June 11, 2008

Catching up

Again, it's been a long time. This may be the last post on this blog. I haven't been able to ride now for a couple of years. Castor is dead, and my knee is shot to hell.

Watch for a new blog on American-Swedish life, politics and culture.


In the meantime, check out this blog:

Gabriel's blog

August 12, 2007

Castor is dead. What is the essence of senescence?

This blog has been dead for over a year. Castor died in September last year. Take a look at his picture. He was fit for Darius. Castor was a magnificent animal, with a will-power to match his 700 kilogrammes.

Everything is gone. His saddles, his harnesses, all his trappings. Just pictures left. And a sad feeling almost every day.

The word of the day is senescence. The sense and power of aging. That which is to be.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote a poem called Ulalume. No one knows for certain why Poe named the poem Ulalume. It is possible, however, that he coined the word from ululare, a Latin word meaning to shriek, howl, lament, or wail. But instead of using that Latin infinitive as he found it, he cut off the last three letters and replaced them with ume (pronounced oom) so that the word would rhyme with other words in the poem.

The poem is about aging. Both dim and productive.

And now, as the night was senescent,
And star-dials pointed to morn-
As the star-dials hinted of morn-
At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn-
Astarte's bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.

The night becomes old. We dwell on it coming and we dwell on it leaving us. Like life. For ourselves and our horses.

This blog will take a new turn. I like the idea of smells and sounds. But they will come from somewhere else.

Stay tuned. Senescence is also a creative process.

January 11, 2006

Swedish provincialism rears its head

For those of you reading this outside of Sweden you may not have entertained many thoughts as to the intellectual health of the body politic, the religious life or the cultural establishments of Sweden: its government, its institutions, its religious organizations, its media and its – more than often – state sponsored, systematic culture for the masses.

Sweden is a small country to the north of Europe. It has enjoyed about a century of economic prosperity due to early industrialism, an extremely stringent and close-knit class society and a large portion of what many see as cowardly isolationism, often called neutrality. This heritage is bestowed upon unprepared immigrants, who find that Swedish officialdom seeks to mold them as much as possible in a new and unfamiliar pattern of language, politics and class-based values, often extremely foreign to their own. Immigrants to Sweden are oftentimes more looked upon as necessary to mollify the national conscience, than as a social asset . A large proportion of those cleaning our boardrooms, toilets, offices, those who care for our elderly, those who drive our taxis and those who serve us our Friday evening pizza are immigrants. In this way Sweden is no different from any other modern Western country. What makes Sweden different is our constipated attitude to the wealth of culture and knowledge that our immigrants have to give us. Being a Kurd or an Iranian is a fine thing. We feel sorry for you. You don’t dress like us and surely don’t speak like us and we so very much want you to come around and start doing so. At least in other countries, the repression is patent. Foreigners get discriminated against and they know where it’s coming from. In Sweden the discrimination is syrupy sweet. Come, be like us. Integrate. We will support you, give you child support, send you to classes to learn about Swedish Christmas and the Midsummer holiday, but we really aren’t interested in what you have to give us. Not really. Not unless we can feel sorry for you for your backwardness and feel that we are somehow so much luckier than you are.

One consequence of this cultural European “localism” is a large number of both official and unofficial do-gooders in Swedish society. Since we all know what fair treatment and lack of bias entail, it is frowned upon to voice opinions other than those which are politically correct. If a well-known preacher were to preach a sermon on the dubious parentage of Jesus, on the fact that Mary was hardly thirteen and what we nowadays consider to be a child when she conceived her son and that she married Joseph when she was fourteen, we would hardly bat an eyelid. If the preacher went on to remind us that King David had a large number of wives and concubines, that he had the husband of one of his wives killed in order to marry her, we know that it's par for the course. That’s the way it was in those days, isn't it. And anyway David repented and found grace in the sight of the Lord. A few of us even learned that in Sunday school. No newspaper, no columnist, no TV reporter would ever consider this being something to write about. So what. It doesn't stir any emotions anymore.

But about a week ago, a Pentacostal preacher in Sweden, one of dubious renown, Runar Sögaard, preached a sermon in which he called Mohammed a “confused pedophile” because he had married one of his wives, A’isha, when she was nine years old.

The media response was enormous. Newspaper after newspaper, radio and TV, all of Swedish media pounced upon Runar (people whom we presume to “know” are called by their first names in the media in Sweden). Sögaard promptly got bashed with a fatwa,(Arabic: فتوى) a legal pronouncement in Islam, issued by a religious law specialist on a specific issue. In other words, Sögaards goose is cooked, if you get what I’m driving at. He’s now got a number of henchmen looking for him and the Swedish police have to give him special protection, whatever good that’s going to do.

The Swedish Muslim community is pissed off, so to say, and rightly so. It’s like a mufti calling Jesus a bastard. Not that that would rile up the religiously defunct Swedish intelligentsia anyway.

What excites the media in Sweden is that Sögaard used a no-no word to describe a person held in reverence by millions of people all over the world, a historical figure that represents the cultural identity of large numbers of immigrants that we in Sweden are supposed to accept as our brethren and whom of course we don’t. This is a gut reaction on the part of Swedish media and establishment. A comment like this mars the image we have of ourselves as well-meaning, intelligent, rational and enlightened world citizens.

