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The Language of Rock

When you’re living in the United States, or any English-speaking country, it’s easy to forget (or not even realize) that a large share of the world’s popular music is sung in English. This includes not only the music that is exported from the US or the United Kingdom, but also a big percentage of the popular music that is produced locally in non-English-speaking countries.

Nearly all the songs you hear on the radio in Europe are in English, the songs in Sweden’s version of Idol, as well as the extremely popular annual singing/writing/production song competition Melodifestivalen.

But English as the default language of entertainment is not limited only to popular music. It crosses over into independent rock, alternative and virtually every form of music that has substantial appeal to wide audiences.

This topic always reminds me of the first time I played a show with my band outside of the United States. (Impressed? It only took four paragraphs today before I was able to make this about me.)

Back in 1996, still wet behind the ears, we unsuspectingly wheeled into a small pub in Karlsruhe, Germany. We were shocked that night – and for the rest of the tour – that all these German punk and indie bands were singing in English. We had never come face to face with this phenomenon before arriving in Germany and the same turned out to be true in Italy, Austria, Switzerland and every other country we visited on the tour.

Some of these musicians, whose native languages were German, Italian or whatever, were challenged to carry on a conversation in English and even then, spoke with very heavy accents. When singing, though, their lyrics were as expressive as any comparable American band and their English was just as clear.

For us, a busload of Americans struggling to pronounce entschuldigung, the whole thing was truly fascinating.

In 1996, it was something I had never thought about before and it blew my mind. This made no sense to me.

If music is an expression of what you’re feeling, wouldn’t you want to create it in the language you speak naturally and most easily? Wouldn’t that give you the most power and versatility to express yourself? Of course, it would, but there was a larger objective at work and other forces involved.

I eventually arrived at the analogy that in the same way we accept great opera as being in Italian, or great love poetry being in French, great rock’n’roll is in English.

That’s one explanation and perhaps a bit romantic on my part. Elvis Presley, The Beatles and other pioneers and greats of the genre may have initially established the language the brand is shipped in, but today it seems the reasons are more practical than simply English being the factory color of the canvas.

Another, perhaps more realistic explanation, is that English has become the de facto, default common language among the potential audience of listeners for many artists. This is true especially in Europe where there are so many different languages in such a small area.

Imagine if everyone in Indiana and Illinois spoke a different language than everyone in Ohio. Missouri and Iowa shared a language. Kentucky and Tennessee. That’s the size of some of the geography we’re talking about. It only makes sense to use a common code that everyone in all these places has at least some familiarity with. English, the language of rock’n’roll, is that universal code.

Many Americans may not realize (well, of course, the highly-educated readers of my heartwarming and compelling stories certainly realize it) …but, many Americans may not realize that when people from Spain talk to people from Belgium, they usually speak English. When Swedes speak with Germans, it’s in English. When the Dutch talk to Nigerians, or the Pakistanis talk to the Czechs, or the Peruvians talk to the Norwegians (rare, but it has probably happened), well, you can see where this is going. Just like in popular music, more often than not, inter-country communication is likely to be in English.

If you’re a musician and you want to have any substantial success outside of your home country, it’s basically an unwritten rule that your lyrics must be in English.

The same is often true for acting and writing. (You know, “writing” like in books. Remember those things? The old ones smell all musty. Probably why people stopped using them.)

Almost nobody in America knows who Mikael Persbrandt is, but in Sweden he is one of the actors. Like Pacino or DeNiro, Swedes refer to him just by his last name. He’s that big. The address of his official website (which looks like one of the fake computers the FBI uses in movies) is even simply named persbrandt.com.

Maybe he has done some English language films, but I can’t imagine why he would. I can’t imagine somebody like him ever feeling the need to pursue such a thing.

Some people have unstoppable ambition, but if you’re the biggest star in Vermont’s language, why would you possibly want to start at the bottom of the film business in Florida? I mean, Persbrandt has his entire home country swinging off his lingonberries, why bother going anywhere else?

Homer: Wow, Mr. Burns… you own everything!

Mr. Burns: Yes, but I’d give it all away to have just a little bit more.

It’s not necessarily irrepressible determination that moves people into the worldwide English-speaking market. If you’re from Denmark and you’re writing or singing in Danish, that limits the size of your audience to a population of under five million people, just slightly bigger than Kentucky.

After you remove all the people who will never be interested in your style of music or writing, the numbers get really small really fast. If you’re in a punk band or doing something with limited appeal, you may already know all the people who will ever be interested. Even if you strike it big, that potential audience just isn’t large enough to support a successful career, and there aren’t enough cities of people who understand what you’re saying to support the band on tour.

The Swedish pop group Abba sold over 300 million records in a language they didn’t speak in their everyday lives. Their own language is only understood by 10 million worldwide, and that number was even smaller when Abba was a hit machine.

To post those kinds of numbers – hundreds of millions – they simply had to do it in English. They only could have done that in Swedish by selling a stack of 30 records to each person who speaks Swedish. Swedes love Abba, but not that much.

Dozens of hugely successful artists have taken the leap to English for this reason. Imagine riding in a tour bus, working in the studio, talking with your manager – doing all these things in your comfortable, native language, but as soon as the stage lights come on or the engineer hits the “record” button, it’s all in someone else’s tongue.

When they’re just hanging out around the house, The Scorpions speak German. Björk speaks Icelandic. Shakira and Ricky Martin speak Spanish. Daft Punk speak French. Abba, The Cardigans, The Hives, Roxette and Ace of Base all speak Swedish.

(Now, I know what some of you are saying: “Roxette? Ace of Base? Jesus, I haven’t heard anything about them in fifteen years!” I know, but I had to include them in the list of Swedish artists because they’re like Denny Crum and Darrell Griffith are in Louisville. The people from these places think that everyone else in the world knows and cares about them.)

It’s so seldom that a song with non-English lyrics becomes popular in America that I think it’s safe to classify these songs as novelties.

I’m thinking about “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens, “Macarena” by Los Del Rio and “Du Hast” by Rammstein. I’m actually having trouble coming up with any more examples than just those three songs. Suffice it to say that writing foreign language songs in America is a harder way to make a living than selling spicy food in Sweden.

Americans seem to like these songs not because the populace is so diverse and cultured, but maybe more so because Americans think foreign languages are funny.

I can’t imagine any of those three songs being hit records if they were sung in English. Okay, that’s not true. “La Bamba” was a really big hit when it was called “Twist and Shout.”

Next time you’re singing karaoke, which I presume will be on Wednesday night, sign up to sing “La Bamba” but sing “Twist and Shout” instead. I guarantee no one will notice the difference.

(Special thanks to Christian Pries for the photos from Germany. I mean the ones of me.)

Fontroversy!

It’s not every day that typography is in the news or that usage of a particular font can be described as controversial.

However, such a situation is afoot this week in Sweden and the story goes back eighty years.

Way back in 1929, British sculptor and typographer Eric Gill was commissioned to create a clean sans-serif typeface for the London and North Eastern Railway. After much labor on the project, the result was an uncluttered, practical and ultimately timeless font that the Martin Mull lookalike modestly named after himself: Gill Sans.

Gill Sans appears equally clear on directional signs as it does in a dense paragraph of magazine text. Its clarity is a result of its forms being inspired by the proportions found in ancient Roman characters. Gill made huge circular shapes out of his capital letters like C, G and O. The capital M is a perfect square with an imaginary X in the middle, dividing the box into four equal triangles. Sans serif typefaces are generally more compact and efficient with the space they use, but Gill Sans is wide open.

Sometimes glorified (or derided) as “the English Helvetica,” the versatile typeface is still in exceptionally widespread use today.

Gill Sans can be seen in the logos of Benetton, Tommy Hilfiger, the BBC and eHarmony, in the film graphics of Toy Story and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and as the title font on Edward Young’s classic two-tone cover designs for Penguin Books. Not least, it is one of the fonts that comes packaged with Mac OS X, making it a staple on millions of desktops.

Like Helvetica, its lazy overuse has resulted in some of the same backlash that Helvetica enjoys. I have to confess to you that I’ve used it quite recently, however begrudgingly. I didn’t want to use it. I don’t really like it that much, but for the job I was working on, it worked. That’s all graphic designers need, really, something that works and compliments its context.

Another example of the font’s usefulness, cleanliness and popularity has resulted in the controversy that is currently making news in Sweden. This is an example of a design that looks nice but its context makes all the difference.

Gill Sans is the logo typeface for Rädda Barnen (“Save the Children”), a non-governmental organization based in Sweden that “fights for children’s rights [and works to] deliver immediate and lasting improvements to children’s lives worldwide.” They are a massive organization, promoting noble aspirations and, to be sure, they are relentless in their efforts to help children in dozens of countries.

That’s why it is such a sad and unfortunate coincidence that Eric Gill, designer of the Gill Sans typeface, not only abused his own children, but had an incestuous relationship with his sister. If that isn’t enough to turn your stomach, he was also up to other sick perversions I don’t need to discuss for the purposes of this story. Let’s just say his dog couldn’t really relax around the house either. Instead of using his dog to pick up girls, this poor animal was being used as the girl.

This bastard Eric Gill was a genuine piece of shit. Hardly the type of character you’d want even remotely associated with your organization, regardless of your line of work.

Oh, and did I mention he was super religious?

Suffice it to say that the people at Rädda Barnen were shocked about a year ago when they became aware of the history of their logotype’s creator. They quickly began taking steps to replace it.

Louise Gauffin at Rädda Barnen told the graphic design magazine CAP & Design this week, “As soon as we heard about it, we began a rebranding project… We felt that we should phase out the font.” I should say so.

All this has become public during the past week. When a communications consultant named Per Torberger was watching the Swedish version of Idol recently, he saw a fundraising commercial for Rädda Barnen. He had one of those moments of realization when he saw the logo and typeface together. It made him feel sick.

Torberger wrote about it on his blog, Pers Värld (“Per’s World”), and it immediately began lighting up cyberspace.

