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Category: How people act (page 2 of 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Still Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historic A-hole August Strindberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your egg-cracking strategy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But seriously, back to the topic at hand:

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

Footnote: *=”did not report”

American magazine seeking people to interview in Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden, and Louisville, USA, May 17, 2011

K Composite is a magazine of engaging, colorful interviews with regular people.

Funny, smart and beautiful individuals who are unknown to the masses, are interviewed, photographed, and presented in vivid layouts.

K Composite is now being developed for the iPad. New issues will be distributed worldwide, free of charge, through Apple’s App Store.

SEEKING SUBJECTS

Publisher Scott Ritcher says the most important part of making each new issue is finding the right people to interview.

That’s why Ritcher, who has lived in Stockholm since 2009, is inviting Stockholmers to get involved. “Designing each edition begins with faces and personalities,” he says. “That’s why I like to cast a wide net. It’s like having more colors to choose from.”

Ordinary people who want to be featured in the magazine can show their interest at www.kcomposite.com/participate. The call is open to everyone, though the interviews and magazine are in English.

ORIGINS

K Composite launched it as a fanzine in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1991. It has expanded to color printing and wide distribution in the US.

Ira Glass of public radio’s This American Life – no stranger to interviewing regular people – beamed, “I love K Composite.” Rolling Stone declared that being interviewed in K Composite was “the ultimate status symbol.” And Harper’s showed their affection by simply reprinting an excerpt of the magazine.

K Composite will debut on the iPad in August.

K Composite Magazine: www.kcomposite.com

CONTACT

kcomposite.net/contact
www.kcomposite.net/contact

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Block This Application: Life After Social Networking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, simple politeness can go a long way.

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

Royal Swedish Opera at Gustav Adolfs Torg, August 2009

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

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

Stockholm Midnight Marathon on Götgatan, August 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Swedish Opera at Gustav Adolfs Torg

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

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

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

Slussen

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

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

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

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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

I want to write a song

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

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

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

It’s not for everybody

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

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

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

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

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

One of those bands

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody tries hard enough. Not even me.

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

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

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

“A maddening array”

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

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

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

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

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

Plop

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

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

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

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

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

Great songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing karaoke to a song you’ve never heard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reveal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Game Theory

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

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

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

Two Other Possibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bilingual Nation

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

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

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

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

It’s the Neurons, Stupid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Different Word for Everything 

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

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

Halloween in Sweden

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

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

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

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

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

When I was a kid, Halloween was the shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2005: Carla dressed as Chris with Chris’
girlfriend Lindsay as a marching band leader.

The candy ruled. Well, most of the candy ruled. I remember there were always some cheap asses (“old people”) who would hand out these lumps of some kind of bullshit candy that were individually wrapped in black or orange wax paper. They were like butter candy or something. I don’t know anybody who liked them. They made Werther’s Originals seem like Pop Rocks and tequila.

Some assholes would hand out apples or “healthy snacks.” Whatever, squares. Go back to Russia. Occasionally, a house would gave out money. Spare change! I’m not making this up. (“Um, despite how cheap my costume is, I’m not homeless. My dad has a good job and he’s standing right over there with the flashlight.”)

On a holiday like Christmas, the kids were always comparing what everybody got, and somebody always got outdone. It wasn’t like that for Halloween. We all went to the same houses and we all came home with pretty much the same giant bag of candy. Strangely, I haven’t seen any conservatives opposing Halloween because of this communist equality streak.

Halloween 1971: mom (age 33), me (2)
and my brother (4) on the front porch.

When you got back to the house with all your loot, the trading would begin. Reese’s and all the Hershey’s candies were always popular. I really liked the Krackel bars and Hershey’s Special Dark, but I wasn’t really into Mr. Goodbar, so there would be some bartering in the house to get the best assortment. Homemade cookies made it into the mix, too, but still, nobody ever wanted those black and orange wax paper things. They were the Halloween equivalent of giving someone a fruitcake at Christmas.

Over the past week, I polled of six of my Swedish friends about Halloween. All six of these Swedes are young adults in their twenties or thirties.

The poll consisted of one simple question: How many times have you dressed up for Halloween in your life?

If I had asked this of my American friends of similar ages, the answers would probably range from “15 times” to “every year.” For some people, like my brother and his wife (that’s him as Colonel Sanders), I may even get a number higher than the respondent’s age.

Two of the six Swedes I polled answered “never” and the other four answered “once.” That’s a total of four times during the entire lifetimes of six adults. So, combined, it’s four times in about 175 years.

For all the ways the popular cultures in America and Sweden are the same – television, movies, music, comedy and a number of common holidays – Halloween has sadly been left out of the mix in Sweden.

Isn’t it odd that a country which suffers through months of cold darkness – a foggy and mysterious land, where the sun has shone through the clouds nary a few minutes in as many weeks, and whose streets are crawling with vampires – hasn’t embraced this night of terror?

Perhaps Swedish people feel that if you’re already a vampire there’s no need to put on a costume and act scary. Then again, I guess you don’t see a lot of American kids dressing up as little witches and old men for Easter.

Halloween is beginning to be celebrated in Sweden, according to several people I’ve talked with, but it has really only begun to seriously take root within the past ten years.

On Drottninggatan (“Queen Street”) in central Stockholm, there is a giant inflated ghost hanging above the street with a banner that reads, “Have a fun Halloween.” That’s a step in the right direction. And I got excited Friday night when I was out in Stockholm and I saw some teens and twenty-somethings dressed up. Get this: some of them were dressed as vampires. Shocking.

One girl had the most amazing fangs I have ever seen and she was wearing some of those hypnotic Marilyn Manson contacts. She even hissed at me when I walked by. It’s kind of fuzzy after that. The next thing I remember, I woke up in the train, feeling very weak and I got a text message that Erika was eliminated from Swedish Idol. (Didn’t much care for her anyway. We live in a Tove and Eddie house.) God, my neck hurts.

2005: Me dressed as my friend Matt.

In America, it seems that Halloween has been making a bit of a resurgence. That makes me happy because Halloween is responsible for some of my most awesome childhood memories. Part of why it was cool was because it wasn’t actually a holiday. Nobody is off school or work for it, so if it fell during the week, you were allowed to go out in the neighborhood when it was dark outside. Also if it was on a school day, there was a chance that there would be a Halloween party at school and everyone would wear their costumes to school. It was all just extra fun.

I’m pretty sure it happened everywhere in the United States, but I know for sure that in my neighborhood Halloween came to a screeching halt in 1982. That year, the whole spectacle was essentially non-existent.

In late September and early October of 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died because the Tylenol pain reliever pills they took had been tampered with and poisoned with cyanide.

Halloween has always been the source of endless urban legends – everything from people putting razor blades inside apples (bad enough that you get an apple) to kidnapping children – but almost none of it was ever true. These seven deaths from product tampering, occurring just a few weeks before Halloween, sent a shockwave across America and shattered a lot of whatever innocence was still left after the 60’s.

On the night of Halloween 1982, many houses in our neighborhood were dark and very few kids were out trick-or-treating. There were really only a handful knocks on the door. Halloween was never the same.

1974: My brother as a cowboy, neighbor as a skeleton, me as the Demon of Hell. Note the Cincinnati Reds helmet on the jack o’lantern.

There is an unforgettable Halloween scene in the Stephen Spielberg movie E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, in which the alien is being hidden, disguised as a ghost under a sheet. E.T. is as bewildered by the bizarre world he sees through the two eye holes, as any newcomer would be if unfamiliar with Halloween.

Coincidentally, that film was released in December 1982. The Halloween sequence had already been filmed by the time the Tylenol murders occurred and muted the festivities down to something decidedly less eye-catching than what’s in the movie. I’ve often wondered if the film would have been any different had it been filmed a little later.

Subsequent years have seemed to gradually improve the level of participation in Halloween, but I think a whole generation or two of Americans missed out on how thrilling it was when I was a kid. That’s why it makes me happy that it seems to be picking up steam again. I especially think a bunch of holiday-loving, creative people like the Swedes will be able to do some extraordinary things with it.

