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.


Jan 24 2019

Outlander – it’s all about them…and them…and them too

Somewhere back in the late 1980s/early 1990s there was a TV show on that I really enjoyed. It took a while to get it, over here in Sweden and it took even longer for my apartment to get the cable channel that showed it so I didn’t start watching it till it had been on TV in the US for at least a year or so. It was called thirtysomething. I found myself relating to it a great deal. I felt like the show was about my life – though my story would have been more like fortysomething because as usual, being the late bloomer that I was, I didn’t start the kind of life thirtysomething was about till I was 10 years older.

Thirtysomething was a TV show about Michael and Hope, a young couple in their 30s, living in Philadelphia, and their new baby. It told stories about their life, how they adjusted to new parenthood, about how they dealt with their careers, how they dealt with their relationship with each other. I loved watching that show because my husband and I also were adjusting to being new parents too and I could relate. But it didn’t just tell the story of Michael and Hope and little Janie – because nobody just lives in a vacuum – people always have other people in their lives. While Michael and Hope were the center of the story, the show also had stories about Michael’s relationship with his business partner Elliot and Elliot’s wife Nancy. The show examined stories about Michael’s friendship with his best friend Gary, Michael’s cousin and photographer Melissa and her love affairs, and stories about Hope’s best friend Ellyn.  Thirtysomething lasted for 4 years on Television. And then we all moved on…but I never forgot the show.

Thirty years later, there is Outlander. I started out by watching the TV series. Four episodes in, I had to read Diana Gabaldon’s books. That was in 2014. It’s been four years now and I am still reading the books, over and over again and am now almost about to watch the final episode of Season four which is based on book four, The Drums of Autumn. There are four more books in the series already published, another is possibly going to be published this year in 2019 and a tenth book is promised. So if everything works out well, I have 6 more seasons of the TV show to look forward to. In the meantime, I keep myself busy with the Outlander subreddit, posting occasionally when I feel I have something to say. I read the Gabaldon thread on The Litforum though I haven’t yet worked up the nerve to post anything there. I follow various people from the Outlander world on Twitter and I am a member of the Facebook group Outlander Sweden, even going so far as attending a real-life meet up with members of the group here in Stockholm.

I have to admit, it is mainly the 16 episodes of season one, in which Scottish Jamie and his English Claire find each other and fall in love, that I have watched the most often. During the almost year-long hiatus between the end of season one and the beginning of season two, I watched the episodes over and over again, so much that I could almost recite them by heart. The following 3 seasons, not quite so much but by then I was deep into the books, reading them continuously on my Kindle. On a Kindle all books look the same – same page format, same font – so its hard to remember which book I am actually reading at the time. All eight Outlander big books have somehow coalesced into just one very very long story and while I remember events in the story, I have a hard time remembering what happens in which book.

In my lurking around on Reddit/Outlander and even on Twitter, I have come across a lot of comments about how after Season one and two, there just isn’t enough Jamie and Claire. And especially now in season four there are even episodes where they are barely glimpsed and that in some episodes they aren’t even seen at all!! People are complaining that this is supposed to be a show about just them! Nobody else counts! It should be the love story of Jamie and Claire and only that. That’s what they come to the show for. I assume that the majority of these complainers are mainly non-book readers though there are a few who claim that when they read the books they skip over the parts that are not Jamie and Claire centered because…those other parts are just boring.

Now I admit I can understand the skipping-over-parts thing – because in my first read of each book I found myself skipping parts too. I skipped over the medical explanations; I skipped the battle planning scenes; I skipped the physical descriptions of various new characters; I skipped the parts that said what the scenery they were traveling through looked like. I skipped all these things because all I wanted to know in my first read-through was what is going to happen! On subsequent readings I read all those skipped parts because I either found I loved the way the descriptions were written or I realized that what I had skipped was actually important to understanding the story. But these complainers, whether they be book-readers or show-only viewers seem to think that all that stuff they were skipping or thought unnecessary was not really important to the story because the only important thing was the love story between Jamie and Claire and they wanted more of the intimate and needless to say, sexy scenes between them in all the series episodes and even in all the following books too.

Now Diana Gabaldon has in no uncertain terms stated that Outlander does not fit within the Romance trope – It is not just about how one person pursues another and after much trials and tribulations, they finally hook up, get married and live happily ever after. Those type of stories usually only have two main characters, the pursuer and the prey. Everyone else is unimportant and just minor page filler. If that was all Outlander was, I probably would never have made it through the book or bothered to open Dragonfly in Amber. Or watched more than the first season.

