Nov 2 2019

My Mini High School Reunion

I graduated from high school fifty years ago! I find that hard to believe. It goes along with realizing that fifty years ago my generation went to Woodstock and fifty years ago human beings walked on the moon.

This past July, a group of fellow former seniors from West Morris Regional High School in northern New Jersey attended our class’s 50th reunion. A reunion committee had spent almost a year planning the event and I admit to feeling a bit nostalgic as I kept getting planning updates. But I didn’t go. I rarely travel back to the States during Swedish summer – my husband and I have a country house that the only time we can be there is in the summer.

Only fifteen years ago, the majority of my classmates had become just dusty memories from an old yearbook. The last time I actually met – in person – anyone from my New Jersey school days, was 40 years ago when I attended our tenth reunion. But now, many of my former schoolmates are friends on Facebook and even though I haven’t met them in real life, I’ve seen pictures of their grandchildren.

A few years ago, I finally had the chance to unpack a load of books carted over here from New York City and never seen again in almost 30 years. My high school yearbooks were among them. Opening the books was a walk down memory lane. I discovered, much to my surprise, that my senior class had had an exchange student that year who came from Sweden! What a weird coincidence, I thought. I had not shared any classes with him so didn’t really know him. I had a vague memory of sitting in at a talk he gave about Stockholm with slides showing pictures of the city but that was all.

Britta Jacobsen was a high school friend who had Swedish parents, something I gave little thought to, even when she came into school wearing the most unusual clogs with perforated white leather tops that she got on a trip back to visit her parent’s homeland.  Her mother and brother eventually moved back to Sweden – but to the Gothenburg area, not to Stockholm, so we have not had a chance to meet. As part of the reunion planning committee, she messaged me last year, asking if I could try to track down our former Swedish exchange student, Lars Göran Thambert. Luckily, he had a rather unusual name and I was able to locate him on LinkedIn. I wrote to him there, explaining who I was and about the reunion. He never wrote back and I let it drop. I did however send his LinkedIn info to the reunion committee and Wayne Myers also sent him a message. This message landed just when Lars was on one of his rare visits there. He wrote back to Wayne and eventually made a video about himself that was shown at the reunion. Lars also discovered my letter to him and answered me. We exchanged a few emails and decided to get in touch and meet for Swedish Fika in Stockholm after the summer. I told him I would let him judge for himself how good my Swedish had become after living here for over 30 years.

We planned a date in the middle of October at my favorite cafe here on Södermalm near where I live. I wondered how I would recognize him, a person I never knew all those years ago but I took another look at the video he made to get an idea of what he looked like today. We exchanged phone numbers and I figured if we couldn’t recognize each other we could call the other’s phone and listen to see who in the cafe’s phone was ringing. Modern times!

Its been along time since I’ve been on a blind date but I still remember that feeling of worrying if we would have anything to talk about. Lars had said in his video that he was an architect, so I figured conversation could flow no matter what. Back in high school, the two career paths I was considering were either Fashion Design or Architecture. I choose Fashion but after two years at Pratt, I switched to Commercial Art/Illustration. I had been scared of choosing architecture because I felt math and science were not really my thing. Once I got to Pratt, it turned out that many of the guys I became best friends with were from the architecture program anyway. And many of them told me that math and science were not their thing either. Go figure.

The day came and I sat myself down at a table in Vurma with my latte, a cardamon bulla and with my yearbook clearly visible.

This is how we looked in 1969

I recognized him immediately as he came in the door and gave a wave. He ordered a sandwich and we started talking. We started off by looking though the yearbook, pointing out people who we had been friends with and just reminiscing about life in NJ all those years ago. He is still in touch with the family that hosted him back then. I told him about Art School. He told me about the architectural projects he has worked on here in Stockholm, some of them quite large projects. We both have had our own companies and agreed we like being able to choose who and what we work with. I told him my story about how I landed here. He told about his grandchildren and I told how I am still trying to get my grown son to move into his new apartment. We discussed art and architecture and design. The almost 3 hours flew by. I had to finally go home to make dinner for my family and he was about to meet his daughter to go to see an exhibit of furniture design. We said good bye, agreeing to keep in touch.

I am so glad I met Lars. It was a lovely afternoon. But more than that, knowing that there is someone here in my adopted homeland who shares a part of my long distant past is somehow comforting. The world is a big place and when you are young you never know where your life will take you. For some people the journey is not very far while for others like myself you end up a long way from where you thought you would be. And that just proves that in spite of its size, the world can be a very small place indeed.