The Chicago tampering crime, incidentally, remains unsolved today (they “believe” they know who did it), so we may never know the name of the A-hole who ruined Halloween. Maybe I’m being too hard on this person. I mean, whoever did it, they didn’t intentionally spoil Halloween for millions of children. They only wanted to secretly murder innocent people who had headaches. I guess there’s no harm in that, right?

The 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?”

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.

Rain

When I wake up and it’s raining, I feel how I imagine a dog must feel when you’re closing the door and leaving it in the house alone. The dog thinks you’re never coming back.

That’s how I feel when it rains, like the sun is never coming back.

Without knowing when it will come back, the rain might as well last forever. Only when there is a little bit of blue back in the sky do I feel like maybe it will be okay.

Swedes seem to share this feeling with me. When the weather is warm, the sun is out and it’s a beautiful day, Swedish people act as if they’ve never been outside before. After several months of cold darkness every year, I would probably be the same way.

There’s your poetry for the day.

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!

Stuck in a moment


Everybody has moments when they get lost in thought but this gammal tant was transfixed by something in a Stureplan shop window. Captivated even.

If I had posted a video of her standing there instead of this photograph, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.

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.

Fourth of July in Täby


The photo above may seem like a regular Independence Day barbeque, but take hold of your seats, dear readers: this shocking image was snapped at a 4th of July cookout in Täby, Sweden.

And, I hope you’re sitting down, because I must tell you, I believe only two of the nine people in the picture are Americans. The rest are all dirty fucking socialists! I know, right? Looks just like Cold War-era Poland, doesn’t it?

Täby is a town about 20 minutes to the north of Stockholm. I had never heard anything about the place except that they make chewing gum there. Almost any time you buy gum in Sweden, if you look at the fine print on the package, it was made in Täby.

Imagine my surprise and curiosity when my friend Jenny invited me to a 4th of July party in none other than Täby itself. Turns out that Täby is not so enigmatic after all and there really is more than just a chewing gum factory there.

Jenny is Swedish but she was lucky enough to live in another fascinating, mysterious, luxurious land for many years. It’s a place you might know of and it goes by the name of Ohio.

Most Swedes speak perfect English, but Jenny speaks American. You would never know she’s not from Ohio, or Oregon, or anywhere else in the United States that boasts a non-regional dialect.

I was intrigued when she forwarded the invitation to me, not just because of the opportunity it presented to possibly catch a glimpse of a genuine, real-life chewing gum factory, but also because the invitation indicated the party would include grilling out and other “American-style fun like Jello shots.”

Yes, France gave us enlightenment, Russia gave us the periodic table of elements, and America gave us Jello shots.


The Swedes are easier to spot in this photo than in the poolside display above. If you’re holding a Jello shot and looking at it skeptically (as if thinking “I’m supposed to eat this?”) you’re probably Swedish.


Demonstrated here is the more appropriate, American response to the delicacy, although it stops just short of capturing the echo of a sorority-girl “Whooooohooooo!” chorus. That sound is inevitable when such party supplies are produced.

The crew at the cookout was an international mix of people. Naturally, there were people from from Sweden, but Germany was represented as were California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and well, some dashingly handsome bloke from Louisville (America’s 16th or 27th or 31st largest city).

Most of the attendees were from some sort of mix of places. Although I had only met a couple of them briefly before, everyone was so friendly. It was the type of group where you left in the evening feeling like you had known these people for a long time.

In addition to the front porch of this standard-issue Swedish family home being dolled up with strings of American flags, a veritable buffet of American gourmet specialties was on hand for the event. It’s weird that “buffet” is a French word but “all you can eat”… well, we know where that comes from.

It always seems like the things people consider to be “typically American” are either filled with corn syrup, are terrible for your body, or are hilarious in some other way.


I believe Rice Krispie treats meet all of those requirements.

Oh, I suppose I should say that in addition to American food being funny and/or fattening, all of these things are also totally fucking delicious. Again, no wonder Americans are so fat – the food is amazing!


Chocolate chip cookies (made by Jenny) and potato chips (made in a factory).

In the background you can see American flag cups and Coca-Cola. Of course, there were hot dogs, hamburgers, corn on the cob, and other prerequisite grill fare. A couple treehuggers even had veggie burgers (bo-o-o-ring!)… oh wait, I’m vegetarian.

Perhaps in honor of Old Glory, but for whatever reason, I decided the time had come to splurge and I finally partook in some bourbon and cola. It was a real treat.

It had been six months since I had bought a bottle of bourbon – not that I was counting nor that I had been teetotaling. Honestly, I’ve been drinking plenty of other things, but all in all, I’ve been trying to live a fairly frugal lifestyle here. Kentucky bourbon isn’t quite as affordable or readily available in Stockholm as it is in, say, Kentucky.

In Louisville, with such low prices and the bars being open until 4:00 in the morning, the city is basically daring you to not become an alcoholic. Sweden unfortunately makes it easy to skip quality in favor of price and availability if you want to have a drink with friends. Depending on my mood and the time of day, I can see the benefits of both systems.

Bulleit is my favorite bourbon and holy shit was it amazing when we met again. The Coca-Cola was also great. In Sweden, Coke is made with real sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. That really makes a difference in the taste and the way you feel after you drink it.

I was happy to share my Kentucky stash with the other partygoers. An important part of being from Kentucky is being an ambassador for bourbon and all things Kentucky. People will ask what’s the difference between bourbon and whiskey, and you must be able to tell them.


On the topic of drinking, the evening ended with some American drinking games – beer pong and flip-cup – which, I’m sorry to say, had to be explained to me. I didn’t really go to college, so I never received proper instruction in these timeless competitions of skill and team-building.

Apparently, Old Timey Tower’s not so bad at beer pong, but this is just one more thing I didn’t think I would discover in Sweden. It may or may not be the last thing I suspected would be revealed to me here.


Speaking of America’s contributions to culture, are those cargo shorts?

Traveling back home from Täby (north of Stockholm) to Haninge (south of the city) takes a little while, especially after midnight. It also requires a combination of exchanges bewteen buses and trains.

When we got out of the bus at Mörby to switch to the Tunnelbana, to our surprise, the bus began moving toward us. We both quickly jumped out of the way and fell to the curb. I think we were more shocked and startled than hurt. It could have been bad, but I escaped with only a sore hip. Getting hit by a bus would not be my preferred method for learning about the Swedish healthcare system.

The only real victims of the incident were some chocolate chip cookies that got broken in the scuffle. I mean, is it a crime to put some cookies in your pocket for the ride home? Or to take some in your jacket for your roommates? If that’s a crime, my friends, well, this defendant is guilty as charged. No further questions, counselor.

Party Crasher!

Awww, Louisville hasn’t forgotten me.

Velocity Weekly, one of the city’s entertainment papers, has just published an article about me, the Metroschifter and Sweden.

Written by the talented and funny Joseph Lord, the story starts with the line, “Scott Ritcher is experienced at getting the hell out of town…” I love it. As I just told my friend Sarah who is soon leaving Louisville for Philadelphia, our home city is always a fun place to be and a wonderful place to come back to.

Joe even gives a shout-out to my advocacy for light rail mass transit in my 1998 candidacy for mayor of Louisville. (God dammit! Why do I keep saying “shout-out”?) What a shame that eleven years later light rail is “…still ahead of its time today.”

The article appeared on their Metromix website a couple weeks ago and came out in its paper version last week.

Velocity may be running out of “Scott” puns. A few years ago when I was on the cover, the headline was “Great Scott!” and this one is called “Scott Free.” If I make another appearance in the future, maybe it’ll be “Beam me up, Scotty” or something about “Scott-land.”

You can read the piece online at Metromix.com or see this scan of the paper version in Velocity that my sister emailed to me.

The paper version has an extra photo of me taken by Iida at a spring afternoon dagens party in Vitabergsparken. Dagens, being the popular drink made of white wine, Sprite and frozen strawberries.

Uniquely American

Today, I’d like to talk about two huge financial systems in the United States and how they could maybe benefit from – once again – a little Swedish influence. No, this isn’t about Wall Street or the economic crisis, but perhaps they share some of the same types of thinking, or lack of thinking, that have contributed to those problems.