Runar – unknowingly - really put his finger on a sore point. He may be a pathetic figure, but a provincial Swedish establishment has every reason to take a long, hard look at itself.

December 26, 2005

Proust, Chapter 2

Time for the Sunday reading again, and I am so full of satisfaction that I have to repeat myself. For those of you who are new to this blog, I wrote a few months ago about my Sunday – horse-free – pastime at the cultural center where Marcel Proust is the main attraction on Sunday afternoons. We’re well into the third book of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. The fare is simple: a 10-15 minute recital by a top-notch musician and then the reading of a few chapters from Proust by a new reader every week.

The novel is autobiographical and told mostly in a stream-of-consciousness style. It includes collected pieces from his childhood, details, and fetishes of upper-class lifestyle, gossip, memories, and recollections of the world Proust never quite managed to join in late nineteenth and beginning twentieth century France. The leading motif in the book is of a past that has true reality for man. It is about the small intricacies and nothings of high-class society, with small intrigues, great ambitions and nebulous outcomes. It is a novel that takes time because it is about time. Memory and time are principal themes in the over 3000 page novel, and the situations, the characters, the surroundings are so basically human that you find yourself smiling and silently nodding in recognition as the characters evolve in the one social situation after the other. The upper class milieu is just an image of all of our human lusts, desires, shortcomings, fears and vanities.

I read another “extensive” book on the plane to the States a week or so ago. Praised by critics and acquaintances alike - Dan Brown’s: Angels and Demons. Excuse my English. It was crap. 619 pages of superficial, short episodes with no depth of character. Technical mistakes that a junior high school student wouldn’t make in an essay, and an irritating beating of the breast by the author for having done some basic research on paintings, buildings and people from historical periods, research that any author with self-respect would do to bolster a story. A word of humble advice. Get a copy of Proust's novel from your public library. Take a deep breath. Slow down a little and start reading. Or better yet: pair up – at home with your partner or with a friend - and read it aloud to one another. It will open up a new world.

For those of you wanting to give Proust a try, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past can be found here. Try also Temps Perdu, a good site for Proust texts, for learning about the author and for more about his books.

November 13, 2005

The thrill of it all

Riding is a dangerous sport, which is maybe why it’s so satisfying, tantalizing and both physically and emotionally edifying. Maybe motorcycling and skydiving qualify for a somewhat distant second place. Riding incorporates both skill, daredevilishness, communication with a large animal with a mind of its own and a thirst for well, not perfection, but getting better at it all. Now where else can you achieve that?

Falling off is no fun. There’s a common adage that says that you will never become a fully-fledged rider until you’ve fallen off a hundred times. Maybe a hundred times is pushing it, but most riders have fallen off at least a number of times and you learn from each and every experience, mostly because the one fall is never the same as the next. Getting thrown off in the woods because the horse gets spooked from a red plastic bag that some damn nature-loving mushroom picker carelessly threw away and hitting your shoulder on a rock that has spent the last 20,000 years just waiting to meet you is one thing. It’s a completely different thing riding towards a hurdle, keeping your eyes focused beyond the rail that you and your horse are going to jump, making a wrong decision like looking askance at the wrong moment or shifting your weight slightly, oh so slightly in the wrong direction and then getting thrown off in an extremely inglorious fashion. It’s a toss-up which is worse, the mistake that you made which was evident to most people looking at you, or the physical pain you suffer as a result.

Prince William falling off

Motorcycles and airplanes are machines. They usually don’t have a mind of their own, at least not outside the world of fantasy. But horses are like you and me. They go through infancy, childhood, puberty, adulthood and old age. Castor is 11 years old and should be an adult by this time, but he’s still in a somewhat pubescent stage and acts like a teenager. All of you who’ve had one around the house know what I mean: you never know what to expect and they eat enormous quantities of food. That's Castor in a nutshell.

But as in my case having parented a couple of teenagers, you know how to handle the unexpected. As far as my Castor is concerned, this means everything from jumping five feet to the side in a split second because he sees something as innocuous as his own reflection in the mirror in the manége or bucking gleefully, because it’s freezing cold and that’s the weather that makes him hyperactive. I think the weirdest accident I had was the concussion from getting thrown after a hurdle. I don’t know how I landed, but I didn’t get hurt... I jumped back on Castor and finished the series of hurdles I was doing. A while later I was standing in the stable calmly brushing him off when I realized I didn’t know where I was. I’d lost about twenty minutes of prime time with my horse and had no recollection of what we had been doing. But my friends told me I’d made several successful jumps in that space of time.

But it’s an individual you’re with. He’s got a mind of his own, legs of his own, muscles of his own and a temperament of his own, and that’s the thrill of it all.

So the moral of this blog post is this: Screw skydiving. Screw motorcycling and screw human catapulting. Get yourself a horse.

July 01, 2005

Responsibility and blame, murder and suicide

The subtle power of language influences our way of seeing the world around us. The words we use say a lot about us and our way of approaching a political and ethical reality.

