Apr 27 2020

Life and Death in the Country

Its morning. Full daylight. I can see white edges of frost along the back of the deck chair through the corner of the bedroom window. I’m in bed, barely awake. My eyes feel dry and teary at the same time. The sun has not yet risen above the eastern treeline so it must still be very early. I want to stay in bed but I have to pee so I open the bedroom door and go out into the main room of our country house. On my way to the bathroom I note the absence of cats.

I close the bedroom door on my way back to bed. The barely visible sun is silhouetting the trees now. The clock on the living room wall said 6am. No need to get up yet. I lay back in bed, calmly tallying up all the little aches and pains that seem to have become my normal. My eyes are closed but my ears are awake. A cat is softly meowing on the other side of the door. I try to remember if their food bowl was empty. The meowing continues. It’s probably Coco, she’s the whiner. Do I want to get up? We keep the bedroom doors closed because we don’t want the cats to run in from outside and transfer all the ticks they have picked up on their fur on to our bed. Or to deposit dead animals onto the bedroom rug at our feet while we are still asleep.

I drag myself out of the warm blankets and open the door expecting to see a cat lying down in front of the door jamb waiting for me. Nope. A sleek brown shadow scuttles past my feet into the bedroom and immediately pushes her way behind the door, searching. We store a large window screen and an insert that enlarges the dining table there. Coco is very determinedly trying to poke her nose behind all this stuff.

Shit!! She is hunting!

Custard and Coco on the hunt

I carefully move the screen to the other end of the wall. I move the top of the table insert a few inches away from the wall and look down behind it. A tiny grey shape is crouched next to the baseboard, equidistant from each edge of the insert. I didn’t even see him run in. I hear the cat door open and Custard saunters in, joining Coco in looking behind the door, one on each side of the insert.

“We have a mouse!” I yell.

My husband is still in bed, staring at his phone. His poor hearing means he is completely oblivious to all the excitement.

“There’s a mouse in the bedroom!”

“What?”

“Behind the door!”

“You have to chase it out of the room or catch it. Do you have a plan? You have to have a plan.”

I have no plan. Håkan starts to get his pants on and prepare for a hasty exit. While the cats keep watch on the mouse I go and get the broom from the living room. I angle the insert towards the door and start to brush the mouse in that direction. It moves closer to the door but then suddenly does an about-face and runs under the bed, two cats in close pursuit.

“It’s under the bed now,” I say.

“What are you doing about it?”

“Nothing. I’m letting the cats take care of it.”

I hear the tippy-tap of tiny feet and the rustle of plastic bags from under the bed. The cats are making mad dashing sounds. I stand along the wall and wait. After a few minutes Coco emerges from under the bed, the tips of her fur bristling with pride and a still moving clump in her mouth. She carries it out to the big room and puts it down under the dining table, waiting for us to praise her. It lies there, nothing moving except its rib cage, in and out, in and out, a mile a minute.

I stand there, uncertain. Before I can decide what to do, Coco picks up the mouse, gently, like she would a kitten and carries it out through the cat door. I lock the cat door behind her and watch as she brings it down the steps and on to the lawn where she again puts it down. Custard joins her on the lawn. He lies down and makes himself comfortable as he watches her start to play the eternal game of cat and mouse.

I stand on the deck, a heavy fleece jacket wrapped around me, watching them. After about 10 minutes of the Coco vs Mouse match, our tiny prey makes a mad dash past Custard and glides in under the planting boxes, safe from Custards grasping paws. I breathe a sigh of relief. Yea, mouse.

Epilogue
About an hour later, after I have breakfasted on a slice of Håkan’s home-made bread, I hear the cats trying to get in through the cat door. I never unlocked it. I walk over to the door and look through the glass. Both cats are sitting there. A very dead mouse with its head eaten off is lying on the door mat.


Apr 5 2020

Corona times

We are living in strange times now. Corona times.
For many weeks the Corona virus has been traveling – on a world tour – starting in China, spreading through Asia, running around Europe, and jumping the fish pond over to America. And yes…it’s here in Stockholm too.

We are not yet under lockdown like Italy and Spain. But most of my younger, still-working friends have been ordered by their employers to work from home, my son included. Universities and all high schools have been closed & are trying to do online teaching instead. I have no idea how that’s working but I saw a funny video on YouTube about that. Schools for children who are too young to stay at home alone are still open but if their parents are home, often the kids are kept home too, regardless. The thinking about keeping schools open for younger kids is that the government wants the parents who work in the healthcare field & have young kids who need minding, to be able to continue going to work.

All the activities I had written in my calendar, such as writing workshops, board meetings, plans to meet friends and any other miscellaneous events have been cancelled. I cancelled my doctor’s appointment that had been booked over 6 weeks ago because who wants to go to a place all the sick people go to? All activities in the Jewish community are cancelled except burials, food delivery to old people and some Saturday morning services. All the big Seders are cancelled. My annual J.A.P.S. Seder, gathering my Jewish/American/Swedish gang, is also cancelled due to the fear of passing the virus from hand to mouth along with the chicken soup. I went to Bajit, the big new Jewish Center, on Friday to buy matzah. The place was empty and only 1 person at a time allowed in the shop. Me & the other 2 people on line all waited our turn far from each other. Hand sanitizer was everywhere to use while we waited.

