet Earth was wiped clean in March 1997. The Heaven’s Gate people, thirty-nine of them, laced up their matching Nike Dunk Pro SB sneakers, got in bed, and escaped just in time. You call it mass suicide, I call it a quick getaway to sweet freedom in the sky. We’re quibbling over semantics here.

Either way, Nike couldn’t thank their lucky stars enough for all the free promotion that came out of the event by way of news photos. Just do it, already.

20110901-092741.jpg

A spaceship, which was following the Hale-Bopp comet (pretty foolproof disguise, actually) collected their souls and whisked them away. Finally, dudes, let’s GTFO.

The method of escape was a delicious pudding, laced with phenobarbital and a vodka chaser. Kool Aid was already taken, so the Gate had to do their own thang.

Once on board the ship, it was quite important that each member took $5.75 along with them. I’m not sure if this was for snacks or what, but this is true, each corpse at the scene in San Diego was found with a five dollar bill and three quarters in their pocket.

Update: Those people are now living in a kickass paradise somewhere a few light years past Orion. Unfortunately, Nike has no distribution in that area, but I hear five bucks goes a long way.

The Church of Sweden is a Lutheran denomination that has nothing to do with Heaven’s Gate – to my knowledge – except that their magazine cover sure looks a lot like some crime scene photos.

It was the country of Sweden’s official church until 2000. Pretty late to lighten up on that one, but Sweden can’t win ’em all.

Money from general taxes still fund the church, though Swedes can opt out when filing their taxes if they don’t wish to support it.

Most people don’t opt out for the simple reason that paying taxes in Sweden is as simple as answering yes or no. When your tax forms come in the mail, all the numbers are already filled in. All you need to do is confirm that the total is correct, which you can do online, by phone, SMS or even the tax agency’s iPhone app. If you want to opt out of giving the church some money, this creates extra steps in the process and – good news for the church – most people just don’t bother.

I didn’t bother opting out either. It took me seven minutes to do my taxes in Sweden this year. My American taxes, however, usually take all afternoon and I still don’t know if I’m doing it right.

20110901-092634.jpg

The church’s leadership is elected in general elections exactly as the Swedish Parliament. You just have to be a member of the church, a resident of Sweden and over 16 in order to vote.

Their website says that “up to seven million people” are members of the church. Up to? Okay, so it could be five people or it could be 6.99 million. We’re not sure, but it’s definitely no more than seven million.

(Coincidentally, I just bought a washing machine today and I paid up to seven million dollars for it. Well, up to 44 million kronor. Sounds like a lot, but delivery was included.)

Given that the population of the entire country is 9.4 million, it seems that figure of 7 million may have been, well, pulled out of the heavens.

A 2005 study commissioned by the European Union found only 23% of Swedes willing to report that they “believe there is a God.”

Another 23% indicated that they “do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force.” These are the godless atheist socialists you hear about when Republicans in Congress talk about how health care destroys society.

The majority, 53%, said they believe there is “some sort of spirit or life force,” which doesn’t exactly sound like someone who is a dedicated member of a church. I’m no historian, but I’m pretty sure Martin Luther didn’t subject himself to abuse from the Catholics and the Holy Roman Empire because he thought there was probably “some sort of spirit or life force” out there.

I’m also not sure how the Church of Sweden is counting their membership, but it doesn’t seem very accurate.

If everyone in Sweden who believes in any god is a member of the Church of Sweden, that puts the membership number only around 2.1 million people, according the EU’s statistics.

Sure, 2.1 million is, in fact, a number that is “up to seven million,” so I guess they’re right on that account.

Oh well. The good news is that the church is responsible for all the cemeteries in the country and — even if you don’t believe in anything — they’ll pay for your funeral.

That’s right. The Church of Sweden provides free funeral services for every Swedish resident. The family left behind pays only the undertaker’s fees.

All in all, it seems like a really nice little send-off for all these damn atheists on their way to Hell. But since the Church of Sweden also performs gay marriages, the clergy will probably be on the next boat right behind ’em. Bon voyage suckaaaaahhhhhhs!!!!!

Just a reminder

This sign is in the elevator of the apartment building I moved into earlier this month:

“Household garbage should be thrown into the designated placeand not off the balcony. Thanks for your help in keeping it clean and pretty outside the building.”

Oh no problem. You’re welcome.

It wasn’t me, by the way, who threw garbage off my balcony. Nor was it me who designed the award-winning flyer.

(What are the arrows showing me?)

Not throwing bags of garbage off the balcony may seem like an obvious thing to most people.

However, there are a few more signs I’m thinking about making and posting around the building, just to make sure everyone knows the rules of common courtesy. For instance:

“Please don’t record your bullshit Swedish hip-hop album in an apartment building at 1:00 in the morning.”

I know what you’re thinking. “Swedish hip-hop? What the hell?” Yeah, I know. And you maybe haven’t even heard it. If you’re reading this in America, relax, you will never hear it.

I understand that just like any other music, there is really good hip-hop and really bad. Personally, I can’t stand the really good stuff, so imagine how bad this must be.

If you associate hip-hop with urban struggle, I’m sure you’ll have no problem picturing the overwhelming oppression of universal healthcare, subways that have new-car-smell, city sidewalks crowded with model-worthy beauties draped in next year’s fashions, rolling countrysides dotted with charming summer vacation houses, and armies of cops who pose for pictures with tourists and carefully help drunks so as not to injure them.

Straight outta Dalarna, bitches!

So anyway, yeah, I need to make a sign outlining the appropriate hours for laying down your dope tracks. I just don’t wanna hear the advance tracks before it drops.

If you ask me, the appropriate hours for recording Swedish hip-hop are, well, never. But since I am a guest in this country, I’ll be generous and ask that we shut it down around 10:00 pm.

I may offer my services to my Swedish hip-hop neighbors. You know, as an American I have a lot of street cred that these Svensk homies just can’t buy. I can tell ’em all about what it’s like growing up in Middletown, Kentucky. I mean, if they wanna hear me drop some science (off the balcony).

Princess Preggers!

Well it’s like the wheels are about to come off the tabloids here in Sweden over the past week, on the heels of the news that the crown princess has a little majesty in the oven.

Victoria, the oldest daughter of the king and queen of Sweden — not to be confused with Madeleine (the cute one who likes to party… she’s like the Mary-Kate and Victoria is like the Ashley) — got married last summer to a commoner, Daniel Westling.

It now seems that Prince Daniel has made short work of getting some more Swedish blood back into the royal lineage.

The Swedish Royal Family has a mix of French and German heritage at the moment, with a dash of Brazilian, depending on how you’re keeping score.

Just a year after Sweden was wrapt in royal wedding fever, now royal baby fever is the wildfire du jour.

20110818-071457.jpg

The morning after the announcement, I was on the train to work when I took a quick look at the Expressen newspaper’s website on my iPhone.

The site was ablaze with every angle of the pregnant princess story. In fact, I counted the headlines: eleven of the top 14 stories were related to the royal pregnancy.

20110818-112924.jpg

The free daily Metro paper dedicated a magazine-style cover to its front page, which is usually a standard newspaper style headlines-n-articles things.

20110818-112948.jpg

One article I read was completely dedicated to speculation about the exact moment the princess got knocked up. Best guesses are placing the moment some time before a late-May visit to Munich or some events around Sweden’s National Day on June 6. Too much information?

Another article asked people on the street what they think the child should be named. One guy said Mohammed if it’s a boy and Aisha if it’s a girl. Just to do something unexpected.

My vote is for Princess if it’s a girl or Prince if it’s a boy. Chances are, this kid will be king or queen one day. How awesome would it be to have a King Prince or a Queen Princess?

The 18 and Over Airline

Earlier this year, I wrote about how excited I was to see one of my favorite bands, Säkert. As you may recall, the band played two shows in Stockholm. The Sunday night show was your standard 18-and-over event, while the Monday night show – for which I was able to get tickets – was an all-ages engagement.

I’m 41-years-old (that’s 34 in metric), so I was one of the tallest people at the performance. Luckily, I wasn’t in the “oldest at the concert” group, on account of some attendees being accompanied by their parents.

Having to attend the all-ages show was fine with me. In fact, it was fantastic. The room was filled with youthful enthusiasm that mirrored my own excitement. Based on the band’s reaction to this warmth, it’s possible that the previous night’s 18-and-over show was not as energetically received.

Youthful enthusiasm, however, is not always a good thing. In this rock concert setting it worked out great. However, in places where adults like to do adult things, youthful enthusiasm can be the arch-enemy of a good time.

If you have a baby – which, if you’re Swedish, is a genuinely high possibility – I hope you have the common courtesy to keep it away from the following situations: restaurants, cafés, air travel, your place of employment, other people’s places of employment, public transit, the whole world outside of your house.

I said “if you have a baby” but what I really mean is that “if you have a child who is not yet old enough to know how to behave or shut its mouth” … then I hope you’ll be polite enough to keep it away from people who do know how to do these things.

I’m thinking particularly about youths who are in the 0 to 15 age group. Margin of error +/- 3 years, actually just +3 years.

It has been said that people don’t hesiate to bring their babies to restaurants for one simple reason: if the kid has already ruined your life, it doesn’t much matter if it ruins my dinner. I think it has been said by me.

This sign could significantly reduce the usage of Xanax and lower the number of in-flight alcohol purchases.

Because of this premise, I would like to propose an amazing new revenue stream for owners of airlines, restaurants, and virtually every other place where screaming at the top of one’s lungs for hours on end, is inappropriate. Let’s call it The 18 & Over Flight.

We’ve gotten rid of smoking in these places, isn’t it about time we put an end to the shrieks of death, the smashing of crackers, the running through the aisles, the kicking of seats, and the relentless stomping and chasing in circles?

Parents need to be held accountable for how annoying their kids are. And businesses need to begin laying down the law by disallowing young children during certain hours or in certain rooms.

As much as the 18 & Over Airline may be a pipe dream, I think 18 & over timeframes at restaurants would be an immediate success. A truly happy hour: no kids after 6:00 pm.

You said it.

I also think that callous, cranky, A-holes like me would be happy to pay a premium of at least 25% more for this luxury.

Most businesses should be delighted to pull in an extra 25% profit for providing the same services without the disruption and distraction, and I have a feeling their employees would share that delight.

As I’ve been writing this article, it has been brought to my attention that a restaurant in Pennsylvania has taken the bold first move.

In an email sent to customers, Mike Vuick, the owner of McDain’s Restaurant in the booming metropolis of Monroeville, announced that children under 6 were no longer welcome in his establishment:

“Beginning July 16, 2011, McDain’s Restaurant will no longer admit children under six years of age. We feel that McDain’s is not a place for young children.”

The food is sounding better already.

“Their volume can’t be controlled and many, many times, they have disturbed other customers.”

Amen, brother. Mike Vuick is like the Jonas Saulk of our time. He has found the cure for absurd, unreasonable nonsense.

Hearing about a restaurant in Pennsylvania reminds me of a local delicacy they have in that area of the country. It’s called scrapple.

About fifteen years ago while on a tour in America, we stopped in a late-night diner to have some food. That was the night I was introduced to scrapple. None of the people I was with knew what it was. So we asked.

Our waitress replied, “If you don’t know, you don’t want it.” Wow, what a sales pitch!

A writer for a South Jersey/Philadelphia-area newspaper calls scrapple 'the other kind of meat.' Mmmm.

She went on to explain that it’s a Pennsylvania Dutch treat made of leftover pork waste from the kitchen. Mmmmmm.

Officially, scrapple is “cornmeal mush made with the meat and broth of pork, seasoned with onions, spices and herbs and shaped into loaves for slicing and frying.” Hold me back.

I checked out McDain’s menu online and they don’t have scrapple, so it must be a pretty nice place – especially without screaming kids everywhere.

If Mr. Vuick can get that age limit up to 18 or so, it might be worth the trip from Sweden. That eggplant parmesan and ravioli-of-the-week look pretty tasty.

No more babies on airplanes

Am I cursed?

Apparently someone at Norwegian Airlines read my last article about how I think babies should not be allowed on airplanes. (See The 18 & Over Airline)

And apparently that person has a different opinion, is in charge of seating and is trying to make a point.

I just got off a flight from Berlin to Stockholm. This is not a long flight – only about 90 minutes – but if you are seated next to a baby, in front of a baby, and across the aisle from a baby, the flight seems like an eternity.

The parents were almost as bad as the babies. If I wasn’t being grabbed or touched or spit on by the baby next to me, and if the back of my seat wasn’t being kicked by the baby behind me, and if neither one of them happened to be shrieking bloody fucking murder at the top of their lungs, then it was the parents who were bouncing the seats or relentlessly baby talking without a breath.

I have fucking had it with this shit. NO MORE BABIES ON AIRPLANES! Period.

What the fuck is so important that a baby has to do in another city or country?

Hire someone to take care of your baby, or use a form of transportation that does not put your screaming fucking monster in a small place with lots of people who don’t deserve the abuse of your life.

Or better yet, stay home and take care of your baby. Seriously.

Babies do not need to travel and babies do not need to eat in restaurants.

I could go on, but I hope you understand the point by now.

Babies, too, must travel in airplanes

I have received a lot of responses to my two articles about the presence of loud babies in airplanes and restaurants. (See The 18 & Over Airline and No Babies on Airplanes)

It seems I may have touched a nerve for people on both sides of the issue.

Some have made some valid points about the challenges parents go through, while others have been in support of keeping small children separated from otherwise quiet places.

Because of the number of responses, I’d like to give a little of my space on this website to some people who have slightly different points of view.

I received the following rebuttal on Wednesday:

Mr. Richter, please take this into consideration before lashing out at children:

Nothing makes me happier than to be in the company of the peeps and babble of a youthful infant.

To some people these sounds are annoying, but for me, it is a reminder of how beautiful and precious young life can be.

I have heard it suggested by some intolerant rogues that babies should be banned from restaurants and airplanes, in fact, equating their beautiful sounds with the inconvenience of cigarette smoke.

Well, I’m here to tell you that I think people who don’t appreciate the sweet gift of a child should be given a stern talking-to by his or her parents.

Whom is one who does not realize the delicate flower he once was in his mother’s arms? Has he grown so callous that he cannot appreciate the circle of life itself?

Must he be so self-important as to think only that the bubbling delights, curiosity and bewilderment of a baby are but an inconvenience to the silent earth he so desires?

It is my advice, then, to the gentleman who regurgitates narrow-minded tirades on this so-called “news” site (such as “The 18 & Over Airline” and “no babies on airplanes”) that he should take some time out of his selfish schedule to visit with a little one for a time.

Perhaps the sparkle in a child’s eye, the bewilderment of the world through the eyes of a darling cherub, the warmth and affection of such a helpless angel… Perhaps this will rub off on our incorrigible writer and he may rethink his callous assaults against the most vulnerable little toddlers and their innocent parents.

May this be a lesson to him and to all who scold the young. Babies, too, must travel in airplanes. Babies, too, must eat in restaurants.

All my best, Noreen McCammon (proud mother of 3 darling children!)

Life is so hard. Why me? Oh God, why me?

I’ve been seeing this poster around Stockholm for a few weeks now. I’ve been so distracted by the cute girl that it has taken me several weeks to notice what a total choade the guy on the right is.

20110707-012934.jpg

“God, it sucks being in a popular band with a cute girl. I hate (“love”) getting my picture taken. I just want to go back to my high-tech (“low-fi”) home studio (“HP laptop”) and write meaningful (“derivative and intentionally weird”) songs about my awful fight (“tending to a Nightliner tour bus full of muffintop indie girls with bad tattoos”) against the jagged swords (“400 thread-count sheets”) of life’s bitter agony (“4-star hotels with clean showers and mints on the pillows”).”

Okay. I have to be honest. I don’t know anything about this band Crystal Castles. I just don’t like their name or the look on that guy’s face.

But in order to become a certified spokesperson on their career, for the purpose of this writing, I Googled them and spent up to one minute skimming their Wikipedia page.

As you know, Wikipedia pages are written by unbiased third parties and highly-accredited investigative journalists who have no interest in furthering the band’s hype. They only want to uncover the facts and present informations for the greater cause of expanding the realm of public knowledge.

Think of Wikipedia as the “60 Minutes” of shit nobody cares about. (Why, there’s even a Scott Ritcher page on there, regularly updated, no doubt, by people who are the go-to authorities on all matters concerning me. This means you. Go ahead. Have at it!)

A reviewer’s quote on Crystal Castles’ Wikipedia (“search engine prison”) proclaims the band’s music to be “ferocious, asphyxiating sheets of warped two-dimensional Gameboy glitches and bruising drum bombast that pierces your skull with their sheer shrill force, burrowing deep into the brain like a fever.”

Oh Jesus. I think I’m finished with this now.

Tex-Mex food, Swedish style

On behalf of the Internet, I would like to apologize to any Mexicans or Texans (or Texicans) who have the misfortune to view this reprehensible photograph.

Here we have an example of what someone in Sweden apparently thinks Tex-Mex food is like: cold beans, dry black olives, diced cucumbers, some type of flavored chips, and geez, I don’t know what that is near the bowl of cheese on the left… pineapples or pears?

I can’t explain why there are four empty shot glasses on the shelf with the chips. (Did some hombres already come by and drink all the tequila?) Nor can I give any reasonable justification for the price of 99 kronor (about $16 US). Sure, it includes health care and college, but…

About the only things that make sense here are the jalapeño peppers and the warm ground beef. Some good that does this vegetarian. The flour tortillas under the red cover on the right were also kept slightly warmer than room temperature.

Swedish people are just too clean, organized and opposed to flavor to do Mexican food right. This society is just a li’l too lagom for the excitement, mess and spiciness that really sloppy, hearty Mexican food would wreak.

I’ve been in Sweden almost two years and I can’t recall ever hearing a pick-up truck driving by blasting mariachi music or seeing a single dude wearing a poncho and sleeping under his sombrero. Not a single one.

Again. My apologies if this photograph has caused you any hardship.

I’m Still Here

20110522-023057.jpg

I recently saw the Joachin Phoenix film “I’m Still Here” which documents his two-year hoax of leaving acting to become a hip-hop performer.

A few people have asked me if I could recommend seeing the film. My answer is an uneasy no. Uneasy because I think parts of the film are pure genius and other parts are simply hilarious (in a good way – they’re supposed to be funny and they really are).

The film is just too long and a few scenes drag on past the point of relevance to the film. However, I can certainly see that this film has the potential to be a huge cult favorite. Perhaps it will become one of the ultimate “party films.”

In America, the popularity of the party film has been growing steadily, but it hasn’t quite made its way to Sweden. At Swedish parties, there is talking and music and booze, but outside of New Year’s Eve, I have never seen a television turned on.

It’s not uncommon in the United States for a movie to be playing at a party, even if there’s also music on in another room. “Old School” and “Snatch” are fantastic party films, as well as any movie filled with classic, quotable lines.

I’m not a filmmaker, but I have had an urge since seeing “I’m Not Here.” My urge is to edit the picture down to a version less than an hour in length. That’s a film that would have a quick tempo and would be one I could recommend.

This will probably never happen because I’m busy enough with my own projects. I may also feel differently if I watch “I’m Not Here” again, now that I know why to expect. The pace might be better when I know what I’m looking at.

I’m leaving for two weeks in America on Tuesday, so I’ll report back if, in fact, “I’m Not Here” has taken its rightful place at US parties, alongside keg stands and plastic Solo cups.

Historic A-hole August Strindberg

August Strindberg was one of Sweden’s most famous anti-Semites and male chavinist pigs. Born in 1849, he labored for years as a writer and eventually enjoyed great success, until he finally left everyone alone (“kicked the bucket”) in 1912.

Strindberg’s work as a playwright was indisputably innovative and groundbreaking. Certainly ahead of his time, he is known for developing methods of storytelling that proved impossible to portray on stage – multiple instances of the same character, inner thoughts and monologues, non-linear storylines. Decades later and after his death, with the advent of film, these techniques could ultimately be accomplished.

It could be said that August Strindberg was one of the world’s first screenwriters, long before screens were being used for more than shadow puppets. I mean, lots of things could be said about him. I have even said some before, when discussing the Karlaplan neighborhood where he lived in Stockholm. (And just to be clear, I mean no disrespect to the fans and purveyors of shadow puppetry.)

Apparently, Strindberg’s creative invention and experimentation earned him a pass in the historical record for being a total douchebag in real life.

He is still respected today as a great writer despite his unforgivable personal views on the inferiority of people who weren’t Gentiles or males.

In the event that any passers-by of his day were unaware that he was a total asshole, Strindberg grew a ridiculously stupid moustache to advertise his enormous ego. Even a common person uneducated in the arts could tell what a dick he was just by looking at him.

He also refused to smile and, anytime there was a camera present, he stared into it with a humorless death gaze of total derision.

Of all the great artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians who have made Sweden proud – you know, like Roxette, Yngwie Malmsteen, Lisbeth Salander, Elin Woods, Maria Montazami and Kalle Anka – unfortunately that wonderful work is tarnished by this certified dill-hole, August Strindberg.

He married three times, each time to an increasingly younger woman. By the time he was your age, he was married to someone much younger. These are probably facts.

While some fans or critics may cite his writings dealing with inequality of the sexes as an argument for the idea that he understood women, I have a feeling the three women who were lucky enough to divorce him (two of them after only two years of marriage) may disagree with that characterization.