Most of us are more or less in agreement on the meanings and connotations of the words in the title above. The word responsibility is often positively charged and relates to an individual’s various liberties and duties.

Oftentimes one can read something like the following in the media: “The organization XXX was responsible for the bomb attack which claimed four lives.” I think we have to re-think the meaning of this word. In a positive sense, being responsible is something we all strive for in many parts of our lives. Responsibility makes us grow as individuals. But being responsible for a crime or a misdeed sends a completely different semantic signal. In a negative sense, the word responsibility denotes a meaning of shame and blame. Subsequently, we should use the word blame when writing about actions such as the violent taking of lives in the many hotspots of the world. When a crime is committed it is a matter of blame, not responsibility.

Our societal norms and systems of justice make a distinct demarcation between murder and suicide. Within orthodox Christianity and Judaism they are both serious crimes against God. However, modern society perceives a decided difference between these two words. A vast majority of us think of murder as an infinitely more serious act than suicide, which in many cases is deemed almost a ”right” where an individual is master of his or her own rise and demise. Suicide is also often justified as a last-case outlet for depression.

When an individual extinguishes both his own life along with others, the label he is given by the media is that of a suicide bomber, or the deed is often described as a suicide bombing attack, a somewhat bizarre expression. But the words chosen in this context imply a conscious, value-related choice where suicide achieves primary importance (and in some odd way also becomes excusable and legitimate) and the murders committed as part of the same deed become peripheral with a spattering of anonymity. The reasoning, that one wishes to point out the fact that a person is willing to use his own body and life as a weapon, does not motivate the use of the term. A person who, in cold blood, kills both himself and others is a murderer, irrespective of what others think about and believe concerning the religious, ethical or political implications of suicide.

Certain media in the United States and other countries have begun using the correct term for these crimes: murder. Consequently, the young men and women who kill both themselves and others are homicide bombers – neither more nor less.

And those who hurt others to further their own cause do not bear responsibility, but instead blame.

February 12, 2005

Tardiness and icy roads

One of my blog colleagues, Kat, has coined a number of blog diseases, including blog neglect, blog addiction and blog blockage. To her medical blog-dictionary I would like to add the psychological malady termed blog tardiness, akin to blog neglect. Days go by and nothing gets written. This is not fair to Castor, who is supposed to be the focal point of this web page. Not only has he been neglected as far as elapsed days and weeks are concerned, I have also neglected to even mention him specifically for some time.

Today we took a stroll in the woods. Getting him ready for a hike is an onerous task. Not only is he dirty, muddy and wet when you go out to get him in the field, you also have to put studs in his shoes so he doesn’t slip on the icy roads and paths in what is often somewhat inclement February weather in Stockholm.


For those of you who don’t ride, studs in your horse’s hooves do more or less the same thing as your winter tires do for your car. Riding on an icy path without this protection is no joke. Imagine having about 1500 pounds of muscle power and skittishness underneath you, slipping and dancing nervously around on the ground. So, before you go out on a cold and sunny winter’s day, you stud (no pun intended) your horse. This entails getting out your wrench and fresh ice studs to screw into the horse’s shoes.

Chiropractor’s dream

Studding Castor is something I don’t really long to do. In all four hooves there are four screw holes with flat studs in them, flat-shaped screw heads (like bolt heads) that are there so the holes don’t get filled with a lot of dirt and grime. So first of all you have to unscrew these, clean out any sand or dirt that has got stuck underneath and then screw in the proper winter studs. Now imagine bending over, holding a hoof in the air with what feels like the whole weight of your horse pressing down on it, using your wrench to get the flat studs out before Castor gets tired of you holding his leg and decides he wants to put his foot down instead. Unscrewing the flat studs is the first job. Now that you’ve got them out and cleaned out the holes, you’ve got to put the other ones in. This takes some digital dexterity and it’s not that easy when your fingers are already getting numb from the cold air in the stable. You have to screw them in, or at least get them started, and then as quickly as possible - remember you’re still holding Castor’s leg in the air – fasten them tightly with the help of your wrench.

Then you’re all set to go.

Grass killer

If your back has taken the punishment in stride, then a brisk walk in the woods on a cold and sunny winter day is a real high. Forget about smoking grass and getting both stupid and grossly hungry. There’s no high that beats the sense of riding out on a fine day. Your back is suddenly fine again, about twenty years younger, and you’re on top of the world. The sun is shining and Castor snorts (still no pun) now and then as if to agree with you.

Since you’ve got a large animal underneath you, an animal with a will of his own, you don’t just sit back and ride. You have to communicate - around the trees, over the ditches, along the ice on the road, down the steep hill and on the path back to the stable, a route that all horses know - and tell you they know. The road back home is the best one.

Then it’s the same procedure again, with the studs, I mean. Sharp studs out and flat studs in. All part of the course.

And maybe, just maybe, part of the pleasure of it all.

January 30, 2005

A repressive society?

Most of us reflect some time or other on our own small roles in the great machinery of the world around us. We read our newspapers, visit blogs, look at TV, surf the web and perhaps engage in some idle conversation over lunch with people we find have more or less the same outlook on life as we do ourselves. We choose our own battlefields and usually end up winning a social or political battle over people we will probably never meet or for that matter even listen to. Very few of us will put ourselves in a situation where we honestly listen to someone who has a greatly divergent opinion from our own. We act this way out of intellectual sloth and perhaps some lack of social gumption.