And speaking of hand sanitizer, I can’t find it to buy in any of the stores. And Håkan has looked on-line. Nadda, nothing to buy there either. I can understand that. In these plague days it works better than lamb’s blood. But toilet paper? What’s the big deal about hoarding toilet paper? I can not understand that at all – it’s not a plague of diarrhea.
Dare I say it??? People are idiots.

But key words these days are definitely “social distancing” and “self-quarantine”. Or in other words STAY AT HOME!

But I do get out. My friend Barbara, working from home and living on Kungsholmen, walked over to Reimers last week and we took a long walk together on Långholmen. We foot-bumped first, keeping safety in mind. There were other people also out walking but everyone kept their distances. We stopped at the Långholmen värdshus in need of fika. We had the whole place to ourselves and enjoyed coffee and a bulla. There was lots of hand sanitizer there too.

I still go to my local grocery. I see people from my neighborhood there – but everyone keeps their distance – this is Sweden after all. Nobody hugs or talks to each other anyway, a simple nod is enough if you meet someone you recognize. Even in normal times, people sit as far away from you as a park bench allows. This is not Italy, France or Spain. Swedes are not huggy types, they are good at aloneness and don’t need much encouragement to isolate.

And it seems neither do we – Håkan, Bevin and I. My little family hardly notices the new societal rules operating now. All three of us are introverts and staying cooped up in our home doesn’t seem to be a problem for us – that’s how we usually live. I am mainly the only one who goes out now and its just to the grocery store. Occasionally I will walk the 20 minutes to Hornstull and go to the large Hemköp grocery there or maybe the drugstore. Once I also went to Clas Ohlson because we needed good glue. Hemköp has started special early morning hours for seniors but the way I figure it, I’m retired, I no longer have to (or want to) get up super early in the morning. Especially not to do grocery shopping! I try to go later in the morning or early afternoon when its not too busy and we customers can keep a decent distance from each other.

Bevin, a programmer at Ericsson, has been working from home now for the past 3 weeks and his longest walk is from the kitchen to his bedroom. He spends his evenings and late into the night socializing online with his pals around the world. No worries about catching anything that way except maybe a computer virus.

Håkan spends most of his time sitting in front of his computer screen, commenting on Facebook or watching TV programs there. He is busy devising all kinds of plans for growing sweet corn out at our country house this summer, ordering necessary things online. For weeks now, he has been bugging me about completely moving ourselves out to the countryside, trying to justify the move by saying that we are supposed to self-quarantine. He is so happy to finally have society on his side. But I am resisting. It’s still too early for me and too cold to turn the water on yet. But we have been out there a couple of times already just for day trips to plant potatoes and to get his corn seeds started in his new mini-greenhouse. Easter weekend will be our first overnight stay.

So this Stay at Home directive hasn’t changed much for us personally. My apartment is not a bit cleaner! I haven’t painted new colors on the walls of any room. My freezer is still mainly filled with ice instead of enough food to last months. And my kitchen cupboards are still cluttered, as are my closets. If I am not laying about on the sofa to read, then I am laying on the bed. And I only have enough toilet paper and paper towels to last for the next week. I spend a lot of time looking at Facebook but that is just a distraction from what I should be getting done on my computer. And just for you dog lovers who have been spreading nasty rumors around social media about cats, our cats are exceedingly happy that we are all home. Coco wants to always keep Bevin company by sitting on his keyboard, so during his working hours he has to close his door. She lies patiently outside, waiting for him to open it.

But as I said we are all introverts here – we need others to plan activities that can entice us out of our homes. And I admit, looking at my empty Google Calendar is a bit depressing. Though, secretly, I am happy not to need to put on makeup or get dressed in clothes I haven’t worn for the past 4 days. Putting on my Extrovert Coat in preparation to leave my home and venture out there in the wider world takes energy. So I have started calling people instead of just texting. I have been using Skype to talk to friends and family in the US. And I have participated in two Zoom meetings! I think a lot of self-isolated folks must be doing that now – there is not a web camera to be found, either in stores locally or even online!

So us introverted folks are coping OK but what about all my extroverted friends out there? You know who you are…all those of you who have kept inviting me to do things with you out there in the world even though 60% of the time I say I can’t (because I don’t want to leave my cozy shell) and yet thankfully you keep asking. Life now is probably harder for you guys. So while this is going on, give me a call and let’s talk…either by phone or Zoom or Skype. Drag me out for a walk in nature too – I promise to keep my distance.  I hope you all are also doing OK and I promise to say yes next time you invite me to eat dinner with you, or even just fika, after this is all over.

I know that a lot of people out there are feeling anxiety or fear due to this pandemic sweeping the world. I don’t really know what to say that could make them feel better. But my go-to advice that I like to keep in mind, is taken from one of my favorite books, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I like what Ford Prefect tells Arthur Dent, when Arthur finds out that the Earth is about to be demolished to make room for a hyper-space bypass.

“Don’t panic,” he says, “and always know where your towel is.”

Stay healthy everyone.


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.


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.