Snuggling With the Enemy

My Fake Magazine of LIfe in Sweden – by Scott Ritcher, American publisher of a real magazine called K Composite

Archive for June, 2009

Personalized Metroschifter CDs: behind the scenes

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

For about 90 days between January and April of this year, my band, The Metroschifter, was accepting online reservations for our upcoming new CD.

If you went to our website during that time, you could order the disc in advance of its release, and have the finished version personalized with your name on the cover and mailed to your house.

We made this same type of offer with several of our previous records and decided to reprise the tradition for our latest release. Our first album fifteen years ago was offered in a personalized version, as was a 2-song 45 RPM record we put out in 1997. I was very proud of that single, The Truth Is Always The Right Answer, and not just because it was pressed in Nashville on machinery that once made Elvis Presley singles.

Mailing a bunch of compact discs in jewel cases and puffy envelopes is not only expensive but a huge waste of packaging and energy. So for those people who pre-ordered the personalized version of our new CD, Carbonistas, the way it is delivered is not only very unique and collectable, it is also earth-friendly.

In addition to having the person’s name screen-printed on a sticker that seals the package, the CD cover itself is the package it is mailed in. That means that when you have the disc in your CD collection next year or in five years, it will still have your unique mailing address, stamps and dated postage marks on the back cover.

As a special surprise treat, Brandon Skipworth of Noise Pollution (the label that is putting it out) and I thought it would be really cool if the discs were mailed from Sweden. That way, the discs would have Swedish stamps and postage marks, which are decidedly more beautiful than their American counterparts. It costs us much more to do this, but we’re not exactly the kind of band and label who are in it for the money. In order to do it, of course, all the discs and personalized seals would have to be shipped to me in Sweden, then assembled, addressed and mailed out from here.

Another key component of the pre-order offer, aside from being delivered to your house with your name on the cover, is that it arrives several weeks before the CD is released in stores. Noise Pollution’s distributor had set our release date for June 30th. If the box of CDs and personalized seals arrived in Stockholm in early June, that would give me plenty of time to put them all together and mail them out.

In late May, Brandon shipped the box of Metroschifter CDs from Louisville to my address in Sweden. Also inside this box was the complete set of one-of-a-kind personalized stickers with the names of everyone who had ordered the discs. These were custom-printed and cut in Louisville.

After a couple weeks, when the box did not arrive at my door as expected, we started to get a bit worried. By the time we tracked it down, it was already on its way back to America. Apparently, the Swedish post office has no idea where the building I live is located and they couldn’t use Google Maps to look up the address on the package. Fan också!

This left us a few options, none of which we liked. We could reprint the entire set of personalized tags and ship them with another box of discs to Sweden, then quickly try to get them all delivered before June 30th. We could wait for the first box to be returned to Louisville, and assemble and post-mark the discs from there. That would mean somebody else would end up doing all this pain-in-the-ass work that I created only because I thought it would be me doing it. I really didn’t want to shove that off on anyone.

Either way, there were no guarantees. The last thing we wanted was for someone who ordered the CD to see it in a store before they saw it in their mailbox. We eventually decided we had to ask the distributor to push back the release date. This would give us the extra time to make sure we did everything right.

The distributor was kind enough to change our release date to July 28th and the original box showed up in Louisville again, surprisingly sooner than expected. Within about ten days in had been turned around and actually found me this time in Stockholm.

Answering the door and seeing the box was incredibly exciting. It had US Postal Service tape all over it and it looked so American! My enthusiasm dropped quickly when the deliveryperson told me there were customs taxes due on the shipment. At first I thought she said “1 krona” (about 13 cents). As I started to reach in my pocket, I saw that the form she was holding had the amount printed on it: 1001 kronor! Holy shit! That’s like 130 US dollars!

Sadly, I didn’t have a thousand kronor laying around the house, so she had to give me a receipt to pick up the box at the nearby postal center. Mind you, this entire conversation was being performed in my sub-preschool-level Swedish. Difficult for me, but I’m sure it must have been excruciatingly painful for the party who was not me.

I knew exactly where the postal center was from when I walked there with Iida in May to pick up her new driver’s license. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the apartment, but it was a beautiful day and I was thrilled to get the package. Along the way, I stopped at a cash machine and took out the thousand kronor I needed to collect the box. (Ouch.)