We cherish our individual freedoms, but don’t reflect on them very often, because most of us live in a society where we are daily reminded of our “rights” by those we have chosen to be our proxies, our elected politicians. Our representatives in government also tell us that our individual rights are inherently dependent on consensus, i.e. subjugating our own liberty for the good of others. This is the core of the welfare state, and is only possible where we relinquish our individual freedom to the – shall we say – whims of a legitimate government.

As one of my blog colleagues so wisely has pointed out, the Constitution of the United States supposedly guarantees a number of individual freedoms from the government. In Sweden we ourselves abrogate many of our own civil liberties for the government, which in turn is supposed to act on our behalf for the good of all.

That this abrogation or cession doesn’t work we can see all around us, even in the United States. There the government has instituted the Patriot Act. Section 215 of the Act modifies the rules on records searches so that third-party holders of your financial, library, travel, video rental, phone, medical, church, synagogue, and mosque records can be searched without your knowledge or consent, providing the government says it's trying to protect against terrorism. In Sweden, where a fifty percent or more rate of taxation befalls a large portion of the population, where sales taxes are twenty-five percent on most goods and where each individual’s personal ID number can be found in countless governmental and private databases, these infringements are excused by political mumbo-jumbo about the “good of all” and even worse “solidarity” a well-worn term for political repression.

Solidarity? Oh, come on.

The word solidarity entails an active choice on those involved. Solidarity by proxy is often an empty illusion, but is extremely convenient for the bolstering of political power. We saw this for example in the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe and expressly manifested in May Day parades. We see it in Sweden where the trade unions entertain an almost incestuously political relationship with the ruling Social Democratic party. We see it in the United States where anti-terrorism measures become a panacea for the adverse effects of politics engineered by a thirst for power.

In both countries, politicians use a whole battery of euphemisms in order to placate worried citizens. What is surprising is that it works, and works well. Citizens in the United States relinquish civil liberties for the protection of all. Citizens in Sweden relinquish civil liberties for the common good. The euphemisms used by our elected representatives to excuse this repression are boundless. In the US, religious catchphrases and clichés work well; in Sweden, the litanies are more secular. What is common to both societies is the seclusion of power. Politically appointed civil servants align themselves with the politically correct philosophy of power and do their work behind doors, immune to the scrutinizing of private individuals.

What it boils down to is a need for a reinstatement of a wider freedom of information and also a need for a greater opportunity of “calling” political bluffs.

Unfortunately, we don’t do this. We gripe and then sit down for lunch and gripe some more with people who agree with us. If we really listened to others, we would also be able to hear ourselves more distinctly and in turn, ask of ourselves: What is the price of my civil liberty? What is my place, my real place in the society around me? Until we do engage in this kind of intellectual decontamination we will be “blessed” with a continuing stream of power-hungry leaders, more interested in furthering their own good than yours or mine.

December 30, 2004

Superstitions, New Year's and red underwear

In parts of Spain, there is a custom where people (this is a gender-free tradition in tune with modern precepts) wear red underpants on New Year’s Eve and then burn them on New Year’s Day for good luck in the year to come.

In other parts of Spain, they eat a dozen grapes as soon the clock strikes twelve. A well-placed joke immediately afterwards produces amusing results. A similar custom comes from Colombia. Burning "Mr. Old Year" is a New Year's tradition. The whole family takes part. Here, the celebration is more chauvinistic. The doll is a male and it’s stuffed with different things, sometimes with fireworks to heighten the excitement. Also, they put in objects representing sadness and failure (love letters to to an estranged lover, notices of employment termination, etc), objects that can bring sadness or bad memories. These things burn with the old year. The effigy is dressed in unwanted clothes from each member of the family. At midnight, the doll is lit. It becomes a symbol of burning the past and starting the new year on a new slate.

In some US states the new year is celebrated by eating black-eyed peas, often together with hog jowls or ham. The hog is considered lucky because it symbolizes prosperity. Cabbage is another "good luck" vegetable that is consumed on New Year's Day by many. Cabbage leaves are also considered a sign of prosperity, being representative of paper currency. In some countries, rice is a lucky food that is eaten on New Year's. In Sweden, pork and cabbage is a traditional Christmas repast, thus jumping the gun by a week.

New Year’s resolutions seem to be a world wide tradition. And breaking them the day after, too. But it’s not the resolution that’s important, but rather the making of it. It makes us feel good. We feel in control of our lives and our future. We have the power to direct our ambitions, our lusts, our desires, our cravings, our weaknesses and our prior failures.

The rest of the year

Superstition is something that seems to completely inundate our daily lives in the Western world. Playing on the state lottery, knocking on wood, crossing our fingers, feeling eerie during a late evening’s walk near a churchyard, throwing salt over our left shoulder (or is it the right?), visiting a ghost’s sumptuous residence in the local castle, checking out the latest horrorscope in this week’s women’s mag and of course our new year's resolutions. Why do we do it?