Ever since I was a kid, I have been baffled by the concept of check writing. Essentially, when you write a check, you’re saying to someone, “I have the money I owe you, but it’s not with me right now. I’ll write you this note that says how much money I’m giving you and if you take it to my bank they’ll give you the money.”

This primitive system is totally based on trust. If the person writing you a check has made a mistake in their checkbook or if they are simply lying to you about the document’s validity, you may not ever get paid.

A bad check will cost you money in fees from your bank and will likely cause you to unknowingly issue a few bad checks of your own. Maybe the person writing a check to you has received a bad check and will be surprised that they never paid you.

One bad check can start a chain reaction through the accounts of any number of people, bringing headaches for people who don’t deserve them and a money train of fees collected by their banks.

When everything goes right – if someone writes you a check that actually is good – it can take as long as a week before you are able to spend the money. That’s because when you deposit a check into your account, your bank has to then send it to the issuer’s bank to actually collect the money for you before the funds are available to spend. This delay of typically 3 to 5 days is a hassle as well.

There’s a reason “the check is in the mail” is a funny line. It takes forever to move money this way. Convenient, because usually the person saying it hasn’t mailed it yet.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written of the absurdity of this system and the ways American banks exploit it to collection hundreds of millions of dollars each year by generating a laundry list of stealth fees on their customers’ accounts.

One of the most popular things I’ve written over the years was an article titled In Banker’s Clothing. By “popular” I mean that I hear about it from people more than most other things I’ve written. Maybe it’s not so much popular as it is something that invites them to share their feelings of mutual disgust and infuriation. Like health care, every American has a banking horror story.

In 2001, I bounced a check when registering my car in Louisville. This was right before I moved to Rhode Island. The news of a bounced check is communicated by mail, which takes a long time, especially when there is an out-of-state change-of-address involved. I really can’t express what a series of pains in the ass the chain reaction of this bounced check became.

Even though I repaid the check to the office as soon as I found out about it, unbeknownst to me, the County Clerk’s office issues arrest warrants for these infractions. Furthermore, such a warrant is not automatically canceled upon payment.

Years later during a visit to Louisville, I was arrested and spent the night in jail – not for jumping the fence of an apartment building with a bunch of friends to go swimming in the middle of a hot night, but for a bad check that I had repaid years ago and forgotten about.

I’m no fan of banks, suffice it to say. For years, my life has been conducted as much as possible in a cash-only manner. I do have a bank account and debit card, but I have not had a credit card or any loans or real debts in more than ten years.

Funny thing, if you jump out of the system like I did, it’s almost impossible to get back in. A few years ago I tried to buy a house in Louisville. I have been a lifelong renter and this was at the time when “everyone can buy a house” in America. Well, not me. I had more than one mortgage specialist tell me, “You don’t have a credit score. I’ve never seen anything like it.” In the ’90s, I had bad credit, now I have none. Possibly it was a blessing in disguise that I was unable to buy a house when “everyone” could. We all know how that turned out for “everyone.”

When I started writing this article today, I had a line in it that described checking as “a preposterous, archaic, 18th Century way to do business.” Upon further research, I found I was being way too generous with that burn. In reality, checking dates back to the 3rd Century. Yes, the Third Century. You know, about 1,800 years ago? The fucking Romans came up with it! One empire’s innovation is another empire’s… I don’t know, something.

In the same way that personal checks rely on everyday people to be both honest and skilled in math, so do income taxes. It is truly mind-boggling that individual Americans are responsible for calculating their own taxes each year.

In the United States, the country that is the undisputed world capital of inventing new ways to scam people, expecting everyone to honestly calculate their own share of taxes is simply an insane way to collect funds for public services.

Not too long ago, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that “an estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of taxpayers cheat on their returns, defrauding the government of some $290 billion a year, according to an Internal Revenue Service analysis of 2001 returns. Some believe the real percentage of tax cheats is much higher.”

How much money is $290 billion a year? Quite simply, it is more than almost any previous year’s Federal Budget Deficit. (Read that again!)

The Federal Deficit is an annual number that is the difference between what the government collects and what it spends. Each year, this difference is added to the national debt.

Before this year’s stimulus-reinvestment-bailout budget, the annual deficit had only tickled $290 billion a few times. The amount of money that individual Americans are defrauding their own government is a main reason why the nation is in debt. It averages out to about $2,000 per taxpayer per year.

Theoretically, if Americans were not cheating on their taxes, the government would never have needed to borrow money from banks or foreign nations, and consequently would not be in debt.

You could, of course, go further and say if the US was not fighting two simultaneously monstrous wars that are draining the coffers, the resulting surplus and ability to provide better services would be even more spectacular. And if you wanted to, you could argue that if Americans weren’t already paying one of the lowest tax rates in the industrialized world, and if everyone over a certain income level (including corporations and religious groups) paid taxes at a fair, across-the-board rate… well, I was dreaming when I started this line of thought in the first place.

Only about 1% of tax returns are ever audited. Those are pretty good odds and Americans know it. Joe Antenucci, professor of accounting and finance at Youngstown State University said, “Any gambler will tell you, when you have a high payoff and low risks, that is when you want to be involved.”

Just like with check writing, when everything goes right, taxes are also a headache. Each year, Americans labor through confusing tax forms, calculate their taxes, and live in fear of the IRS. A national poll conducted by the Discovery Channel in 2000 showed that 57% of Americans feared the IRS more than God.

Nothing’s scarier than getting an envelope in the mail with their logo on it, even if that logo looks like a chicken with big tits.

How does this have anything to do with my ongoing discovery of Swedish culture?

Rightfully so, both check writing and self-calculation of your own taxes seem totally insane to Swedes. As you might have guessed, the back-asswards process of individuals calculating their own taxes and being responsible for the errors is uniquely American. It’s almost as insane as trusting someone who writes down an amount of money on a piece of paper, thereby magically transforming that piece of paper into a bank note worth that amount.

In Sweden writing a check to make a purchase or pay a debt is something that happens only at very high levels of corporate trade and finance. Ordinary people never come in contact with checks.

Instead of personal checks, in Sweden (and in essentially every European country), they use a system called giro (or girot, depending on the country, all pronounced JEE-roh). The nearest thing Americans could equate it with is direct deposit. However, the difference between giro and direct deposit is that giro goes in both directions. It is not just for deposits and the system is accessible to individuals, not just large companies.

For example, if you get a bill in the mail for your rent, telephone service, cable TV, school tuition, or anything else, it comes with a tear-off stub that has a unique giro number on it. You take the stub to your bank and give it to the teller. The money is instantly transferred from your account to the requester’s account. No waiting. Because of the unique number assigned to each stub, the company instantly knows you have paid them. Of course, this can all be done online as well, and some of these debits happen on regularly scheduled dates, requiring you to do nothing.

Wow, this giro system that processes instant payments from account to account sounds pretty modern, right? It must be on the cutting edge and reliant on fairly new technology. Guess again. Sweden implemented the giro system in 1925. By the 1950’s, practically all of Europe was using some variant of it. For decades, it has been the standard way money moves in Europe.

Sveriges Riksbank, which is Sweden’s central bank, says that in 2007, “giro transfers accounted for a good 94 percent of the total value of transactions and for 29 percent of the number of transactions” in the country. Most small transactions are completed with debit and credit cards, and by “most” I mean practically all of them. Riksbank says it was 62% of all transactions in 2007. Paper money was barely a blip on the radar (which is a shame since Sweden’s currency is downright gorgeous) and checks were basically non-existent.

In fact, several of my Swedish friends have told me they have never seen a check in real life. They know what checks are only from American films and television. You’d think it would be funny, like when you see an 8-track tape in an old movie. To the contrary, even in Sweden, a country intimately familiar with American culture, someone writing a check is one thing that seems truly foreign.

Swedes use debit cards for everything. Even the tiniest, little amounts, like one cup of coffee or a candy bar at a convenience store are paid for with cards. Almost nobody will run a tab at a bar – each individual drink is paid for with an individual debit card purchase each time – and most of these transactions require a PIN code entry at the point of purchase.

A few months ago, while I was in Sweden, someone made a duplicate of my debit card and went on a shopping spree in Florida. Sophisticated thieves are apparently now able to manufacture fake cards with real numbers and use them in stores. Someone’s card number can be intercepted virtually anywhere and a new card can be produced from it. This was the second time it has happened to me.