Of course, I don’t know for sure, on account of never having met any of the people I’m writing about. This is all speculation, you see, since all these turkeys have been dead for a long time.

20110421-114347.jpg

Every morning, I pass through the Rådmansgatan subway station which is adorned with art paying homage to Strindberg. As a result, I am intimately familiar with his dumbass moustache. I may start walking to work to avoid starting my day by seeing his face of contempt. It would certainly be worth the price of a bicycle.

But to the point, just because you write eloquently in the voice of someone with sensitivity, that doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to be insensitive when you’re not writing. That’s putting it courteously.

If one attempts to make connections between the work of artists to explain their personal lives, there’s no reason we couldn’t arrest Stephen King or Alfred Hitchcock on suspicion of murder. Well, maybe there’s one reason we couldn’t arrest Alfred Hitchcock. Bad example.

Jeffrey Dahmer was apparently very creative in the kitchen, but…

Okay, so Strindberg was a great artist, but just like Eric Gill, what he was doin’ backstage kind of makes you want to avoid visiting his art.

Strindberg is buried at Norra Begravningsplatsen in Stockholm. His grave is marked with a magnificent, gigantic, black granite cross, carved with gold-leaf lettering. You see, God is very impressed with this sort of thing.

Some of the other graves around it, like Ingrid Bergman’s for example, are very small and modest. The Lord certainly hasn’t noticed that these lesser characters have even died, much less lived in the first place.

But it’s not like a fancy, expensive Christian grave could have saved Ingrid Bergman from Strindberg’s beyond-the-grave rants anyway. I mean, she was part Jewish, and we all know how keen the Ghost of Strindberg is on those types.

Lady Bergman’s hopes of a peaceful resting place have been further complicated by the fact that she earned three Academy Awards. That just don’t sit well with the Lord’s distaste for Hollywood. So when the Ghost of Strindberg starts going off on tangents around midnight every night, it kinda sucks ’cause God has his back. Ain’t no better hype man than the Lord, y’all.

If you’re in the area of Norra Begravningsplatsen and you need to pee really bad, please stop by to pay your respects Mr. Strindberg.

What is your egg-cracking strategy?

I realized when I typed out this artcle’s headline that a casual reader might think the term “egg-cracking” is a new way to curse.

“Sorry I’m late. I didn’t think that egg-cracking train would ever come!”

“Will you shut your egg-cracking mouth?! I’m trying to think!”

Naturally, I hope this will start something big. I encourage you all to start using “egg-cracking” in your everyday language.

To those readers who are too egg-cracking stubborn to change their ways, I can only say I wish you’d all get off your egg-cracking high horses and live a little.

The original purpose of this article was to solicit advice from the masses in order to determine the best method of cracking an egg on the edge of a skillet (that’s what we call a stovetop pan, suitable for frying eggs).

Scenes from the film Me Cracking an Egg With One Hand and Holding a Camera With the Other

I think I’ve gotten only marginally better at cracking eggs, despite having been frying and scrambling them for decades now. I have done some other stuff, too, I mean I haven’t just been cooking eggs the whole time.

But each time I return to the stove for the purpose of making scrambled eggs, I inevitably end up fishing tiny bits of egg shells out of the mix. That is followed by hosing down the stove in order to free the area of projectile egg whites that have landed outside the skillet zone during the egg-cracking procedure.

So I’d like to open up the comments section below for you to share your egg-cracking strategy with me. (Note: I’m not cursing your strategy. I’m asking for advice with the cracking of eggs.)

A lot of people have trouble cooking eggs. After the recent death of Hollywood ocean liner Elizabeth Taylor, many stories were told of her magnificent life. My favorite came from Daniel Mann who directed her in BUtterfield 8. (Yes, the U is supposed to be capitalized. It’s an old-timey telephone number.)

Taylor’s performance in the film won her the Oscar for Best Actress that year, beating out Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment, among others. (I know, right? How often does a comedy role earn a Best Actress nomination?)

Just how good was Elizabeth Taylor’s acting? The Times of London recounted an story from the set:

“Shooting a scene for BUtterfield 8, the director Daniel Mann handed his star a couple of eggs and told her to pretend to make breakfast at the stove. Taylor’s eyes grew wide. Holding an egg out in each hand, she implored: ‘But what do I do with them?’

“She had never made breakfast in her life. Nor had she been to a football game or a school dance that wasn’t arranged by the studio publicity department. Press releases might try to create the illusion that Taylor was just a simple girl with ordinary dreams, but she was always different from the rest of us, and the public knew it.”

What a splendid life. Truly amazing that all the delicious cuisine she shoveled into her monstrous, salivating food hole, had to be prepared by other people. “Be a dear and fetch me another ice cream and steak sandwich, dahling! And some diamonds, of course.”

Elizabeth Taylor doing some of her “acting” in BUtterfield 8

Another little-known trivia fact about Elizabeth Taylor: despite her glamorous lifestyle, a lot of people didn’t realize that she wasn’t really that pretty. A lot of people think she was a ravishing beauty, but in fact, it turns out that Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren and Ann-Margret were all way prettier. Again, these are probably facts.

Well, almost everyone is prettier than she is now, since they already done rolled her humongous corpse in to a piano case and dumped it in cold, heartless earth beneath the devil’s sinful playground called Hollywood.

CNN and several other reputable news outlets reported* that a “special hearse” was employed for the occasion. The vehicle was bright orange in color and made a beeping sound when it backed up.

But seriously, back to the topic at hand:

How do you crack an egg to avoid getting guts all over the stove and/or eggshell shrapnel in the skillet?

Footnote: *=”did not report”

Säkert! in 3D

My most dedicated readers of this space – and you are undoubtedly one of them – will remember that I am a big fan of Annika Norlin’s bands, Hello Saferide and Säkert.

I wrote fairly exhaustively on the topic a while back, when I had a short note published in the Stockholm City paper. And again that same year when I had the opportunity to see Hello Saferide at the festival called Where the Action Is.

Säkert is Norlin’s Swedish language band and Hello Saferide performs in English. So as I explained in those previous articles, Säkert is a band I fell in love with while barely grasping the language. Their record became a reference point for me as I learned Swedish. It unraveled itself before me a little more with each listen.

An Unexpected Return

For the past several years, amid rumors that Norlin was retiring from music completely and shoving off to live in a commune somewhere, it seemed that if she were to continue in the music world, Hello Saferide would be her focus. Her recent tours and records had been with the English language band, and at least to my limited knowledge, Säkert appeared to be a band that had recorded one record – one great record – and left it at that.

Babel in Malmö is an old church

Imagine my excitement upon returning to Sweden last summer and learning that one-album-wonder Säkert had, in fact, released a second album. Who knew? Within a few months of being back, I saw that Säkert was scheduled to play some shows around Sweden. Fucking wow.

This meant, of course, that I would have to make arrangements to see one or more of these shows with my friend Emma from Malmö. Emma had introduced me to the first Säkert album some years ago, long before the idea of living in Sweden was a realistic possibility.

Säkert in Malmö

So in March, I hopped on a plane to Malmö to visit Emma and to see Säkert quite literally deliver a perfect performance. Everything sounded exactly as it should. Better even. I love it when bands do something different with their songs in the live setting. Nearly every single one of Säkert’s songs was reworked in some way – arrangements, sequences, instrumentation – several of them resulting in jaw-dropping, head-shaking madness. Emma and I weren’t the only ones in the over-capacity crowd at Babel who looked at each other in disbelief of some of these effortless – and sometime raucous – reinventions.

– Continued below Säkert in 3D gallery –

Last weekend the band arrived for two more sold-out shows in Stockholm. The show for the beer-drinkin’ fans sold out post-haste, but I was, however, able to finagle a ticket to the all-ages performance. Regardless of the awkwardness of my freakish height compared to some of the other attendees, and despite being totally psyched up for the show all day, I have to say that I was totally unprepared for how breathtaking it turned out to be.

Säkert in Malmö (in 2D)

Without rehashing everything I wrote in those previous stories, one of the things about Norlin’s songs that make them special for me (someone who typically doesn’t connect with a lot of music on a regular basis) is that I believe her when she’s singing. I believe that the songs are sincere and that they are being delivered with a level of care that respects their importance as pieces of the author’s heart.

That turned out to be very true at this Stockholm show. As much as it hurt a little, I really loved that I could go to a show and have the material touch me and crush me inside. I could go into more details, but I don’t want to trivialize the experience. So I’m going to keep it to myself.

But enough about me. Let’s get to these crazy pictures.

This gallery of pictures from Säkert’s show in Stockholm are produced in red-blue anaglyph 3D format. They can be viewed with standard red-blue 3D glasses (red on the left eye).

There will be increasing amounts of 3D to see in my future articles, so get on board with some specs! If you don’t have any, you can get a free pair a few different ways:

• Buy my 2001 solo album Nashville Geographic. The CD packaging is in 3D and it comes with a pair of glasses. Amazon.com has used copies of it for one dollar.

• Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to:
Free 3D Glasses
American Paper Optics, LLC
2995 Appling Road, Suite 106
Bartlett, TN 38133 USA
or:
Rainbow Symphony, Inc.
6860 Canby Ave. Suite 120
Reseda, CA 91335

• Or you can just order some from Amazon. In Sweden, there are some “fancy” ones available at this link.

 

The Love Affair Between Cats and iPads

A couple months ago, I started working at an awesome job with a magazine publishing company in Stockholm. The company is a huge, family-run, Swedish media empire, built over many generations. Let’s say it’s kind of like the Bingham family was in Louisville or the Hearst family in America. But much, much older.

At the office, I am a member of a stealth, futuristic team which converts print magazines into fluid, moving, living versions, to be read on Apple’s iPad. The office walls are white, the windows are big, the desks are made of natural wood, and there’s virtually no paper to be seen.

Most people expect magazines on tablet devices to be like flipping through a PDF of the print version. This couldn’t be further from the truth, at least for the ones we’re making.

Harry Potter

These magazines on the iPad have all the beauty of full-page magazine layouts, but with the added magic of designs that move on multiple layers. Think of the newspapers in the Harry Potter movies – how they look like a regular newspaper but the pictures are alive and you can interact with them when you want to. That’s where it starts.

(Of course, I’m a grown man, so I’ve never seen any of the Harry Potter movies nor read any of the books. I’m just going by what people have told me. I have certainly never dated a girl who drove a car with Harry Potter license plates or had an awesome dog named Potter. I don’t know the first thing about Miss Granger or the Weasley brothers. Honestly, I’m not even sure what everyone’s fascination is with those dirty little wizards.)

Compared with traditional print magazines (which can be both engaging and hefty) and website versions of the same content (which can be both annoying and forgettable), the iPad represents a wonderful new incarnation for the magazine reading experience.

This is the cutting edge of publishing and you really can’t appreciate it until you see it in action or use it yourself. You really need to drop what you’re doing right now and go buy an iPad so you can finish reading this article on it.

Samsung Galaxy tablet

Any time a groundbreaking piece of new technology finds its way to market, the media is abuzz with excitement and analysis about how it could change people’s lives.

What receives significantly less attention – from both the media and the developers who came up with this new gadget – is the question of how such new advancements will affect cats.

If you have ever been in the company of a cat and you tried to sprawl a newspaper out across the floor or use a laptop computer, you are no doubt aware that these two activities have long been deemed as incompatible with the cat world.

Cats view activities like reading and typing as supreme wastes of valuable time which could be better spent petting them or, frankly, doing pretty much anything else. Simply put, cats don’t understand reading and typing.

My old chum, The Mew, demonstrating the cat world's lack of respect for newspapers.

In their defense, however, if you have never taken a nap on a newspaper, or walked on your computer, you’re doing yourself a grave injustice. It actually is really fun. And if someone is also trying to use the newspaper or computer while you’re doing it, they’ll just have a devil of a time trying to ignore you.

You’ll be treated to a generous dose of what many cats crave more than rubber bands or plastic bottle safety rings – attention.

As much as cats are confused by reading, a lot of people are also dumbfounded by much of the new technology we’re being bombarded with. Researchers call these people “old.” I know all about it. I’m still trying to find the slash, the brackets, the “at” symbol and the dollar sign on my Swedish keyboard.

So if 21st Century technology seems daunting to you, keep in mind that for cats it’s the 63rd Century. You know, because of “cat years” and all.

Knowing that, if we roll back the clock many centuries, to the days of ancient Egypt – the people then were about as smart as the cats are today – even then, mankind had long recognized that cats are really, really stupid.

That ignorance, combined with softness and cuddliness, are some of the main reasons why people like them cats (and ancient Egyptians).

Cats have much of the same appeal as the popular and pretty girls in your ninth-grade class. They seem to never learn anything and yet they are constantly coddled and fawned over. The smart kids just can’t catch a break at Hogwarts. I mean, school.

Some old timey pics from before art was invented.

As compared with the cats who found their way into illustrations by ancient Egyptians – it has been said that the question mark itself was derived from the quizzical shape of a cat’s curling tail – just like us people, today’s cats have a lot more to process in their little heads.

There were no such wonders as televisions or whistling tea kettles in the days of King Tut. Just table scraps and dirt floors. Shit, they were still centuries away from high-tech advances like windows with glass in them and housing which accommodated sanitized ways of pooping indoors without that stank. Some accounts have King Tut himself undergoing a quite modest and primitive entombment, in fact, being buried in his jammies.

Whereas monkeys and even common hillbillies have some depth that includes longterm memories and basic emotions, the knowledge capacity that cats work with is stored inside of what scientists can best describe as “a tiny, cat-sized brain.” (their words, not mine)

Despite this lack of knowledge, these little fuckers are endlessly curious – something that’s true of both cats and scientists.

The Mew is seen risking a fall from a second-floor window in order to climb up a screen. She's in hot pursuit of a fly... or a bug... or something imaginary. My people-brain can't remember. This was 2005.

Researchers describe the so-called “cat’s brain” as a “cute, little bundle of two or three firing electrons.” While that may not seem to be a lot of activity, it is important to remember that those few electrons each fire up to 50 billion times a second. Squared. To the 15th power. Or more.

If you’ve ever wondered what’s going on in a cat’s head – what makes them assault the same piece of yarn for two hours, or never tire of chasing the laser pointer which obviously is a projection and ends up on top of their paws every time they try to smash it (fucking idiots!) – if you’ve ever reeeally wondered what’s going on up there in that furry little head, the answer is “practically nothing.”

Dr. Frank Davidson, one of America’s leading pussy researchers, says, “Cats are so wildly entertaining for precisely this reason. Inside their wee noggins, next to nothing is transpiring. However, that absence of activity is happening about 27,000 times every second. Their shit is quite lit’rally poppin’ off like crazy.” Bloke speaks with a Bri’ish accent to make himself seem smar’er.

While her owner is distracted in conversation, Evie is obviously plotting something... perhaps well-deserved retribution against the corner.

Dr. Davidson’s colleague at Southern Miami University, whose name is also Dr. Frank Davidson, has helped Davidson every step of the way during six years of research into the mysterious mind of the cat.

Much of their investigation centered around viewing the “Treadmill Kittens” video numerous times, in varying states of getting baked.

During their third year intensive experimentation and inquiry, they had what they describe as “a watershed moment.” That’s when they discovered that the word “feline” also refers to cats.

However, that was small potatoes compared to what they’ve been up to lately. The doctors brim with grimalkin enthusiasm when asked about the newest and most revelatory findings.

Ms. Peter Sellers suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from an episode in which she went missing for several weeks in Appalachian Ohio. She returned smelling of skunk and cheap booze. Surprisingly, her dead-behind-the-eyes appearance is a unrelated condition which pre-dates that ordeal.

Dr. Davidson (the second one) explains that contrary to popular belief, their latest research suggests that cats don’t actually have nine lives at all. Rather, cats’ brains are working so quickly “they are actually living the same life nine times simultaneously.” This is why they often eat so fast that they puke all over the place. They think they have to finish eating nine meals before they get full.

Despite not yet being circulated, the doctors’ controversial findings have already been met with considerable skepticism. Their full report is sure to garner even more debate when it is  published in next week’s issue of “Miniature Horse Enthusiast.”

“For any normal creature, having nine lives would be an invaluable way to learn how to make each one last longer or have a higher quality than the previous. A learning curve, if you will. But cats waste all nine of ’em in pretty quick succession.”

(As a side note, the two Dr. Frank Davidsons are not related. This can be a bit unnerving, since they have the same name and they look identical. Their fellow researchers claim to have never seen the two men at the same time, however, a grad student who works in their lab, whose name is also Frank Davidson, says the older one wears glasses and the younger one works second shift.)

The Mew, obviously not doing anything wrong. Just stopping to smell the roses.

(As another side note, despite not being related, the two Dr. Davidsons are the same age and were born on the same day, from the same mother, but in different hospitals. The elder Dr. Davidson was born at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Orlando, while the younger was born at Saint Anthony’s near Orlando.)

A landmark study by Phil Connors, a television weatherman in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, established this theory as the Groundhog Day Effect in 1993.

But Davidson adds that even if a cat has seen that movie four or five times during six or seven of their lives, “they wouldn’t remember it any more than they remember the fact that, even after you’ve pushed it away a million times, you still don’t want their ass in your face when you’re petting them.”

“Halfway through Life #7, our feline friends seem to have just as little respect for gravity as they did in Life #2. And just as little awareness that gravity actually exists.”

While cats may be fascinated by bright, shiny, technical objects, such as the iPad or random high-definition programming on the Animal Planet network, less animated objects don’t hold the same allure. Studies have shown that even though it seems they don’t respect newspapers or books, they are entirely oblivious to the idea that some clothes are black.

Ms. Peter Sellers, elbow-deep in biscuits.

Just as often as they forget that you don’t like their ass in your face, sometimes it’s almost like these li’l rascals have never even seen a spray bottle before. (What is it with these guys? How many fucking lint rollers do we have to buy this month?)

The cats in this laboratory video, for example, appear to believe that the objects displayed on the iPad’s screen are actually under the iPad. Wake up, dummy! It’s a computer!

As far as what cats actually can understand and remember, Davidson (the grad student) says, “Cats have very selective memories and they usually tend to remember just one thing: what feels good. They simply adore making biscuits and gettin’ some knucks.”

“Making biscuits” is a scientific term for the paw-kneading motion cats like to do over and over on soft pillows or your fat-ass belly. “Knucks” are the insane addiction cats have for forcibly rubbing their jaws on things.

Many cats will rub their teeth on your knuckles if you make a fist. Davidson (the one born at Saint Anthony’s) says, “It feels amazing. If you’re a cat is like crack cocaine.”

Does it ever. (Not that I’ve tried crack.)

This photo of The Mew would look exactly the same if it was a video.
That’s how serious she is about stalking yarn.

Wikileaks: No Alarms, No Surprises

The political and diplomatic worlds have been reeling in the wake of a quarter-million pages of confidential US government documents being leaked. Everyone has had an opinion about some part of it.

I hope I’m not alone in thinking this, but I’m not sure what all the controversy is about.

My reaction to every so-called revelation has been, “Duh. I knew that. Everyone knows that.”

These documents don’t so much announce anything new as they do confirm everything we have always suspected.

It turns out that what we tend to believe is the hidden truth actually is the truth.

It’s kind of reassuring in a way.

WHAT WE DIDN’T LEARN

In case you didn’t know, the bottom-line suggestion of all the leaked information is that Americans in positions of power are assholes who think they run the world. They talk about other countries and leaders behind their backs. American leaders always think in terms of how America can use situations elsewhere toward advancing American interests. But you certainly must have already known that was true.

Another tidbit unearthed in these documents is that everybody thinks Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is nuts. A lot of people, including leaders of neighboring countries, live in fear that he’s erratic, unreasonable, and might do something unpredictable or dangerous.

Wikileaks file room: arrow shows the pink folder
of fake documents invented to embarrass Iran,
whose reputation was impeccable before this.

Maybe it’s a bit unforeseen that this belief is held even among some regimes we may think of as being not particularly friendly to the US. It’s at least interesting that you don’t need to agree with the United States to believe Ahmadinejad is off-balance.

The topic of Iran is where some of the responses to these leaks have gotten entertaining.

One of Ahmadinejad’s top advisers, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, told Der Spiegel that he thinks the leaked documents are fake and the US government released them intentionally. Now that would be a surprise. For me, that’s further confirmation that the leadership in Iran is, how do you say, “unique.”

The reporter actually asked him, “Do you question the authenticity of the more than 250,000 documents?” Not exactly, he responded, “When someone wants to suggest something, they include fake information with real information so as to create a certain impression.”

Why, that’s the most shocking thing I’ve heard since Sarah Palin condemned Julian Assange’s “sick, un-American espionage efforts.”

Naturally, the habitually-unaware Mrs. Palin seems to also have been unaware that Mr. Assange is Australian. He was born un-American. I swear, somebody needs to change that lady’s Twitter password.

Secret communications were also unearthed which indicate that Nicolas Sarkozy is the big shit in France and he has surrounded himself with “oui” men. Everybody wants to please the handsome French prime minister with the super hot wife.

I knew this was true when I was in fourth grade and I realized that the rich, good-looking kids weren’t living like the rest of us. What was true at St. Margaret Mary School in Louisville apparently continues to be true at the highest levels of French government. Nice job, little man.

Julian Assange on a recent trip in Sweden

News flash! Canadians don’t really like being America’s little brother. They think Americans are scam artists with guns.