In tune with an increasing de-Christanisation (i.e. de-Catholisation) of our post-modern society, we are forced to replace the symbols, signs and rites of our spiritual heritage with shallow substitutes containing little real association with the living of our daily lives. And in concert with the various superstitions we surround ourselves with, we try to put them in some sort of semblance. According to a Harris Poll© in 2001, 89% believe in miracles, 68% in the devil, 69% in hell, 51% in ghosts, 31% in astrology and 27% in reincarnation. What we see is that about two-thirds of all adults believe in hell and the devil, but hardly anybody expects that they will go to hell themselves.

Well-educated and intellectually sharp and cutting-edge academicians see no rational risks in perusing the weekly – or for that matter, daily - horoscopes in their local tabloid or women’s magazine. Why it is mainly women who lend themselves to this transcendental gobbledygook is one of the great mysteries of our gender-free oriented society.

Historical background

Belief in spirits was (and is) a natural result of a politically-oriented Church organisation. Ghosts were the visually disembodied souls of a dead person, i.e. former mortals in Purgatory, striving for a last chance for Paradise. With the coming of the Reformation, spirits, ghosts and saints, able to intervene in our daily and mundane lives, were discouraged. Even folklore, with its elves, pixies and gremlins were banned, officially relegated to the quagmire of pontifical ostentation.

But with the advent of Romanticism in literature, music and art, ghosts became – once again – up to standard, and the Church had to adapt. Gothic cathedrals were built, folklore was tolerated and areligious ghosts entered the realm of high culture. People had a need for quasi-spiritual answers to the deeply and genuinely spiritual questions of life.

With the modern era, and the decline of institutionalized religion, the need for pseudo-spirituality has grown and become satisfied by more innovative and anti-intellectual solutions: New Age, holistic medicine, astrology, scientology, magnetic healing and suicidal sects where Jim Jones’ People’s Temple is perhaps the foremost example.

What it boils down to is this: man has always had a need for spirituality, for answers to the unsolved questions of our existence. At times, this need is channeled via an established religious organisation, denomination or institution and thusly (ad)ministered therewithal. In other situations and times, this need is met by means of self-administered panaceas such as the weekly horoscopes in the popular press.

But why do we need this, century after century? And how did a fully dressed effigy get relegated to a simple pair of crimson thongs? It will have to be a subject for a later blog entry, I suppose.

December 17, 2004

Swedish exoticism - stable style

One of the Swedish festival days that you can't miss, no matter where you are in Sweden is Lucia Day. The festival of Lucia begins early in the morning on the thirteenth of December and marks the first celebration at Christmastide. Everywhere you go, there will be some sort of Lucia celebration - at home, at workplaces, in schools, in churches, in hospitals, in day care centers, on Swedish excursion boats, on SAS flights and probably even in prisons. Lucia is the feminine holiday par excellence - no holds barred.

Early in the morning, before daylight, young girls will get up, put on a white robe, (you can buy them everywhere ahead of time) don a crown of lit candles and in procession with other females in the household, sing the Lucia song as they wake up the man of the house with song and special buns of the day, called Lucia cats.

The tradition of Lucia goes back to the fourth century and the legend of Saint Lucia, a devout Christian. A heathen prince fell in love with her and to prove the strength of her faith she put out her eyes. Her prince was so moved, that he too became a Christian, and Lucia miraculously regained her sight. Saint Lucia became the patron saint of the blind and is depicted carrying light.

Prior to the Nobel Prize festivities in Stockholm, all recipients are awakened in their hotel rooms by a procession of young maidens, Lucia with a crown of candles and her attendants. In large processions, young boys play a subservient role as "star boys", they too dressed in effiminate robes and high, dunce-like looking caps, adorned with golden stars. They usually live through it.

As for all important festivals, there are appropriate songs that are sung. Most of them hail the virtues of Lucia, but one of them, markedly departing from the genderized tones of the festival day, relates the story of Staffan, a stableboy and his five horses under the glistening light of the Christmas sky. This is when the boys to the rear of the procession can sing a few lines by themselves, often with a certain degree of pubertal discomfiture.

Mounted Lucias (don't laugh)

Every stable or riding school in Sweden worth its salt has some sort of Lucia celebration. Some only decorate their stalls with tinsel and lights, others go the whole hog. Like we did. About a hundred people attended our Lucia day at the stable and it was a great success. The Lucia procession itself was on horseback. Since I'm the wrong gender for this kind of thing, Castor and I were starboys. I tried to put a cone-cap on his head, but being a sensible horse and proud of his manlihood, he blatantly refused, sticking his nose high in the air. So I had to wear it instead, until it fell off and my red stocking cap had to do.

We were about 16 horses in the procession. First came Lucia, of course, with battery powered candles in her crown (can't be burning down the manège, you know) We followed after her, and I and Castor were to the rear, being the least dainty equipage of us all. If you've been reading this blog you know that Castor is an impressive horse, not the kind to steal the show from a petite, white-clad maiden bearing light and good tidings to all.

We followed her all in procession and I must say that Castor behaved himself admirably, especially seeing that his nose was stuck right behind his stallmate's tail which was adorned in loads of bright, glistening glitter, entwined there for the occasion.