Every Swedish person I talked with about the situation asked the same question, which was not “How did they get your card number?” but rather, “How did they get your PIN code?” Swedes are blown away by the fact that you don’t need a PIN code to make a purchase with a card in America, all you need is the card. And if you’re making a fake card, you can just put a name on it that matches an ID you have, on the off chance that a merchant asks for your ID.

Checks, giros, debits and taxes all cross paths at this point in our discussion. In Sweden people are paid from their jobs in essentially the same automatic way as they pay their bills. On the 25th day of every month, money appears in their accounts automatically. (Good luck going out to eat or to the state-run liquor store Systembolaget on the Friday after the 25th.)

Money appearing in your bank account is like direct deposit in America, and this happens with the taxes already deducted, but that’s where the similarity ends as far as taxes are concerned. For Americans, the amount removed from their paycheck is just one piece of a nerve-wracking puzzle that must be assembled in paperwork at the end of the year.

For the majority of Swedes, everything about tax collection is also automatic. Taxes are taken out of your wages before they are deposited into your bank account. At the end of the year when your tax forms come in the mail, all the numbers are already filled in. That is, when you open the envelope, all the numbers are already on the page. All you have to do is confirm that the numbers are correct, which you can do by telephone, text message, or computer. If everything looks right, that’s all you have to do. You’re finished. (There’s more to it if you’re self-employed or a business owner, of course.)

You’re not faced with a stack of confusing forms or the burden of fear if you make a mistake.

I should mention something else as well, that Swedish tax forms are comparatively beautiful. They’re borderline cute even (this year’s forms had a flower and a cartoon kitty cat on the front), colorful, reminiscent of Ikea order forms and easy on the eyes. The tax collection agency, Skatteverket, even has a logo that’s not so bad either.

Aside from automatic income taxes and the 25% sales tax, as I discussed a few months ago, there is one tax in Sweden that people are expected to pay voluntarily. That is the television and radio tax. This tax of about $250 a year helps regulate the airwaves and backs the operation of five publicly-funded television networks and more than forty streams of radio programming.

Whereas 40% of Americans are cheating on their income taxes, even though many Swedes hate the TV and radio tax and feel it is unfairly levied, 9 out of every 10 Swedes are sending in these additional payments voluntarily. Only about 10% are not.

Long story short, for every American who has criedthere’s got to be a better way” when balancing their checkbook or preparing their income taxes, well, there are better ways. Again, just like health care, these better ways haven’t been made available to Americans, probably because there are people somewhere making tons of money off of keeping the systems broken and confusing.

It’s only common sense that there should be no delays, doubts or leaps of faith necessary in financial transactions or tax collection.

Both of these complex, antiquated systems invite inaccuracies and unnecessarily allow the processes to become corrupted. Americans can’t be relied on to do the right thing if the opportunity to make an extra buck exists.

Further, in a country whose schools are so lacking, I’m not sure who ever thought it would be a good idea to trust the general public with math. We need not mention the complexity or comprehension involved in addition to the calculations required for paper-based banking and tax preparation.

Even though I had the advantage of being able to go to private schools in my youth, I was never in a course that covered balancing a checkbook, preparing tax forms, calculating annual percentage rates, or any of the basic, real-world financial knowledge every last dumb ass is expected to have.

No wonder 57% of Americans are more afraid of the tax man than the wrath of God. A simple mistake can put you in jail, and if you don’t understand how it’s supposed to be done in the first place, well, that starts you off with a pretty wide margin for error.

I know Obama’s got a lot on his plate and neither of these topics will likely ever be addressed, given the larger, pressing issues of the moment, but like those problems, I think these are indicative of a pervasive “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality. Such thinking can only ultimately result in nothing ever being improved, until it reaches the point of being unwieldy.

It is possible to fix things that “ain’t broke.” In fact, it’s advisable. If people made something, there’s always room for improvement. You can’t just keep adding rooms on to the outhouse until there’s a ramshackle mansion attached to it.

Midsommarafton

Last Friday, I celebrated the Swedish holiday of Midsommar with some wonderful friends and met some new and memorable people as well.

Many Swedes have tiny country homes, garden houses, or small vacation houses outside the cities. It is a Swedish national custom to celebrate the midsummer holiday at your country home or the place of friends. Large gatherings are not uncommon. In fact, the streets of Stockholm were all but abandoned during the afternoon. It was like walking around an American city when the Super Bowl is on television, or through Louisville during the two minutes of the Kentucky Derby race.

Our friend Axel’s parents were out of town at a country home, so he was kind enough to invite a group of friends over to enjoy their empty house in Stockholm.

While there was no pole to dance around and no girls with wreaths of flowers in their hair, there was an amazing, extensive feast with traditional Midsommar dishes, accented with a round of snaps (“schnapps”), as is the custom of the day. Actually, it seems the custom calls for endless rounds, but even though I did not arrive home until after 6:00 the next morning, our party was not so extreme on the tiny shots of sweet, strong liquor.

Here are some highlights from the day:

The salad

Tiny, fresh potatoes

Some crazy, twin-yolk eggs that Axel’s parents purchased from a local farmer who sells them door-to-door. Axel said there was nothing unusual about the man, “He just lives right over there by the nuclear power plant.”

After Therese decorated the eggs they looked much less freakish and more like delicious works of art. The black stuff is like a vegetarian imitation of caviar. Soooo salty and tasty.

Erik prepared some vegetable kabobs for the grill which were coated in…

American Barbecue Sauce. This flag appears on pretty much all food that contains high fructose corn syrup. You know, the good shit.

French cheese cubes with very artsy illustrations, from the brand Glad Ko (“Happy Cow”).

Dagens, of course, to drink.

Erik at the grill

Axel and Therese

Elin

Me with rabbit ears courtesy of Iida

Transit Museum, museums in transit, Nationaldagen, and the studentflak

In keeping with the theme of public transit, on a recent Saturday, Erik and I paid a visit to the Stockholm Spårvägsmuseet. The name literally means track-way-museum, but you can call it the Transit Museum.

Anyone who knows me also knows that one of my general interests is old timey shit. Boy oh boy did they have some reeeeaaallly old timey shit at this place.

Spårvägsmuseet

Naturally, they have all kinds of super cool old trains, buses, uniforms, maps, clippings, and pictures, but they also have old ticket booths, turnstiles, snack kiosks, and totally reconstructed historic bus shelters and Tunnelbana environments. Museums are always advertising “you can walk back in time” and it was kind of like that. The whole experience was a sweet deal for only 30 kronors (less than $4) and a great way to kill several hours on a Saturday afternoon.

Oddly enough, the transit museum is not located near any of the subway stations. I was as amazed by that as some of the actual exhibits because I kept wondering how they got all those trains to the building and put them inside. Trains are kind of big and heavy, you know?

Underground Art

Since you have read every single story on this website, you know that one of my favorite things about the Stockholm transit system – other than the fact that it eliminates the need to own a car – is that all of the Tunnelbana stations have been designed by different artists.

Several stations have features that aren’t really art but are nonetheless creative, for example directional compasses carved or embedded into the platforms. This photo shows one of those as well as part of an extensive prism of illuminated walls in the station at Bagarmossen.

“The world’s longest art exhibition” is what Stockholm’s subway system is sometimes called. Because of this, one entire section of the transit museum is dedicated to art in the underground and surface stations. There is so much art and information crammed into this single room that I could have spent a couple hours there and still not have seen it all. I think the art area could be expanded into an entirely separate museum and it would still be worth the price of admission. I suppose this isn’t necessary since “the world’s longest art exhibition” is just outside.

I took advantage of the opportunity to make a 360° view of the art room in the Stockholm Transit Museum.


Click to view full size

Some of the highlights you’ll see in the panorama are: actual ticket booths and electronic entry points, a bench shaped and painted to look like trees, some old street cars, Erik enjoying the exhibits, a station-by-station guide to every installation, a re-creation of one of the arched tunnels from the Kungsträdgården station, a section of the gigantic tape measure that snakes all the way through the Bandhagen station, a bus from the 1970’s, and some little kids riding in a miniature train that winds through the museum.