Quite decisively, Rädda Barnen announced on Monday that they are beginning to phase out the typeface:

“When Save the Children chose Gill Sans as a logo typeface, we did not know of Eric Gill’s background. It is something we have become aware of in recent times. We take this issue very seriously and as soon as possible, we will replace the font… We estimate that the work will be completed in 2010. As soon as it is possible in terms of cost, we will change the font.”

The reaction to the change seems overwhelmingly positive, even among people who are not interested in design. Believe it or not, there actually are some people in Sweden who are not interested in the way things look.

This might disgust you even more than anything else you’ve read here today: I regularly see professionally-made signs and flyers in Stockholm with the Comic Sans font on them. Talk about an offensive typeface!

In their reporting on the Rädda Barnen logo situation, the tabloid Aftonbladet referred to Eric Gill in today’s paper as a “typographer and religious fanatic… and pedophile.” Ah ha, I see. Not only an artist but a true multi-tasker.

Do you think that’s what it said on his business card? “Eric Gill: typographer, religious fanatic, pedophile. Please ring London Kensington 4-5-2.”

What a shame as well that Gill was such a talented pioneer and whose work has endured the test of time, especially in a field that sees influence come and go many times each year. I guess you can’t have it all.

The Sydsvenskan newspaper in Malmö ran the headline “Save the Children fonts designed by pedophile.” That pretty much says it. “The creator of the typeface abused his children.”

Pia Högberg, creative director at Stockholm’s Infobahn advertising agency is a bit more understanding on her company’s blog. “Oops! … Of all the fonts in the world, they chose the one designed by a man who was a pornographer, had an incestuous relationship with his sister and on top of it all brutalized his own children.” Oops indeed.

“An honest mistake,” she says, “which unfortunately will become an expensive story for Save the Children. Time and money that should go to their core activities instead.”

Högberg gives all the credit to Per Torberger who brought the regrettable dichotomy to the public’s attention, starting only with a post on his blog. “Who says the individual doesn’t have power?”

Inescapable Freedom

Sometimes I feel like a lot of the material I write for this website is the same. It goes something like this:

“Sweden is clean, quiet, beautiful and the people here have it all figured out. Americans are babies who hate the government and don’t want to pay taxes, but want everything provided for them.”

I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea or think that I’m bashing America. That is (almost) never my intention. Too many Americans take the “love it or leave it” view.

Surprisingly, it actually is possible to do both: to love it and leave it.

Nonetheless, I could possibly write for days, just listing the things that most Americans don’t realize are happening in the foggy world outside the borders of the United States. However, if I did that, there’s always a chance that some hillbilly might inadvertently find this website, call me a freedom hater, re-post the link to my “anti-American” tirades and cause my pageviews to skyrocket. Worse yet, someone might accidentally learn something about the world.

For all the flag-waving and chanting of “we’re number one!” that goes on in the US, truly only a handful of Americans have ever left the country. I hope you’re sitting down, because what follows is an actual, genuine statistic: Only 24% of Americans have a passport.

(I went ahead and included a photo of one here, in case there are some Americans reading this who have never seen one before. It’s pretty nice on the outside, but the inside pages are filled with ridiculous scenes and patriotic quotes that make it look more like a Toby Keith concert shirt than an official government document.)

What’s more surprising than the wildly low number of US citizens who have a passport is the fact that 24% is an all-time high. The annual rate of issuance has tripled since 1996, shooting up dramatically since the beginning of this decade.

Part of the reason for the increase is a set of new regulations which require Americans to have passports when crossing the Canadian and Mexican borders, as well as when traveling to US territories in the Caribbean like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Previously, a driver’s license or some other state-issued ID sufficed for these border checks.

Personally, I would have suspected that more Americans would have passports as a precautionary measure. You never know when you’re gonna need to get outta Dodge. For instance, you can’t wait around for your passport application to be processed after you mastermind a multi-million dollar jewel heist or knock over a casino with ten of your ruggedly good-looking and quick-witted pals. You gotta plan for this kind of stuff.

There are a lot of reasons why Americans don’t have passports, other than the widespread belief that America is the greatest goddamn country in the history of the universe and everybody everywhere else are all a bunch of commie jagoffs who throw rocks at tanks all day.

(“Why the hell would anyone want to leave the heaven of this trailer park? I seent all them homos on the TV, talkin’ all foreign and shit. Fuck them foreigners and cook me up another one of them hot dogs wrapped in a pancake.”)

It’s all true, yankees. Just stay where you are, especially if you were thinking about planning a trip to Europe.

Once you leave America, you’ll find that the rest of the world is a vast, boring wasteland of organic food, renewable energy and book smarts.

For example, the movies in Sweden are all just people talking or sitting there looking at things. No explosions, no car jumps, no Slipknot songs on the soundtrack. Shit, I can’t even remember the last time I saw someone get shot in the face. Believe me, you wouldn’t like it.

You might think the main reason more Americans don’t have passports is because the country is so large. That’s also true. One could actually get in a car and drive for days without leaving the country, exchanging currency or needing to know a different language.

There’s a lot to see in the United States and it can be accessed much more affordably than leaving the country. Think about the differences between Maine and Louisiana, Colorado and New York, Alaska and Arizona, Minnesota and Hawai’i. The diverse landscapes, climates and ways of life that can be visited within the nation’s borders are more than anyone could ever see.

Another factor, sadly, is that more than 13% of Americans live in poverty. That’s 1 in 8. Those 41 million people have more pertinent things to spend their money on than the $100 passport application, not to mention international travel. A lot of people just can’t afford to go anywhere.

Interestingly, more than half of all Canadians had passports before the new regulations. (That’s cuz there ain’t shit to do in Canada, dude!)

Because I am one of the privileged 74 million Americans who holds a copy of this rare, mysterious document called the “US passport,” I have been able to explore a bit of the world outside the land of plenty.

Picture it: I am actually sitting here typing this in a goddamn foreign country.

If I walk over to the window right now, it’s all fuckin’ foreign shit as far as the eye can see. If I go outside the signs are like “Büllshit Whåtevér” and “Who Cäres Nöbody Cän Reäd This Shit” and all the people are like “Borski borski yatta wheet braah borski borski.”

I can report back now to anyone in America who is reading this: everywhere outside of God’s Great United States is hell. Don’t get any ideas. It ain’t worth all the hassle. If you’re in a country like Sweden and you get sick or are hurt in an accident, you may have to wait a little while before they totally take care of everything for free and give you several weeks of paid vacation to recover. Not for me, man. I don’t want any bureaucrats coming between me and my doctor, paying for everything.

So forget about it. I mean, the “Tex-Mex” buffet here serves cold, whole kidney beans, and they put carrots in the rice. Really. Bunch of f’n weirdos over here. Best y’alls just go to Pigeon Forge for vacation.

But don’t take my word for it. Make up your own mind. I mean, you can easily see in these randomly* selected photos that life in America is way better.

(*=photos not selected randomly)

Saltsjöbanan

Saltsjöbanan is one of Stockholm’s oldest local rail lines. The 18-station line has been operating over 115 years and covers an end-to-end distance of about 11 miles (18 km).

The line runs from the major transportation hub at Slussen in central Stockholm out to the eastern suburbs at Saltsjöbaden.

The small town of Saltsjöbaden (the Salt Sea “bath” or “beach”) sits on the shore of the Saltsjö (“Salt Lake”) and gained popularity in the 19th Century as a nearby retreat for people from Stockholm.

(My best attempt at phonetically typing out the pronunciation of Saltsjöbanan would be “SALT-hwew-BAHN-ahn” but I’m open to suggestions on that. Sjö, the word for “sea” is one of those words I have to say five times before a Swede knows what I’m talking about.)

Old Timey Train

This is one really old-timey train. Although it has been updated many times over the years – it was originally a steam train – the electric wagons now in service date back to 1948. Compared to the modern Tunnelbana subway trains, the Pendeltåg regional lines and the Tvärbanan street trains, the Saltsjöbanan line runs slower and is a quite a bit louder.

From the middle of bustling Stockholm, the route is a journey through time and topography. It tunnels through stone façades, above elevated viaducts, through neighborhoods and wooded areas, and along a number of scenic lakes before reaching one of two eastern terminuses adjacent to the open sea of Stockholm’s archipelago.

The railway opened in 1893 and originally carried freight as well as passengers. As a result, the Saltsjöbanan rides on the same wide, full-scale, normal gauge rails as a freight train.

Some stations on the line are nothing more than simple wooden platforms while others, like the major shopping center at Nacka, are a bit more elaborate. One of these basic platforms can be seen in this photo of the stop at Östervik, that you can click for a larger view.

Another platform on the line and the Saltsjöbanan railroad itself are featured in some key scenes of the 2008 film Fishy, set in the town of Fisksätra near east end of the line.

Rustic Stations

Because most of the stations are rustic and don’t have turnstiles or ticket counters, the Saltsjöbanan is one of the trains in Stockholm where a conductor almost always comes around to check tickets, making it all-the-more old timey.

A recent article in one of Stockholm’s newspapers reported that the collective transit system in the city is one of the most expensive in the world for riders. Although it seems somewhat easy to hop on a train without a ticket almost anywhere in the city – and it’s not uncommon to see someone doing so – there are hefty fines for getting caught inside a train without a valid pass. I would never dare take the risk.

Although the Saltsjöbanan is a minor route, the transit authority SL says it carries more than 15,000 passengers a day, part of what also seems to be one of the cleanest, ostensibly decorated and most efficient transit systems in existence. Last night I was waiting for a train on a different route and people were huffing and puffing because it was going to be 10 minutes later than its normal time.

180° View from the Östervik platform

Below is a 180° view from the Saltsjöbanan platform at Östervik, about midway through the route, and here is a Google Maps link showing the point where the image was taken.


Click view full size

In both the map and the panorama, you can see that there is only one set of tracks at the ֖stervik platform. Most of the entire route of the Saltsjöbanan railway was built as a single path of track that carries traffic in both directions. This means that the wagons traveling in opposite directions are timed accordingly and diverted to a set of side rails while oncoming traffic passes. This typically occurs at a handful of stations which have dual tracks or at the end stations. An additional 1-kilometer stretch between Storängen and Saltsjö-Duvnäs also has two sets of tracks that operate in opposite directions.