When I arrived at the postal center, an older woman was helping me and it quickly became clear that this conversation was also going to be conducted in Swedish. My apologies to the Swedish people who speak with me.

Curiously, two different people asked me for directions when I was in the city today and I managed to send them off the proper way. People almost never talk to me and today it happened three times. Maybe it’s because I just got a haircut and I was wearing a nice, white shirt. I even had earphones on all three times people started talking to me. I thought that was the international signal for “leave me alone.” If they only could have heard what I was listening to: “Fresh… Färsk. When… När. Therefore… Därför. Already… Redan.”

This postal place is like a dispatch center for business mail. It’s a rare animal because, believe it or not, Sweden doesn’t have real stand-alone post offices. All the traditional-style, regular post offices were shut down by 2001. Now, instead, there are postal service points which are operated out of newsstands, groceries and convenience stores. It’s like, inside the corner of the grocery store there’s a little booth where you can mail things and pick up parcels that are too large to be delivered to your home. Most of the mail carriers in the city travel on bicycles, so pretty much anything larger than a book is “too large to be delivered.”

In any event, when I presented my delivery stub to the lady behind the desk, she scanned it and told me the package might not be there. Great. An all-new nightmare scenario began playing out in my head. The world wasn’t on fire just yet when she popped back out from the other room, producing the fabled box. Äntligen!

On my way back to the apartment, a few things crossed my mind:

I am in Sweden, carrying a box of CDs by my band from Kentucky.

The first time I ever came to Sweden, I was on tour with that band. The first time I met my roommate, Iida, was when our bands were playing a show together.

Jesus, that was ten years ago. My band has been making records for fifteen years.

Music brought me to Sweden and now here I am carrying a box of my music to my home in Sweden.

This is weird, I’m sweating. I think it’s summer now. It’s kind of hot out here. I think it might rain. Is it starting to rain?

Wow, I’m almost 40. What am I doing playing in a band? What am I doing here?

Oh shit, I haven’t even seen the cover yet. I mean, I designed it, but I haven’t actually seen it. Maybe I should open the box here on the sidewalk and take a peek. No, probably not. I think it’s going to rain. I’d hate for the CDs to come this far and then get ruined in the rain because I can’t wait ten minutes to look/

I got back to the apartment with only a few drops of rain having fallen and I tore into the box. After the early reveling in inspecting the new materials, I began assembling the CDs almost immediately. Everything looked as expected and I played the disc while I worked to make sure it sounded right.

Here are some highlights from the assembly process, which took a couple days:

The compact disc and cover sleeve

A stack of the personalized stickers. These were printed in Louisville by Matt “The Matador” Odenweller of Monkey Drive Screenprinting, who went on tour with us in Europe last year.

One of the first personalized and sealed discs

A stack of discs, personalized and sealed

Matching personalized discs with their address tags

Addressing a disc

A disc with the address sticker on it. This one is going to our old friend Ulf in Germany who named one of the songs for us!

Sealed, addressed, stamped and ready to go. Well, some of them will get more stamps and air-mail stickers. I should be finished mailing all of them out within a week.

This is me holding one of the discs up to the buildings the appear on the cover in Stockholm’s Mariaberget neighborhood on Södermalm.

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Uniquely American

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Today, I’d like to talk about two huge financial systems in the United States and how they could maybe benefit from – once again – a little Swedish influence. No, this isn’t about Wall Street or the economic crisis, but perhaps they share some of the same types of thinking, or lack of thinking, that have contributed to those problems.

Ever since I was a kid, I have been baffled by the concept of check writing. Essentially, when you write a check, you’re saying to someone, “I have the money I owe you, but it’s not with me right now. I’ll write you this note that says how much money I’m giving you and if you take it to my bank they’ll give you the money.”

This primitive system is totally based on trust. If the person writing you a check has made a mistake in their checkbook or if they are simply lying to you about the document’s validity, you may not ever get paid.

A bad check will cost you money in fees from your bank and will likely cause you to unknowingly issue a few bad checks of your own. Maybe the person writing a check to you has received a bad check and will be surprised that they never paid you.

