Monday, March 28, 2011

Update your bookmark!

You can now access my new and improved life in Sweden at

See you there!

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Love Affair Between Cats and iPads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My old chum, The Mew, demonstrating the cat
world's total lack of respect for newspapers.
Cats view activities like reading and typing as supreme wastes of valuable time which could be better spent petting them or, frankly, doing pretty much anything else. Simply put, cats don't understand reading and typing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cats have much of the same appeal as the popular and pretty girls in your ninth-grade class. They seem to never learn anything and yet they are constantly coddled and fawned over. The smart kids just can't catch a break at Hogwarts.
Some old timey pics from
before art was invented.

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

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

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

Despite this lack of knowledge, these little fuckers are endlessly curious – something that's true of both cats and scientists.
The Mew is seen risking a fall from a second-floor
window in order to climb up a screen. She's in hot
pursuit of a fly... or a bug... or something imaginary.
My peoplebrain can't remember. This is from 2005.

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

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

Dr. Frank Davidson, one of America's leading pussy researchers, says, "Cats are so wildly entertaining for precisely this reason. Inside their wee noggins, next to nothing is transpiring. However, that absence of activity is happening about 27,000 times every second. Their shit is quite lit'rally poppin' off like crazy." He speaks with a Bri'ish accent to make himself seem smar'er.
While her "owner" is distracted in conversation,
Evie is obviously plotting something – perhaps
well-deserved retribution against the corner.
Dr. Davidson's colleague at Southern Miami University, whose name is also Dr. Frank Davidson, has helped Davidson every step of the way during six years of research into the mysterious mind of the cat.

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

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

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

Ms. Peter Sellers suffers from post-traumatic stress
disorder, stemming from an episode in which she
went missing for several weeks in Appalachian Ohio.
She returned smelling of skunk and cheap booze.
Surprisingly, her dead-behind-the-eyes appearance
is a unrelated condition which pre-dates that ordeal.
Dr. Davidson (the second one) explains that contrary to popular belief, their latest research suggests that cats don't actually have nine lives at all. Rather, cats' brains are working so quickly "they are actually living the same life nine times simultaneously." This is why they often eat so fast that they puke all over the place. They think they have to finish eating nine meals before they get full.

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

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

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

The Mew, obviously not doing anything wrong.
Just stopping to smell the roses.
(As another side note, despite not being related, the two Dr. Davidsons are the same age and were born on the same day, from the same mother, but in different hospitals. The elder Dr. Davidson was born at St. Anthony's Hospital in Orlando, while the younger was born at Saint Anthony's near Orlando.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Wikileaks: No Alarms, No Surprises

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

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

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

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

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

It's kind of reassuring in a way.


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

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

Wikileaks file room: arrow shows the pink folder
of fake documents invented to embarrass Iran,
whose reputation was impeccable before this.
Maybe it's a bit unforeseen that this belief is held even among some regimes we may think of as being not particularly friendly to the US. It's at least interesting that you don't need to agree with the United States to believe Ahmadinejad is off-balance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I knew this was true when I was in fourth grade and I realized that the rich, good-looking kids weren't living like the rest of us. What was true at St. Margaret Mary School in Louisville apparently continues to be true at the highest levels of French government.
Julian Assange on a recent trip in Sweden

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

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

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

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

The $3.00 way to get out of talking
about politics when traveling. 
Despite all this, I have a feeling Canadians would prefer their current arrangement with the United States to any alternatives.

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

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

A casual, candid shot of Vlad on a normal day.
Someone with a camera just happened to be there. 
Did you know that Vladimir Putin is like the Godfather in Russia? News to me. Even though he's not officially in charge anymore, it's clear that he's still the man. The leaked cables referred to Dmitry Medvedev as "Robin" to Putin's "Batman." Now, if Batman was really in charge of Russia, you'd have my attention. Instead, again, we learned what we already knew: Medvedev is Vladimir Putin's little bitch.

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

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

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

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

I was gonna say all these Taliban guys are corrupt,
but I don't recognize the one with the pot of chili.
I had no idea. I was under the impression that international meddling in Afghanistan always turned out well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, we might learn something here after all.

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

Genuine US Embassy cable obtained by this
website during a lengthy investigation
What is certainly not shocking about all of this is that people are freaking out for absolutely no reason. That's to be expected.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Badminton is a Real Sport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stockholm's badminton facility as seen from above. You know, in case someone in an airplane or space ship wants to stop in for a quick match.
The place had no less than thirty professional, full-size badminton courts available for hourly rentals. These courts are reserved days or weeks in advance, and when we arrived, the building was packed and bustling with at least a dozen matches already underway. In fact, at the turn of the hour, most courts had a new group of people waiting for the switch-out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. Good talk. See ya out there.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Devil Wears Merona

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

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

I still have so much to learn about Sweden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The devil wears Merona. I need to be warm.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Immigrant

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

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

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

The long road back

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

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

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

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

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

Residence permit process

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

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

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

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

Louisville: featuring buildings by Michael Graves (the
pink tower on the right that looks like a cash register)
and the last structure ever designed by Ludwig Mies
van der Rohe (the short, 6-story black box at the
front and center).
Despite the careful and meticulous nature of this process, from what I’ve heard, it is downright friendly in comparison to that of legally immigrating to the United States. I’ve read horror stories of families being split up in America due to immigration problems or as a result of painstaking investigations.

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

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

Hurry up and wait

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

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

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

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

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

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

We'd like to meet you

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

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

A secret patch of Swedish soil

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

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

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

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

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

Interviews are my specialty

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

Watching SVT's live Internet feed of
the Swedish Royal Wedding in Kentucky
by hooking the Mac up to the TV. 
What I kind of don't love about interviews is being on the receiving end when I'm trying to get something. Job interviews are probably one of the things that make me feel the most uneasy.

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

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

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

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

In the hot seat

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

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

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


Metric of course. Those are mid-70's
at night at mid-90's during the day.
The humidity is a different story,
In mid-May, about a month after my interview, I received word that my application for Swedish residency had been approved. Helt otroligt! Weeks later, when I received my US passport in the mail with my Swedish residence permit affixed into it, I honestly could not stop looking at it. It remains one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in my life. Naturally, it's my prized possession.

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

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

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

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

Now somebody give me a job!

Friday, May 21, 2010

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 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.
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