Last train to Clarksville

I’ve received a lot of comments and questions about my previous stories comparing the public transit systems in Louisville and Stockholm (or maybe I should I say: comparing Stockholm’s public transit system to Louisville’s lack of people trains).

Those pieces can be seen at these links: 360° View from Slussen and Slussen+8664 Revisited.

Unfortunately, I can’t write anything here as an authority on any particular subject, I can only offer observations and opinions. As far as my observations and opinions go, I am the foremost authority in the world. That is undisputed.

Nonetheless, some have contended that the contrast between the cities isn’t necessarily fair. There is a perception that Stockholm is a much larger city than Louisville. People generally use population numbers as a measure of a city’s size, and yes, Stockholm is certainly bigger, no doubt about that.

Population isn’t the only factor that comes into play when gauging the effectiveness and cost of public transit systems, so in addition to that, you also have to consider components like surface area and density.

Not only is Stockholm’s population greater than Louisville’s, it is also condensed into a much more compact area. Swedish housing is decidedly more modest and economical than its Midwestern US counterpart. In Stockholm, nearly six people live in the same amount of space that one Louisvillian occupies.

It’s not so much that Swedes are crammed into tiny boxes or that all their Ikea furniture is so sparse, it’s more so that a great deal of the land in Louisville is consumed by super-sized roadways and suburban houses that sit on half-acre plots of land. The people are simply farther apart in Kentucky.

The scale of the streets and buildings in central Stockholm dates back several centuries and much of it still reflects the proportions of those bygone eras. (Yeah, I just said “bygone eras.” Don’t worry about it. At least it wasn’t “days of yore.”)

The contrast of these dimensions is perhaps no better illustrated than by how retarded this American-size car looks in Stockholm’s old town. My apologies if the photo is a little blurry. That would be on account of me laughing so hard in disbelief upon seeing a Buick station wagon in Gamla Stan. Blowin’ my mind, man.

Since I was a kid, I have always wondered why cars like this have fake wood on them. Does anybody really believe this car is made of wood? And if they did, would that be a good thing? It seems like wood is not the smartest thing to make an automobile out of, though if you crash it you could always rebuild it with the spare lumber you have left over from remodeling your kitchen. Oh well, perhaps I’m not classy enough to recognize the prestige of driving a wooden car.

I looked this car up on the EPA website and it gets about 16 miles per gallon (that’s about 15 L/100 km). In Sweden right now, it would cost the owner more than $4 to drive ten miles (almost 30 sek for 16 km). A dollar every 2.5 miles is so much that perhaps the driver ran out of money and just left it here.

Louisville’s urban environment essentially developed over the past century. When George Rogers Clark set up the first settlement at the site of Louisville in 1778, Stockholm already had more than 500 years of rich history.

It’s not uncommon here to see rustic old buildings that recall the image of a misty ocean port, intermixed with 1800’s shop houses and modern glass-enclosed towers, all in the same glance.

If restricted to city boundaries, Stockholm’s population is only 14% larger than Louisville’s, but the metro areas are considerably different. Outside its city limits, Stockholm’s metro area grows to more than one and a half times the size of Louisville’s metro. The Swedish capital region will soon top 2 million residents, compared with Louisville’s 1.2 million inhabitants.

Here’s a complete comparison of the two cities along related topics. The homicide numbers are thrown in just for fun. (Ooh! murder! How fun!) I’m not sure if these figures include vampire-related deaths in Sweden.

Louisville
Stockholm
City Population
713,877
818,603
Metro Area Population
1,268,323
1,998,896
City Population Density
1,866/sq mi
10,144/sq
1,157/km2
6,289/km2
Automobiles per 1000 people (National avg.)
809
411
Annual homicides per 100,000 residents
14
3

The more concentrated population is an advantage for making public transit effective. Many more Stockholmers live within walking distance of a subway station than would be the case if the same transit system were magically plopped down in Louisville.

Louisvillians also have a comparatively narrower definition of “walking distance.”

If ten thousand people live within a five-minute walk to the nearest station, it makes the likelihood of people using the service much higher than if that walk were ten or fifteen minutes.

In sprawling American cities – Atlanta comes to mind – many people who use the rapid transit systems actually drive their cars to a spot where they catch the train. It’s easier and cheaper for them to navigate the urban area without a car, but the suburbs are so spread out that they don’t live near a station.

The number of automobiles per capita in the United States is the highest in the world, double the rate of ownership in Sweden. It’s not as high in Kentucky as in many other states, but the US Department of Transportation reports that 865 of every 1000 Kentuckians of driving age have a driver’s license. (See my previous story about the driver’s license process in Sweden.)

With all that in mind, I wanted to see how Stockholm’s extensive local rail system would look if it actually were plopped down in Louisville. I assembled a couple of maps.

I can’t imagine there are too many people in the world who are intimately familiar with Stockholm and Louisville, so more than likely, this won’t impress a wide audience of people who are not, well, me.


This first map is Stockholm overlaid with most of its light rail lines.

The colored lines are the primary Tunnelbana subway system that has 100 stations. The purple lines, while they don’t have their stations illustrated, include a number of other interconnected systems like the Pendeltåg (regional trains) and suburban commuter railways including Saltsjöbanan and Roslagsbanan. Those lines include more than 60 other stations not shown on this map.


This second map is Stockholm’s rail system laid on top of metro Louisville at the same scale.

My first impression upon seeing these maps is that a transit system like this in Louisville would be absurdly excessive. That’s really good news since the higher-ups in Louisville seem eternally obsessed with sports arenas and hellbent on pouring billions into automobile infrastructure, rather than rapid transit. Construction on Louisville’s 15-station light rail system was scrapped in 2004 because of a lack of funding, but there’s no shortage of construction projects for highways.

Coincidentally, one of the founders of the 8664 movement, Tyler Allen, recently announced that he is running for mayor in Louisville. Been there done that. I suspect he is better prepared and organized than I was 11 years ago.

The geographical layout and topography of the two cities is also a study in contrasts. I have always found it so odd that Louisville has its city center in a place that is not the geographic center of the city. Downtown is kind of in the north-west corner and most of the sprawl stretches south and east from there. This goes back to George Rogers Clark and the Falls of the Ohio being the impetus for the city being established.

In the map of Stockholm above, you can see why it is sometimes called the City on Water. Stockholm is laid across fifteen islands. That makes Louisville’s high water table and the Ohio River seem like paltry challenges to building underground. Louisville has enough surface area that tunneling beneath the ground would be largely unnecessary. Whereas Stockholm is more stacked upon islands, Louisville is largely flat with low hills.

Louisville wouldn’t need nearly the number of stations that Stockholm’s system services, but I’ve thought the same is true in here. Stockholm doesn’t need the number of stations it has. Much of the system is 50 or 60 years old and I imagine that if it were built today, the distance between some of the stations would be farther.

What I can’t imagine is how nice it would be to get around Louisville without sitting at traffic lights all day. There are dozens of scenarios in which hopping on a train would be so much more convenient than the hassle of a car – whether it’s going downtown for business or going out for drinks – but maybe Louisvillians will never know of them.

Most Louisvillians aren’t old enough to remember the Interurban Railway and streetcars that existed in the city until 1948. It seems that considering the move toward green technologies, collective transit may be taken more seriously in the future.

If I had a time machine, (which I don’t, just so you know) I would really enjoy riding a train through Louisville with a bunch of people wearing hats, seeing the city bustling, churning out smoke and being all old-timey and shit. Maybe I’m being too romantic by longing for these long-departed days of yore.

(Sources for the chart: Louisville population from US Census Bureau estimate, 2008. Stockholm population from Statistika Centralbyrån, 2009. Homicide numbers both from 2003, Louisville from FBI, Stockholm from Brottsförebyggande rådet.)

Letters to Saint Clinton


Letters to Saint Clinton

Paperback by Scott Ritcher. Same day shipping from Amazon.

Scott Ritcher guides you through 190 pages of the ridiculous hate mail he received from religious nuts who freaked out when they saw a picture of Jesus with Bill Clinton’s head. The most entertaining and absurd letters were hand-selected and are reprinted in all their misspelled glory.

Or download it instantly in the iBookstore:

Letters to Saint Clinton - Scott Ritcher

 

“Artist Scott Ritcher said his depiction of former President Clinton as Saint Clinton was meant to be funny and provoke thought, but a Catholic priest wasn’t amused.” —USA Today 

“The book displays the negative response Saint Clinton generated from Bible-banging Christians worldwide. Ritcher reprinted the emails and message board posts about both art and artist in their original state, spelling and grammar mistakes included. It makes for a hilarious read. And it’s telling, in its own mildly elitist fashion.” —Stephen George, LEO Weekly 

“I hope to … send a big message to Scott Ritcher. I want to let him know that this is not funny and that the open-season on Catholics and Our Lord Jesus Christ is officially closed.” —John Horvat, American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property

 

D-Day for Incandescence

In your face, Thomas Edison!

The man who perfected and commercialized the incandescent light bulb would be aghast if he were here today. With the rest of us, he would be seeing his bright, warm glow being dismantled all over the world, and replaced with buzzing, pale blue tubes that make people’s skin look as dead as his became in 1931.

It has now been almost a month since the initial ban on buying and selling incandescent light bulbs in Europe went into effect. Compact fluorescent bulbs are now the law.

Phase One started September 1st when it became illegal within the European Union for distributors to sell incandescent light bulbs over 100 watts and for shops to order new supplies of them. Fines for circumventing the ban start around $8,000 for individuals and have no limit for businesses.

Existing supplies on retail shelves can still be sold, but they’re pretty much all gone at this point – snapped up by selfish people who don’t want to have mind-splitting headaches for the rest of their lives, and those who don’t want to wait three minutes for the lights to come on before they to walk into a room.

The remaining, clear, warm incandescence in Europe will fade below 60 watts in September 2011 and will be gone completely in less than three years.