But still, they want to be invited whenever the big English-speaking countries get together to do stuff; stuff like deploying troops, sharing intelligence.

And why not? Canada is the third most populous English-speaking country in NATO, after all. What?! Canada is in NATO? There’s your front page story!

Some things we still haven’t learned about Canada: Do they have a president or a prime minister? Can you name him or her? Whose queen is that on their coins? That’s what I thought. So sad. Nobody knows anything about America’s li’l bro.

The $3.00 way to get out of talking
about politics when traveling.

Despite all this, I have a feeling Canadians would prefer their current arrangement with the United States to any alternatives.

The truth is that Canada is a huge, awesome country that goes largely unnoticed internationally. And because they’re so cozy with America, nobody’s gonna start any shit with Canada. The scam artists with guns below their unsecured southern borders are the best thing that ever happened to the Great White North (John Candy notwithstanding). The cost of securing their gigantic borders and maintaining an army proportionally sized to Canada’s population and land mass is essentially unnecessary.

Besides, Canada’s secret existence makes it easier for American travelers around the world when things like George W. Bush come along. Just slap some red maple leaf flags on your luggage and no Europeans will lecture you about American foreign policy.

A casual, candid shot of Vlad on a normal day.
Someone with a camera just happened to be there.

Did you know that Vladimir Putin is like the Godfather in Russia? News to me. Even though he’s not officially in charge anymore, it’s clear that he’s still the man. The leaked cables referred to Dmitry Medvedev as “Robin” to Putin’s “Batman.” Now, if Batman was really in charge of Russia, you’d have my attention. Instead, again, we learned what we already knew: Medvedev is Vladimir Putin’s little bitch.

Nothing happens if Putin doesn’t like it. And when certain things do happen, the people who did them won’t be trying anything like that again.

Just like the Godfather, if you’re lucky, he’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse. But usually, I wouldn’t expect an offer. Just know which dark arts you’re not supposed to be dabbling in – journalism, for example.

Putin Huntin’

Did you suspect anything less from the dude who organizes photo shoots of himself riding horseback with his shirtless Russian muscles glistening in the sunshine? (Some photos suggest he’s even too much of a real man to use anything over SPF-5.)

Here’s a shocker: Afghanistan is a certified mess. If someone is in the Afghan government, they’re probably corrupt. If someone is in their army or police force, they’re probably corrupt. If they’re in the Taliban, they’re probably corrupt. If they’re from Pakistan or working with the Americans or just in Afghanistan on vacation… shit, if someone is the president of Afghanistan they’re probably corrupt.

I was gonna say all these Taliban guys are corrupt,
but I don’t recognize the one with the pot of chili.

I had no idea. I was under the impression that international meddling in Afghanistan always turned out well.

However, according to this shocking new information, Afghans don’t typically pop out the champagne and crumpets when a foreign army shows up. How rude! And I thought the Vietnamese were ungrateful.

Speaking of excursions of that nature, it turns out that people in the United States armed forces don’t always act respectably toward other cultures and it’s possible that sometimes – just sometimes – when they’re under extreme pressure and away from their families for years at a time – they behave in inappropriate ways.

“Let’s see here… A-H-M-A-D-I-N-E-J-A-D-D-DDDDDD…
Shit, I hate this thing. Can we just call Washington?”

WHAT WE REALLY WANTED TO KNOW

Honestly, I have to say, the biggest genuine revelation in the release of all these diplomatic cables is that people still communicate using cables!

How do you even send a cable? What is that anyway? Is that like a telegram or something?

I mean, I presume “sending a cable” is a secure means of communication. As many people may not know, the US government has its own parallel Internet which is completely separate from the public, civilian Internet. Still, its obvious why diplomats, the Pentagon and the State Department wouldn’t just use phone calls or emails.

Well, we might learn something here after all.

It turns out that a cable may not actually be a “cable” at all. It’s an old timey word from the days when a secure line of communication actually was a physical cable. These days, while they are still called “cables,” they are actually secure, encrypted messages which are sent electronically.

Genuine US Embassy cable obtained by this
website during a lengthy investigation

What is certainly not shocking about all of this is that people are freaking out for absolutely no reason. That’s to be expected.

Perhaps I should say it more clearly: the main reasons people are freaking out (the stories I mentioned above) are not revelations at all.

I’m still waiting for something to get leaked that is not what everybody always thought was true. I’m still waiting to hear something that surprises me… Like, parents actually do understand. Or that one of KFC’s secret eleven herbs and spices is Soylent Green. Or that you can get pregnant by just kissing… but not if do it standing up… or if you’re wearing jeans.

Next they’re gonna tell us that Sweden and Switzerland really are the same country. Again, no surprises. Most people already think that’s true.

(Oh, and by the way, the prime minister of Canada, since 2006, is Stephen Harper.)

Badminton is a Real Sport

Am I the only one who is uncomfortable around naked old men? Oh, everybody is? Cool. That’s what I thought.

Nonchalant coexistence with naked men in places like public showers may be a rite of passage among Europeans, but my American roots – with all the faux-Puritanism instilled therein – are simply not prepared for it.

Shit, honestly, I’ve never really been comfortable in a room full of naked women (you know, like in a so-called “gentlemen’s club”).

Of course, I can only imagine what that must be like. Being a true gentleman, I have certainly never patronized any establishment of such ill repute. Especially not on New Year’s Eve 2006. And I certainly wouldn’t know the names of any of the entertainers, like Jade, for example. You’re barking up the wrong tree with me, mister.

All that aside, I was invited by my Swedish friends Iida and Erik to play badminton on a recent Sunday afternoon. This was during October when it wasn’t yet freezin’-ass cold outside. I expected that we’d set up a net or just hang somewhere outside and hit the little birdie around.

Being American, the badminton games I’m familiar with had always occurred with the backdrop of a smoking grill, a cooler of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a crying baby and the avoidance of a neighbor who wasn’t invited. The games lasted about ten minutes before a neighbor who wasn’t invited or a weird cousin totes harshed the vibe.

That’s not how they roll here. Oh me. So naïve to the ways of the Swedes.

After gathering some racquets, towels and supplies at the apartment, then taking a train, then a bus, we ended up at a huge badminton facility in Stockholm.

It was news to me that a huge badminton facility existed on this planet. Neptune? Maybe. But this planet? I had no idea.

Stockholm's badminton facility as seen from above. You know, in case someone in an airplane or space ship wants to stop in for a quick match.

 

The place had no less than thirty professional, full-size badminton courts available for hourly rentals. These courts are reserved days or weeks in advance, and when we arrived, the building was packed and bustling with at least a dozen matches already underway. In fact, at the turn of the hour, most courts had a new group of people waiting for the switch-out.

While it seemed that a lot of people were there to have fun or get some exercise, some of these turkeys were super serious about badminton. By “super serious” I mean deathly serious.

These people were athletes – assuming stances, wearing game faces, playing intensely, hitting with accuracy and ferocity, and getting genuinely upset when they didn’t execute every maneuver perfectly. Others were so serious that they were doing a half hour of drills and grueling reps (“reps” – that’s sports talk) before the games even began. There was even a Biggest-Loser-Bob-style coach shouting instructions and encouragement at a team of aspiring mintonites (“mintonites” – that’s a made-up word).

For someone like myself, who doesn’t get much exercise and only wears non-full-length britches (“shorts”) for the purposes of swimming or sleeping, an hour of organized, indoor badminton is a lot of work. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun.

Erik and Iida knockin' the birdie around

It was one of those moments (like watching The Pacific on HBO) that makes you realize what a generation of mouse-pushing pussies we all have become. Sitting in tropical rain for a month with a thousand other assholes, eating cold food out of cans, waiting to go into indefinite combat against an insane enemy whose troops are best known for trying to kill you at all costs (believing that dying in the process is an honor). No thank you. I have no need to test my mettle that way. An hour of badminton has already successfully located my so-called mettle.

 

By now, I’m sure you’re wondering when everyone in the story will be getting naked. (“Seriously, dude, where are all them naked men you teased us with in the intro?”) I understand that concern and I’ll get to it. Now.

Okay, so after everyone plays badminton, there are these public showers that are like, well, public showers. I gotta say that there are times when I’m not completely comfortable in a shower when I’m by myself. I mean, there are usually other people in the next room and, well, I’m like totes nekkid. Don’t get me wrong, I like being clean, but I find washing my person to be an intensely intimate matter. I wouldn’t invite anyone to join me unless… well, shit, unless I had at least had met them before. There are other prerequisites as well.

In any event, through ignoring my surroundings and looking at the floor a lot, I survived the public showers at this badminton arena, then made my way to the next Scandinavian rite of passage: the sauna.

Nordic people “taking a sauna” is almost as stereotypical as Irish people “tossing back a few pints” or Germans “making some party.” However, despite being in my second year in Sweden, I had not yet indulged in the local sauna custom.

Let’s pause for a minute. Sorry. I just have to acknowledge that I realize the proper name for the badminton birdie is “shuttlecock” and there are literally dozens of jokes I could be making about that word, naked men in the sauna, and more men in the main hall whacking it across the room for each other, trying to beat their friends off the scoreboard… HOWEVER, this is a very high-class website and I would hate to denigrate its reputation as a repository for respectable, scholarly articles. So let this sentence be the last in which the words “cock” and “whack” will appear.

Appointments with the full-service badminton racquet doctor are unfortunately not covered in the Swedish national health care program.

If you’ve ever been… Cock! … Sorry. If you’ve ever been in a sauna in America, you know that the most offensive thing you could possibly see is manboobs. Why, I’m feeling a bit queasy myself, just thinking about such a hairy sight. I must warn you, dear reader, that sheltered North Americans have truly seen nothing compared to what awaits in a genuine Scandinavian sauna. Let’s just say I kept my towel on and my eyes down. Not every other gentleman was so courteous.

 

It’s really kind of a trade-off. The sauna feels great and you totally get the sensation that both weight and toxins are sweating out of your body, but any comfort that the steam brings you is countered by the unease of not being able to look anywhere but down. And inevitably there is always going to be someone in there who wants to talk. Ridiculous. Swedes never talk – not in the train, not on the street – so why are they suddenly so loquacious when they’re naked?

My Swedish isn’t perfect when I’m relaxed and willing to be chatty, but get me in a sweatbox with a bunch of naked creeps and it really deteriorates quickly. My only real observation was that Japanese men are much more fearsome in South Pacific combat scenarios than they are in Swedish saunas.

I’ve gotten a bit off track with this story, but what I meant to say was that some Swedish people are really serious about badminton – which I’ve learned is a lot of fun and not just played without rules at barbecues – and that Americans are uncomfortable being naked, but Swedish people seem to dig it. And the showers: what’s so wrong with a curtain? I have it on good authority that there’s an Ikea near here. Y’all need me to pick up some drapes for ya? I can do that. My gift to Sweden.

Okay. Good talk. See ya out there.

The Devil Wears Merona

There’s a popular saying in Sweden. “Det finns inga dåliga väder, bara dåliga kläder,” which, although it doesn’t rhyme in English, means, There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.”

How strange. I totally could have sworn that this weather really sucks. Apparently I’ve been misinformed. It’s my clothes that are the problem.

I still have so much to learn about Sweden.

As a person who sold or gave away nearly all my earthly possessions and moved to Sweden with only a single bag, my wardrobe is naturally comprised of just a few simple items.

While I do have a few great vintage plaid shirts from classic brands like Penney’s and Kresge (aka the “K” in Kmart) – some from my father’s closet when he was my age and others from Louisville vintage shops like Hey Tiger and Acorn – most of my clothing can track its pedigree back to a few main sources: H&M, the Gap, and a couple items from Target. It’s all what those in the fashion world call “basics.”

Despite H&M being a Swedish company and there being a location on every other corner in Stockholm, I’ve found their clothes to be surprising un-warm. My winter coat is a Merona from Target and it, too, seems more suited for the type of winter familiar to people in Kentucky or Rhode Island.

And although I love my gloves – a pair of mittens made from recycled sweaters (also from a Louisville shop, 15 Ounce, and built by a Canadian company called Preloved) – they’re not exactly ready for Scandinavian winter.

(Honestly, I’m not turning into a fashion blogger. I promise that in my next article I’ll be back bitching about fonts and about how Princess Madeleine never calls me anymore.)

Today while walking through a swirling blizzard, I must have looked like I was trying to hide from someone. With my hands propped up against the sides of my face as barriers to the flying precipitation, I found myself conspicuously leaning forward, walking as quickly as possible to escape the weather and equally rigid to not let down my guard against the elements.

There are now four ways you can tell that I’m not Swedish. I think it’s cold. I feel cold. I’m acting cold. I look cold.

This type of behavior cannot be sustained. As I have many times in past years, today is the day I dedicate myself to this cause: I refuse to be cold.

Time to layer on the multiple pairs of socks and long underwear. Time to invest in a serious, Swedish-made winter coat. Time to get some clothes that make me feel protected enough to walk on the Moon.

The devil wears Merona. I need to be warm.

Welcome to Sweden

A couple Tuesdays ago, I visited Skatteverket (the Swedish tax office) to apply for my personnummer.

The personnummer is the Swedish equivalent of an American Social Security number. In Sweden, you kind of need this number to do anything outside of just breathing. Not having a personnummer excludes you from anything “official” like opening a bank account or signing up for a monthly cell phone plan.

Sure, you could use cash for everything, which I have long been in the habit of doing, but it really feels nice to be official.

The main walk-in Skatteverket office in Stockholm is almost directly across the street from Centralstation. It’s almost like you can take the train into Stockholm, then just walk across the street and sign up to be Swedish (or at least sign up to pay Swedish taxes).

Inside the building, the first floor is an open space with long cushioned benches and chairs in rows on one side, and a long row of divided countertop stations on the other side. A large digital panel displays a set of “now serving” numbers.

Swedes simply love the “now serving” numbers. Anywhere there’s a line of people waiting for service, there’s almost always a “take a number” machine. Okay, not in bars and restaurants, but organized places like pharmacies, train stations, and banks. They all have ’em.

Despite the green lushness of the cover photo above, taken just three weeks ago, the first snow of the season came last week.

The Skatteverket office is reminiscent of a motor vehicle license branch in the United States, well, except that it’s clean, well-lit, relatively comfortable, and nobody’s screaming or making a scene. Get this: the people working there will answer your questions in a friendly tone of voice without treating you like an idiot for not knowing something.

No sooner did I walk in the door than I was greeted by a young woman wearing a yellow sash that read “fråga mig!” (“ask me!”). I told her that I was there to apply for my personnummer, she handed me the two-page form (all printed in English), a pen, a queue number, and asked me to find her when I was finished filling out as much as I could. It was that easy.

Every greeter wearing the “fråga mig!” sash was equipped with an iPod Touch which wirelessly tracked the visitors’ requests and added them to the queue. I’m not making this up. I seriously wondered to myself if the place could be any more organized or efficient. It was borderline ridiculous how friendly and coordinated everything was.

After completing the form and reconsulting with her, it was about 15 or 20 minutes until my number, B402, appeared on the board.

The waiting area was populated with people, it seemed, from all over the world. There was every diverse brand of human imaginable. Every continent seemed to be represented except maybe Antarctica.

When my queue number appeared, I was directed to desk 13. There, a gentleman reviewed my forms, Xeroxed my passport and residence permit, had me sign on the line, and within minutes, told me, “You’ll get your personnummer in the mail in three to four weeks, then bring it back here and you can register for the social insurance program.” (Americans know this program by it’s political nickname “European-style, socialist health care.” My American friend Ty, who also recently emigrated to Sweden, knows it by the name “The first time I’ve ever had health insurance in my life.”)

When the papers were shuffled and stapled, I asked the man at the desk, “Is that it?” He responded, “Yes, that’s all,” and he declared, “Welcome to Sweden.” My stomach almost dropped and I answered, “It’s good to be here.”

In a testament to Sweden’s legendary efficiency, my personnummer arrived in the mail in a decidedly un-government-looking Skatteverket envelope less than a week later. In contrast, I ordered a copy of a form from the City of Louisville government about five weeks ago and it still hasn’t arrived at my Kentucky office (aka my parents’ mailbox).

I returned to Skatteverket the following week, with personnummer in tow, to register for the insurance system. That experience was equally painless and expedient, and I was assisted every step of the way by people who seemed like they were happy to help. I could write all day about how doing such things in America would be an all-day, totally inconvenient pain in the ass, but I’m sure anyone who reads my writing regularly could predict every word of it.

This week, I registered for Swedish language classes with the national school SFI (basically Swedish For Immigrants). These classes are run by the government, paid for with tax money, and free for immigrants. I can attend four hours per day of classes up to five days a week.

In fact, there are cash bonuses for completing certain levels of the courses within a designated amount of time. I have already begun learning Swedish – last year i paid for six weeks of classes – and I planned to continue learning, but now I can earn some extra cash while doing it. This place just keeps getting better.

At the SFI office, I took a long test and spoke Swedish with an interviewer in order to be placed in the appropriate level. The four-part exam consisted of reading, listening, speaking and writing. I scored perfectly on reading, very well on listening, not so great on speaking, and okay on writing. Hopefully all that will begin to noticeably improve when I start classes on November 1st.

Learning more of the Swedish language is a fantastic and priceless opportunity that will pay for itself every time I speak with someone. And the money they give me as a bonus for doing it will all be reinvested here in Stockholm. In fact, I think I can safely promise to speak Swedish to every cashier who accepts this money when I spend it around town.

The Immigrant

A lot of what makes for good writing is having the time to write.

After spending most of 2009 in Sweden, I’ve been back in America since December. Since being Stateside, I’ve realized that I just haven’t had the time or inspiration to write as much or as often as when I was in Sweden. Certainly, those who follow my articles on this site have noticed the same thing.

Frankly, it’s hard to write about life in Sweden when you’re not in Sweden.

The long road back

In January, I applied for a Swedish residence permit, a process that can take many months – after you finally complete the stack of paperwork and apply – to get an answer.

Legal residency has many of the benefits of citizenship, but is a softer, less permanent version of it. For many immigrants, residency is the first step toward becoming a Swedish Citizen. But for me, I am simply an American citizen who would like to live in Sweden on a longterm basis.

While I have been going through the residence application process this year, I considered writing periodic updates about my progress, but honestly, every time I attempted to sit down and share it, the experience was too nerve-wracking to put into words.

Typically, I prefer to write about things I know about, things I can research, or things I think may be of interest to readers. Applying for Swedish residency, while it was a unique, titlating and potentially life-changing experience, it is largely one in which the main character is in the dark about what’s happening in the story. The entire process is your classic “don’t call us, we’ll call you” experience.

Now that my application has been fully processed, I can more comfortably spill the beans about the whole adventure. Grab a snack.

Residence permit process

To become a legal resident of Sweden, one must apply at the Swedish Embassy in their home country. My home country is God’s Great United States of America (you may know us as “the bad cop”) and our Swedish Embassy is in our nation’s capitol, Washington, DC.

As you can imagine, the paperwork one must fill out is quite comprehensive. Obviously, like any country, the Swedes don’t want a bunch of unsavory characters moving into their country.

As much as any country wants to be hospitable and diverse (Sweden has welcomed more Iraqi refugees than any other nation), they also want to maintain a comfortable environment for the native population. The goals of ensuring economic vitality and security for the country are always primary.

To that end, the Swedish immigration authority, Migrationsverket, wants to know everything about you when you apply: who you are, where you come from, who is related to you, who loves you in Sweden, who is related to them, how many times you’ve been to the country, why you visited, how you’ll support yourself, how much money you have, where you will live, if you really think you can live without Mexican food or high-quality peanut butter, and detailed explanations of why you would possibly want to live in complete darkness for five months out of the year… especially if your home country is open 24 hours, you can take your gun to church, and the place is so plentiful, well, the oceans are practically filled with oil.

Louisville: featuring buildings by Michael Graves (the pink tower on the right that looks like a cash register) and the last structure ever designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (the short, 6-story black box at the front and center).

Despite the careful and meticulous nature of this process, from what I’ve heard, it is downright friendly in comparison to that of legally immigrating to the United States. I’ve read horror stories of families being split up in America due to immigration problems or as a result of painstaking investigations.

In my case, throughout the whole process, I felt like the Swedish officials I dealt with were on my side. Whereas US Immigration agents often seem to be portrayed as adversarial – even going to some lengths to “trick” applicants – it seemed the Swedes were there every step of the way doing everything they could to help me succeed.

I didn’t have to sing the Swedish national anthem. I was never forced to eat a jar of lingonberries or smell any pickled herring. I was never asked a single question about Olof Palme, that creep from True Blood, or Agnetha Fältskog. There were no games, no memorization, and no history tests.

Hurry up and wait

After submitting my documents to the Swedish Embassy in Washington, DC, in January, there was a silent period. This quiet zone can last several months and there’s no way to know how long it will be. For me, it turned out to be two and a half months.

Not knowing what was happening – or what was going to happen or when – was rough. I got really restless during this time.

Finally! Someone to pray for me. I mean, who has the time anymore? Now I can just SMS it!

At first, it was awesome to be camped out in America without a proper job or responsibilities, but after a while, the novelty of temporarily living in Louisville again began to wear off. I was beginning to gain back the weight I had lost last year in Sweden (did I mention the food in America is amazing?) and I was realizing that living without a plan can be as unsettling as it is freeing.

Waiting around to find out what’s going to happen with your own life ain’t easy. It prohibits you from making longterm plans, from seeking regular work, from building relationships, from buying a car, from entering into anything like an apartment lease or an annual cell phone plan.