We rode in, dispersed ourselves in a V-formation and stood completely (well almost) still while we all sang the Lucia hymn. Then we proceeded out, much to the relief of Castor and his friends.

There was a great show: horse-borne angels, Christmas duet sung from the balcony, fancy tricks and galloping Shetland ponies, dressed to the hilt.

All in all, a successful Lucia celebration, in a proper Swedish tradition.

You foreigners don't know what you're missing.

December 12, 2004

White man's burden ?

Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight...

As we all grew up, most of us, in some way or other, wanted to make the world better. As young children, all we could do with our limited resources was to sing songs (Jesus Loves the Little Children) or contribute a portion of our allowance to some church fund or school charity or maybe save it for a later moral deposit. Don't know what it's like today, but back in the fifties and sixties, we had a cardboard box and we put in a nickel or dime or a few pennies now and then. Over the course of a year or two, the box got heavier and soon it had enough in it to leave back with a clear conscience.

If you grew up in a middle class, protestant neighborhood, making the world better was a matter of saving forlorn or lost souls, teaching people not as fortunate as you or I that there was a better way to happiness than to eke out a living by toiling on a plot of barren land the size of a normal American backyard. Living in the reasonably comfortable surroundings of a neighborhood with little crime and mothers who stayed at home to take care of the kids, there wasn't much an individual could do on his own. But then there were missionaries. They did it for us - vicariously. The missionaries were usually young couples in their thirties who stayed until they reached their fifties and sixties, had a baby or two in the meantime and got paid for teaching Christ to tribes of natives in darkest Africa. Every five years of so, they came back to the local community and told us heart-wrenching or praiseworthy stories of their experiences in teaching God's word to the heathen. After that, our little boxes got heavier much faster.

The missionary mentality is the same today, but it's not limited to Presbyterian propaganda or Episcopalian ecumenism. It has grown and expanded and become politically correct in a secular atmosphere. For purposes of money and power.

Lately, the thousandth American life was lost in the "freeing" of Iraq since the beginning of the American invasion/liberation (flip a coin for the correct choice). A large majority of Americans have been suckered into much the same kind of belief that I and my sisters and my friends back in the Midwest in the fifties were conned into.

Where is the agenda?

What they didn't tell us when we were children, was that there are other forces to be dealt with in life like money in the bank, nepotism, tribalism, greed, foreign investments, political influence, patterns of culture, lack of education and religious fanaticism. They didn't tell us that you could teach a tribe of lost souls in the heart of the Congo about Jesus but you couldn't teach them not to slaughter one another when they encroached on each other's privileges and cultural values.

The reason for this is simple. A pre-condition for making the world a better (democracy, freedom of choice, human values...) place to live in is dependent on knowing what you're doing in the first place. And to complicate the picture: if you've got a hidden agenda - and this includes self-delusions of religion, culture or democracy - you are doomed to fail.

I am thoroughly convinced that there are millions of Americans who honestly believe that we are engaged in a righteous war in Iraq, just as there were -and still are today - millions of Americans who continue to think that missionizing will make the world a better place for the needy peoples of the Third World. Preaching Christ and preaching Democracy are very much alike. But it you don't know who you are preaching to, your sermon will fall on deaf ears.

Now, I am still not convinced that purveying the message of democracy in both a theoretical and operative fashion is the one and only agenda for the powers to be in the United States. There is a lot at stake here. Political influence in the Middle East is vital to the economic interests of the Western World. But the fact remains. There are still many, many people who honestly believe that the most important item on the political agenda is a fostering of democratic values in a war-torn and devastated country. And this is, of course, an honorable stance to take.

But in order to effect a change in any culture - a Midwest farming community, an urban West Coast district, an Appalachian coal mining town, a Parisian or for that matter Swedish middle class set of attitudes or an extremely complicated and historically entrenched clash of subcultures in a country like Iraq that was formed with artificial boundaries, created at the whims of European colonialism, there must be a deep understanding of who you are dealing with. And this is not happening in Iraq, or for that matter in the pockets of cultural turbulence in the antiseptically architected slums of our cities and urban areas.

To be able to change the attitudes of anybody or anyone, you have to have done your homework. You have to know who you are speaking to and you have to respect their views and attitudes that are just as meaningful to them as yours are to you. If you can't do that then you will never be able to meet on even terms.

This is why we will fail in Iraq. One: our agenda is politically and economically dubious and Two: we are disrespectful of our counterpart. We are behaving like missionaries who teach small villages of thirsty and starving misfortunates to sing "Onward Christian Soldiers" by rote to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, when they cannot count or spell or make personal decisions in life based on a knowledge of the world around them. And giving them medicine to help them survive in a world of poverty is not enough.

What is the best course of action for Iraq?
Take our troops home and do our homework.
Keep doing what we are doing now.
Send over more troops and spend more money.
Become like ostriches and let our president make our moral and political decisions for us.
I have no idea.


December 01, 2004

The zombification of downtown Minneapolis

I go back to Minneapolis about once a year. When I grew up there it was a town of about two hundred thousand people. Now there are about four. There were no slums, but the poorer people lived to the immediate north and south of downtown, mostly north. Minneapolis was a vibrant city of grain mills and small to medium size industries - with a lot of textile manufacturing. It sported two big train stations, just like other large cities in America - the Great Northern and the Milwaukee lines.