The switch is on to these new bulbs whether we like it or not. (See how I did that? “The switch is on”? You know, like a light switch? Yep, still got it!) Even the Energy Saver icon in Mac OS was recently updated to the new bulb.

Not everybody is happy about the switch, despite the environmental benefits.

Outside of making everything look like shit, these new bulbs are also potentially quite hazardous. They emit the same crazy UV rays we wear sunscreen to avoid when we go outside. People who have skin conditions like dermatitis and eczema are especially at risk. And if one of these bulbs happens to break in your house, well, they’re full of mercury. I think I heard something bad about that stuff once. Oh yeah, I remember, it kills babies and makes your body reject its aliveness. (Yes, aliveness is a real word.)

If these bulbs are so painfully inadequate, flickering and harmful, how can they possibly be better than the warm, delicious incandescent light we’ve been basking in all our lives?

Well, it all comes down to the fact that Earth is a cowardly sphere that relentlessly retreats into darkness for half of every day – or half of every year in places like Sweden. Man has combatted this darkness since the beginning of time, using everything from camp fires and mobs carrying torches to white pants and neon lights.

When Edison came along with his commercialized light bulb, it was like fucking gangbusters. That shit was bananas. People had been in the dark for countless centuries – eventually updating to candles, gas lamps and other bullshit like that – but suddenly there was electricity (whoohoo!) and light bulbs and you could just, well, you could just turn the lights on.

Following the first public display of Edison’s light bulb in December 1879, people were shitting their pants. Everybody wanted one of them newfangled electricalized luminescent orb apparatuses.

Just four years later, in my hometown of Louisville – walking distance from where I was born and where Edison had lived for a number of years – the gigantic Southern Exposition was illuminated by five thousand electric bulbs, the largest public demonstration to date.

People all but forgot Shakespeare’s line about being “in love with night.” Trå-å-å-å-åkigt! Let’s light this fucker up!

Man’s passionate love affair with light still continues to this very day. Maybe you’ve heard of Las Vegas – or the inside of your refrigerator. Edison’s doodads are everywhere.

According to Fast Company, in the United States alone, more than five and a half million new light bulbs are purchased every day. The Wall Street Journal reports that America has a current installed base of 4 billion fixtures, burning a third of the world’s total of 12 billion light bulbs. (Relax, I don’t really read Fast Company and the Wall Street Journal.)

If Americans are buying 5.5 million bulbs a day, one could presume that means 5.5 million are also thrown away each day. That’s a lot of garbage. This is where compact fluorescent bulbs start sounding better. Despite their downfalls in quality of light, compact fluorescents last more than ten times longer. You would need to use more than ten consecutive traditional incandescent light bulbs in order to reach the average ten-thousand-hour lifespan of a single compact fluorescent bulb.

So while these fluorescent bulbs are still by now means good for people, after they burn out each compact fluorescent bulb can save landfills from nine additional bulbs. If such a ban were in place in the US today, the 2 billion burned-out bulbs discarded annually would be reduced to 200 million. If you can save 90% on anything, it’s a no-brainer.

Landfill space is great, but the real savings come in terms of electrical costs and the greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere by power plants as a result of everyone operating less-efficient incandescent bulbs.

If there actually was a 100-watt incandescent bulb that could last ten thousand hours, burning it that long would contribute more than 1,100 pounds (500 kg) of additional carbon dioxide. That’s half a ton of additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere per light bulb. Using a light bulb creates a half a ton of something?! What? That’s insane!

Granted all bulbs aren’t 100 watts – some are 60 some are 150 – but if you multiply that half-ton of greenhouse gases by 12 billion bulbs, well, that additional 6 billion tons (5.4 billion metric tons) of exciting, action-packed, global warming-causing gases is something in the air that I can’t even wrap my head around.

Suddenly it becomes a choice between living in a wash of pasty, flickering, anemic light or maybe not being able to sustain life on the planet at all. All because man created light where there was darkness. Sounds familiar.

After seeing those numbers, any attempt I could make to liken this ban to a Twenty-first Century version of Prohibition would seem utterly unfunny.

Like many important and similar issues, the United States seems last in line to address this one as well, though surprisingly not too far behind the curve. Incandescent bulbs in America will begin their phase-out in 2012. The year Europe finishes is the year America begins. Cuba and Australia beat all of us to the chase. Cuba is already completely flush with fluorescence.

I’m sure nobody in America knows about it yet, but it’s only a matter of time before the priceless public debate on the topic reaches the airwaves. Even though the ban in America will take the unholy step of daring to threaten the almighty free market, maybe it will be tolerated since the average American household will save around $70 through the life of a fluorescent bulb in energy and bulb-replacement costs. That seems like something Americans are into – being cheap and worrying about how much it will cost them personally.

If you miss the pleasant coziness of incandescent light you could always light some candles, right? Shit. I hate to be the bearer of still more bad news, but believe it or not, candles are actually worse for the environment than any of these kinds of light bulbs. Candles are one of the least efficient ways to produce artificial light. Ya just can’t win, can ya?

Candles produce less light, more pollution and more heat per lumen than incandescent light bulbs or fluorescents, and this pollution is not isolated to the smoke from the burning flame.

Not only are candles considerably heavier than light bulbs, resulting in more energy and pollution being expended in transportation, but they don’t last as long. This requires multiple candles to create light for the same length of time and because they are so dim it is rare that people use just one candle at a time.

Most candles contain paraffin wax which – talk about bad for the environment – is made from crude oil, a fossil fuel (petroleum sludge to be precise). Candles that don’t contain paraffin, for example those made of beeswax, are slightly better environmentally but generally more expensive. Beeswax produces less smoke but burns hotter and still contributes waste in the form of transportation and multiplicity.

Turns out that a candlelit dinner truly is special, if not indulgent! (Candles are really nice though.)

I guess artificial electric light is just like Mexican food or anything else. If you never got used to having the good stuff, you wouldn’t know it amazing could be. For kids who are being born just now, they’ll never know the difference. But for the rest of us, a lifetime of that bright, warm glow can’t be so easily forgotten when we walk into a cold, dim, blue room.

There are only a couple small incandescent lights left in our apartment and I really treasure the time I have with them. I can only hope that some new technology comes along that creates a quality of artificial light on par with incandescence. I haven’t seen it yet.

Maybe it’s best to just sit in the dark and wait until the sun comes up again.

Hervé Villechaize Language School

I heard a story a long time ago about Hervé Villechaize. He was the actor who played the character Tattoo on the television series Fantasy Island and was famous for his line, “The plane! The plane!” in the opening sequence. He also appeared in a number of films including The Man With the Golden Gun, seen here.

Even though this particular story about him found me fifteen years ago or more, it has been stuck in my mind ever since. Remembering his story became part of the inspiration for me in selling or giving away everything I owned to look for something else in Sweden. His story was certainly a big part of me believing that I could learn to read, write and speak Swedish on my own.

His journey

Hervé Villechaize was French, born in Paris, and studied to be a fine art painter. As an adult, he grew restless and unsatisfied. He ultimately left everything behind and moved to America in search of new adventures.

Not knowing any English, Villechaize taught himself the language entirely by watching television in New York City.

This may not be the most efficient way to learn a language and it may take many years to do so in this way, but it never left my mind that something like this was possible. A person could, in fact, leave everything behind and not only assimilate into a new language and culture, but do it from scratch, and go on to accomplish great things. In his case, he worked from nothing to become a television and movie star in a country where it is every other kid’s impossible dream to do the same.

As a result of knowing this, I began intensively watching and listening to as much Swedish language programming as I could get my hands on more than a year before deciding to go vagabond. I truly believed that I could do with Swedish what Villechaize did with English. He also simultaneously trained to be an actor, which is something I don’t feel the need to attempt.

The French in New York

I certainly don’t want to discount the hardships or adversities Hervé Villechaize faced, or suggest that he and I are confronted with the same challenges. This is just to recognize that his story was an inspiration for me.

At least as far as the language goes, there are a few differences (some of which we’ve talked about before) that could make this approach more difficult for someone wishing to learn Swedish. It was almost immediately clear to me upon arriving in Sweden that attending an actual language school and studying more seriously would be necessary. This is clear to most people through something called “common sense.”

In New York, practically nobody speaks French, so in order to survive, Villechaize was essentially forced to learn English and use it. That’s not the case with my native language in Stockholm. Truly only a handful of times have I been in a situation where Swedish was absolutely essential.

Also in the 1960’s in New York, every television channel would have been in English. This would have made it incredibly easy for him to sit and watch an endless stream of programming in the language he wanted to learn. Even though I probably have five times the number of channels Villechaize had, I would safely estimate that less than 25% of the programming here is actually in Swedish. I published this fake chart with an earlier story, but I felt it was appropriate to show again due to the topic at hand.

Things in New York are a lot different now than in the sixties, not least because I think they probably have put some safeguards in place to prevent French people from moving there.

Immersion

I’ve tried many times to plop down in front of the tube in Sweden and immerse myself in Swedish for a few hours. This is an ambitious thing to do because outside of news programs, that much continuous Swedish simply isn’t available on television. It’s almost entirely American programming with Swedish subtitles. If you want to watch CSI, Two and a Half Men or Friends, this is the place. DVDs of Swedish movies and television shows are the best way to go.

Of course, English-language entertainment is a huge contributing factor to the level of high-quality English that is spoken here.

Keeping American and other films and programming in their original language, then adding Swedish subtitles, is preferable to the approach that occurs in many other countries. For decades, what has been happening in Germany and France, for example, is that they replace the audio with actors speaking voices in the local language. There is a German actor who is always the voice of Harrison Ford, one who is always Julia Roberts, et cetera.

Not only does the Swedish subtitling method preserve the original aesthetics and rhythm of the film or telecast, it also teaches the audience a new language in a way Hervé Villechaize would fully endorse.

How it ended for Hervé

Villechaize admirably conquered America and the English language despite facing types of opposition I am fortunate enough to not have in front of me. Aside from being only 3′ 11″ tall (119 cm) and constantly struggling with health problems, he also had tough battles with alcoholism and debilitating depression.