In case you forgot, I began this post talking about a completely different TV show. No, I havent absent-mindedly wandered off topic. When I read all these complaints about the lack of Jamie and Claire story, I keep thinking back to thirtysomething. Now, Michael and Hope were interesting characters that I related to and I liked watching as their relationship moved forward (and sometimes backward) but what made the show so great was watching how M&H related to all their friends and family around them and how these people affected M&H. The same can be said for Jamie and Claire.

The fictional lives of Jamie and Claire Fraser also do not exist in a vacuum. In the first book/season it is mainly Jamie’s family and the people he knows that we get to meet; his sister Jenny, his uncles Dougal and Colum. Jenny’s husband is Jamie’s best friend. We meet Dougal’s two henchmen, Angus and Rupert and grow very fond of them. And of course there is Black Jack Randall. By getting to know these additional characters and how they affect Jamie and Claire, we get a better idea of who our two favorite characters are, and what they are made of…in ways we wouldn’t know if all we did was see them in bed together. They broaden the story, make this fictional world more real, because like all of us, there are people all around them that they react to and affect. As long as those secondary characters simply circled around our heros, that seemed to be ok to the complainers. Our heros were always there to watch, standing in the center.

But by book 3/season 3, we get two new heros who slowly seem to start taking center stage away from our central love story  – we get introduced to Brianna and Roger. Like our initial heros were when we first met them, Brianna and Roger are young and you can tell that they are destined to fall in love and fall in love hard, like Brianna’s parents did 20+ years ago. Both Brianna and Roger are very important people to Jamie and Claire and their story needs to be told. Brianna and Roger are like a reflecting glass to Jamie and Claire, showing us more about who J&C are by the way they react to their daughter and her Roger. There are whole chapters devoted to just Brianna or just Roger. And an entire season 4 episode without any view of either of our favorite heros. And then there is Young Ian, who shows us how Jamie would have been as a father if he had had the chance to raise any of his own children. Whole chapters just about Ian – how will they do that in the show I wonder. Sacrilege, some will cry I am sure! And further on in the books, lots and lots about William, Jamie’s son who in the series we have just barely begun to get to know. And as the books go on, Gabaldon draws more and more characters that rub elbows with the two people in our favorite love story. How the show will deal with them, who will make it into the episodes, who will be forgotten and left to inhabit only the books, is anybody’s guess at the moment. Only the show writers will decide that (perhaps with help from Diana).

But in spite of the growing number of important characters who appear, our beloved Scot and our beautiful Sassenach are still the center of the story. It is because of them there is even a story at all and we always keep coming back to them. They are like the stones dropped into a large shallow puddle, lying there in plain view, in the middle of the widening rings spreading out from the place where the stones landed. So I am more than happy to read about/watch episodes only showing Brianna or Roger or Ian or William and any of the other characters who Diana writes into the lives of Jamie and Claire. Because by getting to know them and how they are related to our heros, by the time I meet up with Jamie and his Claire again I know so much more about these two  characters who I have grown to love through eight books and 4 seasons of TV. I can’t wait to follow all the threads that Diana and our TV writers weave around Jamie and Claire Fraser.


Jul 19 2018

Summer 2018

To simply sit. To do absolutely nothing.

The air outside is warm – so warm that I don’t feel it surrounding my bare skin. I should get up and do something; sweep the deck clear of all the brown dried pine needles, put away the wood sander, coil the garden hose back on its holder, wash the dinner dishes from last night. So much that could be done. But I don’t move. The chair cushion is soft and encompassing, almost too warm under the shadow of the umbrella spreading its rust-tinged grey fabric over me. I don’t want to move.

High above me, in the upper reaches of the trees, the sunlit, dry and yellowing leaves of the birches flutter in a breeze that barely works its way lower, to move my hair against my neck and whisk away the dampness from my skin.

One time Jersey girl that I am, I close my eyes and imagine that the sound which the leaves make as they rustle against each other is the sound of salt water boiling up against the wide white sand of the Jersey shoreline. All that is lacking is the rhythmic pounding of the waves. But I can pretend, can’t I?

Last week, we washed the dirty grey from the deck’s wide boards. They look almost new-laid except for the uneven warping and dry fissures that give away the fact that they’ve been there a long time. In the sun, the wood is almost too hot to stand on with bare feet. They remind me of the Boardwalk, running along the Brooklyn beaches from Brighton to Coney Island, that I walked on with Grandma long ago. If I descend the staircase leading from the deck, will I arrive at the dry patchy grass of our sorry excuse of a lawn or to the blinding hot, white sand which leads to the far away water’s edge? My eyes are closed. Who can tell what I will find?