Essentially, nobody wants to make an investment in someone who is possibly leaving in a few months. It’s hard to just wait and see what’s going to happen.

Luckily, I have some amazing friends who made this entire period a lot easier for me. I never would have made it through with my sanity in check without them.

We’d like to meet you

In late March, I finally received notice that I was being called in for my immigration interview. Heja Sverige! At last, something was happening! Now I just had to set up an appointment with the Swedish Consulate for my interview.

There are more than thirty offices of the Consulate General of Sweden in the United States. The offices are located in places as cold as Alaska and as warm as the Virgin Islands; as expected as New York City and as surprising as Raleigh, North Carolina. The closest one to my hometown of Louisville is the office in Chicago, just four and a half hours away by car. I picked that one. My interview was scheduled for early April.

A secret patch of Swedish soil

The Swedish Consulate’s office is a nondescript space of no more than six small rooms on the nineteenth floor of a downtown Chicago office tower. To enter, you walk in through one of those electronic glass doors that is always locked unless an important person activates it for you from the other side. (Further proof that all Swedish people are vampires: they have to invite you in.)

Outside the Consulate's office, post-interview in Chicago

The tiny lobby is lit by fluorescent tubes and decorated with framed portraits of the King and Queen. A coffee table is stacked with magazines and books about Swedish life (all beautifully photographed and designed, of course). Seating is provided for four or five guests and a doctor’s office-style sliding glass window is on one wall, through which reception is offered and forms are passed.

I really wanted to take some pictures of the space for the purposes of sharing them here – if I ever actually got around to writing this article – but more importantly, I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize my chances of making a good impression. Hence no photos of the inside of the office.

I was told that the Swedish Consulate’s office is technically Swedish soil, so it felt reassuring to be back. (I’ve also been told that whenever a Van Halen song is playing, you’re technically in America, but I don’t know if that’s true or not.) The inside of the office actually did feel notably more Swedish than Andersonville, Chicago’s Swedish neighborhood.

And coincidentally, within the same few blocks of the consulate’s Michigan Avenue office, South Africa, Spain, the Czech Republic, Argentina, Japan, Italy, Pakistan, Ireland, Turkey, France, El Salvador, Switzerland and several other countries also have consulships. It’s like a bureaucratic EPCOT Center.

Interviews are my specialty

I love the idea of interviews. 60 Minutes is my favorite TV show. I always think the best magazine articles are the ones in which the writers simply coerce the subjects into telling their own stories. Vanity Fair comes to mind. I have even published thirteen editions of my own magazine called K Composite that is comprised almost entirely of interviews of my friends.

Watching SVT's live Internet feed of the Swedish Royal Wedding in Kentucky by hooking the Mac up to the TV.

What I kind of don’t love about interviews is being on the receiving end when I’m trying to get something. Job interviews are probably one of the things that make me feel the most uneasy.

For some reason, when I have run for political office in the past, being interviewed on television or for the newspaper barely fazed me at all. It was exciting and invigorating, and the same goes for being interviewed for my music.

Once the interview becomes one in which my performance will be subject to approval – one in which there is an invisible, unknown line between acceptable and unacceptable answers – all comfort goes out the window.

So despite my interviewer being very friendly, helpful and accommodating, this interview was anything but relaxing. I have dreamed of living in Sweden since the first time I visited more than ten years ago. Now I have awesome friends and loved ones in Sweden, and my chances to really make it happen have come down to this one interview. Oy vey.

The best advice I could give to anyone reading this, who may also be going through the process, would be to just try to relax. It’s easy to get carried away with the thoughts of how devastated you’ll be if it doesn’t go well, but that should be the farthest thing from your mind. I tried to remember that as I walked in.

In the hot seat

The interview itself is kind of a blur when I think back on it. It took place in a small office with big windows. I was seated beside a desk where a 50-ish Swedish woman was facing both me and her computer. The screen was in my field of view, framed by the backdrop of a foggy downtown Chicago morning and the smaller buildings outside the window.

After a brief introduction, she opened a blank Word document and began the interview. The Q-and-A was conducted in English and while I spoke, she converted everything I said into a narrative story in Swedish. I understood almost all of what she typed. It lasted about 30 minutes. Maybe less. When we were finished, she asked me to sign a form, and I was on my way.

On a couple of occasions during my visit to the office – when I expressed thanks, greetings or farewells – I spoke Swedish to her and the other people I encountered in the office. They always answered me in English. I knew it! The Swedes really are trying to keep Swedish to themselves!

Ombord!

Metric of course. Those are mid-70's at night at mid-90's during the day. The humidity is a different story.

In mid-May, about a month after my interview, I received word that my application for Swedish residency had been approved. Helt otroligt! Weeks later, when I received my US passport in the mail with my Swedish residence permit affixed into it, I honestly could not stop looking at it. It remains one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. Naturally, it’s my prized possession.

When I arrive back in Stockholm in a couple weeks, I’ll apply for my personnummer and settle into life in Sweden. Just in time for the cold, dark winter.

I’ve been told that no one ever moved to Sweden for the weather or the food. I believe that (though Louisville’s weather this summer hasn’t especially been ideal). However, there are plenty of other reasons to go.

This ain’t a reality show or a diary, so I won’t bore you with the fascinating, sexy details of my personal life. Suffice it to say that I’ll miss a lot of amazing people in America and a lot of great food, but I’m immensely excited about being surrounded by Sweden and within arm’s reach of the people and places I love there.

Tack så jätte mycket to everyone who helped me start this new chapter in my life. It is with great humility and honor that I accept this opportunity to be fake-Swedish.

Now somebody give me a job!

Block This Application: Life After Social Networking

I recently deleted my Facebook account. Although it occurred to little or no fanfare, it was a long time coming.

Facebook was a nice way to stay in touch with people near and far, especially given that my life has been spread across two continents in recent years. But the site ultimately became more of a burden than a joy. It seemed every login in was followed by a marathon of clicking “ignore” to a dozen different requests.

Who is this person? Why do they want to be my friend? How is it possible that I don’t know, since we have 67 common friends?

Bill Gates acknowledged in the New York Times that he once had a Facebook account, “but every day ‘ten thousand people tried to be my friend.’ He said he spent too much time trying to decide ‘Do I know them? Don’t I know them?’ Ultimately, he said, ‘I had to give it up.” Amen, Four-eyes.

That megarich supernerd was right. The number of daily requests wasn’t ten thousand for me, but it was enough to contribute to the overall feeling that Facebook was more of an imposition than a convenience.

Several months ago, before I escaped the whole thing, I tried to establish some boundaries on Facebook. By grouping my “friends” into categories, then limiting access to particular parts of my profile based on those groups, I hoped to customize my experience in the site into something tolerable – to make it what I wanted it to be.

For instance, my contacts in the “Actual Friends” category could see everything on my profile, whereas my contacts in the “People I Know” group had limited access. Still another group called “X” included people I had met only once or were business connections. You know, people it may be nice to stay in touch with but also people who I don’t want up in my personal business.

Before this, I had already been limiting my own access to excessive or annoying updates by hiding other people’s updates from my view. This happened on an ad-hoc basis whenever someone bothered me or wasted the space. Pictures of your baby? Hide. … Three updates in an hour? Hide. … Constant nonsense about Lost, True Blood or Twitter? Hide.

After a few months of limiting access and grouping people into boundary-specific sets, it turned out that much of the problem wasn’t with all these people. The problem was with me.

I was simply not adapting well to the idea of all these people being mixed together nor my new role of patrolling and maintenance.

I had this same adverse reaction to my first cell phone sometime in the mid-90’s. In a technological homage to Muhammad Ali, I threw my cell phone out the window of my car while crossing the Ohio River on the Clark Memorial Bridge. (I know, I know, that story about Ali throwing his gold medal off the same bridge isn’t really true, but it seemed like an apropos watery grave for such invasive devices.)

In so many words, the Internet has really screwed up how people interact with each other. While it has made people much easier to find it has also made people harder to lose.

In place of letter writing which used to take days – or even phone calls which were natural conversations – Internet communications are delivered in a second. As soon as something is sent it is delivered. There is no pause between sealing the envelope and waiting for the reply. And on a site like Facebook, many of these personal notes and interactions are on public display. (Maybe people felt the same way when mail delivery began on trains insead of horses, or when the first public announcement kiosk was put in a town center.)

It is also entirely possible to build an online relationship that doesn’t actually exist in real life, or at least one that doesn’t translate when it goes face-to-face. People have different personas online than they do in person. People say different things online and the way they say them is open to more interpretation, not only from the recipient but from a wider audience of associated people.

Perhaps most importantly, everyone is on Facebook for a different reason. Each person brings their own ideas and expectations of how people should behave when they join the site.

Do I really want to be “friends” with someone I went to middle school with and haven’t seen since? Do I need to be in contact with everyone I meet on tour? Do I give a shit if someone I worked ten years ago with just refinished their deck? Do I want to see pictures of their bratty kids with chocolate on their faces? Do I need all the negative energy in my life of constantly having to say “no” to people?

If someone adds me and that person’s reasons for being on the site are different than mine, it opens up a whole can of worms and explanations. Before all this, we could have just been two people who peripherally knew each other and said hello when we happened to meet. Now, if I say “no” I feel bad and the other person feels offended. If I say “yes” out of guilt, then I feel like I’ve been coerced into doing something I didn’t want to do, and the other person might feel like we’re actually friends. Jesus, who even knows what the other person thinks?

As my actual, real-life friend Bob said, there’s no way to know what’s in the unwritten social contract that any particular person has with you when they add you as a friend.

Therein lies one of the biggest pitfalls of this kind of networking: use of the word “friend” rather than “contact” or “connection.” Truthfully, that’s what most of these people really are.

Being a member of a social networking site introduces and entirely new set of questions and decisions into your life. It makes a lot of identical information about you available to your friends, your peripheral acquaintences, your significant other, your business contacts, hell, sometimes even your parents or your exes. The fact is that I have distinctly different relationships with all those people. I have a different and unique dynamic with everyone I know. To think that all those people should be privy to the same forum is absurd and inherently unnatural.

The ease with which people have become comfortable divulging and sharing personal information is alarming. Not me. I will thank you to mind your own affairs, sir.

The average person doesn’t have more than a handful of true friends. I know for sure that a very tiny percentage of the hundreds of “friends” I had on Facebook are actually people that I could comfortably go out to eat with.

It has been said that any friend will help you pick out furniture or find a new apartment, but a true friend will help you move.

Perhaps that’s the way it should stay. I still have a phone, an email address, a mailbox and a face. Those always worked for me before. Maybe I’ll have a change of heart at some point, but for now, Facebook is not for me.

Sigvard Bernadotte: Design Prince of Sweden

Part 2 of 2 on the life of Sigvard Bernadotte. See the earlier story of his battle to be reinstated as a prince at this link.

While Sigvard Bernadotte may not have left our world as a prince, he is commonly referred to as the “Design Prince of Sweden.” That title is perhaps even more honorable because it hails his contributions and accomplishments rather than simply a name someone can be born with.

Bernadotte is one of the few people born into the Swedish royal family who was able to carve out a name for himself and to have a direct, lasting effect on the daily lives of ordinary people.

While you may never have known his name or face, you are likely familiar with his work as a graphic artist and industrial designer. You may even have a piece of his work in your home.

During Sigvard Bernadotte’s career as a graphic and industrial designer, he amassed an impressive and influential body of work, the products of which – calculators, can openers, flatware, radios – have found their way into literally millions of homes and offices around the world. Under the shadow of his fight to regain his royal title, Bernadotte blazed his own way, building a reputation and legacy as one of Sweden’s most famous and revered designers.

The clearest indication of his global impact is the simple fact that many people who are familiar with the Swedish Royal Family recognize the royals only by their titles – such as King Carl XVI Gustav – yet they are unaware that the family’s last name is Bernadotte. Sigvard Bernadotte arguably made the Bernadotte name more recognizable as his own than it is for the royal family he was denied a place in.

Hard to believe, I know, that some dude who basically drew pictures of tea kettles for a living could have been so influential. Maybe if you’ve ever burned your hand on ugly, crappy, old tea kettle or had something slip out of your grip you can appreciate the work that goes into making the simple things in life more livable.

Bernadotte’s ubiquitous 1957 Virrvarr pattern has been used on everything from countertops and cutting boards to blankets from Sassabrassa to American floors by Formica.

From an early age, young Sigvard was influenced by his great uncle, Prince Eugén. His great uncle was recognized as much as an artist as a member of the royal family. Eugén became known as the “Painter Prince” and earned a stature as one of the top artists of his day. (That day was a reeeeeally long time ago. The Painter Prince lived from 1865 to 1947.)

Sigvard recalled his great uncle’s example in a 2002 interview with the now-defunct but nonetheless gorgeous Stockholm New Magazine, saying that Prince Eugén’s attitude of making his own way in the world was an unforgettable early inspiration.

Eugén reportedly advised Sigvard’s father, Gustav VI Adolf, to not feel bound by his nobility. “Gusti, look at me. I’ve done quite well for myself,” he proclaimed, implying that a man could be whatever he chose in life. Amen to that, brother. Don’t let the man keep ya down, Siggie.

A sampling of kitchenwares designed by Sigvard Bernadotte. Click images for larger views.

Young Sigvard took this sentiment to heart post haste. At age 16, he became the first member of the royal family to ever graduate from high school. Apparently it didn’t take much to be an overachiever in that family. He was born in 1907, so we’re talking Class of ’23 here.

Within a few years he had upped the ante to become the first Swedish royal to graduate from college. He earned multiple degrees at Uppsala University, studying art history, English and political science. As he had grown up the Duke of Uppland, it was somewhat notable that the local duke had graduated from the local university.

Being among common people quickly became a theme of his life. From there, Sigvard was off to studying theater in Munich. (Slow down, dude, you’re making us all look lazy!)

After a couple more years, Sigvard was working as an apprentice under famed Swedish artist Olle Hjortzberg, famous for designing the 1912 Stockholm Olympics poster.


Hjortzberg can be credited as a significant, early influence toward Sigvard’s eventual focused and discplined style. Stockholm’s Aftonbladet newspaper described Sigvard’s style in a postmortem retrospective by saying “His idiom was tight and stylish.” Hjortzberg’s trademark style was just that.

At age 23, after leaving his appreticeship under Hjortzberg, he began sharing his time between crafting silver pieces for Georg Jensen in Copenhagen and directing films and doing set designs for MGM in Hollywood.

He didn’t have to do any of this stuff. Being born into royalty, he could have just as easily sat on his royal ass in Sweden. He wasn’t a prince in Germany where he studied drama. He wasn’t a prince in Denmark where he designed silver. And he certainly wasn’t a prince in California where he worked on films. Come to think of it, after he married a commoner in 1934, he wasn’t a prince anywhere.

Finally settling down a bit at age 43, Sigvard Bernadotte teamed up with Acton Bjørn to establish the cleverly named Bernadotte & Bjørn industrial design studio in Copenhagen. That was 1950.

As Scandinavia’s first company dedicated exclusively to industrial design, you can’t really understate what a ground-breaking and influential move this was. The recognition that Scandinavian countries now enjoy as design capitals of the world can be traced back to this forward-thinking move. It seems only appropriate that Swedes and Danes collaborated to make it happen.

Bernadotte & Bjørn specialized in what has been described as “functionality with a human element.” They were very much inspired by American ideas and practicality, but brought a refined simplicity to their work.

The company grew with Sigvard dividing his time between design work and actively pursuing clients. Whether the items were kitchenwares for Husqvarna, flatware for Scandinavian airline SAS, bowls for Rosti, radios for Bang & Olufsen, it was functional objects that were his greatest joy, so he sought clients whose products were used in everyday life.

In 1953, Sigvard published a book as an homage to the craft he so loved. Almost as cleverly named as his company, his book Industrial Design was also revered for its simplicity and beauty.

Before long, Bernadotte & Bjørn expanded to establish branch offices in Stockholm and New York. The firm boasted an impressive list of international clients – clients who became as known for smart design as Bernadotte & Bjørn themselves. Having produced everything from tables and chairs to eyeglasses, if you had the money, you could conceivably outfit your home entirely with Bernadotte & Bjørn designs.

His reputation was so solidified by the early sixties that Sigvard became president of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design and served in that capacity for nearly three years. He also co-founded the Society of Swedish Industrial Designers.

After fourteen years of innovative collaboration with Acton Bjørn, it became time for Sigvard to strike out on his own again. He did that in 1964 by establishing his own design studio in Stockholm. Again, a real joker with naming things, he dubbed the studio Bernadotte Design AB. (“AB” stands for “aktiebolag” and is the Swedish equivalent of “corporation.”)

Bernadotte Design continued cranking out the goods and Sigvard continued his hands-on approach. His house of designers was said to have enjoyed his constant involvement, and the new company quickly covered the ground from classical dinnerware to the logo of the Marabou chocolate company – as omnipresent in Sweden as Hershey’s is in America.

To chronicle his life’s adventures, he published another book in 1975. This one, Krona Eller Klave (“Heads or Tails“), was his autobiography. The book debuted when he was 68 years old, though he would live another 26 years after its publication, barely slowing down before his 2002 death at age 94.

Sigvard Bernadotte’s designs have proven to be timeless. The practical sensibilities he brought into his designs for usable, everyday items still balances the lines between retro, modern and futuristic. His classic silversmith work is represented in the permanent collection New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Even now in 2010, manufacturers are producing new items based on his designs. Swedish eyewear maker Skaga has just released a beautifully simple line of eyeglasses from Sigvard Bernadotte’s drawings from the 1960’s.

I need a new pair of glasses and I think I found just what I’m looking for here. How amazing would it be to be able to use one of Sigvard’s designs every day to see my own design work with more clarity? Now it’s just a matter of deciding which ones I want and then saving some dollars and kronor.

Current Swedish Princesses Madeleine (left) and Victoria (center) at the opening of a 2008 event honoring Sigvard Bernadotte’s design work.

Despite decades of fruitless appeals to his nephew, King Carl XVI Gustaf, to restore his princely title – some would say being a “royal pain in the ass” – recognition and appreciation from the current royal court is not entirely absent.

In the summer of 2008, both current princesses, Sigvard’s great nieces, chaired the grand opening of an exhibition of his lifelong work in pioneering Swedish industrial design.

The exhibition at the Sofiero Park in Helsingborg displayed “a wide range of Sigvard Bernadotte’s rich and multifaceted designer efforts… drawings, silver objects from Georg Jensen, typewriters from Facit, kitchen furniture from Formac, housewares from Moderna Kök and Rosti, and filmed material.” The event was covered by Life Magazine.

The princesses’ brother has also doled out the acknowledgments. Following in his notorious great uncle’s footsteps, the current Prince of Sweden, 30-year-old Prince Carl Philip, is now working in graphic and industrial design.

In an interview last year with the magazine Hus och Hem (“House and Home“), Carl Philip’s style was described as modern, simple and timeless. The article contains a gallery with images of Carl Philip’s and Sigvard’s tablewares.

Sigvard Bernadotte’s 1966 flatware designed for SAS Scandinavian Airlines (It’s true, they really used to hand out knives during flights.)

Presumably during a break the prince was taking from driving absurdly fast, interviewer Stefan Nilsson asked the inevitable question, “Is Sigvard Bernadotte is a role model?” Carl Philip complimented his great uncle, “He created many great things. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to talk to him about design because he passed away before I decided that I would become a designer.”

Nonetheless, one could easily draw a parallel between Prince Eugén’s influence being passed to his great nephew Sigvard, and that in turn, being passed to Sigvard’s great nephew Prince Carl Phillip.

Some of Carl Philip’s notable work is a set of silver tableware for Swedish cutlery house Mema/GAB, the first new set of silver the company had produced in 30 years. Great Swedish design will live on in the royal family, it seems.

Aftonbladet has a small gallery featuring highlights of Sigvard Bernadotte’s life and work on their site.

If you haven’t yet seen the earlier story of Sigvard Bernadotte’s battle to be reinstated as a prince, it is still available at this link.

The Word on the Street (and why it isn’t “sorry”)

The Korean language has seven different levels of familiarity that can be used when a speaker is addressing someone. These “honorifics” indicate the distinct relationship the two people have with each other. In particular, the way someone would address a senior citizen is different than the way one would speak to a student, peer or salesperson.

These levels of familiarity can differ even within a single conversation. In any language, the phrases a police officer uses when addressing a citizen are dramatically different than the words that civilian choses in response.

Koreans take the idea of honorifics to extensive measures in their language, and this is a drastically more complex version of what we are accustomed to in the western world.

The German language, for example, essentially has two basic levels of respect, the polite (“Sie“) and the familiar (“du“). Similarly, Swedish has just two forms (“ni” and “du“). However, in everyday Swedish language, the polite “ni” is being used increasingly more rarely.

While its obituary has not yet been completely readied for publication, the slow death of “ni” has been underway for some time. I first learned of its decreasing usage on a Swedish language instructional program that was produced more than fifteen years ago. The program was on a cassette tape, if that gives you any idea of how long “ni” has been on its way out the door. As far as I can tell, “ni” is still around and I’ve heard people use it, but it exists now largely as a term of respect used for and by elders.

My impression is that English is one of the world’s most casual languages, based on its widespread usage, its relentless reinvention through the production of popular slang, and because it has already reached the point of having just one level of honorific address (“you”).