Lucky for me, I’m only losing my hair and never satisfied with the quality of the work I do. And lucky for you, as a reader of this chronicle, my depression is generally more amusing than debilitating.

Sadly, one could say that fame and fortune in America were not enough to save Hervé Villechaize from his own demons and afflictions. At age 50, he took his own life at his home in Hollywood, and moved on to the next world. This made it all the more important that he learned to speak English, since Jesus is American.

Hookers and blow

I’ve lived a pretty clean life, you know, no penchant for hookers, drugs, guns, gambling or anything awesome like that. I mean, none that you know about. I’ve pursued comparatively tame stuff like spicy food and the occasional bourbon bender or roller coaster – though I would not recommend mixing any of the three within the same span of hours. Despite all that and being vegetarian forever, for some reason, I never thought I’d live this long. I’m not sure why I always had that feeling. But the days just keep coming and I guess I have to keep filling them up with something.

Therefore, I must apologize if you are growing tired of hearing about Sweden, America, Jerry Lee Lewis, fonts, Louisville history, space shit and whatever actress or artist I may be into at the moment, because I regret to inform you that my incessant analysis of all these things now appears that it will go on forever.

A small side note

On a more personal note, you don’t know how difficult it was for me to write this story in a way that was respectful of Mr. Villechaize, considering how he is usually portrayed and how easy it seems to be for people to mock him.

I wanted to do this politely and graciously and give him proper credit for the influence he has had on my life. It would have been simple to make this story a lot funnier by taking some cheap shots, but I didn’t want to do that.

Too many people who went before me have probably already said every hurtful thing anyone possibly could. I didn’t think that doing the same thing would be fair or courteous to that dirty, drunk little midget. Let’s show some respect for his wee little grave.

If you’re afraid of the swine flu, you should probably sell your bicycle

I am obsessive about washing my my hands. Not obsessive compulsive – I only wash them when there’s a remote chance that some type of mild contamination may be on them – but obsessive nonetheless.

In the spring of this year, when the swine flu craze was just hitting America, President Obama went on television and instructed everyone to be careful.

“Keep your hands washed, cover your mouth when you cough, stay home from work if you’re sick, and keep your children home from school if they’re sick,” he said. Such simple instructions. Cough into your sleeve instead of your hands.

Like when President Carter asked Americans to adjust their thermostats a few degrees to save energy, asking hundreds of millions of people to sacrifice just a little bit can have an enormous effect. Even if only ten percent of the people do it, that’s 31 million people taking action against the problem.

The results have been stunning. In the United States, as of September 3rd, the CDC reports there have been only 9,079 reported cases of the swine flu and just 593 deaths.

Maybe you think I’m being sarcastic by saying it’s great that only 593 people have died from swine flu in America, but I’m not. Those numbers are fantastic.

Less than six hundred people is about 0.0001912% of the American population. About one one-thousandth of one percent is hardly a pandemic or epidemic. It’s fewer than two people per million. It’s practically nobody.

For a populace already as unhealthy and susceptible to illness as the American one is, this rate of infection is seriously nothing.

Do you know what will kill more people in America this year than the swine flu? Bicycles. Those monsters are more dangerous than airplanes. Bicycles kill more than 700 Americans every year according to the Department of Transportation. Airplanes claim an annual average of only 200 of us.

You’ve heard it before, but airplanes are one of the safest forms of transportation in existence. Planes are safer than cars, elevators, horses and, yes, they’re even safer than your own two feet. More people die in walking accidents each year than in airplanes.

At any given moment there are roughly 5,000 planes in the skies above the United States, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. In 2001, aside from September 11th, out of over 32 million flights that year, only one commercial airliner went down.

If you include September 11th in the numbers – crashes that were not the fault of the planes themselves, of course – bicycles still took more American lives than airplanes did that year. During just the week of 9/11, three times more people died in cars than airplanes.

Air crashes are typically more spectacular and mysterious than those on bicycles which is possibly the only explanation for the popularity of the fear of flying. (Could it also have something to do with being five miles above Earth inside a 400-ton machine with a hundred other jackasses and no control over what’s happening?)

What is ultimately more nefarious than the swine flu, bicycles and airplanes combined is the “regular” seasonal flu. The ordinary flu typically infects up to 20% of the American population each year and kills 36,000 people.

Between January 1 and April 18 of this year, more than 800 people died of the regular flu each week in the US.

Between midnight and noon yesterday, more Americans died from smoking cigarettes than the number who have ever died from the swine flu.

Despite these microscopic numbers and the fact that Sweden just reported its first death from the A(H1N1) virus last week, the gears were set in motion months ago to vaccinate nearly the entire Swedish population.

At a cost of around $142 million, the country is buying 18 million doses of the vaccine from GlaxoSmithKline and planning to administer them to the vast majority of the 9.2 million people in the country. This benefit, being provided at a cost to the government of more than $15 per person, will be rolled out beginning this month and concluding in about a year.

Doing the same in the United States would carry a price tag of $4.65 billion. It would be so much more expensive in America, you see, because there are more Americans than there are Swedes. You can thank me for that tidbit later. There are actually six times more people in America without health insurance than there are total people in Sweden.

If you’re genuinely afraid of the swine flu, here’s my best advice: play the lottery.

It is over 1,000 times more likely that any given person would win their state lottery jackpot than get the swine flu.

Your odds of dying from the swine flu are so small that if you’re honestly still scared of it, the only thing I could possibly do to calm your fears is to just go ahead and kill you.

Swedish pants

I don’t know how to say this delicately, so I’ll just come right out and say it: Swedish girls think that tights are pants.

If this were happening in America, where much of the citizenry is Super-Sized, it would be torturous to the eyes. However, in Sweden, where 99% of the population is in fairly good shape, well, it looks really nice.

It’s a style you might expect to see Ann-Margret sporting in Viva Las Vegas or some other famous person in some other imaginary context, but not on ordinary people in their regular lives on their way to school or work. Seeing it hundreds of times every day on the street takes some getting used to. For an old, lonely guy like myself, seeing all these broads parading around without pants on is a mix of amazing, aesthetically appealing and a whole different kind of torturous.

The rampant epidemic of girls not wearing proper pants is quite widespread, and while it would be easy to classify this fashion as a type of standard-issue Swedish Woman Uniform, they’re all doing it with a variety of different levels of grace and audacity.

Some will wear a long shirt or sweater to cover their bottoms, whereas others will just literally act like their opaque tights are indeed pants. Some keep it cute and tasteful while others force the style into the realm of ridiculous. There are all types from knit to shiny, nylon to cotton, thick to thin, ankle-length to full-length. Occasionally you’ll see some colors or patterns, but inevitably they are almost always solid black, presumably because black goes with everything (especially more black).

For those who actually do wear some type of additional covering with the tights, it often takes the form of a micro-skirt. It is not uncommon to see a girl walking on the sidewalk, constantly pulling down her “skirt” to ensure it is covering her butt completely. Please note that the word “skirt” is being used in the most generous way possible. If I saw some of these “skirts” on store racks, I might mistake them for belts or scarves.

Pushing the acceptable boundaries of the style is so pervasive that earlier in the summer I spotted this half-mannequin wearing shorts with a message reading, “Missing something?” As if to say, “We have pants for sale over here if you’re not wearing any.”

I’ve wanted to write about this phenomenon since sometime around the first day I was on the ground in Sweden. The problem has been that I’d like to include some pictures with the story and it just doesn’t seem appropriate to go around town taking pictures of girls’ legs. Let’s try to avoid lurking and/or looking like a tourist.

The pictures you see here were taken from a news program on one of the state-run SVT channels and the woman not wearing pants – or should I say, the woman wearing “Swedish pants” – is the reporter. Not only is her outfit quintessentially Swedish – blonde hair, black legs, smart glasses and a Fjäll Räven jacket – so is her name: Emma Eriksson. Seeing it all in one place was like hitting the jackpot in terms of my need for pictures to go with this story.

A story in yesterday’s Aftonbladet newspaper featured a security camera image of some girls dressed similarly, beating the crap out of somebody. (What? Violent crime came to Sweden before pants did?)

It seems these young, 20-something revolutionaries were beating up a spokesperson for the Swedish Democratic Party and his girlfriend. I won’t get into the politics, but let’s just say they wanted to show how intolerant they are of people who are intolerant of others. In Sweden you don’t get beat up for being a foreigner, you get beat up for not liking foreigners. (Of course I’m oversimplifying all of this, but that’s basically what it comes down to.) Back to the pants…

Americans are typically bigger people than Swedes – we’re talking circumference – and even those who aren’t usually still wear bigger clothes. Something that strikes a lot of Americans who visit Sweden is that it seems everyone here makes much more of an effort to present themselves nicely. I have observed it many times and several other Americans I’ve met here have confirmed that I’m not just imagining it.

I’m sure many factors contribute to the better-dressed nature of the Swedish populace. Everything from the higher standard of living to the pervasive culture of design and aesthetics could play a part in it.

The smarter, healthier society as a whole, resulting from generations of people growing up with universal healthcare and public higher education give people the awareness they need to know what looks nice, the necessary money to buy new clothes, the body types that can accept clothes in sizes not starting with the letter X, and the cleaner surroundings in which to do all of the above.

If your surroundings are appealing, chances are that you’ll assimilate to look proper in that context, deliberately or not. If you live in a sewer, you’ll probably dress appropriately so as not to get sewage on anything nice. I’m not calling America a sewer (What?! You’re callin’ America a sewer? Get him, boys!) I’m just saying that we are all products of our environments and people dress according to where they’re going, what they expect and how they feel.

The extensive 1980’s crime-reduction program in the New York City Subway system famously focused on sanitation and the swift removal of graffiti as priorities placed high above an increased police presence.

People who aren’t working so hard and still struggling to stay afloat can take the time to fix up and look sharp on their way out the door. If you’re tired all the time and your life sucks, well shit, ya might as well wear sweatpants and a Looney Tunes jacket to the Winn-Dixie. Fuck it. Ain’t nobody to impress there anyhow. O’Reilly comes on in an hour anyway and I gotta pick up them little fuckers from football practice. Why me why me why why oh God oh God please let me die take me away just leave me be all I do is work and this is the thanks I get God dammit God dammit God dammit.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, Swedish girls think that tights are pants. (Good story today, Ritcher.) Yep. Still got it!