I still remember the summer of 1997. My son was only six years old then. We had an inflatable wading pool, nestled on top of the uneven moss and grass-covered rock below our tiny cottage, for him to splash around in. The summer was hot and long and dry. I emptied everything out of the mildewed tool shed, laying all the junk on a tarp spread on dried moss, without fear of anything getting rained on and wet – it hardly ever rained that summer. All summer, my husband and son spent hours lying in a hammock suspended between two birch trees, using paddles to swing themselves back and forth, pretending to be sailors on the open sea. That was also the summer we built our Friggebod. Or at least, the carpenters we hired built it. For many years, it was the only mold-free house on our property.

One of the birch trees gave up and died many years ago. We no longer have a good place to hang the hammock,so it sits rolled up on a shelf, in the over-crowded and still musty tool shed.

Five or ten years from now, I’ll sit with a cup of tea in my hands and remind friends of the summer of 2018 – how long it was, how hot it was, how sunny it was, and how dry it was. How wonderful it was. Hopefully, it will be the occasional exception to the rule, worthy of remembering and not become the expected normal Swedish summer.

It rained this year on Midsommar afton. It was practically the only rain we have had all summer. But, then, what would Swedish Midsommar be without a little rain?


Apr 12 2016

Civilization

My family — my husband, my son and myself — have been spending our summers at our little piece of property out in the Swedish archipelago since our son was almost 2 years old. The boy is now almost 25 so I’ll let you do the math on how long we’ve been going out there.

The property had been in my husband’s family since his parents bought the land in the mid 50’s. By the time we starting going out there, the larger of the two buildings (hand built by my husband’s father) had become a 25 square meter run-down, moldy cabin. While it had electricity, it had no running water. In fact there was no running water anywhere on the property, except when it rained and then the area that we would refer to as the lawn became a small lake that slowly trickled downstream through the grass. The only toilet facilities we had was the outhouse, a short walk down the hill from our cabin.

We spent the first 8 summers out there fixing up the small 2-room building: new roof, new paneling on the outside with a new coat of paint, a “kitchen” makeover with new windows, wood paneling on the ceiling, new floor tiles, paint and wallpaper. We kept the kitchen cabinets from the 1970’s and the tiny 2-burner electric stove (just gave them a very through scrubbing). We got our drinking water out of the 20-liter plastic jugs we filled from the hand pump a 5-minute drive down the road. Water to wash dishes and ourselves was delivered through a thick black hose run from the nearby lake to a tiny hot water heater hung up on the outside of the cabin. We never did manage to get rid of the moldy-house smell though.

We also never got around to fixing up the cabin’s “big” room; partially because we couldn’t agree on what to do with it and mainly because after 8 years of tiny-cabin life, we bought a larger, new pre-fab house. The factory-painted pre-fab was delivered on a big truck with 2 carpenters to put it together and 2 days later we had what looked like a complete new house. Lying on the ground next to it were all the building materials needed to complete the inside of the house. Because we considered ourselves “handy” we decided that we would finish the inside of the house all on our own. Every summer of the next 7 years we spent working on the Big House. We put up gutters and drainpipes. We spent a summer just on the floors; putting in all the insulation and the floorboards. Another summer we did the same for the ceilings. Another year a carpenter friend spent a weekend putting up all the inner walls and we spent the rest of the summer with insulation and screwing up plasterboard. My husband spent weeks standing on a ladder, holding a nail gun, putting up the wood paneled ceiling. Finally in the middle of the vaulted living room ceiling, he decided he had had enough!

The following summer, we called in a crew of Polish carpenters who spent 5 or 6 weeks of plastering, wallpapering, painting, window framing, laminate flooring installation and kitchen building. By the end of that summer the house was ready to live in. So in 2009, we spent our first summer in the Big House.

During all the years we spent working on the new house, we continued to live in our tiny 2-room shack: brushing our teeth at night, standing outside while holding a plastic cup as we looked up at the night sky; washing dishes outside on the bench attached to the back wall of the cabin, hoping the rain would hold off until we got them all done; hoping we didn’t have to poop at night because who wants to have to walk down to the outhouse in the middle of the night, though in July it never really got dark so that was sort of OK.

Even after we started to spend our summers living in the new big house, we still had no indoor water even though we had dug a well a few years earlier. The “bathroom” was used as a glorified tool shed and the sinks in the new kitchen couldn’t hold water. Life in the countryside had become more comfortable but we still continued to wash dishes on a wooden bench behind the new house, took showers only when the weather was warm and sunny, brushed our teeth out on the deck as we looked at the stars, and traipsed down to use our outhouse carrying flashlights when necessary.

