Wednesday, September 30, 2009

D-Day for Incandescence

In your face, Thomas Edison!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hervé Villechaize Language School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Almost too pretty

Sometimes Stockholm is so pretty I could just shit.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


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

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

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

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

There's your poetry for the day.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Swedish pants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Signs of tolerance

These damn Swedish liberals are sooo permissive.

Yes, you can park here and yes, it's free, but we do have some rules: only in marked spaces and only for two days at a time.

Friday, September 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Stuck in a moment

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

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

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Ask the Doctor

Since President Obama is making a major speech Wednesday on the health care crisis in America, I thought I'd post this nice photo of something I saw recently in Stockholm.

This tent was set up in the middle of a popular public plaza called Medborgarplatsen ("Citizens' Plaza"). The big sign says "Ask the Doctor." Inside the tent they had a couple doctors with various medical supplies, stethoscopes, bandages, information and such.

Of course, they also had some sphygmomanometers. That's the name of the thing that squeezes your arm and measures blood pressure, in case you didn't know. I certainly didn't know. I had to look it up. Its name is way easier in Swedish: blodtrycksmätare which simply means "blood pressure meter." (Is there anything these people don't do in a more logical fashion?)

It was just a tent with some doctors in it where you could walk up, ask questions and get checked out at no cost. It seemed to be popular, too. I mean, just look at all the old people hobbling around it in the picture. Why, you'd think Anita Ekberg was in there signing autographs! (Anita Ekberg? Anyone? Is this thing on?)

This tent wasn't part of a festival or street fair or anything crazy like that. It was just set up by a local private care center, not part of the national Swedish health care system.

Yes, there's private health care in Sweden, too. Many Swedes have their own private insurance to supplement or replace what is provided by the state. Isn't that nice? Rich people don't have to wait in line anywhere in the world, not even in the heart of this chilling Scandinavian socialist nightmare.

Sweden has some of the best health care in the world and it's nowhere near as expensive as some would have you believe. They spend only 9% of their gross domestic product on it. The United States spends more than 17% of its GDP on health care. The Swedish people are healthier, live longer, blah blah blah... you've heard all this before.

The fight in the United States was upsetting me so much that I stopped looking at American news sites over a month ago. I used to check several of them daily to keep up with what was going on. It got to be too much.

I'm hoping Obama will lay down the law Wednesday night and get Congress to stop screwing around. I'll be staying up late to watch it as it will be 2:00 in the morning here when it's 8:00 Eastern time. I know it's a crazy, complex topic that many people disagree on, but I think it comes down to something as simple as "No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick."

Its painful to know but easy to see that everyone in Congress is taking care of the corporations who funded their campaigns and moving only to please the lobbyists who have been working overtime to stop any reform that may cost their clients a nickel.

As you may imagine, Swedes see the circus in America as an exercise in absurdity. It simply makes no sense.

Maybe my Swedish friend Erik said it best. While we were discussing health care, lobbyists and corporate control of politics, he asked me flatly, "Why do you even have a government?"

For me, as an American watching this spectacle from afar, it's nothing short of embarrassing. ("What? Oh, no, I don't know those people. I'm so totally Swedish. Can't you tell by my flawless intonation and hilarious Kvarteret Skatan references? Oop!")

Any society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. That's a Christian sentiment - a moral sentiment - that a lot of very fortunate people don't seem to be remembering lately. We're all in this together and this should have been settled decades ago.

Here's a short two-minute video that speaks volumes on the topic.

Personally, I never get sick, so it really doesn't matter to me if there's a public option for Americans or not. I mean, it's fine with me if America never is able to get its shit together and take that bold, revolutionary step toward where the rest of the industrialized world was fifty years ago. I'm invincible and will never need health care. Bad things only happen to other people. Ya hear that, God?

(Oh, did I mention that allergies are psychological? I have a lot of friends who reeeally think it's hilarious when I say that, so I had to drop it in here.)

Friday, September 04, 2009

But I just learned the old one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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