But I just learned the old one

You may remember a story from back in June when I had just attended the music festival in Stockholm called Where the Action Is. A portion of that yarn included some gushing over the singer/songwriter of the band Hello Saferide.

I was introduced to the music of Annika Norlin last year by my friend Emma. She played a CD for me of one of Norlin’s bands called Säkert.

I quickly became hooked on the Säkert album, and because it is sung entirely in Swedish, it became a barometer of my comprehension of the language.

While listening to these songs over and over, each time understanding a tiny bit more, the stories they tell have unfolded gradually in front of me. Norlin has also been a journalist in the past and many of her songs aren’t just feelings or pictures, they have a narrative. Even after more than a year of listening, the songs are continuing to unravel before my eyes.

Just yesterday while I was walking, a Säkert song came on in my endless shuffling of music. Even though I’ve heard this song dozens of times, and it’s one of my favorites, a few bits of it were suddenly clear to me today. It was a bam moment and I thought, “Wow, I can’t believe I never understood that part before. It seems so clear and simple.” It’s like when a familiar tree in your neighborhood is suddenly trimmed and you can see so much more of the sky. “Was that always like that?”

Becoming hooked on new music is no small event in my life so when I do find something I like, it’s very enthralling for me. Most of my friends are sick of hearing about it, but I can’t stand or don’t “get” almost all the new music I hear.

This is a rare, painful condition I have been afflicted with for decades, constantly made worse the fact that I am surrounded by people who love new stuff all the time. My condition has sometimes been misdiagnosed as “Hater Syndrome” or “Crotchety Old Man Disorder” but both of those are erroneous conclusions.

It’s not that I’m one of those people who is just old and only likes the music that came out when he was younger. I’ve been like this for a long time. Even in the 1990’s when I was running a record label and throughout my whole life making my own music (link!, link!), I have never shared the enthusiasm that most people I know have for new music or even a wide variety of music. Further, my condition is also not a punk rock affliction where I have to be into stuff nobody else has ever heard of. A few of the artists I love happen to be some of the most successful artists of all time.

It seems the new stuff I end up liking is inevitably music that is made by people I know personally or have some connection to. Perhaps it’s the ultimate way of saying that I can only get into it if I can relate to it. If I don’t know the people who are making it, then it is so much easier to dismiss it as insincere or expendable. More often, I feel it’s just not for me. There are plenty of artists I listen to that I know for sure I would not like if I didn’t know the people involved.

When my friend Maggie from Louisville was visiting Stockholm last month, she showed me some stuff from a new band she loves. I don’t remember the band’s name, but I do remember my reaction to it. I didn’t think, “Oh, that’s not really what I’m into,” or, “It’s okay but it’s not for me.” No, what she played for me blew my mind in a bad way. My first thought was, “Are you fucking kidding me? This is really something that people like?”

Hopefully I chose my words more politely, but I think Maggie knows to expect such cranky reactions from me by now. It happens almost every time I hear something new, especially if is becoming popular. I don’t hate things because they’re becoming popular, but I may have a knack for hating the same things that will become popular.

When I was a teenager, I worked in a mall record store called Mother’s Records. I was in charge of ordering the 45 rpm singles (which should give you a hint to how long ago it was). I would talk to representatives from the five major labels each week on the phone (another clue to how long ago: there were five major corporations in the music business!) and they would send samples of new stuff they were pushing or stuff that was catching on in places that were hipper than Louisville at the time. (I know! Hipper than a city in Kentucky? Where is this magic land?)

One summer, I heard three different songs for which my first reaction to each of them was, “This is the worst fucking song I have ever heard in my life.” As a result, the first orders I placed for each of these records was small because I foolishly believed other people would hate this shit.

Wouldn’t you know it, during that summer, I watched in amazement as, one after another, each of those three God-awful songs climbed the chart and successively became the Number One song in America.

This hellish phenomenon is still happening to me. It’s a special gift I have. It’s like that show where the guy has premonitions about horrible things in the future but he can’t do anything to stop them from happening.

The vomit in my mouth when I hear something I can’t stand might as well be the taste of gold and platinum records.

I’ve watched in disbelief as things that repulsed me at first listen have shot to popularity – everyone from Pearl Jam to No Doubt to Candlebox to Black Eyed Peas to M.I.A. to Everclear to Nickelback.

If I suspect your music isn’t truly genuine or sincere, you’ll probably do okay. If your band makes my skin crawl, chances are you’re destined for greatness. This could be bad news for Annika Norlin.

Hello Saferide and Säkert’s songs are certainly catchy and stylistically diverse, the latter of which is an approach I don’t think enough bands explore. However, I think what makes them different for me and what all this gushing most likely comes down to is Annika Norlin’s ability to be unflinchingly honest in her lyrics.

Some people can write a song about anything and sing “baby baby baby baby ooo wee ooo” over top of it. I could never do that. If I’m going to write I song, I want it to be meaningful and real. My songs are about things that really happened, actual people and emotions I really feel, even if I obscure what I’m singing about a bit. I have never seen the point in wasting anyone’s time with something irrelevant or made-up.

Why make records that have been made before? If you don’t really have something to say, why are you making noise? Sure, some bands are just around for fun and others for money. I have very much enjoyed being in a band, but it has to be about more than just fun, at least for me, and that’s what I seek also in what I listen to.

I like to think of myself as truthful in my songwriting, but I would be a fool to think I’m doing anything more than lightly scratching the surface of what’s in there. Norlin goes places with her lyrics that I would never dare – places most people don’t dare – and that is what has me all worked up on the topic, even after more than a year of listening.

It is spellbinding to hear someone sing – engagingly, vulnerably, shamelessly – about subject matter most people would only consider in their minds. Where most people wouldn’t risk the embarrassment of even saying something aloud, she’s singing it. If such thoughts ever were to come out of you, some of it is like shit you should maybe write in your diary and not tell anyone. (Dancing next to an intriguing stranger all night and never talking to them; obsessively walking through an ex’s neighborhood over and over; the graphic depiction of losing one’s virginity – and all with amazing titles, “If I Don’t Write This Song Someone I Love Will Die”; “Parenting Never Ends”; “Loneliness Is Better When You’re Not Alone”)

I hate record reviews even more than music itself, so forgive me if this is starting to sound as such a thing. I’ll bring the topic back to me and Sweden soon, I promise. (Oh finally! Can’t wait to hear you talk about yourself some more. I liked this better when you were making funny charts and taking pictures of stairs.)

Even more entertaining is that on top of all her heaviness she seems to know that you can’t be so intense all the time. Some of her material seems designed to be a parody of her deathly serious songs.

You can see some of that sentiment in the video for “Anna” where, even though her secret fantasies are laid out unashamed in the text, the video has her boyfriend looking her over like she’s out of her mind, not least for making a photo album of their non-existent daughter’s life. My favorite line is, of course, “She could have married a Kennedy,” but incredible also is that Anna would have been a sweetheart with punk rock manners who played hockey and guitar.

This story has unexpectedly gotten pretty long. I really just wanted to set this up and briefly tell you who Annika Norlin is so I could explain this newspaper clipping. That seems to have morphed into something else entirely.

Let’s put it this way: Two weeks ago, one of the local free newspapers Stockholm City debuted a new column written by none other than Annika Norlin. Well, after you’ve spent all afternoon at work reading my 2000-word infomercial about why I love her writing, you can imagine why I might be enthused about her having a regular column in the free paper.

If you’re a columnist, your audience can get their fix every week or month. If you’re a musician, people have to wait for a new album or concert. That could take years! If you’re both it’s better.

Not only will I be able to get a regular dose of her insight, but this gives me something else written in Swedish that I can really get into. I mean, it’s something different that’s not a text book or a regular news article. It’s something with some context, from a writer I enjoy and in a format that’s not too lengthy.

Whenever I read anything in Swedish it takes forever. If I really want to get it, I’m constantly looking up words. But half-a-page from a newspaper? I can handle that. I go into the city almost every day and there are about twenty minutes between where I live and the center of Stockholm by train. At least an hour of my day is spent on this commute – or waiting for trains, or walking to or from them. That’s plenty of time.

In her inaugural column, Norlin introduced the idea that there should be a new word for “love” because the old word has become too abused and over-used. For instance, a few paragraphs ago when I said “I love her writing,” that doesn’t mean the same as when you are with someone you truly, profoundly love.

The casual “I love you” is a serious, common offense it seems. She writes, “I want to earn my I love yous. I want to struggle to get them. I want to receive them maybe ten times in my life.”

There should be a new word that means “deep, heavy love” which can’t be tossed around in Facebook comments or in other such trivial usage. She closes by committing herself to the cause of finding this new word. When she discovers it, she will remember it, and she will never tell a soul that she has it.

After episode one, the printed words appear no less solicitous than the sung.

The column is tagged at the bottom with the typical newspaper byline “What do you think”?” I, confronted with the combination of such a fantastic idea to find a meaningful new word for “love” and the prospect that more new Swedish words are being invented even as I am struggling to learn the language, I scribbled out a four-sentence note to the City paper and sent it off. Apparently it wasn’t short enough. Upon publishing it the editors chopped it up a bit.

The headline they added is simple: tack means “thank you” and the note says: “I can barely speak Swedish, but Annika Norlin’s column means there is another reason for me to learn better Swedish. She wants to invent a new word for love? I agree that it’s necessary, but I just learned the old one.”

Iida told me that my letter sounded retarded. I presumed she meant that there were errors in my Swedish which made it incorrect, but she was nice enough to clarify that. “No, you sound retarded because nobody in Sweden is this excited about anything.” I’ll say.