They're gone now. One is demolished and the other is an art gallery, I think. Most people lived in houses back then. As a young child I thought apartment buildings were strange. How can you live in a little cubicle next to total strangers and people running past your door day and night?

My sisters and I grew up in a middle class neighborhood. Not fancy, but clean. There was Miehl's grocery store on the corner of Bloomington and 47th Ave. Old man Miehl was proud of having employed Robert Oppenheimer as a grocery clerk once for a summer. Down the street was Max Sadoff's pharmacy where I got caught stealing a Playboy magazine when I was twelve and my hormones got the better of me. Across the street was Ted's barbershop where my dad got his hair cut every other week.

But downtown was alive! When the streetcars got pensioned off and replaced by buses, my mother and I used to wait across from Miehl's for the ride downtown. It took about twenty minutes and we got off outside Dayton's, a big, seven-story department store on Nicollet Avenue.

Right down the street was a giant Woolworths and Kresge's - two five and dimes that could thrive, despite the fact that they were only a block from each other. And there were at least three other big department stores nearby. The sidewalks were full of workers, shoppers and even a few asssorted bums here and there.

It was a big deal going downtown. I had to put on "proper" clothes. No jeans or sneakers. Downtown was where other people saw you with your mother.

How to zombify a city

When you make a zombie you dig up a fresh body and do a lot of wierd things to it. People think there's nothing wrong in the beginning, but then strange things start happening. The town was just fading away a little. Kresge's goes, because Woolworth's is making more money. Then Woolworth's re-opens in smaller quarters. The big banks that used to be on every other corner consolidate and the people who own the magnificient buildings that never, never can be replaced again think they're not making enough money anymore.

So over the space of about twenty years, Minneapolis got dug up and people did peculiar things to her. High steel structures with huge expanses of mirrors that reflect the clouds were erected and the banks moved back.

Dayton's became Marshall Field's and suburbia moved in.

Who knows which councilman came up with the bright idea? These were the zombie potions and needles that did the trick - skyways.

Skyways are sort of cool. You don't have to go outside in the rain or snow or sleet or wind. You just walk in your shirtsleeves from one building to another. This can be a good thing - in measure, but the the idea sort of caught on in the city council or maybe it was in the Minneapolis Downtown Businessmen's Association or maybe they were the same bunch of people. Over the next ten years the whole of downtown Minneapolis slowly lost its soul to a vast array of bridges above the streets.

Visit some of the suburbs of Minneapolis today and you'll see a thriving city. Visit downtown and you'll see a lot less. The bustling pedestrians, the cars, the buses, the taxis, the sounds of people talking and yelling and smell of fresh food when you open the door of the Forum - what used to be the largest automated cafeteria in the Midwest. It's all gone. Everything is cooped up, antiseptic like - and expensive.

People are there, but they're all sorted away in the innards of the buildings. You can see them from below as they walk above you, but you won't hear anything, either from them or from the absence of them on the streets.

And if you look really hard at the reflection of the clouds in the facade of the IDS Tower, you can see Mr Clean in the heavens, smiling down on his urban creation.

Can skyways be detrimental to social interaction?


Straight from the horse's mouth...

this is an audio post - click to play

November 28, 2004


In trying to keep up with my American traditions, we had 15 guests for Thanskgiving dinner. Now making a proper dinner with all the trimmings isn't all that easy. First of all: turkey. You can't get a decent one here. This is what it sounded like (translated, of course) when I called up a large supplier of meats (also turkey farm) to place an order ahead of time:

"Hi, I'd like to order a large turkey for the 25th."
"Sure, how big"
"Well, I'm thinking of about 25 pounds."
"Can't do. Our largest is about 15 pounds"
"But you have a turkey farm. Can't I order a larger one?"
"OK, I'll have to settle for two of your largest ones. Can you make them hens?"
"You know girl birds. I don't want a tom turkey."
"Can't do. We only sell toms"
"What do you do with the hens?"
"Well, they don't get as big as fast, so we use them in other products. And no one asks about the gender, anyway"

Then there's cranberries. Swedes live in an area of Europe surrounded by vast stretches of cranberries, but not in Sweden. Here it's lingonberries you get. Cranberries are for the enjoyment of the Finns, the Estonians, the Norwegians, the Russians, but not the Swedes. So if you're lucky, you can buy a small bag of Ocean Spray frozen cranberries for $10.00.

And pumpkin. Same thing. Sweden is a pumpkin-infested country, but there are none to be had by the time Thanksgiving comes around. And yes, the day is saved by Gray's American Store that sells cans for $5.00 each.

Sweet potatoes. Up until a few years ago, they didn't exist. Now they do in some stores. Most people don't know what to do with them. Ah, the cultural loss they endure.

Stuffing. Nowadays you can get celery in most stores. This is real progress.

So we had 15 people. I baked for two days. One of my turkeys didn't turn out the way it was supposed to do, so being a true American I called the Butterball hotline and a nice woman with a motherly sounding Betty Crocker voice gave me the help I needed.