This miniature train is presumably safer than the one at the Louisville Zoo which crashed this week, sending 20 people to the hospital. One of the reader comments on The Courier-Journal newspaper’s website said, “more proof that light rail won’t work in Louisville.” Brilliant!

Radio Documentary Train

Not to be outdone by all the visual art in Stockholm’s subways, the national broadcasting company has commandeered some of the trains in the system and outfitted them as rolling museums.

When you take a Tunnelbana train anywhere in Stockholm, you may randomly happen upon a Sveriges Radio train, like the one pictured here. It will take you where you want to go just like a regular train, but it is packed with a variety of audio documentary stations.

The outside of the SR train has been colorfully decorated with graphics which are a distinct difference from the typical solid blue and silver color scheme. The doors are emblazoned with Sveriges Radio logos and the greeting “Welcome inside Stockholm’s fastest subway wagon” (…presumably because your trip will seem faster if you’re hearing something interesting. I’m sure if the train actually was traveling faster than other trains that could turn out to be a problem.)

When you step inside the train, all the usual advertisements have been replaced with red information panels and, upon sitting down, attached to the handle below each window, you’ll find a small red box with audio jacks. Just unhook your headphones from your iPod and plug into a documentary.

Each set of seats has a different story so if the train is not too crowded you can pick a seat that has a story you’ll find interesting. The day I was lucky enough to have a chance meeting with the documentary train, I was unlucky enough that it was packed with commuters coming home from work. Suckers!

One of the few open seats was next to a box with a documentary about kidnappings in Kashmir. The little bit of Swedish I am able to understand is easiest when it’s on the radio and people are speaking slowly and clearly, but you don’t have to understand much to grasp how depressing this story was.

Another box in the train had a story about Raoul Wallenberg, a famous Swede from the World War II era. Wallenberg worked as a diplomat in Hungary and saved thousands of people from the Nazis by issuing them fake Swedish passports.

Renting dozens of buildings in Budapest, he helped house more than 35,000 people in an impromptu compound of buildings disguised with fake signs of offices and research institutes.

What an awesome dude. I mean, he saved tens of thousands of lives and here I am just typing on the internet about other people’s art. Oh well, maybe I’ll do something cool tomorrow.

Three cheers for Raoul Wallenberg on Sweden’s National Day! … oh, right, I forgot. June 6th is not only my parents’ anniversary (45 years!) it is also Nationaldagen in Sweden.

The Sixth of June in Sweden

Nearly half a dozen significant events in Swedish history have transpired on the sixth of June, including Swedish independence from the Kalmar Union, various transfers of power, and some royal weddings (though the one next year of Princess Victoria and Daniel Westling is oddly scheduled for June 10th).

Although the importance of June 6th in Sweden goes back nearly 500 years, it was not declared an official national holiday until 2005. It’s like the Swedish 4th of July and it’s practically brand new! The date was traditionally celebrated as Flag Day but recently the Swedes finally decided it’s not too nationalistic to celebrate your country. I celebrate their country every day, so I’m glad this weekend everyone else is joining me. There are outdoor festivities and music going on everywhere.

These National Day celebrations are being augmented with the endless racket of thousands of high school graduates in their traditional, white, sailor-style graduation hats, riding around on the backs of giant trucks, pumping loud music, screaming, drinking beer, and otherwise generally shattering everything I’ve said about Sweden being a reasonable, quiet place.

Such a truck is called a studentflak (student flatbed truck). They have huge sound systems and are covered in homemade banners, flowers, and sometimes trees. Yes, there are trees on the trucks with the kids who are partying. Maybe you should just see for yourself.

I didn’t take that picture and I didn’t make this video of trucks riding through Stureplan, I found them on the website of a company that rents the vehicles, but I think they capture the idea. (Click the HQ button to see it in higher quality) There are companies who specialize in renting out these trucks, just as they would any other party supplies.

Here is a link to a television commercial for a studentflak rental service, and here is a flak with trees on it leaving a school with the parents proudly watching.

It’s a big deal. A big loud, annoying, whooohooo-hip-hop-party deal. I mean, it would probably be fun if I was 18, but I ain’t, buddy. I was once, but that was a loooonnnngg time ago.

Flower headbands

There is a school between the apartment where I live and where I catch the train to go into the center of Stockholm.

The students I pass when I walk through the Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan (The Royal Institute of Technology) are of all ages – teens to adults. When the weather is nice, there are people hanging out in the grass or on wooden platforms that dot the field, presumably placed there for picnicking or sitting in the sun.

While walking to the train today, two rings of dandelions laying on one of these platforms caught my eye. It appears someone has been practicing the art of making headbands out of flowers in advance of the Midsommar festival next month.

I continued walking by, but after a few steps, I decided I had to return to document this. The tall trees, the rings of flowers, the green grass, the crystal clear air and sunshine – it was just too Swedish to let it pass.

Allt om mig

Enough about Sweden already. Let’s talk about me.

Today’s story has been in the works for more than a few weeks. It has a lot of personal information about my thoughts, feelings, and ideas, so if you’re more interested in the Swedish culture stuff, pictures of stairs, and fake charts, this monologue might not be for you.

Hard to believe, but true, sometimes I think about myself instead of what coins look like, what spännande means, or what the King is having for breakfast.

Honestly, this story might not be for anyone but me, but since I’m sharing my thoughts on everything else, why break the streak now?

One of the main attractions for me in moving to Sweden was that I thought it would give me the opportunity to “turn off” for a while.

I don’t know nearly as many people here, so combine that with Sweden’s more reasonable speed of life; not having as many expenses; therefore not having to work so much, et cetera. All these elements would theoretically come together and allow me to explore some larger, longterm projects that I ordinarily wouldn’t have the ability to. More rest, more quiet, less pushing myself to do new things, less need to try to change things.

I’ve had several conversations lately about whether it’s okay to live without goals. I know there are millions of people who just go to work, eat, sleep, and maybe hang out with their family or friends. That’s all they do. There’s no larger plan for their career or anything else. For them, day-to-day life is the plan. It goes on for decades and there’s nothing wrong with it. For a lot of people, especially in places like America in a tough economy, that’s all that they can afford to do. Others aren’t even that lucky. For some, just doing something is all they need to be happy.

There are those people in the world who know exactly what they want to do with their lives when they’re twelve years old. Doctor, lawyer, photographer, fireman, news reporter, forest ranger, computer programmer, teacher, president. Whatever it is, some people know instinctively what they want to do. I just wasn’t one of those people. Sometimes I envy them. Okay, most of the time. It seems like it would be so much easier to just know.

Instead, I have needed to invent big projects for myself to keep me busy. I’ve always felt like I was supposed to be doing something special, but since I haven’t known what that special thing was, I have tried just about everything that interested me. These undertakings entertain me and occasionally pay my bills. Usually they overlapped and I ended up doing a dozen things at once.

I haven’t needed luxuries like a fancy car, a DVD collection, concert tickets, nice furniture, a big wardrobe, home ownership, fancy dinners, et cetera. It’s always nice visiting people who do have those things, but over the past decade – even before moving across the ocean – I have gradually been downsizing the volume of my belongings.

When I moved to Rhode Island in 2001, I rented a moving truck. Less than two years later, when moving to California, I committed myself to keeping only what I could fit in my Volvo wagon. That was liberating.

The lack of owning so many things has permitted me to live with a little more freedom. Not having monthly payments for a mortgage, car, whatever, has made it possible for me to explore larger projects that require dedicated time and resources. Whether the project has been publishing a magazine with interviews of my friends, writing songs, putting out records, building a social networking site, running for office, or whatever, these projects have added a lot to my life and hopefully have engaged or entertained others.

A lot of the projects I took on had the theme of being unique: either no one had done something like it before, or it needed to be done and it seemed no one else was going to do it.

I don’t know if other people don’t have the same kinds of ideas I have, or if other people just don’t pursue them. People are always saying “wouldn’t it be cool if…” but if I have an idea like that, I try to do something about it instead of letting it remain in a conversation. That started a long time ago and has built progressively with each project. I suppose the ability to do such things comes in small degrees.

I think in moving away, I wanted to put all that on hold for a while. My efforts to expand my own boundaries weren’t necessarily starting to take too much away from me, but something was happening.