Jul 28 2019

Beach day

It’s still early morning and I am not yet ready to get up out of bed. It’s very warm in the room. I lie still, on top of the covers, no need for blankets in the heat of the morning. The lace curtain at the open french door flutters slightly as the air mildly moves through the room and out to the world. The day is very bright outside but the sun is not shining directly into the room yet. The tree outside the window shows a bit of green shadow beyond the lace. Its quiet inside but I hear birds chattering occasionally from the other side of the window. It’s a hot summer day – one so unlike the usual summer days here in Stockholm – because it’s very hot. Suddenly a seagull screams its raucous cry. Another answers it and they begin a loud conversation as they fly above my building. I am immediately transported and as I close my eyes I imagine I am on my way, getting close to my destination, the Jersey shore. Its going to be a beach day at the shore. I can almost smell the scent of the salt water, feel the heat beating down from the blue cloudless sky and the sun sitting alone there. The fire from the white sand under my sandals radiates up my legs. I carry my blanket and my bag filled with suntan lotion and my towel and my book, looking for the perfect place to plant myself – close to the grey damp sand near the edge of the of the water line. I hear the waves pounding the sand, white foam at the edge where the salt water meets the grey hard surface and rolls up the beach just so far until slowly it starts to fall back down to the ocean.

I open my eyes and get up, to start my day here in my island-studded home, surrounded by water, here in Stockholm.

Jul 6 2019

Books and writing and reading

Somewhere on my Facebook wall, someone posted a link asking people to list which books they had read that got them to start writing. This got me to thinking about books and writing and reading…especially in the aftermath of this year’s Stockholm Writers Festival.  For me, I don’t think any books I’ve read inspired me to start writing. Probably most of the reason behind my writing is just that it’s the overflow of the stuff that is littering up my brain – ideas, opinions, emotions that I can’t figure out how to handle any other way. But the question did get me to think about the kind of books that I read and why is it I read them.

The majority of the books I have read have been science fiction; ever since I discovered The Martian Chronicles amongst my dads paperbacks when I was 11. I admit that I haven’t been reading many other books since I discovered the Outlander books in 2014. Definitely not much Science Fiction has been read even though I have at least 5 or 6 unread Iain M. Banks novels on my Kindle just waiting for me to look at them.  I don’t buy many real paper books anymore. Last year I gave away almost all of my books from the 70s and 80s that I carted over here and then never unpacked. I don’t want to start cluttering up my limited bookshelf space again. Downsizing is the stage of life where I am trying to be these days. But I did buy 2 new books at the Stockholm Writers Festival. Neither were the sort of book that I would normally buy or read. One of the books was The Good Son by Paul McVeigh. I met the author at the mingle the day before the festival started and we had a great chat. He was interesting and funny and serious at the same time. His book was about a time and a place I knew almost nothing about and I was curious about what he had written. The other book was Falling by Julie Cohen. I sat in one of her seminars at the festival and she had a lot to say about writing. She has written a lot of books. So I was curious. What kind of books does someone write, who writes a lot of books.

I read both books very soon after the festival was over and all the hysteria of it had calmed down. I liked them both. I couldn’t put them down once I started. I kept thinking to myself that I really shouldn’t read new books because once I start a book I have trouble doing other things. All I want to do is lie on the sofa and read the book. I need to find out what happens to these people. It’s an effort to get up, put the book on the coffee table and start to make dinner for my family. It made it hard to go to sleep because I kept wanting to  continue reading. I enjoyed both of them. But the truth is – I will probably never read them again. As soon as I finished them, I started to think about to whom I could recommend the book and give it away to. I have friends who borrow books out of the library. They read the book once and that is enough for them. But I am a re-reader. I like to own my books. I like to be able to pick up a previously-read book and read it again. But not these books and not the 2 books I bought last year either. And the question I ask myself is why. I liked the characters in both books. I could relate to the characters in Falling more than in A Good Son. But I very much enjoyed the story about both sets of characters – what happened to them – the changes they went through.

So…why do I read the books I do and why do I read them over and over again; like I did with Tolkien and Azimov and Le Guin and Zimmer Bradley and Niven and Zelazny and Cherryh and so many other authors… and now with Gabaldon? Science fiction is often criticized for having flat one-dimensional characters. But some of the most fascinating characters I have ever met, I found between the covers of Science Fiction – characters I have never forgotten.