The day was saved.

November 18, 2004

Worlds apart?

One thing I have become even more aware of via the corespondence I've had concerning topics in my own blog and in others, is that there seems to be a problem in the European understanding of America's cultural, historical and value-based conditions and Americans' understanding of those of Europe. I say more aware because this has always been something that, at least in Sweden, one is constantly being reminded of, almost to the point of being nagged at in absurdum by the mass media. What I am trying to say is that we both have a certain nebulosity to deal with. In Sweden, you have to look really, really hard to find a Bush supporter or someone who (publicly) aligns himself on the same political plane. And in the States I think you would also have to look a while to find someone who unreservedly would want to apply the Swedish social democratic way of governance to American culture. So in that way we are, indeed, worlds apart.

In Sweden, Bush has been demonized, ever since he appeared on the international scene. There are reasons for this. I list a few in no particular order:

* Bush is a strong proponent of the death penalty

* Bush comes across (is presented?) media-wise as being inarticulate and of an uncompromising nature, sort of an "America, love it or leave it" cowboy.

* Bush thinks guns are OK

* Bush hasn't done much from an international viewpoint in order to improve global environmental conditions

* Bush, at least at face value, is in deep cahoots with big business

Now all of these things are disturbing to the European mind. What Europeans do not understand is the deeply ingrained attitude to personal and civil independence that is the first and foremost trademark of the typical American. Europe, because of its war-torn and feudal history, has perhaps come a bit further in the (pseudo?)politics of co-operation. You relinquish some personal independence for the good of the community. That it can also become a dangerous weapon for politcal power can be demonstrated daily in both Sweden and other European countries where a political nomenklatura fostered in the correct ideloogy, can legislate in detail our long and ardous way from cradle to crypt.

Politicians will always talk. Kerry has talked, quite a lot, I presume. Bush talks, though not as much. It is an attractive situation where you deal with a politican who seems to do things and does more than talk. Here I firmly agreee that Bush is the better man. Bush does act. But he is, and I think all would agree with me, in a better position to do so than someone who is still an aspirant. Politicians at the UN have even more wind. They are grand masters at talking, and I agree with Kat and those others who have commented, that it often comes across as a pretty lame organisation. Now here is also where Sweden and the US have different approaches. Swedes are used to being talked to from above, so an organisation that talks a lot is, well, pretty good. Swedes say: "We have nothing else that is better." "The purpose and premises of the UN are just and right." Americans, on the other hand, perhaps see more clearly from a "put up or shut up" point of view.

The UN is toothless. And we all know that if you don't have any teeth, your daily fare is pretty bland. Now the big question is: Can the world community do something about it?

What Bush had attached to his back was his wireless DYMO

Now much of this discussion is about labels. Labels are neat things. You just pull off the protective piece of film and stick away! What is even neater is that you can push a few buttons on your labelwriter and create a new message with the same medium! I think Sweden has a DYMO-government - much more than the US, but if you look closely, even American politicans have something stuck up their sleeve. A politician who is politically incorrect, who says things that most people don't want to hear, isn't around for long.

Morals and religion are important

I may have been insuccint or insufficent in my previous blog. I also firmly think that all of our decisions and conclusions in life are related to our moral, religious and ethical framework, both privately and societaly. The problem is is that this can be stretched to the extremes. Invoking Allah when murdering innocent children by means of a bomb strapped to your chest, invoking God when dropping a bomb, however "surgical" it may be, or invoking some inflated politically correct ideology when turning away the needy from your nation's doorstep. Where is the unobscured "middle ground"?? It takes a lot of imbecilic chutzpah to think that any of us can be a spokesperson for the Divine. Who are we to know the will of God?

What is it that really guides us?

November 14, 2004

Cultural succulence

Sunday afternoons are the high point of the week. A few blocks from home is a place you'd never find if you didn't know where it was. Down the steep steps into a large cellar array of rooms is the Forum. And every Sunday is a reading of about 2-3 chapters from Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.

Well down the steps you enter a large room, unfurnished except for a counter where you pay for tickets, wine, coffee and selected books. Plus a few chairs to sit on.

Suppose you might call it a soirée, though not in the evening. The performances have been going on for several years and we're well into the third book now and that gives us a few more years to look forward to.

At three o'clock we all wander into an even larger cellar room, whitewashed stone walls and fitted with video camera, lighting and sound equipment, a grand piano, a small stage, dozens of plastic chairs and in the front, a small table and chair. On the table are a glass of water and Proust's book.

It starts by a short performance, always by an excellent, sometimes unknown, musician. Today a pianist played 3 études for the piano by Debussy. The stage is already set and the reader of the day - oftentimes an actor or author - then reads three or four chapters from Proust's novel.

For those of you who haven't read Proust, the novel is about people, places, ambitions and emulations in upper-class France in the late nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. It is a novel that takes time. It is about the small intricacies and nothings of high-class society, with small intrigues, great ambitions and nebulous outcomes. Much of it is extremely funny in the sense of recognizing the successes and ill-successes of people who are transparently portrayed as flesh and blood. The result is both interesting, entertaining and subtly thought provoking.

You long for the next reading to come.