In English, the familiar “you” can be softened and customized with extra words of respect to create the feel of something more polite. For instance “you’re next, sir” or “here you go, ma’am” are a lot more reverent than simply using “you.” In isolated instances, such as addressing a judge or member of royalty, other additional (but rare) English terms may be used, like “Your Honor” or “Your Highness.”

Despite the prevalence of casual language in the United States, it’s still pretty hard to imagine someone reasonably trying to get an American police officer’s attention as informally as “Hey, you!” More likely, an “Excuse me, officer” would be an appropriate start, with the familiarity of “you” being acceptable only after a friendly conversation is underway. But this may have more to do with the public’s relationship to law enforcement than with any overarching social norms that would be acceptable outside of that dynamic. I’ve noticed that the relationship between the police and the citizenry in Sweden is much less stressed or adversarial than in the US, if adversarial at all.

Some may see the decreasing use of polite forms of address , whether in Sweden or the United States, as an increase in casual attitudes toward life and society. When someone is more familiar with their surroundings, they are more apt to be forward. It’s true that a lot of boundaries have been brought down and a more level field of commonality has become customary since the formality that definitively separated classes, races and genders as recently as the 1700’s.

Still, simple politeness can go a long way.

In August of last year, I was walking around, exploring the Kulturfestival in Stockholm. The center-city streets were lined with booths selling regional foods and stages featuring musical performances by every genre imaginable.

Royal Swedish Opera at Gustav Adolfs Torg, August 2009

As I turned a corner to walk through what is usually a busy intersection at Gustav Adolfs Torg, I was shocked to find the entire plaza filled with thousands of people. It was mind-blowing to suddenly see so many people because, from around the corner, I hadn’t heard any of the noises you’d typically expect to find a crowd of people making. Thousands of Swedes were standing in complete, respectful silence, attentively facing a huge stage upon which the Royal Swedish Opera was performing with a full orchestra.

No one was shouting, hooting, hollering or even talking loudly. Nary a “whooohooo!” was heard. Only once was an unreasonably audible motor vehicle noticed. Coming from Kentucky, where outdoor festivals tend to be rowdy free-for-alls, I couldn’t help but feel, as I made my way into the center of the crowd, that the eerie silence among thousands of people was truly surreal. This was the largest public display of politeness I had ever witnessed.

Stockholm Midnight Marathon on Götgatan, August 2009

Later that night, the populace let its hair down while cheering on runners in Stockholm’s Midnight Marathon. The race snaked through the rainy city on blocked-off streets. The entire route was lined with clapping, shouting Stockholmers – even cheerleaders and DJ tables – reveling and encouraging a mass of athletes from every level.

Despite all the courtesy that comes in the form of hushed reverence for occasions like a free outdoor performance of the opera, one big difference that many Americans notice about Swedes when they visit Stockholm is that every single person seems to believe they own the entire sidewalk.

On any given day, if a Stockholm sidewalk is full of people and an American is heading directly toward a Swede, it is easy to determine which one is American: the one who gets out of the way to allow the other to pass. If nobody backs down and a horrible collision occurs, you still have a second chance to determine which character is from the United States: the one who apologizes for bumping into the other.

Perhaps Americans apologize too much – not just for simple infractions like walking in front of someone who is looking at items on a grocery store shelf, accidentally bumping into someone, or building a heartless military empire of capitalism on the shoulders of the world’s impoverished – or maybe Swedes just don’t feel it’s necessary to apologize for the minor casualties that everyday life in a big city can produce. These bumps are inevitable. Somewhere in the middle is perhaps a reasonable balance.

After about a year Sweden and other parts of Western Europe, since I’ve been back in Louisville, the politeness and hospitality in Kentucky have been overwhelming. If you’ve gotten used to expecting everyone to be quiet and respectful in a different way, all the outward graciousness can seem absurd if not excessive.

Aside from the pervasive politeness, bump apologies, door-holding and you-can-go-first mentality, complete strangers in Louisville will make eye contact with a nod or even a verbal “Hey, how ya doin’?” when passing on the street. It’s Annika Norlin’s worst nightmare of Stockholm insecurity.

In a 2006 column in the Stockholm City paper, columnist Sakine Madon described being antisocial as one of Stockholm’s “strict norms.” In the column, which was quoted on The Local‘s blog back then, she wrote, “Start a conversation on the tube or bus? Never! I’ll leave that to nutcases or country bumpkins or foreigners who haven’t blended in with the capital’s strict norms.”

In places like Kentucky, a lot of legend has been based around ideas like Southern Hospitality. In reality, my hometown of Louisville is geographically closer to Canada than it is to Memphis (583 km to Windsor,Ontario, versus 619 km to Memphis, Tennessee, see map). But regardless of its geographical proximity to the Great White North, Kentucky is often considered part of the American South.

Royal Swedish Opera at Gustav Adolfs Torg

I’ve been fascinated with the Culture of Apology for some time now. My website NewsNShit.com chronicles these apologies in realtime as they appear on news sites around the world (see “Apology Central” under the headlines on the front page).

Whether it’s a shamed politician confessing to a room full of reporters with his shamed wife standing off to the side, or a major corporation issuing a statement over how their racy new commercial was not intended to demean any particular or obscure ceremonial rituals of the Navajo tribe nor any persecuted minority of Americans with Fat Ass Syndrome, these apologies are endlessly entertaining.

As a boy raised in Kentucky, here’s how polite I am: I was recently at my

Slussen

parents’ house, and even though no one else was home, when I went to the bathroom, I closed the door behind me and locked it.

I’m sure there are plenty of people (“gentlemen”) reading this who feel like it’s perfectly okay to pee with the door wide open if nobody else is in the building. Well, that’s not how I was raised, sir. I always take this precaution just to be polite in case someone comes home.

Okay, well, maybe part of it is politeness and part of it is a morbid is fear being caught with my pants down.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The last couple images are in 3D and can be viewed with red-blue anaglyph glasses. You can get a pair free if you order my 2001 album Nashville Geographic. Amazon has used copies as low as 86 cents.

Malmö’s Turning Torso

At the southwestern tip of Sweden, just across the strait from Copenhagen, Denmark, lies Sweden’s third most-populous city, Malmö.

Malmö has a population of a quarter-million residents, sitting in an urban area of about 635,000. These Swedes, in the province of Skåne (pronounced Skoa-neh), speak a crazy dialect of Swedish called Skånsk. It sounds like a hybrid of Danish and Swedish.

Skåne was actually part of Denmark at one time, but to the surprise of some, that changed somewhere around 1658. Sometimes news takes a while to spread. On a clear day, Malmö and Copenhagen are visible from each other’s shores. The Öresund Strait which separates them is just 4 km (2.5 miles) across at its narrowest point.

Today, the countries are joined by the Öresundbron, a relatively new bridge and tunnel network which opened ten years ago this summer. At a cost of more than $3 billion, this highway and railroad connection was completely financed by a company jointly owned by the Swedish and Danish governments at no expense to the taxpayers. (That was $3 billion when dollars were actually worth something. Today it would be in the neighborhood of $5.6 billion.) Vehicles pay a toll to access the crossing and the project is expected to be paid for by 2035.

Before the ribbon was cut on the bridge ten years ago, ferries were the primary means of moving people and vehicles between the two nations. But on July 2, 2000, trains carrying King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden and Queen Margrethe II of Denmark (the King’s cousin) met on the artificial island of Peberholm about halfway between the crossing. A ceremony there officially opened the span to traffic which now amounts to nearly 30 million crossers per year.

Like almost all European countries, Denmark and Sweden share an open border. Travelers are not checked or required to stop when passing from one to the other.

For decades, Malmö was most easily recognized by the image of the Kockumskranen, a monstrous, seaside gantry crane which could move 1,500 tons of freight to and from ocean cargo ships in a single lift. In the late 1990’s when plans were announced to remove the crane, a local movement began to establish a new icon for the city.

That movement resulted in the unique, twisting, 54-story apartment skyscraper which towers above the city today. A picture is truly worth a thousand words when talking about this piece of modern architecture.

As the tallest building in Sweden, the Turning Torso was competed in 2006, rising 190 meters (623 feet) above the harbor and offering sweeping views of Malmö and neighboring Denmark, weather permitting. 147 residential rental apartments make up the bulk of the building, filling the 14th to 52nd floors. Offices and conference space make up the rest.

The Turning Torso was designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. His long list of impressive credentials includes the 2004 Olympic Stadium in Athens, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the new PATH railway station at the World Trade Center site in New York.

His work is laden with flowing, sweeping curves and clearly displays his training as both a sculptor and civil engineer. The Torso is based on one of his earlier sculptures and, in fact, other pieces of his artwork decorate the interiors of the tower.

Polaroid of the Turning Torso, August 2008

Calatrava is also the designer of the now-on-hold Chicago Spire, a much more imposing swirling tower that is intended to be the new tallest building in the United States. Financing problems have plagued that project. Calatrava now has a lien filed against the building, claiming the developer owes his architectural firm more than $11 million.

Calatrava’s twisting building designs present a laundry list of uncommon construction challenges. Reckon that’s why they pay him $11 million to draw pictures all day. Aside from the top and bottom floors, the floorplans for most tall buildings and skyscrapers can be identically configured and repeated throughout the building.

Generally speaking, the 4th floor and 23rd floor of a building – and all floors in between – are the same shape and have the same layout. In swirling designs such as the Turning Torso and Chicago Spire, because of their bending and curved silhouettes, the dimensions and shape of each floor are unique. That is illustrated fairly well by looking at the building from above, as in this satellite view of the Turning Torso.

Perhaps more compelling than the outward appearance of the Torso are some characteristics of what it the building actually does while quietly watching over the harbor. The building’s developer and owner, HSB, participates in a program called Detoxifying the Construction Business which influenced many of the materials chosen during construction. The Swedish mindset of conservation and efficiency no doubt also had an effect.

To that end, Turning Torso is outfitted with an active recycling system that converts tenants’ discarded organic waste into biogas to fuel some of Malmö’s city buses. And not only does the Torso generate energy for buses, but the building itself is powered entirely with locally-produced renewable energy.

Picnic with Emma at Västra Hamn, August 2008

In addition to the unveiling of this distinctive, new tower, the area of Malmö surrounding the building, Västra Hamn (“Western Harbor”), has undergone a remarkable reinvention in recent years. Less than a decade ago, this neighborhood didn’t even exist in its current form.

A major effort to reclaim the shoreline has essentially erased a run-down oil port and industrial zone which previously occupied the space, and transformed it into a modern seaside residential area. Today, large, open, green fields give way to rocky beaches and pristinely clean water. Malmö’s residents as well as tourists flock to Västra Hamn’s beaches in the summer.

A long, shoreline promenade was also installed during the neighborhood’s redevelopment and has proven to be popular at all times of the year. In the summer it is populated with people of all ages. The walkway is dotted with small shops and a few vending carts offering ice cream, coffee and snacks.

Västra Hamn includes a number of other notable tenants who have moved into the area. It is home to Malmö’s City Archives, the Media School, the World Maritime University, an ice skating rink and sports center.

I have visited the area several times in the past couple of years, both during the summer and winter. In 2008, my Swedish friend Emma (who lives in Malmö) and I rode bicycles from her apartment to Västra Hamn to indulge in an oceanside picnic on a crisp and perfect late summer afternoon. (Some readers may know that I fancy myself a semi-professional picnic planner.) That sunny day was just a few weeks after Emma and I had visited another famous skyscraper, the Empire State Building, with our mutual friend Wictoria. Good times. The Turning Torso, if located in New York, would be that city’s 71st tallest building.

Maggie developing a Polaroid of the
Turning Torso in August 2009

Last summer I was at Västra Hamn again when my buddy Maggie from Louisville was visiting Sweden. On an unusually hot day last August, we enjoyed a refreshing swim in the crystal clear water. Emma was out of town that time, but she was nice enough to let us trash her apartment and socialize with her capricious cat, Skrållan, while she was away.

The first time I laid eyes on the Turning Torso in February 2008, the weather was as swirling as the building itself. In freezing rain, I scoped out the tower from every angle. When you’re standing on the ground looking up at the edifice, it truly does not look like it should be standing. The sweeps and angles it takes seem just a little too drastic. I have heard that residents have reported the upper floors swaying a bit in the wind, but most tall buildings do have some flexibility.

Not everybody drops in on the the Turning Torso in the same casual and relaxing ways I have. The building made news in August 2006 when, like an extreme sports version of Philippe Petit, the Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner parachuted from a helicopter onto the the top of the building, then jumped again to the ground. A video of that craziness can be seen at this link.

Now, I’d like to invite you to enjoy these handsome photographs from my visits to the area:

The last five views are from the HSB Turning Torso website. The site is in Swedish, but worth a look whether you can read it or not.

James B. Irwin Was the Eighth Man to Walk On the Moon

From K Composite Magazine (2000)

James IrwinJames B. Irwin Was the Eighth Man to Walk On the Moon: The Amorous Tale of America’s Sexiest Astronaut and the Wicked Web of Seduction and Scandal that Surrounded His Secret Life

Everybody knows Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon, and some even know the name of the second guy, Buzz Aldrin. But can you name the other ten guys who subsequently traversed the lunar surface? This phenomenal article will share that precious information with you, as well as many other forgotten or unknown factoids of feeble humanoids and their exploits in trying to leave Earth.

The brown nose of James Irwin

James B. Irwin – or Jimmy as I like to call him – was born in 1930 in Pittsburgh. That was a long, long time ago. Jimmy lived many places and did many things. He was a real bookworm and got all kinds of BS degrees and stuff. He got really into experimental flight and fancy flying schools. Bo-o-o-ring! But no matter what he accomplished academically or as a test pilot, all his achievements would eventually totally pale in comparison to when he became one of the few humans to ever leave the planet.

Florida: more than spring break

At the age of 41, on a beautiful Florida day, the robust man of 160 pounds boarded a rocket. July 26, 1971 was the day that some chumps in work clothes strapped James inside a little soup can by the name of Apollo 15. From the “launch pad” he “blasted off” (that’s space-talk) and traveled to the moon in very, very close quarters with two other guys. I don’t mean nothin’ by that, I’m just sayin’. A man with two first names, David Scott, was the spacecraft commander. Dave was the seventh man to walk on the moon, right in front of Jimmy. They probably planned the order before they left so they wouldn’t fight about who’s getting out first all the way to the moon.

This trip to the moon was a real adventure for these young lads. But as far as the public was concerned, Apollo 15 was small potatoes. Shits and giggles, that’s all. Previous missions had delivered the goods and the public was sufficiently wowwed as a result. Namely, Apollo 11 put the first guys on the moon. Apollo 12 proved we could do it twice, like it wasn’t just luck the first time. Apollo 13… well, you’ve seen the movie about that one. They were almost lost in space, but luckily Tom Hanks bravely made oxygen out of socks and duct tape, and saved the day.

By the time Apollo 15 rolled around in the summer of ’71, the moon was a real stinker in the PR world. Nothing new.

James Irwin on the lunar surfaceNeil Armstrong? Never heard of him.

Sucks to be James Irwin. For the rest of your life, every time somebody mentions Neil Armstrong, you earnestly pipe in with, “He’s not all that. I was the eighth man to walk on the moon!”

They would undoubtedly give you a reassuring smile and augment it with a stock sincere line like, “Heavens, I bet that was really something,” followed shortly by the inevitable rolling of the eyes and an awkward silence while turning away and shuffling off.

Where ya headed? The moon?

Alfred Worden was also on Apollo 15. Alfred was the command module pilot. A real fancy title, but if you’re an astronaut you know that “command module pilot” is just a nice way to say “the guy who drops off the other two dudes at the moon, and then flies around the moon for a while, and then picks them up again when they’re finished having fun, and has to hear them talk all the way back to Earth about how awesome it is to walk on the moon.”

Yes, that’s right. On each one of the six trips humans have taken to the moon, three guys went there and only two of them got to get out. The other poor sucker just had to circle the moon and wait to go home.

So if you think nobody cares about the fact that you were the eighth man to walk on the moon, imagine what it would be like for that old sap Alfred Worden who went all the way to the moon and had to stay in the boat.

Your daughter might come home from school one day yapping, “Hey daddy, my teacher said Neil Armstrong is a hero of humanity because he was the first man to walk on the moon!”

You would respond modestly, “Oh sweetie, that’s nice, but did you know that a few years after Neil Armstrong was on the moon, your daddy went there with the seventh and eighth men who walked on the moon.”

“Wow, daddy! I didn’t know you walked on the moon! You’re my hero!”

“No, honey. I didn’t actually walk on the moon. I just sort of dropped some people off and brought them back.”

“Gosh, daddy, it’s sort of funny that you’re a taxi driver now, because that’s what you did on the moon! Maybe when you come to Career Day you can just leave out the part about you staying in the plane.”

To add insult upon injury, they spent more time on the surface than any prior mission. Just how long did glorified chauffeur Alfred Worden sit in the command module by himself doing loops around the moon while Jimmy and Dave were cruising around in the moon buggy? Twenty or thirty minutes? Try 67 hours! Holy shit! That’s almost three whole days! I guess it’s probably still a thrill to go to the moon, but man, total buzzkill, dude.

Yuri Gagarin? Never heard of him.

Maybe you’ve heard of the Soviet Union. It was a country in Asia that used to be a really big deal, but they broke up. When they were still together, they were trying at the same time to put a man on the moon. Maybe you’ve heard of this so-called “Space Race.” Who would spike the proverbial football on the moon first? The Soviets or the Americans? Anyone? Anyone?

The engineers and scientists in the Soviet space program tried really fucking hard to get a man on the moon first. In the beginning, the commies kicked some serious ass. In 1959, the Soviets were the first to hit the moon with a probe. Nice shot. Two years later, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth. Five years after that, they safely landed the first unmanned thingamabob on the lunar surface. Then in 1968, the Soviets sent the first vehicle containing life into lunar orbit and returned it safely to Earth. What was it? A dog? A monkey? No, it was turtles. That’s right. Turtles.

Things dreadfully slowed down for the Reds after that. Over the next months, it became apparent that their little stunt with the turtles wasn’t gonna to cut the mustard anymore. The Americans were steppin’ on the gas. The Soviet program was disorganized and short of cash. It had been struggling since chief designer and visionary Sergei Korolyov croaked in ’66. The sluggishness and lack of direction was no match for all the money, brains, and horn-rimmed glasses at NASA. A few months after the turtle show, the Americans flew a living person around the moon, totally facing the Soviets. “Yes! Eat our moon dust!” That’s something that might have been said at the time.

Neil, did you hear something?

Despite all the serious facializing from the capitalist pigs, the commies weren’t about to give up. They were trying anything they could. They did some world class blowin’ up of expensive hardware. Some rockets exploded during lift off, while others reached the moon, but just turned into fancy fireworks when they got there.

Interestingly, an unmanned Soviet spacecraft, Luna 15, crashed into the moon during a landing attempt while the Apollo 11 astronauts were on the surface. While the world was captivated watching Neil Armstrong and crew making history, a Soviet ship was crashing somewhere else on the moon. “Neil? Did you hear that?” “Huh?”

More than a year later, in September 1970, the unmanned jalopy called Luna 16 careened wildly toward the moon and made the first successful Soviet landing. It picked up a sampling of moon rocks and dust and brought them back. Ultimately, believe it or not, a Soviet cosmonaut never walked on the moon. They were never able to pull it off. It’s kind of sad really, if you think about it. It’s really kind of sad. Kind of sad. A little sad.

Russian Rocket with Pizza Hut LogoYour logo here: $1.25 million

In modern times, the Russians are still having a little trouble paying for the expense of exploring space. This time around there’s no race going on, a bunch of countries got together and are building a space station, in space, of course. In July 2000, the living quarters for the International Space Station were delivered to orbit after being launched from Kazakhstan. The powerful Russian Proton rocket carrying these living quarters into space placed the unit into orbit only 15 minutes after being launched… oh yes, and it had a Pizza Hut logo on the side. This is a true story. In exchange for the princely sum of $1.25 million, a 30-foot-tall Pizza Hut logo was painted on the outside of the rocket to help the Russian space agency pay for the launch and keep their program on schedule. This isn’t a new thing for the Russians. In 1996, Pepsi paid the agency five million dollars to have cosmonauts photograph one of their soda cans floating by the Mir space station. A Japanese television reporter has even flown into space courtesy of the Russians, in exchange for “green stamps” (that’s CB jargon, it means “money”).

Ironically, NASA is prohibited from selling advertising on US spacesuits, but private companies have been involved in the US program for years. Shuttle missions regularly deliver privately operated satellites and commercial gear into orbit. Who would have guessed the Russians would be the first ones selling ad space on their rockets? I mean they used to be communists, right? I thought I said that.

Speaking of communists, the Chinese space program is coming right along, too. “What the…?! Did you say Chinese space program?” You bet I did! After completing a successful test launch and return of the unmanned Shenzhou capsule, China plans to put three people in it and send them into Earth orbit in 2001. Without the people in it, the capsule weighs less than 200 pounds! That’s less than most Americans! China is now becoming a playa in the elite club of people with ability to leave Earth. They’re also debating becoming involved in the International Space Station.

The dirty dozen

I suppose it’s about time I deliver the goods I promised at the beginning of the article. That is, the names of all twelve people who have walked on the moon. They are all white, American males. Just like Jesus. Here they are in order: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Charles Conrad Jr., Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar D. Mitchell, David R. Scott, James B. “Jimmy” Irwin, John Young, Charles M. Duke Jr., Eugene A. Cernan, and Harrison H. Schmitt.