On that thought, I’ll leave you with this video for the song “Arjeplog.” In this one Norlin talks about the insecurity complex the people here have and sings the line, “Don’t you get scared of the people who look you in the eye and smile at you?” Oh, the Swedes. I’ve been told not to make eye contact or smile at people because “they’ll think you’re crazy or drunk or American … or some combination of those.” I’m usually at least one. (Shit, Ritcher, it’s Friday. Go for three!)

This is absolutely one of those songs that creates its own visual narrative, so the video is almost unnecessary, but I like how simply it’s done, with a handheld camera in one continuous take. It’s not quite the Alfred Hitchcock film Rope, which was filmed in complete, uncut 12-minute segments, but it does the trick.

Footnotes:

The three horrible songs I heard in the summer of 1988 that became Number One hits were: “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin, “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys, both from the jävla Cocktail movie soundtrack, and “Roll With It” by Steve Winwood. Other Number Ones I also instantly hated include: “We Built This City” by Starship and “Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car” by Billy Ocean.

For the ‘mericans readin’ this, I should say that the name of the Säkert video above is “We Will Die at the Same Time” or “We Will Die Simultaneously.” Everything sounds cooler in Swedish. Oh, and the name of the band means “sure,” “certainly,” “safe,” “undoubtedly” or “reliable.” It’s another one of those words.

For the Swedes in the audience, I thought it was strange that they corrected my Swedish in the paper, wouldn’t it be more amusing for the readers if they didn’t? Maybe that’s not how things work here. I have a whole other story coming up about my theories on the relationship between the Swedes and their language. Stay tuned! Here’s what I actually wrote to Stockholm City:

Äntligen.

Nu är mitt livet bara tyst och tråkig mellan torsdagar med Annika Norlins artiklar.

Jag kan knappt talar svenska därför ska det ta några timmar att läser varje krönikar men den här finns ju en andra motiv att lära mig bättre svenska.

Nu kommer hon att uppfinna ett nytt ord för kärlek… Jag håller med att det är nödvändigt men har jag precis lärt mig det gammalt.

No more meaningless than anything else

The rumors are true. In less than a month I will be officially old. I’m not talking about 25 or some silly age that kids think is old.

I’m talking about the age that means there’s no denying you’re an adult. This is the age that makes you too old to think about dating someone in their twenties. Not because you don’t want to, but because people in their twenties also think you’re too old for it. (Naturally, if you’re rich or famous these rules don’t apply. In those rare cases you can afford to be any age.) I’m talking about the age when people who are really old have stopped saying, “You’re not that old.”

I can make myself feel better about my upcoming birthday by considering a few things. I only remember a handful of days and events from everything that happened before I was 14 or 15, so by that measure, none of the first decade or so should not count toward my age.

I mean, shit, when I was seven I was just sitting around an HO-scale model train set for like weeks at a time. That ain’t livin’.

It wasn’t until I started building cool shit that I really started living. When I was in the Scouts, I built a car that won the Pinewood Derby at my school. I got a big old trophy for that. Then I built a replica of Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort Hotel out of Legos and entered it in a contest at the local mall. That won me $100 worth of Legos from Thornbury’s Toys. A hundred dollars worth of Legos was a lot. These were 1980’s dollars and I was a kid. It was like a gold mine (if you replaced the gold with Legos and the mine shaft with a mall toy store).

Things have changed since then. These days the Boy Scouts are basically a Christian militant group, Thornbury’s is long out of business, and a hundred bucks for a kids’ toys is maybe enough to get a Trapper Keeper with a couple Pac Mans on it… or whatever kids like these days. I don’t know. I try not to look at them little shits. And the dollar? Hell, it ain’t hardly worth seven kronor.

Something else that makes me feel better about my age is that when people try to guess it, they always guess it super low. I met a Swede just last weekend who gave it a whirl and was off by ten years. Ten years in the good direction, I should say.

Wow. Ten years ago. Those were also good times. Bill Clinton was president, the US Government was running a surplus, people had jobs and the dollar had value. There had only ever been one US war in Iraq and one President Bush – and we thought both of those were terrible. We really had no idea what madness was lurking around the corner. Nobody had even heard of Nickelback or “Hollaback Girl” yet. Precious times to be sure.

The third thing I think about when I want to not feel so old is that I didn’t start drinking until I was 27. That is probably enough of a story for another day, but I think not drinking while you’re going through all your first heartbreaks and hard knocks is probably a smart approach if you don’t want to age too quickly.

Certainly no one can discount the youth-preserving effects of not getting married and not having kids. I hear it’s different if their your own kids. Screaming kids that make it unpleasant for everyone else in the restaurant doesn’t seem to bother you as much if they’ve already ruined the rest of your life.

Other people also like to pitch in from time to time try to make me feel better about my age. Some people say things like, “Forty is the new thirty.” Well, this sounded like a pretty good deal but I looked into it, and contrary to popular belief, it turns out that forty is actually still forty.

My research revealed that no such official decree has been issued to alter the birth records of everyone born more than 40 years ago. In fact, I further discovered that thirty is neither the new twenty. It is still thirty. (Can you use the word ‘neither’ like that?)

I can remember when my parents turned forty and the avalanche of tongue-in-cheek “Over the Hill” birthday cards that accompanied it. I’m not so good at math, but I’m pretty sure that even if I start now, I won’t be able to meet the deadline of having kids who remember my birthday next month.

There is honestly very little I can do to avoid the upcoming date.

I realize that even without this milestone (is it a kilometerstone in Europe?) I’m already at the age where it is inevitable that people who are younger than I am are doing things more awesome and more relevant. If I do something creative, it’s probably not going to be nearly as cool or fresh as someone younger. Those youngsters are so edgy nowadays!

Case in point of someone younger than me who has excelled in life is the United States’ new ambassador to Sweden, Matthew Barzun. Okay, he’s barely younger than me. I’m 39 and he’s 38.

He was appointed by President Obama some months ago, but last week he finally arrived on the scene in Sweden. Accompanied by much local fanfare and tradition, he arrived in a horse-drawn carriage to present his credentials to the King. (Good morrow, m’lord. I bear warm tidings unto thee on behalf of the President of the Colonies and other such old timey salutations.)

In a glowing profile, the Dagens Nyheter newspaper declared “The ambassador behind Obama’s campaign success” and taped a video feature with him for their website, quizzing him on all things Swedish.

“The new ambassador from the United States had been in Sweden for just over a day when he was exposed to Dagens Nyheter‘s Sweden Test. The pressure is intense, but he passed it with flying colors,” they wrote. Whew! He made us proud.

Like me, Barzun is also from Louisville. I don’t know him personally, but we do have some mutual friends. He mentioned Louisville’s own Will Oldham in the article as one of his favorite musicians. Whoa! I like Will Oldham, too!

We have a few other things in common as well. He started the Internet news company Cnet which was later sold to CBS for over a billion dollars. I started the social networking site EggFly which was later sold to Ikimbo 2.0 for less than a billion dollars.

He worked on the campaign that helped Barack Obama get elected to the presidency. I worked on the campaign that helped me not get elected to the Kentucky Senate.

I don’t know how long he’s been studying, but I think the only edge I may have over him is with the Swedish language. I have a feeling he has better teachers than I do. Kanske han kommer att ge mig ett jobb på ambassaden därför kunde jag studera gratis, eller bjuda in mig och mina svenska kompisar till en stor fest i alla fall! (Förlåt till allihop för att jag alltid mördat ditt språk.)

Matthew Barzun isn’t the only impressive, inspirational person I’ve discovered lately who is younger than me.

A few weeks ago, I was going to meet some friends at the rooftop café of Stockholm’s Kulturhuset, a massive, gorgeous, city-funded complex of art and theatre that is located in the center of the city.

While taking the escalators up and passing through the various floors of the building, an extensive installation of colorful, gritty paintings with cartoonish speech bubbles caught my attention. I had to stop and look. By no means do I speak excellent Swedish, however, I can read and understand simple things and, like anyone learning a language, you end up learning all the dirty and absurd stuff first.

These paintings – a few of which appear to the right throughout this story – were perfect for someone at my level of Swedish and even more perfect for someone with my sense of humor.

Just the title of the exhibition and the first piece killed me. It depicts a crazed doctor talking to his patient, a little boy with a teddy bear head: “Eh, it’s nothing so harmful, it’s only a little AIDS.” That is also the title of the relentless book she has out that is a collection of her work, available online at this link.

(My apologies if my translations are not up to par. “Farligt” for example, like a lot of Swedish words, has many meanings: harmful, dangerous, critical, hot, risky, perilous, hazardous. Swedish pronunciation and context seem like two additional languages. Maybe “critical” would be better than “harmful” but either way it’s hilarious. Or better yet, maybe these are serious paintings that deal with important social issues but my Swedish is so bad and my humor is so sick that I think they’re funny.)

There are dozens of pieces in the exhibition and because of the language I have returned to Kulturhuset a few times to see them again and to make sure I’m getting it all. Some of the pictures have so much peripheral detail in addition to the main characters that it’s kind of impossible to see it all. One giant wall of maybe four by five meters is covered in tiny black and white drawings.

After I got over the initial shock and delight of how incredibly hysterical I thought it all was, a few things hit me.

When I was looking at the art without knowing anything about the artist, I suppose I presumed the pieces must have been created by a grizzled, cranky, old man in a wooden shack somewhere, scrawling out his manic manifesto one giant frame at a time, in a mess of paint and tireless endeavor.

I was wrong about all of that. The artist, in fact, is a young Swedish woman named Sara Granér. She’s 28 and lives in Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city.

After finding an article about her on the Dagens Nyheter site (and this one), well, again, no surprises, but she’s cute, too. (What did you expect? Of course she’s cute, she’s Swedish. Everyone and everything in this whole damn country is cute. The language, the holidays, the people, the money, the furniture, the signs. The public buses have curtains! Finding a girl in Sweden who isn’t cute is as hard as finding one who doesn’t smoke.)

The other thing that occurred to me when thinking about her art and its abrasive commentaries – using everything including serious diseases, children, authority, careers and life itself as fodder for jokes – or a dude with two jagged-sharp knives, dressed up as one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, berating a sad, overachieving child with a puppy’s head for having taught himself how to become an engineer – …where was I? Oh yes, it occurred to me that something this awesome would never be hung anywhere near a publicly-funded arts space in the United States. Certainly not in Kentucky.