So it’s not the characters that kept me coming back to read and re-read and re-read again and again. It was the worlds that I entered in those books. In the real world, the world I live in, I truly hate traveling. I hate packing suitcases, always afraid I will forget something. I hate getting through airports, afraid I might miss my flight. I also hate sitting on an airplane whose seats are not designed for long legs. I don’t really want to travel to foreign places on this planet. I feel uncomfortable being a privileged first-worlder visiting third world countries and cluttering up their fabulous beaches or mountains. Yet within the covers of my books, I can experience a world built on a revolving ring, I can live in Middle-earth, or the world-encompassing city on the planet Trantor. I can be with wizards saying words of magic. Or hang out with aliens covered in fur like CJ Cherryh’s heroines who travel in space ships or humans living in a space station circling an alien world.

I come back to these books because of the world-building their authors do and the characters they people those worlds with and the fates that await those characters. I keep coming back because I once again want to live in those worlds. Falling and Son were interesting slices of life but they didn’t take me anywhere I want to revisit.

Writer friends say I should try writing science fiction, since that is what I read. But I am not a world-builder. I am only a visitor. The things I am interested in writing about are the things already in my world – the world I try to know and live in. So I write, trying to make sense of my world. But I love to visit other worlds – to disappear there for a while. As long as I don’t have to leave my sofa.

May 15 2019

A friend is gone

A dear friend has passed away.

I first met her, either the second or third time, that I came to Stockholm to work at AVC (I can’t remember exactly that far back). She was a project manager there. We hit it off right away. We were the same age, she just a month older. Later, after I had gone back to New York, she came with her, then boyfriend Jan, to the Big Apple and visited me. The three of us walked along a hot sunny Broadway, finally stopping at an outdoor cafe to drink a beer. She ordered a stor stark. I explained that in New York you had to order a beer by name. You can do that now in Stockholm too but back then, in the early 80s you just ordered a stor stark. The three of us drank our Heinekens as we watched the parade of people going by and talked about life. She brought me up-to-date about what was happening in Stockholm – the city I thought at the time that I had abandoned for good. Just goes to show how much I knew back then.

As we wandered down a small cross street, she asked me what it was that was sporadically dripping water on us from the square boxes in windows above our heads. “They’re air conditioners,” I said. “Air conditioner drip is a specific weather phenomena in New York City during the hot summer months.”

And then I left New York behind and moved to Stockholm. I worked with her as a freelancer, first at AVC again and then at Bodén & Co. We had our kids about the same time – her daughter in 1990, my son in 1991 – two slightly older mothers with a world of experience. We had that in common, as we found ourselves surrounded by young mothers in our kid’s dagis. We invited each other to our kid’s birthday parties, traded tips on diapers, how to get our kids to eat and I inherited some non gender-specific baby clothes. But then life got busy with work and kids and husbands and we had trouble finding the time to get together so often – we didn’t live so close anymore. But we still did occasionally – get together that is.

In the later years, after our kids were more grown up and we weren’t needed so much by them, we would make a play date and meet to see a movie and eat dinner together, just the two of us. I remember sitting at a restaurant with her across from me, discussing our lives, in Swedish. She looked at me and stopped talking, breaking out into a big smile and said how amazing it was that we were sitting there, talking together in Swedish!! She reminded me of the days when we had to only speak in English – and now we could speak Swedish together. Of course we didn’t speak completely in Swedish. If I couldn’t find a word or a phrase, I just went over to English without breaking a step. And that was Ok – we understood each other in our weird mix of languages.

Two years ago in February, we met to see the movie Jackie. I got there early and waited for her in the lobby outside the popcorn concession. She was coming from work I think and got there just few minutes before the movie was to start. We exchanged a few words and went in and found our seats. The lights went down. We had had only a few minutes to talk but I sat there in the darkened theater, wondering if she had been drinking before meeting me. Her words, the few we had managed to exchange, were slurred. I found that odd. That was so unlike her. After the film was over we went across the street to a Japanese restaurant that served food that you could grill on the hot plate in the middle of the table. I ordered a Japanese beer. She had wine. And she explained about her speech. Her mouth was having trouble forming words. She didn’t know what was causing it – the doctors were doing lots of tests trying to figure out what was happening to her. She talked about how she was starting to wind down the number of her work hours on the way towards full retirement. We discussed how once she retired we would have more time to hang out together – I being already retired. We had a great time, staying until the restaurant was closing up around us. We walked to where she could get to her bus back up to Brottby and I took the subway home to Reimers.