The Americans went there

The US silver dollar coin has a picture of the moon on the back. Curious, isn’t it? The moon isn’t part of the United States. It doesn’t belong to anybody, or maybe it belongs to everybody. So why should we have a picture of it on one of our coins?

International Space StationSince the beginning of time, creatures from dinosaurs and pteridactyls to horses, chimps, and humans have all seen the moon at night. Hundreds and thousands of years have gone by in which people looked at the moon. The moon was there the night before a primitive human invented the wheel. Moses lived with the moon in the sky. The Roman Empire grew and fell under the moon. The moon was above Johannes Gutenberg the night he created the printing press. Napoleon conquered Europe, seeing the moon light his troops each night. The telephone was invented. All of these things happened with their participants having the moon in the sky as a part of their everyday lives. But until the Americans came along, nobody had ever been there. That’s why it’s not so nuts for us to have picture of the moon on one of our coins. People from our country left the Earth and walked on the moon. Nobody from anywhere else, before or since, has done this. So for all the havoc the Americans have brought on other people in the name of democracy, capitalism, oil, and fast food – and all the shame and/or pride that comes with it – we at least have this humbling, monumental achievement to our credit.

The Romans paved the roads. The Swiss made cheese with holes in it. The Americans left the planet, landed somewhere else, and came back.

The Jimmy Irwin Story: Epilogue

After returning to Earth in 1971, Jimmy Irwin got an assignment as a backup crew member for Apollo 17. That means he would do all the training and everything like a real crew member, but he would only go on the mission if one of the dudes in the real crew got sick or couldn’t go at the last minute; like maybe he forgot his in-laws were coming in town or something. He was like the understudy.

Anyway, his backup crew position didn’t last very long because he got wrapped up in a scandalous investigation and was removed from active astronaut status. Allegedly, he and some of the other Apollo 15 guys had taken some stamps and envelopes to the moon and were busted selling them back on Earth. Pretty cool racket, but the Feds caught up with it and threw the book at ’em.

Jimmy wrote a few books in all his spare time after he got canned. “To Rule the Night” is an autobiographical piece about his career as an astronaut and some loopy “spiritual revelation” he experienced while walking the moon. As a result, he made six expeditions to Turkey in search of the remains of Noah’s Ark. Turkey, indeed.

In 1991, Jimmy Irwin died at the untimely age of 61 in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors, and no matter what, he will always be the eighth man to walk on the moon.

The end.

Alternate Reality Check

Is this thing on? Can you hear me? Testing, testing…

Today’s report is being broadcast to you all the way from Kentucky, in the heart of God’s Great United States.

After finishing up a European tour with my band Metroschifter last month, I returned to my hometown of Louisville. A medium-sized city of just under a million people – bigger than Göteborg and smaller than Stockholm – Louisville is the 16th or 27th largest metro area in America, depending on who you ask.

It hasn’t been entirely unpleasant to be back in America. I totally love seeing my friends and family again.

As I’ve said before, no wonder everyone in America is fat, the food is amazing. After many months in Sweden, I had quickly forgotten that in other places of the world it is actually quite affordable to just eat and drink all day long. Gaining back the weight I lost in Sweden could prove to be an effortless endeavor. Oops, I did it again.

My brother at Impellizzeri’s in Louisville

If it’s wrong to only eat burritos, deep dish pizza, Kentucky bourbon, microbrews and espresso, then maybe, for now, I don’t want to be right.

The nearest Ikea and H&M are about 90 minutes away by car, but Louisville has more amazing Mexican food in just a few blocks than the whole of Sweden does. Louisville’s bars are open until 4:00 in the morning. The liquor stores are the polar opposite of Systembolaget and are open nearly as late as the bars.

As the capital of Kentucky’s Bourbon Country, with bars offering one-dollar beers and $1.50 mixed drinks, and the CityScoot service that will drive you home in your own car if you drink too much, Louisville is a city that essentially dares you not to become an alcoholic.

Compared to Stockholm, everything here is half price. Maybe it’s even less.

They couldn’t just put up one sign that
says “All Yoplait yogurt 59¢”

Nothing is subtle in America. Everything is in your face. People are shouting as their normal tone of voice. The music from headphones, car stereos and your neighbors can be heard far outside the reasonable realm of what could pass as personal entertainment. Everything is extreme and awesome and retarded and made of flashing lights. Religion is actually a topic that people think is a good idea to bring up.

This place is loud in every possible meaning of the word.

As soon as you get off the plane in Boston (or Chicago or Atlanta or wherever), you immediately notice that the people are sloppy. Clothes are draped over these people like bibs and tarps. Sure, the Snuggie commercials are funny, but you wouldn’t see them on television unless there were actually millions of people who were lazy, messy and resigned enough to buy them. A blanket with sleeves is designed only for people who refuse to get out from under the covers, even when nature demands that they use their arms or legs.

Just the size of the people in America is absurd. They’re wearing sweatpants and sports shoes but it’s obvious that these garments – designed for exercising – are not serving their intended purposes.

Americans look tired and agitated.

Air travel is not pleasant to begin with, but I don’t think that’s the culprit. People in European airports don’t look like this. After almost a year away from the United States, my first impression upon seeing a crowd of Americans was that they all looked exhausted. As a group, this first batch of Americans in the Boston airport looked like they barely had the energy to give a shit about anything.

Why would anyone care? The planes were late, the food was expensive, the kids were misbehaving, the lines were unreasonable, the security checks and announcements were the demeaning equivalent of a cattle drive, the fake executive asshole with the earpiece was talking way too loudly about business meetings and golf. Unrewarding.

Chicago’s charming Logan Square subway station

When I finally made it to the public transit system in Chicago – nearly half a day later than scheduled and without my luggage – that place had a the charm of a prison train. At one point I stood up and faked like I was stretching, just to make sure I wasn’t actually chained to the seat.

Stockholm’s transit system can spoil its riders pretty quickly. I got used to it right away and fell into its comfort and convenience. Like everything in Sweden, from taxes to transit, it’s expensive, but you really get what you pay for.

La Bamba Restaurant: “Burritos As Big As Your Head”

Outside the airport on the city streets, people are exercising everywhere, presumably running away from the food they eat. It’s an endless tug of war in which the food supply is so packed with artificial sweeteners, preservatives and genetically-modified ingredients that you basically have to exercise in order to not become obese.

Every wall and surface is plastered with signs, advertisements and businesses that are designed to appeal to a fourth grader’s mentality. “You deserve the best.” “Go ahead, have another!” “America is number one and nobody is gonna take that away.” “Whatever. It’ll grow back.” I’m exaggerating, but only a little.

There is no self-awareness in graphic design. Professionally-produced signs are littered with spelling and grammatical errors. The fonts in widespread usage betray the fact that there is often no delineation between graphic design and desktop publishing. Any jackass with Microsoft Word can make a sign. It’s great that everyone can make their own signs, but it’s a shame that everyone does. Comic Sans isn’t even the worst offense.

“Y’all got any Tide? Well where the hell is it?”

Ikea has made the Swedish word “lagom” famous, but the concept of “just the right amount” is a hard sell here. Explaining the word “lagom” to Americans takes five minutes because there’s simply no equivalent – not just in the language, but in the national psyche.

How can I say this delicately and believably? I love America, I really do. But seeing her again is like running into an old ex-girlfriend who has gained 100 pounds, a drug problem and a mountain of debt. Her beautiful eyes are still the same color, but they’ve lost that sparkle that made them special. You’ll always remember her as an important part of your life, but trying to help save her might take more energy than you could possibly muster.

When I first considered going to Sweden longterm, it was partially as a result of that feeling. After an exhausting fight to become a candidate to represent my neigborhood in the Kentucky Senate, I had a realization. I could stay in America and fight for the rest of my life toward noble goals – goals that lobbying groups and corporations have long since claimed as unattainable – or I could just move somewhere where everything is already fixed.

I understand that there are many Swedes (and Americans) who will read this and disagree with that characterization, or write off this entire article as exaggeration. But honestly, after about a year on the ground in Sweden, it seems at this point, the things being argued about in Swedish politics amount to fine tuning.

When the populace has elected someone from a political party whose sole objective is to protect privacy rights and repeal patent and copyright laws, well, things must be going pretty well.

Comparatively, the problems in the United States are insurmountable. The number of people in Sweden without homes, jobs, sufficient health care or the ability to read is negligible. In America, these problems claim millions of victims.

It was no easy decision to opt out of Louisville and America, even if my absence was to be brief or temporary. The people in Kentucky and the rest of the country desperately need fighters who care about the individuals and disregard the bidding of special interests. Leading up to the election in 2008, I tried to give that fight as much as I had in me. In the end, though, I don’t want to fight.

Louisville protesters demonstrating against a
construction site that has blocked the sidewalk. Pedestrians
and cyclists seem to be an afterthought in the streetscape.

I can’t kill myself for the sake of objectives that are taller than all of us. Maybe Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were the kinds of guys who could do that, but at least for right now, I’m not that guy.

And to be clear, Sweden is not the cure for the common cold (though the country’s health care system has been pretty effective in eliminating all manner of other medical nonsense that Americans still receive outrageous bills for). To be honest, if I wasn’t entirely happy in America, being in Sweden instead can only do so much to affect that.

Being in America again has been fun, but I’m anxious to get back to Sweden. To that end, my application for the appropriate residence permit is finally being filed this week at the Swedish Embassy in Washington.

At first glance, this sign for training classes
appears to charge people for emergency help.

The application process toward Swedish residency is much faster if one has a written job offer from a Swedish company.

So if you’re a business person reading this, I would be delighted to work for your company in Sweden doing graphic design, web design, English writing or editing (see some samples of my work) … hell, I’m also available for toilet cleaning, umbrella repair, VCR clock setting, picnic planning, bartending. Really, whatever I can possibly do that any Swedish company may need somebody to do.

I basically have no worldly belongings, no expensive apartment on Kungsholmen, no fancy clothes or monthly bills. I would be very happy to work for less money than you’d have to pay a career professional.

My hope is to be back in Sweden as soon as humanly possible to continue writing on this site from the ground in Stockholm. Until that time, I will continue to publish new stories with regular frequency from wherever I am. My online bloggery will continue.

The Would-Be King is Dead. God Save the Man Who Would Have Been King.

To tantalize their readers, some writers would need to concoct an absurd and elaborate fictitious story about a royal family, a tragic plane crash, forbidden love, an intriguing, influential and tortured artist, an endless court drama, family disputes, and a fascinating cast of colorful characters involved in devastating public betrayals.

This story has all of those things and more, and better yet, it’s all totally true.

PART ONE: THE CONTROVERSY

“Count Sigvard Bernadotte, who wanted to die as a prince, was remembered instead as an artist on Friday during a funeral attended by the Swedish royal family and Denmark’s Queen Margrethe.”

That’s how the Associated Press reported his death in 2002.

“Hundreds attended the funeral … in Stockholm. Bernadotte, who died February 4 at age 94, was the second son of the former King Gustaf VI Adolf, and an uncle of the present King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf.”

Sounds innocent enough, right? Well, the sordid details this simple report doesn’t divulge are the basis of our story today, and they include such gems as the fact that the current king of Sweden may never have become king if Sigvard Bernadotte’s life had played out differently, and that the King himself was responsible for Sigvard’s wish to die as a prince going unfulfilled.

Also see Part Two: Design Prince of Sweden

At this point, I gotta warn ya, this story has a dozen characters with similar names and loads of details. It’s a mess, albeit a fascinating mess, but if you can manage it, snuggle in and grab a snack.

When he was born in 1907 as Prince Sigvard (Duke of Uppland), his grandfather, Gustaf V, was the king. By all reasonable expectations, Sigvard’s father, Prince Gustaf Adolf (Duke of Skåne), would eventually ascend to the throne upon grandpa’s death.

Prince Sigvard was the second son of the King’s son, making him third in line to the throne at birth. That’s pretty far, but a lot closer than most people will ever be. If something tragic or unforeseen were to happen to his older brother before he had any sons, that would put Sigvard second in line behind only his father. Under circumstances such as those, it would be perfectly plausible to expect that Sigvard Bernadotte would one day become King of Sweden.

Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf (Sigvard’s father) on the left and King Gustaf V (grandfather), right, presenting a medal to Nazi commander Hermann Göring in 1939. And you thought your old photos were embarrassing!

Nobody would really want to become king at the expense of his father and brother dying, of course, but unfortunately, that’s one of the few situations that can accommodate such an ascension.

As fate would have it, something tragic and unforeseen did happen to his older brother in 1947. Prince Gustaf Adolf (Duke of Västerbotten) died in a bizarre airplane crash on the runway at Kastrup Airport in Copenhagen, Denmark.

After a routine stop at the airport, the KLM flight carrying Prince Gustaf Adolf and 21 other passengers and crew left the ground with its rudders inadvertently locked in the parked position. This mistake prohibited the pilot from having full control over the plane and it took a nosedive from just 50 meters (165 feet) above the runway. The plane exploded on impact and everyone on board perished.

Unfortunately for Sigvard Bernadotte, not only had his older brother been taken from him in a disastrous accident, but the sequence of events to make him king had already played out all wrong.

The year before dying in airline disaster, the prince had welcomed a son into the world, Prince Carl Gustaf (Duke of Jämtland). That birth moved Sigvard farther down in the line of succession. Yet, even if that newborn had not come about, another controversy had already pushed Sigvard out of the way.

Prince Sigvard and Erika Maria Patzek, the lady whose love cost him his royal name.

Thirteen years earlier, in 1934, the 27-year-old Prince Sigvard was stripped of his noble title of prince and his place in the line of succession when he married a non-noble woman without prior approval of his grandfather, the king.

Marrying a commoner doesn’t disqualify you outright from retaining your title and your place in the line of succession. Generally, if you want to keep either (or both) you have to tell the king that you want to marry a commoner. The king then has to make an arrangement with the government to approve the marriage. Erika Maria Patzek was a German civilian Sigvard met while working as a stage designer in Berlin and although it may have been love at first sight, it was a non-royal love the king was none too thrilled about.

So by the time his brother died in 1947, had Sigvard not married a commoner – well, two commoners by that time – thereby losing his title and position in succession and had his brother died before generating an heir, Sigvard would have become next in line to the throne. Following that sequence of events, Prince Sigvard would have become king in 1973 instead of Carl Gustaf. Instead, his nephew, 39 years his junior, became king at age 27.

Carl Gustaf is the King of Sweden today and in an odd twist, he is the man most commonly credited with allowing Sigvard to go to his grave with an unfulfilled lifelong wish of having his title reinstated. I mean no disrespect to His Majesty (especially in light of my upcoming residence permit application), however, it is the popular consensus that the King could have changed it had he wanted to.

According to the Royal House of Sweden, the power to reinstate Sigvard’s title of Prince Sigvard does not rest at the King’s hands. According to almost everyone else, it does.

It all comes down to the Swedish Act of Succession. Although this act has been revised occasionally in the centuries since it was adopted – most recently in 1980 – the act itself has been set into Sweden’s law since 1810.

Article 5 of the Act of Succession reads: “A prince or princess of the Royal House may not marry unless the Government has given its consent thereto upon an application from The King. Should a prince or princess marry without such consent, that prince or princess forfeits the right of succession for himself, his children and their descendants.”

Interestingly, the act discusses only the right of succession, not the right to one’s royal title. The title of “prince” seems to be something that King Gustaf V – Sigvard’s grandfather and the monarch at the time of the wedding – took away from Sigvard at his own discretion.

In 1888, about two decades prior to Gustaf V’s reign, Prince Oscar married a commoner without prior consent. Not only was Oscar permitted to retain his title, but his wife was given the title of Princess.

In other words, King Gustaf V took Prince Sigvard’s title away because he could. He was the king, goddammit, and he didn’t want his pristine, royal grandchildren running around with the dirty regulars.

King Gustaf V: Sigvard’s grandfather and the man who stripped Sigvard of his title.

Throwing his weight around as king was a bit of a hobby for Gustaf V. He had some ego and power issues. I mean, this guy was going around acting like he was the effin’ King of Sweden or something.

According to the Guardian newspaper, at Gustaf V’s direction, the Royal Court of Sweden confiscated Sigvard’s passport within hours of the wedding because it bore the title “Prince.” He was subsequently issued a replacement passport with a title equivalent to “Mister” (“Herr”).

During his famous Courtyard Speech in 1914, Gustav shocked the nation and was accused of overreaching the realm of his control by aggressively demanding a larger military. The public agreed with him and the ensuing wave of support for the King’s positions forced out the liberal government. Gustaf V himself appointed conservative replacements who implemented the changes he wanted.

If you are a Swedish prince with a place in line to the throne (as I know many of my readers are) and you are hopelessly, madly in love with a non-royal girl (gasp!), there are basically two ways to be with her forever without losing your title and place in the line of succession.

The first way is to just never marry the girl and the second way is to get prior approval by request of the king. Sigvard’s younger brother Prince Bertil did both.

Sigvard Bernadotte at age 37 pictured with items he designed for the Danish firm Georg Jensen

Bertil remained unmarried to his lifelong lover – the British commoner Lillian Davies – for decades in order to remain second in line to the throne. When it became clear that Prince Carl Gustaf (Sigvard and Bertil’s nephew, the son of the crown prince who died in the plane crash) would ascend to the throne at a young age instead of the then-elderly Bertil, his priorities changed. It seemed the time was right to finally marry the love of his life.

Prince Carl Gustaf became King Carl XVI Gustaf in 1973 and he approved his uncle’s marriage to Lillian Davies just three years later. Prince Bertil kept his title and his wife was christened Princess Lillian.

Despite this act of kindness toward Uncle Bertil, King Carl XVI Gustaf (the current king of Sweden) never acted to reinstate the princely titles for his other uncles, Bertil’s brothers, Sigvard and Carl Johan.

Bertil and Sigvard also had a younger brother who, now at age 93, is still living. Carl Johan Bernadotte had also invoked Gustaf V’s wrath back in the ’40s and was stripped of his royal title and succession rights as a result of marrying Swedish commoner, Elin Kerstin Wijkmark.

The boys’ sister Princess Ingrid avoided the whole mess by simply marrying another royal. In 1935, she was wed to Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark and Iceland. She subsequently became Queen of Denmark and is the mother of Denmark’s current Queen Margrethe.

After Sigvard’s nephew Carl Gustaf became king in 1973, then later approved the marriage of his brother Bertil to a commoner, Sigvard felt a more reasonable standard bearer had ascended to the throne. He asked the King to restore his title numerous times. These requests fell sadly upon deaf ears. Sigvard got the run-around. The King and Swedish government both refused to act, or each pushed the decision upon the other. The Royal House said it was a government issue and the government said it was a Royal issue.

That’s where this story gets truly bizarre.

Despite accommodating the marriage of Sigvard’s brother Bertil to a British commoner; despite the previous historical instances of Swedish royals retaining their titles after marrying commoners without prior consent; despite the King’s own marriage to a German commoner; despite, it seems, practically everyone in the Swedish Royal Family marrying commoners, for whatever unknown reason, King Carl, for decades, has ignored every opportunity to help restore Sigvard’s royal title.

Now we can even add an additional “despite” to that list: despite the current engagements of the King’s own daughters (Princess Madeleine and Crown Princess Victoria) to commoners. At this point, well, it’s just absurd to not give Sigvard Bernadotte the title he went to his grave yearning for.

“I want to die as a prince.” A rare meeting of King Carl XVI Gustav and his Uncle Sigvard in 1997.

At two different points in his life, it seems Sigvard finally had enough. After years of recurrently unanswered appeals, without official sanctioning, he simply began calling himself Prince Sigvard again in 1983. Then, in 2001, at age 93, he resorted to taking his case to the European Court of Human Rights and filed an official legal complaint against the Kingdom of Sweden.

2001 is the year the dispute came to a head. Regardless of the fact that Sigvard was invited to the Royal Castle for the first time in more than sixty years that spring (for the King and Queen’s 25th wedding anniversary), the Aftonbladet newspaper reported that the relationship between the King and his uncle had “never been especially cordial and is now as frosty as ever.”

Professor Emeritus Gunnar Bramstång, an expert on monarchy, told Aftonbladet, “It was a legal mistake committed in 1934 by [the king at the time]. Since then, this wrong has been continued against Sigvard and despite repeated requests, he has not received a positive response to return his title of prince.”

Sigvard’s counsel Eva-Maj Mühlenbock stated at the time, “The prince title is the same as a name and you can’t take away a person’s right to their name.”

In a series of articles in Aftonbladet and Dagens Nyheter, both sides were at an impasse and the King’s lawyer finally submitted a letter to DN.

The letter began by saying that the Royal Family never comments on internal matters, but that public interest had become so great that they felt compelled to make a statement so their position would be clear.

The article says the King’s counsel “writes that the King can not change the decision of 1934. Sigvard married in London without the approval of the then-King Gustaf V and the government. Therefore, he lost his right to succession as prince.” The King’s lawyer Bengt Ljungqvist wrote: “Our present king has, with respect to his predecessor and the previous governments’ decisions, not revised or undertaken any reinterpretation of these decisions, which were made under a different constitution and long before his time as monarch.”