Specifically, running for state senate was a dream I had for a quite a while. It was a big goal which unfortunately turned out so unlike my expectations. Rather than being something positive and influential, a lot of the time and energy in my campaign was spent fighting just for the right to participate. It was just exhausting at times when it should have been exhilirating. Of course I’m glad I did it, and just participating in the process was an achievement I’m proud of. I don’t regret it and I would do it all over again. Maybe one day I will. (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence.)

I met hundreds of people during the campaign and I received priceless support toward the effort from just as many. Because of that support, I felt a constant drive to do everything I could to not let anyone down. Once someone gives you their hard-earned money and asks you to see if you can make a difference with it, it’s nearly impossible to not keep fighting, even when all the odds and money are gone. I can’t say too much about any of it yet, really, because here I am on the other side of the world and I can feel myself starting to get all worked up about it. The lawsuit that disqualified me and its plaintiff – my opponent who was re-elected as the district’s senator – are not my favorite topics… Yet I’m still being very careful to be kind with my words. (Using the term “re-elected” is one way of being very kind.)

The day after the election was bittersweet. I was so relieved that Barack Obama had been elected. I still kind of can’t believe it. (Every time I check the American news, I am impressed and ecstatic at each new overdue misconduct he is trying to take on. It’s almost too good to be true.) The day after the election there was also a sense of relief that the public aspect of my campaign was over. That might be the day I decided for sure that I was moving to Sweden.

I remember saying to a friend, “I could stay in Kentucky and continue fighting for the rest of my life, or I could just go where everything is already fixed.” That’s an oversimplification of things and I think it’s unnecessarily harsh and childish, but maybe it captures the feeling of the time. I don’t like fighting. I don’t want to spend my life being angry over things that I may never be able to affect. I would rather create things or just throttle down a bit. Unwind, reset, breathe. What would it be like to relax, or have the time to read, or go on a date, or do anything else most people do that have somehow eluded me?

I thought that moving to Sweden would be a great way to turn off my need to continually generate new materials and ideas, to not have a project, and to be somewhat anonymous.

The anonymity aspect has turned out to be much as I expected. Sometimes it’s too much. Everyone knows the feeling of being alone in a crowd. Maybe some of the lonliest people in the world are those who are living in big cities, surrounded by other people who are talking, laughing, holding hands, chatting on the phone, and otherwise carrying on.

Even in a year-round Casual Friday community like Louisville, where people are always saying things to people they don’t know, it’s still possible – if not very easy – to go an entire day without speaking to anyone. That’s even easier in the iPod Age where everyone has headphones and you’re in a country where those who don’t are speaking a language you don’t understand.

The several-month project of selling and giving away virtually everything I own was obviously an overwhelming endeavor. As you can imagine, it was at once painful and liberating. My move to Sweden made moving in a Volvo look positively posh. I arrived here with only a rolling suitcase and a guitar case. With the exception of a few boxes in my parents’ basement, if I move back to Louisville at any point, there’s not any material “stuff” there to go back to. My car, apartment, furniture, books, music, dishes, everything – it’s all gone.

I expected that once the process of shedding my earthly belongings, saying farewells to friends and family, and getting on the plane was finished, that would be the moment I crossed the line and I would really be able to turn off for a while. From several previous, extended visits, I already knew the basics of finding my way around Stockholm, the public transit, and stuff like that. I could unpack my few things here and just let go.

I’m not sure how it could have escaped me that moving to a different country with a different language is, in itself, a huge project.

I’m sure it is self-evident to anyone reading this, that learning a new word for everything and an entirely new way of talking is a really big project. It’s like if I started att skriva this helt på svenska du… I mean, if I started writing this totally in Swedish, you wouldn’t be able to understand any of it.

The good news is that even though it just occurred to me last month that this language thing is a gigantic project, I am way beyond the point of all the words looking and sounding crazy. I had a couple years of a head start in dabbling with the Swedish language in Louisville, which has proven to be helpful, but only a little bit.

At the very least, I understand the topic of most conversations. Depending on who’s talking or what’s being discussed, I understand a little more or a little less. Sometimes I don’t believe that the sounds my roommate Iida is making are actually talking. It’s so fast and I may only catch a word or two during a few minutes of listening to her and Erik chatting. On the other hand, sometimes when I’m reading, I have moments when I feel like I get it. Headlines and advertising are getting easier faster. If I’m watching Swedish television and the closed caption text in Swedish is on the screen, my comprehension skyrockets.

Even if I’m still less than 20% able to comprehend or carry on a real conversation comfortably in Swedish, I’m on my way toward it. It would be coming so much faster if Sweden wasn’t such a bilingual country. Here, it’s not like how some people in America speak Spanish and some speak English. Seriously, everyone in Sweden under 50 speaks both Swedish and English – and both languages well. A blessing and a curse. As soon as I begin speaking, even if I’m just ordering a coffee, the other person will inevitably start speaking English to me.

You might ask, if everyone speaks English, why bother learning Swedish? Honestly, I feel rude not knowing the language. If I like the place enough to live here, I owe it to everyone else to speak their language. If I’m in a group of people and they’re all speaking English because of me, well, it makes me feel silly. More often, I’d rather the conversation continue in Swedish, even if it means I’m not involved, just so I can hear more of the language in context.

Also on the plus side, I love the way Swedish sounds. It is beautiful and cool and like a song. There are special ways to pronounce things and a lot of it has a nod-nod-wink-wink quality to it. (Skiva is pronounced “whuooeevah” but skriva is “skreevah.” Ljug is pronounced “yoeg” and själv is “whhelf.” Sig is prounounced “say” and de is “doam.” This shit’s crazy! And those are short words! Not only that, but seeing it in print isn’t even a hint as to the inflection. Jävla betoning!)

The world around you looks different depending on the sounds that come with it. That’s something else I’ve been thinking a lot about. For example, if you’re walking around the city listening to Slayer on your iPod all day, your perspective will be different than if you’re looking at the same things while listening to Mexican mariachi music. (Most people I know have tons of mariachi music on their iPods.) I think the same is true of the sounds in the language you speak and hear. Whether it’s a harsh language like Russian or a mushy language like French, constant exposure to these sounds must have an effect on the people who speak the language.

The singing, fun, and active dynamics in the Swedish language must be somewhat responsible for the attitudes and personality the Swedish people have. In the same respect, the artistic and caring nature of the people must also influence the way the language continues to develop. When I first came to Sweden in the nineties, I fell in love with the entire package: the landscape, the people, the design aesthetics, the sound of the language. I’m still seeing everything I saw then, but now it is part of my everyday life.

I listen to several hours of language every day on my iPhone, whether it’s news or instruction or comedy. I push myself to hear more, even when I would rather listen to something in English. Even then, if I’m thinking about other things, not exactly tuned in to what’s playing, or sleeping, it’s still there and I believe I am subconsciously absorbing something from it.

Trying to figure out what everyone is saying all the time is no small task. My brain is getting a serious work-over every day. I think an hour of trying to keep up with a Swedish conversation probably equates to four hours’ worth of English brain work. It’s like flipping through a turbo dictionary upstairs every time somebody talks. I’m pretty used to getting really tired really fast.

For several weeks, I was intentionally starving myself of American entertainment in order to submerge myself deeper into Swedish. That just ended up making me crazy. I’m starting to seek a balance now so I can build my Swedish while keeping my English sharp.

I’m on the case and I’m getting it. I’m just not sure how I missed the idea that this whole move is probably one of the biggest projects I’ve ever taken on. How could I have thought all this wasn’t a project at all?

If you missed it…

Every year, the reporters who cover the White House get together for a big fancy dinner – almost as fancy as the Stockholm Grocery Store Owners Association dinner.

Typically, some comedians will come out and roast Washington officials, then the president will take the stage and return the favor. Stephen Colbert’s 2006 appearance with George W. Bush is a painfully hilarious classic that perhaps proved him to be one of the bravest men in America.

Just in case you didn’t see Barack Obama at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, this video is President Obama’s response from this past weekend:

Swine flu? Never heard of it!

For some reason, I’m just not afraid of the swine flu. It reminds me of the bird flu and SARS and everything else in recent years that has been hyped up for us to be scared of.