Of course, if it were, people would cry about how offensive it is, a media frenzy would ensue until a public apology was issued, the art was taken down and the curator was out looking for a job. God forbid if any of the pictures had filthy boobies on them.

It reminded me of the advertisements that were posted around Stockholm earlier this year with the slogan “God is not probable.” These ads were for the Humanists and advocated a discounting of religion’s role in society, and a larger separation of church and state.

Ironically, the über-conservative Clear Channel Communications owns the billboards where the ads were displayed. Yes, the same company that took Howard Stern off its broadcast stations prompting his move to satellite radio. Would Clear Channel have accepted any such ads in an American city? Not a chance.

Here in Sweden, something like Sara Granér’s art which would be considered inflammatory or disrespectful in America, is hung in a public space. Not only did it make me laugh, it made my life better by getting me excited about discovering something new and fun. Sure, it’s not for everybody. I saw some older people walking by it who didn’t get it or think it was funny, but that’s all they did. They walked by and left it for the people who did enjoy it. Not everybody has to agree with you, your religion, your morals, your views.

For America’s self-appointed reputation as a free country, it has always seemed to me like there are so many things you just can’t say in America. So few people dare to touch topics like misunderstanding or disease with humor for fear of offending someone. Obviously, these are the topics that could maybe use a little humor.

Americans are always told about – and repeating it back to each other – how they live in a free country and the rest of the world just doesn’t have it so good. I really hate saying things like this, but I have been to twenty other countries and it only took a few of them for me to start seeing that the United States is one of the least free of the bunch. You don’t even have to go to Holland or Denmark to find it. More freedom is as close as Canada.

What’s it like to live in a country where the police aren’t feared or regarded as adversaries? What’s it like to not feel like you have to look behind you when you’re walking alone at night? What’s it like to not have to worry about the cost if someone in your family gets sick? What’s it like to be able to go to college if you want to? What’s it like to be surrounded by educated people who speak multiple languages fluently? Freedom isn’t how many guns you can own without a background check. Freedom is feeling like you’ll never need a gun.

I say a lot of nice things here about Sweden and the Swedish people. It’s all true, but perhaps one thing I don’t say enough is that I am an American. I still am and I probably always will be. Of course it is so nice to be in Sweden and to see how things can be done in ways that benefit the general good of the people. A lot of these commentaries eventually bring me back to a sadness for America. The people in the United States deserve this quality of life as well. Everyone on Earth deserves it. It’s not just health care, public transit, social services, education, and information, it’s a prevailing air of dignity, respect, and the feeling that we’re all sharing the experience of life. It’s a circle and all of those things exist because of each other.

We really are all in this together and it is only to everyone’s benefit if we make the journey as comfortable as we can for as many as we can. It is to the rich man’s benefit that his city is devoid of poverty and slums. It is to the corporation’s benefit to have healthy workers. It is to your benefit that your neighbor went to college. It is to all your neighbors’ benefit that you don’t lose your job.

Earlier in this story, I mentioned that I’m at the age where younger people are doing more amazing things than I am. I know it’s always a bad idea to measure your own accomplishments against those of anyone else. Different people are afforded different opportunities and unique upbringings, and as a result, each person is capable of a different set of exploits.

Some people get their 10,000 hours of practice in at an early age and others are in the right places at the right times for things to click in the proper sequence.

It really doesn’t matter if Sara Granér or Matthew Barzun are younger than me – or better looking or have more money or draw funnier pictures or speak better Swedish. What matters is that they have opened my imagination and entertained me. It is to my benefit that they exist and are doing what they’re doing. It makes things more pleasant for me.

This is the kind of thinking that needs to be going on. We’ve seen what has happened to the quality of life in the United States as the richest 1% of people have continued to amass more and more wealth and resources. It has happened at the expense of everyone else.

You could argue that capitalism can’t be sustained because there is only a fixed amount of resources on the planet or that socialism doesn’t benefit those who are able to work harder. Sweden is using both: capitalism where its appropriate to grow business and socialism to address the common needs everyone has. Maybe there are some things that shouldn’t turn a profit. (Gasp! What? You want us to take care of somebody because it’s the right thing to do? Sounds expensive. Shoot me a message, we’ll hook up tomorrow. Sorry, bro, I have a 1:30 tee time.)

Sweden isn’t perfect, nothing is, but it’s far from the out-of-control scenario we see playing out in Washington, where instead of trying to help people survive it’s a madhouse of already fattened pigs at the trough, stabbing each other in the back to get their friends a bigger piece of the pie.

Homer Simpson once professed in awe, “Wow, Mr. Burns, you’re the richest man in the world. You own everything!” To which the frail, old man replied thoughtfully, “Yes, but I’d give it all away to have just a little bit more.”

The real reason to not worry about comparing your accomplishments to anyone else’s amounts to the ultimate way we’re all in the same boat: no matter what anyone else will ever achieve, they will ultimately die.

You know the guy who invented the light bulb? He’s dead. The guy who figured out the Earth revolves around the sun? Dead. The guy who invented the swivel chair, the pedometer and wrote the Declaration of Independence? Also dead.

Someday even I – the guy who told you that the dude who invented the swivel chair, the pedometer and wrote the Declaration of Independence were the same person – yes, one day even I will meet my maker and/or become just another 6-foot-long worm feeder underneath a beautiful Kentucky hillside stocked with hundreds of the same. All this, not any time soon, I hope.

As Charles de Gaulle famously declared, “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.” Quite an observation from some asshole who is now sleeping in the bone yard surrounded by indispensable men. Charles de Gaulle? Super French and super dead.

So is life completely meaningless? Yeah, I suppose it is, but no more meaningless than anything else.

Dropping like flies

Being an unmarried member of the Swedish Royal Family has been going out of style this year… and fast.

About six months ago, before I arrived in Sweden, both of the Swedish princesses were single, well, unbetrothed. Today, they’re both engaged to be married.

First, in the spring, 31-year-old Crown Princess Victoria got engaged to her longtime boyfriend, a businessman and gym owner named Daniel Westling.

At the time I thought, “If you can’t have the crown princess, at least the cute one who likes to party is still single.” She’s the one I liked anyway. Well, now, Madeleine is engaged, too. Curses!

Last week, the Aftonbladet newspaper announced (a day before anyone else) that Princess Madeleine, 27, had secretly become engaged to her boyfriend … pfft! … some handsome attorney (they have lawsuits in Sweden?) a casanova named Jonas Bergström … And in fact, this engagement has been a secret for more than two months.

Great! Two wasted months of writing love letters and riding my bike past the Royal Palace at night to see if her bedroom light is on! (I’m kidding, of course. I don’t have a bicycle.)

Keeping such a high-profile secret in Sweden is almost as difficult as finding a can of refried beans. Furthermore, the fact that the engagement of the last remaining Swedish princess was kept undiscovered for two months from the obsessive Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet is as flabbergasting as the fact that both princesses became engaged within a period of four months.

What it all really means, though, as I’m sure my faithful readers already understand, is that barring some unforeseen events which could break off one or more of the engagements, it appears that all my hopes of marrying into the Swedish Royal Family have, for the moment, been dashed. Brutally crushed, really. It’s a sad day. I, too, may have to marry a commoner. Ugh… I shudder at the very thought of being touched by any of their filthy, cake-eating hands.

I know what the Swedes reading this are thinking: “Prince Carl Phillip is still single.” Wink, wink. Sure, maybe I could get a job as his chauffeur. It’s kind of a long, old story about his great grandfather, King Gustav V.

Yet, despite any lessons he could have gleaned from his great grandfather about the dangers of driving too fast around curves, Prince Carl Phillip, 30, has become an enthusiast of just that. He’s a race car driver.

“I see here on your resumé that you are the Prince of Sweden, the Duke of Värmland and you drive really fast in circles. Is there any other experience you’d like us to know about?”

He seems like a nice guy, but suffice it to say that I would have preferred one of the girls.

It’s just that both of these birds were single forever and within a few months of me being in the country they both got engaged. Suspicious, isn’t it?

I mean, it’s like as soon as I get here, they both suddenly decide to run off and married to basically any old guy they’ve been dating for seven years.

What is it about women that makes them so interested in men who are handsome, successful and have steady incomes? Don’t they know that all the real excitement is with guys who are courageous enough to have no idea where next month’s rent money is coming from?

While the media coverage of Madeleine’s engagement… whoa, give me a second… I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Sorry, let me start that over…

While the media coverage of Madeleine’s engagement has been fairly extensive, it really hasn’t matched the circus that surrounded Victoria’s. Perhaps that’s why they kept it a secret – to prevent such a frenzy.

The media is covering every aspect of the story down to the trivial details.

One story in the Metro newspaper analyzed reports that the King “clicks better with Jonas” than Daniel, saying that Jonas had a more proper upbringing and already knew how to behave at fancy events.

Aftonbladet reported that there was a secret meeting between the sisters in order to make sure it was okay that Madeleine and Jonas weren’t stealing Victoria and Daniel’s thunder by getting engaged just a couple months later. It’s totally true. I believe everything I read in Aftonbladet, The National Enquirer and The Bible.

A separate article in the Stockholm City paper was essentially an obituary of Madeleine’s party-going lifestyle. The headline announces their investigation of “the impression she made.” The spread went into retrospective detail about her all-night ragers and showcased some of the fashions and styles she made famous.

City credits “Madde” with helping to popularize wearing oversized sunglasses at any time of day among the girls in Östermalm – “like in Hollywood,” it says – and Canada Goose winter jackets. Those jackets are crazy-popular here, rivaled only by the locally produced Fjäll Räven coats which are ubiquitous in Sweden.

“She got the name ‘party princess,” it says, but “It is over now. Madeleine’s engagement with Jonas Bergström means the end of Stureplan‘s big party era.” Wow, sounds like marriage really does equal death.

That story was accompanied by a photo of her ex Erik Granath groping her in public. I’m sure the King clicked royally with that.