Sigvard’s lawyer responded, “On the contrary, it is the king and only the king, who can modify or reinterpret the relevant decision.” Adding that the Royal Court seems to be missing the point, “The most serious problem is that [their response] does not at all address the question at issue, namely the right to his name and birth title. We believe that the title is part of Prince Sigvard Bernadotte’s name.”

The Guardian reported, “Mr. Bernadotte has always accepted his removal from the line of succession to the Swedish throne, but not the removal of his title.” The paper also made the point, “King Carl XVI Gustaf had already been crowned king when he married a commoner who now holds the title of Queen Silvia, but [the King] has steadfastly refused to return the title of prince to Bernadotte.”

“I was born as a prince, and I want to die as a prince. Once a prince, always a prince,” Sigvard was quoted as saying.

The Swedish public seemed squarely in line on the side of the former prince. Aftonbladet ran an online poll in May 2001 with the question “Should Sigvard Bernadotte regain his prince title?” Of the 39,987 people who voted during the one-day poll, “A clear majority of over 80 percent clicked on yes.” However, just days later, the position of the Royal Court was slammed home in a stark headline: “Sigvard Bernadotte will never be prince again.”

Sigvard Bernadotte passed away in 2002, just months after the controversy hit its boiling point. He was laid to rest at the Royal Burial Ground (Kungliga Begravningsplatsen) at Haga Park in the Stockholm neighborhood of Solna.

Two years after his death, the European Court of Hunan Rights ruled that his application was inadmissible. Even posthumously, neither the Swedish Parliament nor King Carl XVI Gustaf have acted to restore Sigvard’s title.

The inscription on his grave reads as a bit of a compromise to the impasse that plagued his life, “Sigvard Bernadotte: Born Prince of Sweden.”

When I first learned of this controversy seven years ago in the amazing (yet now defunct magazine) Stockholm New, I couldn’t believe how this man had been seemingly been stonewalled his whole life for doing something first that everyone else ended up doing later. “None of my nieces or nephews have married a royal either,” he said.

It seemed to me that the common threads in Sigvard and Carl’s lives – their family relationships and their marriages to German women – allowed some parallels and many opportunities for shared compassion.

As an aspiring Swedophile, I thought of the story many times. While living in Los Angeles in 2003, I created a wall mural of Sigvard’s image on a fictitious postage stamp, of course, with the title Prince Sigvard Bernadotte of Sweden.

Ultimately, I wanted to make sure I had the story straight for my own peace of mind. In 2006, I wrote a letter to the Royal Court of Sweden. As you’ll see in the messages attached to the end of this article, I got sent into the same kind of circle Sigvard himself was sometimes sent into. The Royal Court referred me to the Riksdag; the Riksdag referred me to the Swedish Act of Succession; and the Swedish Act of Succession addresses only ascension to the throne but contains nothing pertaining to the removal or reinstatement of royal titles. No real reason.

Of course, I could be wrong, but it only makes sense that if King Gustaf V can revoke the title, King Carl XVI Gustaf can reinstate it. I think it’s as simple as that.

Again, I want to make perfectly clear that I mean no disrespect to His Majesty the King, but it just seems that he never wanted to do anything about the situation, purely based the principle of not doing anything about it.

As Sigvard Bernadotte’s obituary states, he wanted to die as a prince but is remembered instead as an artist. In his career as a graphic and industrial designer, he amassed an impressive and influential body of work. He has been nicknamed “The Design Prince of Sweden,” a title perhaps more honorable because it hails his contributions and accomplishments rather than a title someone is born with by chance.

Though you may not know it, you are probably familiar with many of his designs – furniture, kitchenwares, logos, appliances, movie posters, et cetera – especially if you live in Sweden or the United States.

We’ll look at his rich and pivotal creations as a designer in PART TWO: DESIGN PRINCE OF SWEDEN.


From: Scott Ritcher
Subject: Fråga från Kentucky
Date: July 20, 2006
To: Royal Court of Sweden Info [[email protected]]

Hejsan,

I am a great admirer of Sverige and all things Svensk. I have visited your beautiful country many times.

I would like to know if there is an official reason why Sigvard Bernadotte’s royal title was not restored…

I respect the Swedish government’s decision, but in my research I have not been able to find an explanation for it. Is there an official reason that the government of Sweden has not reinstated Sigvard’s title? What steps would need to be taken for such an event to occur?

Many people around the world who know of the situation (I live in Louisville, Kentucky USA) feel that Sigvard Bernadotte brought much glory and respect to Sweden through his work, and that even after his passing in 2002, Sweden should restore Sigvard’s title.

Tack så mycket,
Scott Ritcher
Louisville KY USA


From: Royal Court of Sweden Info [[email protected]]
Subject: SV: Från engelska kontaktsidan på webbplatsen
Date: July 24, 2006 3:24:39 PM GMT+02:00
To: Scott Ritcher

Thank you for your email to the Royal Court of Sweden

The answer of your question is, that when it was declared that Count Sigvard Bernadotte was no longer part of the Royal House (which is a protocol state matter, and has nothing to do with the membership of the Royal Family), it was in that time a governmental resolution – a decision made in a cabinet meeting, dated in the 1930:s.

According to the Swedish law, the King is not in charge to change any governmental declaration from now or before. And therefore, there was no official declaration made by the King.

Yours sincerely,

Morgan Gerle
Information Officer


The next day, I forwarded my question to the Swedish Parliament and received the following response:


From: Sveriges Riksdag [[email protected]]
Subject: Ang. Fråga från Kentucky
Date: July 26, 2006 1:30:04 PM GMT+02:00
To: Scott Ritcher

Dear Sir,

You’ll find the Act of Succession translated to English here:

You need to contact a library in order to find a parliamentary record dated in the 1930:s. You’ll find information about the Riksdag library here:

Please note that they are closed until August 14.

Sincerely,
Louise Norlander
Information Department
The Swedish Riksdag
100 12 Stockholm
Phone: +46-8-786 40 00
Fax: +46-8-786 61 45
www.riksdagen.se

I want to write a song

As some readers may know, I am currently on tour with my band, the Metroschifter. Today we are in Forli, Italy.

Of course, I’m missing Sweden and the recent episodes of “Idol” but since we have different bands opening for us each night, I’m getting more real life music.

My band has been together for fifteen years and it’s no secret that the type of music we play is neither wildly popular nor easily accessible to casual listeners. There is some math involved in some of our songs.

It’s not for everybody

I don’t write verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus songs, at least not for Metroschifter. The songs i’ve written for my other band Best Actress are more straightforward in structure and more appealing to ordinary people. Best Actress is certainly more accessible because I’m not the singer and someone who can actually sing is doing that. My singing voice in Metroschifter isn’t nearly as appealing as Maya Weissbach’s is in Best Actress.

Regardless, I am always amazed by the people I meet who have listened to our band for many years – more than a decade in some cases. Last week I met someone in Dortmund, Germany, who was telling me about his friend’s Metroschifter tattoo. There are no words to describe hearing about someone who has a tattoo of your band’s name. Unbelievable.

Back in the days when I was really inspired to write songs and I did it more often, (and probably as a result more people used to care about songs I wrote) I was often told that people liked my music because it was honest. I tried to keep it that way. The books I read and the movies I like the most are also true stories.

Aside from the lyrics, pretty much the same policy goes for the music I write. I try to make it something different. If you’re not going to try do something new, why bother?

Honestly, there are a million bands out there and most of them are just going with the first thing they come up with that they think sounds good.

One of those bands

Over the weekend, a music journalist in Verona framed a question to me by saying that my band is “one of those bands that people use as a reference or influence when describing their music.” He wanted to know why I thought that was the case.

I told him I didn’t really think that was true, but if it was, I think it is because I try to write songs that haven’t been written before.

In 1994, I took some time off work at the ear x-tacy record store in Louisville and retreated to a 200-year-old adobe in the New Mexico desert with the intention of writing songs.

What happened there became the first songs Metroschifter would record later that year. I was truly inspired at the time and it shows. It seems that those songs are the best ones I’ve written and they are the favorites of people who like the band. The songs came from real feelings and I had something to say.

Nine days alone in the desert are a great setting for focusing on songwriting. Our other albums haven’t had the advantage of that kind of dedicated preparation.

Nobody tries hard enough. Not even me.

I wish I could say that all the other Metroschifter records and my solo discs were as genuinely inspired as that one. The other records definitely have feelings but for some reason, they seem to have become progressively less heartfelt. I wish that wasn’t the case.

In 1999, I remember telling a confused music reporter in Louisville who was writing a story about Metroschifter that we had half-assed our way through everything. Every band does it. Nobody tries hard enough. I am as guilty of that as just about anybody.

When I look through the songs, it’s like a timeline of crushes, unrequited love, money problems, adventures in Louisville and around the world. When things in life were going well, songs ended up with lines in them like “After years of singing of desperation, I find myself now somewhat content at the price of feeling somewhat uninspired.”

“A maddening array”

Most reviews of our new album have been very favorable and flattering. Alternative Press said it was “inconceivable that a new Metroschifter album would appear in 2009.” The band “explores a maddening array of musical genres on their sixth full-length. No song in the band’s back catalog approximates the sheer audacity of it.”

A German guy who got the new Metroschifter CD sent us a message that said he liked it but he said, “Lots of the stuff sounds a bit constrained or forced to me. I miss the fun and freedom that Metroshifter albums meant to me back in the Capsule or Fort Saint Metroschifter days.” Yeah, well, before I could even get a thought ready to respond to that, his next line covered it, “Damn, that was so long ago.”

The review of our new album in LEO Weekly even included the line, “While craftsmen musically, Scott Ritcher’s lyrics leave much to be desired.” Fucking tell me about it. This isn’t the first time I’ve received confirmation of my own living hell in the newspaper.

If you limit yourself to only writing about true feelings, and then you reach a listless period of years when you feel nothing, what is there to write about?

I suppose over the past few years I haven’t written much in the way of music because I thought the types of things I’ve been feeling were things I couldn’t really write about. Maybe I was wrong.

Plop

Writing this tonight from Italy, in the midst of our sixth tour of Europe, I’ve found that despite the terrible slump of the music industry, there are still passionate people out in the world who love music.

Even in pop music, the days of multi-million-selling albums seem to be coming to a close. It has been ten years since any album sold more than 14 million copies and five years since any album has sold more than 10 million. Legal, licensed music downloads like Amazon and iTunes are included in these sales totals

As a whole, music sales dropped 14% in 2008.

That is an incredible decline from the peak in the 1980’s. Michael Jackson’s Thriller, released in 1982, had sold 28 million copies before his death. It is now on track to become the only album to be certified at 30 million by the end of the year.

The best-selling album last year sold just over 4 million copies.

Great songs

Is the demise of the music industry a sad story? Yes and no. It’s a tall order to find sympathy for the record companies after their decades of screwing both the artists and customers. The story is not unlike what happened with the banks. Nobody feels sorry for banking corporations, but the difference is that the financial industry has everybody’s money.

I want to write great songs and I want to feel the strong emotions that make such work possible, but who has the time anymore? People have to work for a living. It’s not like any record company is going to be around to ensure that people will actually be able to hear these songs, or that people will even have the money to buy them.

Maybe that’s the saddest part of the story. Without the money to do so, artists will be unable to take the time necessary to develop their craft. It seems my best songs came from the times when I could afford to write them, not just financially, but emotionally. It’s a real challenge to find the space, silence, time, focus and, most importantly, the inspiration to create something of value.

Karlaplan

Karlaplan is a picturesque area of Stockholm on the island of ֖stermalm where five major streets meet to form a star.

Inspired by similar street plans in Paris, construction on the neighborhood began in the late 1800’s.

The five tree-lined thoroughfares that go out in every direction have a dense, green lushness in the summer. Autumn and winter reveal more of the palatial, early-century apartment houses that populate the area.

Karlaplan’s name comes from an era of Swedish history known as Karlarna (“The Karls”). That was the time of a succession of three kings all named Karl that spanned from 1654 to 1718.

Mister Big Shot moves in

Famed Swedish author, playwright and absurd mustache enthusiast August Strindberg lived in a luxurious house on Karlaplan at the beginning of the 1900’s. After struggling for decades of hardship to make a success of himself, he finally rewarded himself by purchasing an extraordinary living space adjacent to the expansive plaza.

“I bought this for my thirty years of dramatic hardships,” he wrote. (Stackars Strindberg.)

See it on a map

Strindberg had spent a good deal of time in Paris in the 1890’s where he partied with Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. (It’s true. Knut Hamsun is really a person’s name.) They probably talked about writing and stuff like that. It was only appropriate that Strindberg would be attracted to the fake Parisian neighborhood at Karlaplan.

Though Strindberg’s opulent residence was adorned with spectacular high ceilings and brilliant floors – he could practically hear the echoes of his rants about women and Jews – his fantastic surroundings couldn’t save him from despair. The eight years he and his wife lived at Karlaplan were reportedly among the darkest of his life, or so he wrote on his blog in 1911.

Aside from writing, crying and getting really bad haircuts while living at Karlaplan, Strindberg also dabbled in painting, photography and the telegraph. He was a real cutting-edge, high-tech kind of character, what, with the cameras and telegraphs laying around. In those days you couldn’t just pop down to Clas Ohlson and buy a telegraph.

As you can see in this photo, August Strindberg was definitely not a vampire.

Transformation

Long after Strindberg was gone and automobiles were increasingly dominating street traffic, a massive roundabout was put into place at the site. In the 1930’s, traffic was redirected around a central fountain and a circle of trees that enclosed a public park which still stands today. Before the fountain, a small grassy island stood in the center of the intersection with just a single tree.

You can see in the 1880’s image on the magazine cover above that the tracks of a small street train used to bisect the intersection prior to construction of the larger traffic circle and fountain.

Many residents of the area pass through this circle on their daily commutes in cars and buses or on bicycles or their own feet. The fountain at Karlaplan is a popular meeting place for friends and a spot for picnics and relaxation. As an amateur Swedish picnic planner, I am well aware of the park’s charms.


180° view of Karlaplan fountain: Click to view full size

Karlaplan Tunnelbana Station

I recently paid a visit to Karlaplan, not to check out the impressive streetscape of Parisian-inspired boulevards, but rather to see what lies beneath all of this splendor.

Carved into the bedrock below the all of the coziness at the street level is another stop in Stockholm’s underground subway system. Like most Tunnelbana stations, the one at Karlaplan is also a small art museum – an art museum 23 meters (75 feet) under the ground.


360° view from Karlaplan Tunnelbana entrance: Click to view full size

The Karlaplan station opened in the fall of 1967 and was part of an expansion that stretched the Red Line from Östermalmstorg to the northeast terminus at Ropsten. This added another 4 kilometers (2.4 miles) of track to Stockholm’s subway system and connected tens of thousands of residents to the system.

Some of the artwork in the station was built into the original design by architect Olof Blomkvist. Mosaic patterns of glazed stoneware blocks and colored bricks by artist Tor Hörlin are permanently set into the walls at more than a dozen locations throughout the station.

Located behind the benches where passengers wait for the trains, each structure is a different variation on the theme of “highly-stylized nature motifs.” The blocks differ in texture, size and relief. Some are sandy and flush with the wall, while others are glossy and protrude out a few centimeters.

The World’s Longest Photomontage

Perhaps what makes the Karlaplan station most noteworthy is that since 1983 it has been home to the world’s longest photomontage.

Artist Larseric Vänerlöf is responsible for the monstrous, black and white piece which stretches nearly the entire length of the platform, in stark contrast to the colorful brick walls it opposes.

Den Dagen och Den Sorgen (“The Day and the Sorrow”) is 96 meters long (315 feet), or as they say in America, “longer than a football field.” Little-known trivia fact: big things in America are measured in football fields.

Comprised of hundreds of black and white photos blended together, this massive photo installation was assembled the old-fashioned way in a darkroom, long before Photoshop would have streamlined the undertaking.

According to the artist, the photomontage depicts events in Sweden during the 20th Century. You might think that “during the 20th Century” would mean “during the 20th Century up through 1983” since that’s when the piece was put together. Not at all.

Vänerlöf went ahead and included the seventeen years of the 20th Century which had not yet happened. The entire montage is whimsical and funny, but the futuristic scenes depicted are downright apocalyptic and even more comical. These scenes depict familiar sites in Stockholm dwarfed by crumbling super highways and massive, post-industrial monoliths.

The gigantic photomontage was removed in 2005 for renovation. Vänerlöf explained in an interview with Filipstads Tidning newspaper that the art had faced a lot of elements in its 20-plus years hanging in the station.

The work had been badly damaged by everything from graffiti to snus, a totally disgusting, tiny, pouch-based tobacco that even the smartest people in Sweden are inexplicably hooked on.

Finally, in 2008, a reinforced version of Vänerlöf’s montage was installed in the station.

The new version contains the same images but to help it withstand the elements, perhaps for another 20 years or more, the original photographs were transferred to durable aluminum sheets that have a rich, deep gloss.

Yeah, so if you’re ever at Karlaplan, check it out. Good story.

Previous stories about art in the Stockholm transit system can be found here:

Solna Centrum

Bandhagen

Thorildsplan

Axelsberg

Medborgarplatsen

Midsommarkransen

T-Centralen Blue Line

Bagarmossen and Transit Museum

Midsommarkransen

Secret Code: Are Swedes trying to keep Swedish to themselves?

As I’ve mentioned many times, most Swedish people speak perfect English and they love doing it.

It’s the opposite of French people. The French can speak English with you but they don’t want to. The Swedes only want to speak English with you.

As soon as you say “hej” (hello) or “jag heter…” (my name is…) with the slightest bit of an accent, they get this surprised look on their faces and switch to English. “Oh, hello! Nice to meet you. Where are you from?”

It’s as if they’re saying to you, “Please don’t bother butchering our beloved Swedish any further. I can handle this.”

On the off chance that one could actually use any of the Swedish they know, the Swedes are exceptionally particular about pronunciation and intonation. I know this not only from my own experiences, but also from other international people here who I have heard discussing the same experiences.

“It’s not what you’re saying, it’s how you’re saying it.” That’s as true as it gets here.

Every language has its own accented attributes that one must learn along with syllable stressing and sentence structures. Even when someone’s pronunciation is perfect, these subtleties are the things that reveal a non-native speaker.

Swedish is not as easy as German where every letter makes a sound and you can be understood even if your emphasis or pronunciation is a little off. With Swedish, there’s an overriding, flowing rhythm of accentuation to the language. It’s like there’s a song that everything you say should be sung to.

In Swedish, everyday conversation is a gorgeous, dynamic production.

I’m not the first person to equate the Swedish language with singing. Even the stereotypical Swedes known by Americans in popular culture sing when they talk. The Swedish Chef character on The Muppet Show never stops singing and even has music playing when he’s talking.

In the movie Trading Places, Jamie Lee Curtis hilariously disguises herself as a “Swede” and sings her lines, including the unforgettable “I am Inga from Sweden.”

Until you know the song of the language and can really sing it, it’s almost pointless to embarrass yourself by trying.

It’s like doing karaoke to a song you don’t really know with Simon Cowell sitting right in front of you.

There might be some connection here that would explain why Swedes deliver the goods during actual karaoke and why the country can claim a disproportionately high number of musicians with gold records hanging in their studios. Singing might be in their blood as well as in their language.

A British bloke I know here named Simon (not Simon Cowell) put it this way, “This is what I hate about Swedish people: They’re so bloody good at everything!” …and they’re modest and insecure about all of it.

They speak perfect English but apologize for it not being good. They are beautiful but afraid to look at you. They’re educated and funny but apprehensive about talking out of turn. They sing drunk karaoke in a bar and it sounds exactly like the CD. How embarrassing.

The complications arise when someone who wasn’t born speaking Swedish tries to join in with the language. Swedish people act like they have no idea what you’re talking about if you’re just barely off on the intonation.

It would be like if someone said “LOO-see-ana” or “Loo-WEE-zee-anna” instead of Loo-WEE-see-ana” – of course an English-speaking person would still know they’re talking about Louisiana. Or if, instead of the hard, short way of saying “can’t” someone said it long and soft, as a British person might, “I caahn’t.”

English-speaking people understand when a Canadian pronounces “out” more like “oat” or when someone from India says “very” in a way that excuses the R sound. Some people say “Nevada” so it rhymes with “sad”, but for others it rhymes with “sod.” Nobody misses a beat because of it. We just go with the flow.

Swedes aren’t so permissive with Swedish. For some reason, Swedes are truly lost when a non-native speaker’s speech includes variations like these. I know they know what us feeble foreigners are trying to say, but I think they have some sort of secret national game going on. They’re laughing at us as soon as they’re alone.

Of course, I can’t really show you in print, but suffice it to say that what follows is not a situation isolated only to me or a handful of instances. The foreign person is in italics.

I finally tried some knäckebröd yesterday.
– You tried what?
Knäckebröd.
– I’m sorry…?
Knäkebröd… That really thin, hard, Swedish bread.
– Hmmm… I don’t think I know what that is.
Knäckebröd? Of course you know what knäckebröd is.
– Maybe I’m not understanding what you’re saying.
Knäckebröd? Knäääckebröd? KNĄCK-e-BR֖D. Kuh-näck-e-BR֖D? Thin, crispy bread. Knäckebröd!
– Oh! You mean Knäckebröd! Oh yeah. I’ve worked in the Wasa Knäckebröd factory for six years.