It’s possible that I’m not afraid because I’m invincible! I never get sick because everything always happens to other people. I don’t need to worry about it because it will never happen to me.

Sickness, disease, car wrecks, broken bones? Never heard of ’em. Those things just aren’t my bag, baby. Other people do that stuff. Sweden’s universal health care is nice because it keeps everyone around me healthy, but of course, I would never need it.

The good news for all those sick and injured people is that they don’t need to worry about someone stealing their debit card number and cleaning out their bank account. I’ve got that covered. And don’t worry about your senator suing you and mocking you in the media. Been there done that.

I think the really scary thing is the changing climate and everything that brings. Melting ice caps, rising sea levels, vanishing mountain water runoffs, and all that kind of stuff is terrifying. It’s frightening that casual observers are able to notice a difference in the climate that has occurred during their lifetime.

Sweden is a land of extremes when it comes to seasonal weather and daylight hours, and Stockholm is a city built on more than a dozen islands. The smallest differences to annual temperature ranges or ocean levels are felt in places like Stockholm long before they reach places like Louisville. Yet, unusual extreme weather has already become painfully evident in Kentucky. Whether it’s the wind or snow or tornados or heat, you don’t need to be near the ocean or the ice to notice that things are not the same as when you were a kid.

The video below is from a recent 60 Minutes episode (the story is about 12 minutes long). The swine flu may kill hundreds of thousands of people, but it is containable and manageable to some degree. With last month’s news that Arctic ice is melting faster than even the worst-case projections from a few years ago, the prospect of billions of people being displaced or not having access to food or water is maybe the scariest thing around.

Inside the secret society of Swedish grocery store owners

Every Monday morning in my Swedish language class, the teacher asks everyone what they did over the weekend. Since all the students have a variety of native languages – German, Spanish, English – this discussion of the weekend’s events, like most of the class, is all in Swedish. It makes for a nice way to get everyone to exercise their basic Swedish language skills before we dive into things like past participles and vocabulary.

This week, I may have had the most unexpected tale of what I had done over the weekend. Saturday night I went to the Stockholms Livsmedelshandlareförening Årsmöte. Yes, that 26-character string of letters is a real word, and it’s not the longest one I saw during the event.

The Livsmedelshandlareförening is the food retailers’ association. These are people who own grocery stores in Stockholm and this was their annual meeting, conference, and dinner. Sure, I love food, but this trait alone is not enough to be invited to party with the grocery store owners. Nor is a love of food sufficient to gain access to the world premiere of their spellbinding annual budget PowerPoint show.

No, I was a substitute date for my friend Iida whose boyfriend Erik is on tour with his band Tiger Lou and could not attend. Your loss, dude!

Iida, who has worked in an ICA grocery store for several years, was one of about thirty grocery employees from all around Stockholm who was being honored with a stipendium, a sort of scholarship to study the business. The award is worth thousands of dollars and is no small honor.

Working in a grocery store in Sweden, I should mention, is not exactly the same experience one would have doing so in the United States. Even after taxes are taken out, she is earning more per year than I was before taxes as a designer at the Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville or as a photo editor at Hasbro Toys in Providence.

Not only that, but she gets free health care, five weeks of annual paid vacation, and money for college. Does she get all this because ICA is an awesome company? No, she gets it because every Swedish worker gets it.

If she got married and had a kid, she and her husband or partner are entitled to a combined total of 480 days off of work, the vast majority of which are paid days at 80% of your regular daily wage. Each partner gets 60 dedicated days, but if the man wants to work while the woman stays home (or vice versa) he can give the mother his 180 remaining days.

It’s embarrassing to compare these universal rights with the idea of trying to raise a child while working at a Kroger or Wal-Mart. I know that there plenty of Americans who are doing that and making it work, but it cannot be pleasant, easy, or beneficial for the child or parents. Life does not have to be such a struggle.

Call it socialism if you want to, but I think there’s a lot to be said for pooling resources in order to ease everyone’s burden. It takes so much of the worry out of people’s lives. Even though the United States has some of the lowest taxes in the industrialized world, Americans always want them lower. Well, you get what you pay for. But back to Saturday’s grocery owners’ meeting…


The occasion was a very fancy, dress-up affair at Operakällaren, an opulent expanse of dining and dance halls that dates back to the 1700’s. One part of the complex includes the legendary Café Opera where every imaginable rock star, fashion designer, model, actor, or millionaire has partied over the years. We weren’t in that part of the building, but where we were was no less ornate. The height and decoration of the walls and ceilings is rivaled by gigantic windows, offering striking views of the harbor, the Royal Palace, and Swedish Parliament.

Operakällaren is located on Kungsträdgården, the quarter-mile-long public plaza with rows of cherry blossom trees that we saw in Sunday’s story.

Before going inside, we met Iida’s boss and his wife outside the building. Iida’s boss owns the ICA store she works in, so he is really her boss’ boss. He’s the Big Man and the one who suggested she should apply for the award. I had to be on my best behavior. This, combined with my first shirt-and-tie experience in the country and my limited knowledge of the evening’s language, I felt, well, let’s say apprehensive. I’m here for new experiences, though, and the Stockholm grocery store owners’ association’s annual meeting certainly promised to be such a thing.

The function lasted more than six hours and was a succession of several events.

Act One was a seemingly endless PowerPoint presentation of the association’s budget. This was held in a long, drop-ceiling side room with a podium, projector, and many rows of attractive (yet borderline-uncomfortable) seats. Upon entering the room, we discovered that the evening’s honorees were seated in a special section near the front of the room. That put me and my pre-kindergarten mastery of the Swedish language next to the boss and his wife. I’m an adult. I can do this.

This presentation lasted forever. Each PowerPoint slide consisted of lists of numbers and super-long words in black Helvetica on a white background. No graphs, no pie charts, not even any generic clip art that came with the computer. I quickly determined that this was the organization’s annual budget. They were detailing where all the money comes from and how they are spending it.

As each slide came up on the screen, the guy would read what it said. These fantastically long Swedish words are essentially compound words on steroids. If you know the smaller parts you can figure out the whole word. The English equivalent of the name of the association, for example, Livsmedelshandlareförening, would be Grocerymerchantassociation. Decoding long words is how I spent most of my time during the presentation. A few times I wanted to yell, “Wait! Go back!” as I was putting a word together when the slide changed.

During this part of the meeting, they were also adopting new plans and the appointment of board members with oral votes. The presenter would ask a question and most everyone in the room would just say “ja” all at once. Naturally, I abstained from voting because, as you know, I do not own a grocery store in Stockholm.

After a short break, the awards were given out. This was your typical hold-your-applause-until-the-end presentation with some older fellows shaking hands with the recipients and giving them framed certificates. The applause rule was broken when one of the young ladies who received a scholarship gave the presenter a big, warm hug instead of shaking his hand. Nice.

It seemed that probably all 200 or so people in the room were exhausted from the two-hour marathon of numbers and awards. This caused a few people to get visually uneasy when a stereotypically nerdy-looking man from the IT department took the stage for yet another PowerPoint lecture. Dressed in a plaid jacket with a wide necktie, thick glasses, pocket protector, and an ID badge, this guy had awkward written all over him.

My first impression was that someone would only be dressed this way in Sweden if it was a joke or a costume. I was right. His talk was supposed to be about the organization’s marketing plans for the future, but he was actually a hired comedian with a fake presentation. I think it took some of the people in the room a little longer to catch on that it wasn’t for real. The things he was saying got progressively more outlandish and people slowly began laughing. By the time it was over the entire room was in hysterics.

His tempo was pretty insane. Charts and graphs flew by quickly and he hardly took a breath. Some of his PowerPoint slides were absolutely hilarious. Words and logos would appear on screen and burst into flames. A graph would appear, another part would be added to it, and another, and another, et cetera, until the screen was an indecipherable mess or text and arrows. One of the new strategies he unveiled involved getting grocery store employees to move into the homes of customers to have children with them, thereby creating more customers. A chart illustrated the different steps in the process.

Having this comic relief at the end of the serious meeting was a nice way of making the transition to the more social aspect of the evening.