A few months later in July, we met again, this time to see Wonder Woman – and then we ate somewhere but I can’t remember where. Two weeks later, when the days were still long and SMHI predicted warm sunny weather, she drove out to us at Stavsnäs. She would sleep over in our Friggebo. We grilled steaks. Roasted potatoes. Håkan had his carrot and Pepsi Max with the meal. We made a big salad. Drank wine. And we talked late into the night. We were quite a trio; Håkan had trouble hearing, she had trouble speaking and I had trouble understanding all the Swedish. But we had fun and lots of laughs. In the morning she left.

Then, in the autumn, she found out what she had. It was ALS. Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. And it was affecting the muscles in her throat and mouth first.  She stopped working – officially retired. We texted to each other during the fall and winter. In January 2018, the company she had worked for threw a big party for her and to help raise money for ALS research. I was terribly sick with a horrible cold and couldn’t go. She planned trips to and with family during the rest of the year and in December at the end of 2018 she moved into an apartment in Traneberg, not that far from where I lived. I kept thinking she is now so close, we can get together easier. We texted to each other but our main contact was through Facebook, thumbs-upping each other’s posts. And now she is gone and I never got to see her again.

Selfie with Christine on a slightly chilly September day in 2016 after fika on Djurgården.

I came to Stockholm, a loud, noisy, opinionated New York girl, always talking, sharing my personal life willy-nilly with the people I was working with. But I have to admit very few of the Swedes I met at work shared much of their personal life with me. I was pretty lonely here. (Yes, I had Håkan but I missed having girlfriends to share with) Christine Ströman shared her personal life with me. She was warm and open and generous. She offered me friendship and because she was willing to be my friend, the decision to move to Stockholm was made easier. But now Christine is gone. All the things we might have done together, the movies we might have seen, the dinners we might have eaten together will never happen now. And that grieves me greatly. And the sadness that her wonderful daughter Maria has to lose her mother so early in her young life and miss out on all those future things that will never happen is just unbearable. But bare things we must. So… I will just sit here in my little corner of Stockholm, on Reimersholmen and pretend that Christine is still over there in her new apartment in Traneberg and maybe I’ll text her tomorrow. Or maybe the day after. I definitely won’t forget her. I am glad I have the memories.

Feb 15 2019

The shape of a life

I haven’t yet reached the age where I feel that I can be considered really old but at the same time, I can no longer be termed a youngster either. I still have friends who are older than me and by that I don’t mean people just a year or two older but older by at least 10 or 15 years. It won’t be until I reach that pinnacle of age where all the people whom I know are younger than me, that I can call myself truly ancient and possibly worthy of being called wise. In spite of this lack of lofty ancientness, I still spend a bit of time, sometimes more than a bit, looking back at my life and trying to make sense of it, trying to push and pommel it into a shape that I can understand.

When I was still a daughter of living parents, I spent a lot of time doing this to my parent’s life, especially my mother’s, and let me tell you, she didn’t come out looking all that great. I used the shape that I had created of her life as a sort of guidebook of how not to live my own life. From the time I was 18 to the time I was 40, I pretty much decided to do everything differently from the way my mother had done it. I guess I saw my mother’s life as a complicated series of poor choices. I can now say complicated because as I grew older I was able to see the complexity behind those choices and I grew to understand them and have sympathy for them but still…they were poor choices and effected her entire life and not really in a good way. And, yes, I admit it…I am judgemental…live with it.

The big difference between my mother and me and which contributed to my being able to live a much different life than she did was that my mother had a mother who was a real bitch and I didn’t. At my grandmother’s funeral my mother was very insistent that the Rent-a-rabbi who did the service didn’t do the usual thing of speaking of the deceased in glowing terms. The best compliment she allowed the rabbi to utter was that Bertha was a strong woman who was able to do the things that she needed to do. It was left unsaid that being able to do those things didn’t necessarily make her a very nice person. My grandmother was bossy, opinionated, domineering and narrow-minded. She owned my mother. And left scars. I am grateful that my mother chose not to be like her. And until this very moment, as I write this, I never realized that like me, my mother made choices to be different from her mother. So I guess we actually have that in common.