But then last summer my husband decided it was time to become civilized. He bought a Cinderella incinerating toilet. He hired a carpenter to build us a real bathroom with tiled walls and floor, a real shower, a sink and vanity and a mirrored wall cabinet. And a plumber to connect our well and water pump to the inside of our house.

running waterThis weekend was the second weekend I have spent here in our new civilized country house. It is early April and still cold outside. And rainy. And mostly grey and dreary. But inside its warm and cozy. I washed the dinner dishes without having to drag them outside first. I haven’t gone down to the outhouse once — its probably all full of spiderwebs by now, left over from the winter, but I haven’t had the need to check. And while I haven’t tried out the shower yet, I know that I can use it without having to check the weather report first.

But with all this new unaccustomed civilization at my fingertips, I find that I am missing something. I find myself missing that close proximity with all the vagaries of nature: feeling the rain come down as I finish washing the last dish; the chilly air on my face as I make my way down to the outhouse; the cold wet decking under my bare feet as I go out to brush my teeth. Yes, civilization has its advantages, but at the same time it also tends to disconnect us from the natural world around us. And this former New York City girl is forced to admit that she misses that connection — even after all those years of complaining about it. The cold and the rain and the damp isn’t all that bad; as long as you can come into the warmth of civilization afterwards.

This story was first published April 10, 2016 on Medium.com 


Dec 16 2014

One light at a time

Tonight is the first night of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. Chanukah is not one of the major Jewish holidays but because of its closeness to Christmas it has taken on much larger importance in the Jewish calander.

The holiday actually has nothing at all to do with Christmas. It celebrates an event that took place approximately 165 years before Jesus was even born. The name Chanukah comes from the hebrew verb meaning “to dedicate” and that is what the holiday commemorates: the rededication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem after it had been desecrated by the local Greek-Syrian rulers. Jewish forces led by Judah Maccabee (Judah the hammar) revolted against these rulers and eventually won the war against them and restored the Temple. The story goes that there was only found in the Temple enough oil for the holy lamp to be lit for one day but a miracle happened and the oil lasted for 8 days, enough time to make more oil. So today we light candles for 8 days to remember the miracle of the oil. And eat oily foods like latkes and fried donuts.

But the real story, the back story, was probably not so wonderful. Judea, the Jewish kingdom that Jerusalem was the capital of, was a conquered kingdom, ruled by the Greek-Syrian Selucid Empire, the local remains of what had once been Alexander the Great’s empire. During the time when the events of the story happened the lure of the hellenic culture was very strong, even in the Jewish kingdom. The hellenized, secular Jewish faction was in conflict with the Jews who were much more consevative and felt Jews should live strict Jewish lives and not follow the Greek hellenistic way. When Antiochus Epiphanes, the Selucid Emperor, sided with the hellenized Jewish faction, the conservative Maccabees revolted and cast out him and his forces. The whole thing was in effect a civil war, Jew against Jew, with the help of some outside forces. But the religious leaders who came after the war didn’t want to commemorate and keep remembering a civil war, Jews fighting against Jews, so they came up with the miracle of the oil in the Temple and Jews once again being able to be Jews. They felt it was better to remember the positive and put aside what was evil. So to this day, when we celebrate Chanukah we celebrate by remembering the miracle of light. A much better thing to remember as I see it. And when we light the candles on our Chanukias we always add one more candle each night. Each night we add more light!

menorahs

I now own 3 chanukiah, as the special 9-armed menorah is actually named. The largest is a silver and gilt one that my mother bought for me sometime after the birth of my son – for us to use as a family. The smallest one, on the right, is a gift given to me by my cousin Karel when I moved here to Stockholm so that I could remember my family back in New Jersey while I celebrated the holiday here in my new homeland. The third one, the middle-sized one in the front, is actually my newest yet my oldest. It is the one that my family lit thoughout my childhood and which I only brought back with me to Stockholm after the death of my mother three years ago. The two larger chanukiahs use the customary chanukah candles one buys in any judaica shop. The small one uses birthday candles.

Tonight, the first night, my son Bevin and I will light all three and Bevin will be given a small gift. The holiday is about the lighting of the candles and presents are not really relevant. The giving of gifts on each night of Chanukah is more a response to the gifts children get for Christmas. The more important thing is to light the candles.

In these dark days, when a member of the Swedish parlament says that Jews can never be considered real Swedes, when Islamists and Palestinians claim that the Jewish people have no right to be in Jerusalem, when synogogues are once again being burned, and Rabbis are attached, I am glad I can light my Chanukah lights together with my son, in freedom, in my home, in the land I live in. The candles remind me that Jews lived in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago, before Christianity existed, before Islam existed. Now we live in many countries. We know how to live as Swedes and as Jews. As Americans and as Jews. Being Jewish is a plus situation. It isn’t an either/or proposition. We can be both a true citizen of the country we live in and a Jew at the same time. We know how to integrate without losing our identity. We have been doing it for over 2 thousand years. In this cross-cultural world we live in, this is something we can teach the world.