Act Two of the evening involved a standing meet-and-greet for all the attendees. This took place in one of the large, glass-enclosed rooms. There was plenty of free wine and formal attendants in white coats making sure your glass was never half-empty. Whenever people are speaking Swedish, I try to listen and keep up with the conversation topics as much as possible, even if I can’t really participate yet. But while Iida was chatting with her boss and his wife, I kind of drifted out of it while looking out the windows. I had one of those moments where I started looking around and wondering how I got here. It occurred to me that most of the magnificent buildings I was looking at were older than Louisville.

This daydream didn’t last long as I was hurled headlong into a Swedish conversation about exactly that. I was asked about why I came to Sweden and about my progress in learning the language. My language skills were put to the test and although everything I said probably had all the finesse of the dubbing on a karate movie, I suffered only a couple stalls when I felt everyone was waiting for me to come up with the next word.

A couple nights later, Iida told me her boss mentioned that I didn’t sound American when I was speaking Swedish and he was impressed with my sväng – the rhythm or swing of the language. I feel like I’m at the bottom of a really tall mountain in Swedish, so hearing that comment made me feel like I’m actually making some progress. It also occurred to me later that none of what I said or heard from the couple was in English. They are the first people I’ve met who know me only in Swedish.

The third and final act of the evening was a multi-course dinner in yet another glass-walled ballroom. Large, round, 12-person tables were adorned with white table cloths, candlelight, and punctuated with place settings that included collections of special utensils and glasses.

I became aware that my American-style treatment of table utensils was laughable and stereotypical within a couple weeks of arriving in Sweden. By “American-style” I mean using the side of the fork as a knife and using the spoon as a shovel. Even in casual situations, Swedes respect the proper use of their utensils. The meal we were treated to made appropriate use of every tool on the table.

Needless to say, if you’re hosting a banquet for people who sell food for a living, the dinner should be fantastic. It was nothing short of that. Even the vegetarian option we were offered was painfully delicious. The same aforementioned army of white-jacketed severs kept the wine and successive courses of food coming throughout the night. By the time the warm chocolate souffle with raspberries was delivered for dessert, I was feeling positively guilty if not humbled for being treated to all of it.

What we weren’t quite expecting with our dinner was the live band. Before the appetizer was served, everyone in this elaborate dining hall was instantly made embarrassed by being thrust into an eighties tribute act called Flashback. I have never seen so many ill-at-ease people trying to be polite in my life. Flashback took the stage, introduced themselves, and played one song – “You’re the Inspiration.” The band consisted of bass, drums, keyboards, guitar, and four lead singers/dancers. Periodically, between the courses of the dinner, they returned in new, matching stage costumes, to play 10-minute medleys of the eighties songs we’d all like to forget ever happened. This photo is Iida watching them. Yes, our table was right up front, perhaps the most discomforting location in the room.

One of the evening’s highlights came late in the dinner. An elderly gentleman took the stage to make a short speech. More than a century years ago, sort of by accident, his great-grandfather had started the fund that had allowed the scholarships to be awarded. In his last will and testament he left a small amount of money behind with the instructions that it be used for this purpose. The fund had grown over the years and now millions of kronors are given away for training every year. Not a bad legacy.

There was allegedly going to be some dancing involved after dinner, but we successfully ducked out of the place in time to avoid finding out if that was true. Having met up for the event around 4:00 that afternoon, it was now nearly 11:30. We were quite full – Swedish full and English full and… that would be sufficiently wined and dined.

Those grocery store owners really know how to run a meeting. I think the version I told here is probably a little more detailes than the one my Swedish class got. That class is only two and a half hours long.

För Svankvinna i tiden

As I mentioned before, most of Sweden’s coins carry a picture of King Carl XVI Gustaf, a man who is still alive and just 62 years old.

Every time he buys something, he pays with money that has his own picture on it. I’m sure he’s used to it now, but when he became king at age 27, it must have been weird at some point, like the first time he saw the coin. Perhaps it’s not strange at all since the previous coins had a picture of his dad (correction: his grandfather). Then again, he’s the king, so it’s possible that he never actually buys anything for himself, rather, he has people doing all that kind of stuff for him.

His profile image is updated periodically, so if you get an older coin he looks much younger. In every photograph I’ve ever seen of the King, he is wearing glasses, yet on the coins he is mysteriously unbespectacled. Yes, I think I just made up that word. It means “not wearing glasses.” Does he have contacts in or is it just not respectable to be bespectacled?

In America, there has been a debate going on for years about whether or not to stop making pennies. For quite some time it has cost more than one cent to produce the one-cent coins. Sweden is going to cease minting of its smallest coin next year. Interestingly, the 50 öre piece is worth about six cents in US currency.

If I was the king – which I had high hopes of becoming until that rascal Daniel Westling got engaged to Crown Princess Victoria about two weeks after I moved here – I’d probably carry around a little loose change. Jingle it in my pockets. Show people my picture. No big deal.

Daniel and Victoria aren’t getting married until next year, so anything can happen. I’d hate to split up the happy couple, as they are the darlings of the Swedish media, besides, I’ve really always had my eye on the younger sister, Princess Madeleine.

That’s Madeleine smiling there on the right. Victoria is behind her, not as happy because she has the weight of the throne on her shoulders for the rest of her life. Princess Victoria can look forward to being the first female to have her picture on a Swedish coin since 1720. Daniel Westling will be able to say, “Wanna see a picture of my wife?” each time he pulls a coin out.

Each time Sweden gets a new monarch, that person selects a new slogan or motto. Some of the previous ones have been “Sveriges väl” (Sweden’s welfare), “Folkets kärlek min belöning” (The people’s love is my reward), and “Plikten framför allt” (Duty above all). Currently, the obverse side of Sweden’s coins are christened with “För Sverige i tiden” (For Sweden, with the times). King Carl XVI Gustaf picked that out when he took the reins in 1973.

In addition to choosing a more modest and contemporary royal motto, he also made addressing the king less ostentatious. Since the 16th Century, the king of Sweden has been referred to with an elegant title that roughly translates to “By the Grace of God the King of Sweden.” Carl XVI Gustaf ended that tradition by humbling it simply to “Sveriges Konung” (Sweden’s King). So maybe he isn’t so crazy about having his picture on the money. From what I’ve gathered, he seems like a very private and quiet guy. I hope that will make it easier for me to talk to him at family events when he’s my father-in-law.

I’m kidding, of course. I’m sure that if I end up with a Swedish girlfriend she’ll probably be someone like the Svankvinna. This lady is Sweden’s answer to the woman who had 130 cats. The Svankvinna (“swan woman”) is a 68-year-old lady who got busted with eleven swans living in her tiny, 85-square-foot apartment in central Stockholm. Her neighbors and the police thought there was a corpse in the building until they looked through her mail slot and saw a bunch of little swan feet walking around. What I wouldn’t give to see that view! “Chief, you better take a look for yourself.”

Iida told me about the Svankvinna last night when we overheard some guys in town using her name when saying that someone was crazy. Apparently if someone thinks you’re nuts, they can call you Svankvinna. This guy called her the Svantant (“swan old lady”), so I guess he has his own nickname for her. He’s an independent thinker and not about to follow the rules by using the media’s common name for her.

Anyway, the Svankvinna was “rescuing” all these giant birds and keeping them in her apartment to “help” them. She gave them baths in the tub every two or three days and carried them around in big, plastic Ikea bags! Awesome. She “fixed” one of their broken legs with a popsicle stick and tape. I love her!

This article about her is in svenska, but there are some priceless photos of the cops cleaning out her apartment. Even though the police in Sweden seem downright friendly compared to their American counterparts, it must be so hard to look authoritative when loading a trailer full of swans.

She told the newspaper that she usually doesn’t keep so many swans there and the apartment is usually cleaner, but they came on a bad day. Oh, I’m sure they did. As many as 150 swans had gone through her place over a period of seven years. Nice.

Unfortunately, my sweet Svankvinna was convicted of animal abuse and of being bat-ass crazy, and a few of the swans died.

Well, it’s Friday night, so I’m off to see if I can get a date with the Svankvinna. If she’s half as pretty as her blurred-out face in the newspaper… Well, I’ll let you know how it goes.