Notice in this conversation how the Swedish person makes knäckebröd for a living, but the non-native speaker had to repeat the name of it one million times before it was recognized, even resorting to all variations of stress and intonation.

After conversations like this happened to me a few dozen times, with all manner of words, I began to believe I was losing my mind. “Are these people serious? I can’t hear the difference.”

I cannot express the level of relief I felt upon hearing it happen to other people. I don’t wish anyone else to feel insane, but I also don’t want to be alone. What I also cannot express is how fascinating it is to see it happening to someone else. It goes like this:

The British person (or Canadian or German or Italian) is talking to the Swede about something. During the conversation, the name of a Swedish place or thing comes up. Everyone around who is not Swedish knows exactly what the person is talking about, but the Swede has absolutely no clue, and needs to have the word repeated. This goes on for a minute before every other foreigner standing around joins in, repeating the word. The Swede finally gets it and says “Oh, you mean Kungsholmen!” saying it exactly the same way as everyone else did.

While this phenomenon could easily be explained by saying that Swedes are more intimately familiar with their language and they can hear tiny nuances that non-native speakers are unaware of, personally, I’m totally convinced that’s not the case. I’m convinced that it is all a game the Swedes are playing to weed out the people who aren’t going to put in the serious time to learn Swedish.

I truly believe Swedes understand us the first time – or maybe the second – but they’re just trying to wear us down.

Well, it’s not gonna work on me, Sweden. I’m in this for the long haul.

Regardless of whether that theory is true, I’m starting to believe that one or two other things might be true.

1. The Swedish language is not as beloved by the younger generations as it is by the elders. The incidents of Swenglish – a hybrid of Swedish and English – are inescapable, as are the occurrences of English words in otherwise Swedish conversations. These moments are especially common among young people.

I’m fascinated by the English terms I always overhear in Swedish conversations – “whatever,” “Oh my God,” “fuck it,” “who cares?” Do these ideas of exasperation and dismissiveness not exist in Swedish?

I think it’s very possible that within a handful of generations, Swedish could become a minority language in Sweden. I wouldn’t be shocked to see this happen in Stockholm during many of our lifetimes. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but just barely.

Periodically, I go to an international meet-up group for ex-patriates living in Stockholm. I understand much more Swedish than some of the characters I’ve met who have been in the country two years or more.

I guess the more amazing part of this phenomenon is not that some people have lived in Sweden for years and barely understand any Swedish, it’s that people can live in Sweden for years and barely understand any Swedish.

In order to do business, make friends, purchase goods and services, or order food in restaurants, especially in Stockholm, knowing how to speak Swedish largely isn’t necessary. Nonetheless, I am determined to continue doing it.

There are many notable efforts afoot to celebrate, explore and preserve the Swedish language. I’ve heard a funny and entertaing radio series called Språket (“The Language”) that answers listeners’ questions about Swedish, and there is a very cool and beautifully laid-out magazine called Språk (“Language”) that addresses similar topics in equally entertaining depth.

I recently caught a television show with my roommate Erik where the well-known Swedish comedian/writer/actor Fredrik Lindström travels the country, learning about dialects and regional colloquialisms. His program Svenska Dialektmysterier (“Swedish Dialect Mysteries”) is an 8-episode series from 2006. It followed on the heels of his previous series about the Swedish language called Värsta Språket (“The Worst Language”) which ran for two full seasons in 2002 and 2003.

This enthusiasm about preserving the language and the efforts to do so in such expensive ways (magazines, radio broadcasts and television documentaries) lead me to believe that there is a need to do such a thing. However, it’s also interesting to me that all of these explorations and celebrations of the Swedish language are done in a way that is either sarcastic, comical or tongue-in-cheek.

Unlike most elephants in the room, the Swedish language is one that everyone is talking about.

That idea and my everyday experiences, however, bring me to a second possible conclusion:

2. The Swedes might be language protectionists. They want to learn perfect English so they can communicate with the world and export their musicians, actors, culture, cars, furniture, clothes, et al, but they also want to keep Swedish alive. The Swedish language is like a secret club and they want to keep the ability to speak Swedish all to themselves.

At some point in the mid-20th Century it must have become very clear that a nation of fewer people than New York City would ultimately be isolated if those people spoke a language only they understood. The opprtunities these people would have would be limited and therefore so would the economic potential of the country as a whole.

English was introduced as the primary foreign language in Sweden’s national school system in 1941.

In 1974, G.M. Anderman wrote in Oxford’s English Language Teaching Journal “in recent years, Sweden has embarked on an ambitious programme of educational reform, the ultimate aim of which is to create a nation bilingual in English and Swedish.”

For many decades, Swedish kids have started learning English in their first year of school, and even earlier than that if they watch television or listen to music at home.

Anderman would be delighted to know, 35 years after he wrote about the program, that the results are in and it worked brilliantly.

The earliest years of human life are when languages are best learned. Even though I went to private schools in America, my first experience with learning a foreign language didn’t come until I was 14. That’s just too late to start if you want a new language to be absorbed without a fight.

Back in the 80’s, we were only given three options: Spanish, German and French. I remember that all the girls took French, all the jocks took Spanish, and all the outcasts and alternative kids took German. I was in the latter group. German proved to be a good foundation for eventually learning Swedish, but not much help in communicating with America’s growing Spanish-speaking population.

The language offerings have been greatly expanded since then, especially in private schools. Just a few years after I graduated from high school, kids at the same school I attended were beginning to learn Chinese, Russian and Japanese.

Similar to my undertaking of learning Swedish as an adult (yes, I finally admit it, I’m an adult now) my Swedish friend Jenny (who I mentioned before speaks perfect “American”) has recently begun learning French. She is facing some of the same challenges.

Steve Martin said on one of his classic comedy albums, “In French, oeuf means egg. Cheese is fromage. It’s like these French have a different word for everything.” It’s true. They really do. Swenglish is probably a lot bigger than Frenglish.

Jenny grew up in a household where English was always around. She told me she felt like she never had to make an effort to learn English. It just developed in her mind with essentially the same ease as Swedish.

That’s the way to learn. When your brain is learning for the first time what things are called and how sentences are formed. After all those neurons have naturally been connected in your head, it’s an uphill battle to assemble an alternative set up there.

I can’t say for sure if the Swedes wish to keep the Swedish language all to themselves or if they are the only ones genetically disposed to use it properly, but I can say that I’m pretty sure French is not a real language. I mean, it doesn’t even sound like talking to me.

It’s perfectly fine with me if the Swedes want to protect the Secret Code. It’s their right as its owners. I just wish they’d let me know. Otherwise, I’ll just be disappointed in myself if I’m still speaking English with them after a couple years.

Halloween in Sweden

Grab a warm sweater or safe blanket and sit thee down fore thine flickering computer screens, dear friends, for I am about to weave a bone-chilling tale, the likes of which may well travel like a demon through your dial-up Internet service and petrify you in your very home.

While it is not my intention to sow seeds that may haunt you until you drag your last dying breath, I’m afraid this bewitching yarn may run the risk of such a catastrophic result.

This account shall take you to a horrifying land where forbidding shrieks of terror can be heard from every direction. Where dead souls roam the earth, dragging trails of blood, unaware of the howls produced beyond shallow graves by nearby corpses. Where a pungent stench is the aroma of the embalmed being reanimated to breathe new life. Where decomposed, undead phantoms and waist-high ghouls walk hand in hand with Strawberry Shortcake and Batman.

If any brave soul out there has such gigantic cojones that they are daring to continue reading this, I can only presume that even those lionhearted mortals have long since shit their pants in quaking fearfulness. Yeah, I’m a real good writer. Don’t worry about it.

The foreboding landscape I speak of is a dreadful, barren wasteland known not as Transylvania in the 1600’s, but rather shockingly as suburban Middletown, Kentucky. The date of this ghastly nightmare is 1970-something. I don’t remember exactly. Seems like it happened about once a year around this time.

When I was a kid, Halloween was the shit.

It fell on the scale somewhere between a major event and a neighborhood production. The night was filled with things to see, hear and eat. Some people would elaborately decorate their houses with spiderwebs on the handrails and grave stones in the front yard. Others would put stereo speakers in the windows and play records of scary sound effects like wolves howling, creaking doors, demonic laughter and swirling winds.

Once the knocks on the front door started just after dinner time, the flow of kids never stopped. (“Was that the doorbell? Well, I’ll be! It ain’t even dark out yet.”)

Our neighborhood was packed with kids in crazy costumes every Halloween night. Going from house to house, each opening door was greeted with the familiar refrain in a chorus of little kid voices: “Trick or treat!” Ninety-nine percent of the time it was a treat in the form of candy.

On rare occasions it was both a trick and a treat. An adult dressed as a zombie or the Frankenstein monster would be hiding in the bushes, waiting until some unsuspecting and defenseless children dressed as Rainbow Brite and GI Joe were just inches away. At just the precise moment, all it took was a spontaneously shouted “Boo!” to scare the living shit outta all them little bastards.

My friend Chris and I in 2004,
as Tony Clifton or something.

For American adults who dress up for Halloween in modern times, it’s all about the ironic homemade costume. Something timely will do. This year, presumably “Dead Michael Jackson” will be popular.

In recent years, I’ve seen a bloodied Sigfried & Roy with an attached stuffed tiger, a human-sized iPod, and a blood-covered Dexter. Margot Tenenbaum and Osama Bin Laden are often around. Vampires, zombies, hillbillies and dead Kennedys are timeless get-ups. Maybe the scariest costume last year was Sarah Palin.

Among the adults, you can always expect to see Britney Spears in her schoolgirl outfit and a few sexy nurses. Enough can’t be said for the opportunity Halloween presents for girls to dress like sluts. A lot of “ladies” take advantage of this night to let out their inner exhibitionism.

The weeks following Halloween are high-season for social networking sites. I don’t have any statistics on this, but my guess is that the number uploaded photos and page views probably goes through the roof. “Holy shit! Did you see Brad’s girlfriend in that Daisy Duke costume? I tagged it, bro.”

Back in the 70’s, more often than not, we dressed up in ready-made costumes bought at a local store like Ayr-Way or TG&Y. You can see a prime example of some of these top-quality disguises in this considerably-less-than-high-definition image from Halloween 1973.

Posing in our Middletown living room in front of the Sears & Roebuck console phonograph are my brother (a call center management consultant) as Satan; my sister (a violin luthier and repair specialist) as Raggedy Ann; and me (an amateur Swedish picnic planner) on the right as like a cat or something. Our names are written on the huge, plastic treat bags. Plastic bags are always great to keep around your kids.

Behind my brother on the left is a JVC 8-track deck and behind my sister on the right is a hand-painted family heirloom vase that we lived in constant fear of knocking off the stereo when horseplay and roughhousing commenced.

Those costumes were exactly as Jerry Seinfeld described them in his stand-up act: ill-fitting, pajama-style outfits accompanied by plastic masks with tiny air holes. These masks are held on one’s head by the world’s thinnest rubberband that is stapled to the mask. It never fit right and that rubberband/staple combo had an average lifespan of 8 minutes.

Inevitably, it was cold on Halloween night so you had to wear a coat over your costume. Reflectors started getting popular as urban legends and local news programs convinced parents to live in fear of everything, not just mummies. I can think of nothing more frightening than The Hulk wearing a winter coat. Count Dracula with reflective tape on his sneakers… why, I can hardly type this right now due to the fact that my hands are trembling in fear.

This second photo is Halloween Night in 1978. I’m the little American Indian in the front, sporting a genuine homemade costume that my mom crafted. (Note the reflective tape on the plastic pumpkin.)

Speaking of Indians, like a lot of cool things in America, Halloween was also “borrowed” from someone else’s culture. Maybe the scariest thing about Halloween is that it is originally Irish. (sh-sh-shud-d-der) All those red-haired ghosts on their way to… never mind… The Irish heritage certainly would account for the carved pumpkin heads being called jack o’lanterns.

Those other turkeys in the picture are kids from our neighborhood. I don’t want to brag or name drop, but Echo Bridge Drive had a pretty menacing, kick-ass posse going around every October 31st. In your face, Brookgreen!

2005: Carla dressed as Chris with Chris’
girlfriend Lindsay as a marching band leader.

The candy ruled. Well, most of the candy ruled. I remember there were always some cheap asses (“old people”) who would hand out these lumps of some kind of bullshit candy that were individually wrapped in black or orange wax paper. They were like butter candy or something. I don’t know anybody who liked them. They made Werther’s Originals seem like Pop Rocks and tequila.

Some assholes would hand out apples or “healthy snacks.” Whatever, squares. Go back to Russia. Occasionally, a house would gave out money. Spare change! I’m not making this up. (“Um, despite how cheap my costume is, I’m not homeless. My dad has a good job and he’s standing right over there with the flashlight.”)

On a holiday like Christmas, the kids were always comparing what everybody got, and somebody always got outdone. It wasn’t like that for Halloween. We all went to the same houses and we all came home with pretty much the same giant bag of candy. Strangely, I haven’t seen any conservatives opposing Halloween because of this communist equality streak.

Halloween 1971: mom (age 33), me (2)
and my brother (4) on the front porch.

When you got back to the house with all your loot, the trading would begin. Reese’s and all the Hershey’s candies were always popular. I really liked the Krackel bars and Hershey’s Special Dark, but I wasn’t really into Mr. Goodbar, so there would be some bartering in the house to get the best assortment. Homemade cookies made it into the mix, too, but still, nobody ever wanted those black and orange wax paper things. They were the Halloween equivalent of giving someone a fruitcake at Christmas.

Over the past week, I polled of six of my Swedish friends about Halloween. All six of these Swedes are young adults in their twenties or thirties.

The poll consisted of one simple question: How many times have you dressed up for Halloween in your life?

If I had asked this of my American friends of similar ages, the answers would probably range from “15 times” to “every year.” For some people, like my brother and his wife (that’s him as Colonel Sanders), I may even get a number higher than the respondent’s age.

Two of the six Swedes I polled answered “never” and the other four answered “once.” That’s a total of four times during the entire lifetimes of six adults. So, combined, it’s four times in about 175 years.

For all the ways the popular cultures in America and Sweden are the same – television, movies, music, comedy and a number of common holidays – Halloween has sadly been left out of the mix in Sweden.

Isn’t it odd that a country which suffers through months of cold darkness – a foggy and mysterious land, where the sun has shone through the clouds nary a few minutes in as many weeks, and whose streets are crawling with vampires – hasn’t embraced this night of terror?

Perhaps Swedish people feel that if you’re already a vampire there’s no need to put on a costume and act scary. Then again, I guess you don’t see a lot of American kids dressing up as little witches and old men for Easter.

Halloween is beginning to be celebrated in Sweden, according to several people I’ve talked with, but it has really only begun to seriously take root within the past ten years.

On Drottninggatan (“Queen Street”) in central Stockholm, there is a giant inflated ghost hanging above the street with a banner that reads, “Have a fun Halloween.” That’s a step in the right direction. And I got excited Friday night when I was out in Stockholm and I saw some teens and twenty-somethings dressed up. Get this: some of them were dressed as vampires. Shocking.

One girl had the most amazing fangs I have ever seen and she was wearing some of those hypnotic Marilyn Manson contacts. She even hissed at me when I walked by. It’s kind of fuzzy after that. The next thing I remember, I woke up in the train, feeling very weak and I got a text message that Erika was eliminated from Swedish Idol. (Didn’t much care for her anyway. We live in a Tove and Eddie house.) God, my neck hurts.

2005: Me dressed as my friend Matt.

In America, it seems that Halloween has been making a bit of a resurgence. That makes me happy because Halloween is responsible for some of my most awesome childhood memories. Part of why it was cool was because it wasn’t actually a holiday. Nobody is off school or work for it, so if it fell during the week, you were allowed to go out in the neighborhood when it was dark outside. Also if it was on a school day, there was a chance that there would be a Halloween party at school and everyone would wear their costumes to school. It was all just extra fun.

I’m pretty sure it happened everywhere in the United States, but I know for sure that in my neighborhood Halloween came to a screeching halt in 1982. That year, the whole spectacle was essentially non-existent.

In late September and early October of 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died because the Tylenol pain reliever pills they took had been tampered with and poisoned with cyanide.

Halloween has always been the source of endless urban legends – everything from people putting razor blades inside apples (bad enough that you get an apple) to kidnapping children – but almost none of it was ever true. These seven deaths from product tampering, occurring just a few weeks before Halloween, sent a shockwave across America and shattered a lot of whatever innocence was still left after the 60’s.

On the night of Halloween 1982, many houses in our neighborhood were dark and very few kids were out trick-or-treating. There were really only a handful knocks on the door. Halloween was never the same.

1974: My brother as a cowboy, neighbor as a skeleton, me as the Demon of Hell. Note the Cincinnati Reds helmet on the jack o’lantern.

There is an unforgettable Halloween scene in the Stephen Spielberg movie E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, in which the alien is being hidden, disguised as a ghost under a sheet. E.T. is as bewildered by the bizarre world he sees through the two eye holes, as any newcomer would be if unfamiliar with Halloween.

Coincidentally, that film was released in December 1982. The Halloween sequence had already been filmed by the time the Tylenol murders occurred and muted the festivities down to something decidedly less eye-catching than what’s in the movie. I’ve often wondered if the film would have been any different had it been filmed a little later.

Subsequent years have seemed to gradually improve the level of participation in Halloween, but I think a whole generation or two of Americans missed out on how thrilling it was when I was a kid. That’s why it makes me happy that it seems to be picking up steam again. I especially think a bunch of holiday-loving, creative people like the Swedes will be able to do some extraordinary things with it.

The Chicago tampering crime, incidentally, remains unsolved today (they “believe” they know who did it), so we may never know the name of the A-hole who ruined Halloween. Maybe I’m being too hard on this person. I mean, whoever did it, they didn’t intentionally spoil Halloween for millions of children. They only wanted to secretly murder innocent people who had headaches. I guess there’s no harm in that, right?

The Idea of North

It’s beginning to get cold in Sweden. The first snow of the season, however fleeting, already happened a couple weeks ago.

Earlier this month, daylight hours in Stockholm passed below the 50/50 point. We are now at 10 hours of daylight and 14 hours of darkness.

I’m actually being very generous by using the term “daylight hours.” We haven’t truly seen rays of direct sunshine in a number of days. I don’t even know what that number is. A week, two weeks? Who knows? If the sun isn’t shining where I am then it feels like it’s not shining anywhere.

I’ve been told by reliable sources that such a change in the weather happens every year around this time. What seems like the retreating of the sun is nothing to be alarmed about.

Scientists say the sun is actually just fine and shining as brightly as ever, we just can’t see it directly from here. Experts say it’s not just the weather, but a further problem which lies in how our planet rotates and tilts.

While places closer to the Equator are drenched in year-round sunshine and suffer no real differences in the length of their days, place like Sweden which are much farther away from this center line get a real variety depending on the season.


Hourly image from live webcam in Stockholm

The converging events of cold and darkness have brought me back to an important resolution I make every year when it starts getting cold. This year will be one more in a series of winters I have embarked into with this simple pledge: “This winter I refuse to be cold.”

If this resolution means I don’t leave the house wearing less than three shirts, two sweaters, long underwear, two pairs of socks, a coat, a scarf, a hat and special gloves, so be it.

Freezing in the cold is fully preventable and I see no reason to suffer through the chilling discomfort. It is simply not worth the pain if it can be avoided.

So if it’s snowing in October and there are already 14 hours of darkness every day, that presents a relevant question: Just how far north is Stockholm?

I’ve often wondered exactly how far north a lot of places in Europe are compared to places in the United States. For instance, is Berlin farther north than New York?

To answer these terribly important, pressing questions, I have prepared the chart on the right side of this page.

Each degree of latitude on the globe is a space of 60 nautical miles or 69 statue miles. That equates to about 111 kilometers.

In the chart, I’ve highlighted where I am now in Stockholm, my hometown of Louisville and other cities of interest around the world.

It turns out that Stockholm is nearly 1,400 miles (2,250 km) north of Louisville. If Stockholm were in North America, it’s position would be very far north into Canada or Alaska. It is farther north than the Aleutian Islands, but not quite up where Anchorage is.

If Louisville were in Europe, it would be in Spain, south of Madrid.

Though some people in America consider Louisville to be a Southern city, most would never say Washington, DC, is a part of The South. The space between DC’s latitude at 38.8° and Louisville’s at 38.25°, is a difference of only about 38 miles.

It’s true that both cities are, in fact, south of the Mason-Dixon line which places them in the area that has traditionally been considered The South, but again, both cities are barely south of that line.

St. Louis, Missouri, another city not typically considered southern, is on a line between Louisville and Washington at 38.6° latitude. St. Louis lies only about 24 miles (39 km) north of Louisville.

I recently ran into a girl in Stockholm who was from Mississippi. Hard to believe, right? I felt like she had me beat on the surprise factor. Being from Mississippi and stomping around Sweden made being from Kentucky seem a little less surprising.

When she asked where I was from and I said, “Kentucky,” she quipped, “Oh, the Fake South?” Ha! “Thank you very much,” I said.

We congratulated each other apparently in the same way a lot of people have congratulated us individually throughout our lives, “You don’t sound like you’re from Mississippi.” “Well, you don’t sound like you’re from Kentucky.” Of course, we are both from cities which made it easier, but for both of us, avoiding a southern accent was a conscious choice and we opted for the non-regional American dialect.

The “Fake South?” What a nice thing to say about Kentucky!