From the time my mother was 13 or so, my grandmother was busy looking for boyfriends for her because, after all, what other point is there to a girl’s life but to be married. My mother graduated high school and continued living at home while she was working and contributing income to her family. She got married at the age of 21 to my father who she had known for barely a year. She once told me she married him because she felt comfortable with him and I guess that was as good as any reason for marriage, especially if you had your mother breathing down your neck. But when she told me that, when I was 16, I thought that was a terrible reason. After getting married, my parents moved into the second floor  apartment of the two family house where my grandparents lived on the first floor. Eight years later, when I was 4, the five of us moved from Jersey City out to Budd Lake. At least then we had separate houses…though still within walking distance. And that’s where my parents stayed until my grandfather and later my grandmother died.

I, on the other hand, left my parent’s home when I was 18. It wasn’t a distant journey, just 60 miles away and I moved into a college dormitory that was mostly paid for by my parents. I moved back home the summer after my freshman year but after my second year at college, I never moved back home again. I studied Art like my mother would have liked to do but never got the chance to do. From the time I was 25 I supported myself as a commercial artist, never needing to use the typing skills my mother was so good at and which she insisted I learn in high school so I could support myself. My mother worked at the same job for 30 years. It was just a job, not a vocation. I worked doing something I loved doing and which I had a talent for. And I never stuck around in one job longer than 2 years. Most of my time in New York I spent as a freelancer moving from one project to another. I never allowed myself to get tied down in a relationship either.  I waited till the age of 38 before getting married, after knowing the man who would be my husband, for eight years before deciding to make the plunge. And the plunge required that I move to a totally different country. All the choices I made in my life were diametrically different from those my mother made. I was never going to be like her!

And then my son was born.  And as he grew from a tiny blob of baby into a small child, I found that when I opened my mouth, my mother’s voice came out. Imagine my surprise!

My mother always served dinner at 6pm. Her dinner plates were filled with her 3 main food groups; a form of protein either chicken, beef or pork; some veggie; and some kind of starch either noodles, potatoes or rice – except on Mah Jongg nights when we got served TV dinners. After I moved out, I never made dinner at six. As long as I lived by myself, I ate what I could find in my fridge or made something bought at the last minute that day. Supper usually consisted of broiling some meat or chicken and steaming some broccoli. I often ate out with friends or had small dinner parties at home when I cooked more elaborate meals. But when my son started daycare, suddenly dinner at 6pm made sense. I discovered that my mother had been right.

But now my son is 27 years old and about to move into his own apartment. My husband and I will be on our own, like we were in the beginning of our life together. And I find myself sitting here examining the shape my life has formed.

A friend pointed out recently that I would soon be an empty-nester. But I wasn’t one of those people who moved almost directly from being a child in a parent’s home to being in charge of a home with children in it. I was alone in my own nest for a very long time before finally having a nest-mate and then a nestling. And while I will miss my baby boy and will enjoy his visits (that he promises he will make) I think that being an empty-nester will feel like a return to who I once was rather than a totally new, uncomfortable state of existence. And my nest wont be empty – Håkan will still be sharing it with me.

My father lived to 77 and my mother to 85. That’s only 10 to 18 years away. And given that the past 10 to 18 years have passed so quickly, I assume the coming ones will too. There must be some kind of law of nature that states that the older one gets, the faster time moves. So I stand here on the cusp – one part of me planted firmly in who I have been and the other part facing what still might be to come. I have no great bucket list of things I want to do or places I want to visit. I pretty much have done the things I wanted to do. I didn’t want to jump out of a plane when I was 25 and still don’t. Same for climbing big mountains or skiing down them. I have traveled to various places – most of them had people I knew living there – the people living there were more important than the place. I never really had any wanderlust. The only place on the planet that I can ever remember desperately wanting to be was New York City. And I lived there – and now I don’t.

So here and now, I find myself at the age, which when I was 20, I would have described as, “Wow, she’s pretty old, man!” And since I no longer have any living parents to torture with my examination of their lives, I find I am left with examining my own.

Is it a good life? Did I fuck up a lot? Did I do what I wanted to do? What did I miss out on? Was anything I did important? Was I good at anything? Could I have tried harder? Has my life had meaning? To who? Where is it I have landed? And then of course the really biggest question of all – What is the point of this whole shebang – this thing called me?

I guess maybe I do have a bucket list after all – Its trying to find the answers to these questions – to discover the shape of my life.