One bad check can start a chain reaction through the accounts of any number of people, bringing headaches for people who don’t deserve them and a money train of fees collected by their banks.

When everything goes right – if someone writes you a check that actually is good – it can take as long as a week before you are able to spend the money. That’s because when you deposit a check into your account, your bank has to then send it to the issuer’s bank to actually collect the money for you before the funds are available to spend. This delay of typically 3 to 5 days is a hassle as well.

There’s a reason “the check is in the mail” is a funny line. It takes forever to move money this way. Convenient, because usually the person saying it hasn’t mailed it yet.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written of the absurdity of this system and the ways American banks exploit it to collection hundreds of millions of dollars each year by generating a laundry list of stealth fees on their customers’ accounts.

One of the most popular things I’ve written over the years was an article titled In Banker’s Clothing. By “popular” I mean that I hear about it from people more than most other things I’ve written. Maybe it’s not so much popular as it is something that invites them to share their feelings of mutual disgust and infuriation. Like health care, every American has a banking horror story.

In 2001, I bounced a check when registering my car in Louisville. This was right before I moved to Rhode Island. The news of a bounced check is communicated by mail, which takes a long time, especially when there is an out-of-state change-of-address involved. I really can’t express what a series of pains in the ass the chain reaction of this bounced check became.

Even though I repaid the check to the office as soon as I found out about it, unbeknownst to me, the County Clerk’s office issues arrest warrants for these infractions. Furthermore, such a warrant is not automatically canceled upon payment.

Years later during a visit to Louisville, I was arrested and spent the night in jail – not for jumping the fence of an apartment building with a bunch of friends to go swimming in the middle of a hot night, but for a bad check that I had repaid years ago and forgotten about.

I’m no fan of banks, suffice it to say. For years, my life has been conducted as much as possible in a cash-only manner. I do have a bank account and debit card, but I have not had a credit card or any loans or real debts in more than ten years.

Funny thing, if you jump out of the system like I did, it’s almost impossible to get back in. A few years ago I tried to buy a house in Louisville. I have been a lifelong renter and this was at the time when “everyone can buy a house” in America. Well, not me. I had more than one mortgage specialist tell me, “You don’t have a credit score. I’ve never seen anything like it.” In the ’90s, I had bad credit, now I have none. Possibly it was a blessing in disguise that I was unable to buy a house when “everyone” could. We all know how that turned out for “everyone.”

When I started writing this article today, I had a line in it that described checking as “a preposterous, archaic, 18th Century way to do business.” Upon further research, I found I was being way too generous with that burn. In reality, checking dates back to the 3rd Century. Yes, the Third Century. You know, about 1,800 years ago? The fucking Romans came up with it! One empire’s innovation is another empire’s… I don’t know, something.

In the same way that personal checks rely on everyday people to be both honest and skilled in math, so do income taxes. It is truly mind-boggling that individual Americans are responsible for calculating their own taxes each year.

In the United States, the country that is the undisputed world capital of inventing new ways to scam people, expecting everyone to honestly calculate their own share of taxes is simply an insane way to collect funds for public services.

Not too long ago, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that “an estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of taxpayers cheat on their returns, defrauding the government of some $290 billion a year, according to an Internal Revenue Service analysis of 2001 returns. Some believe the real percentage of tax cheats is much higher.”

How much money is $290 billion a year? Quite simply, it is more than almost any previous year’s Federal Budget Deficit. (Read that again!)

The Federal Deficit is an annual number that is the difference between what the government collects and what it spends. Each year, this difference is added to the national debt.

Before this year’s stimulus-reinvestment-bailout budget, the annual deficit had only tickled $290 billion a few times. The amount of money that individual Americans are defrauding their own government is a main reason why the nation is in debt. It averages out to about $2,000 per taxpayer per year.

Theoretically, if Americans were not cheating on their taxes, the government would never have needed to borrow money from banks or foreign nations, and consequently would not be in debt.

You could, of course, go further and say if the US was not fighting two simultaneously monstrous wars that are draining the coffers, the resulting surplus and ability to provide better services would be even more spectacular. And if you wanted to, you could argue that if Americans weren’t already paying one of the lowest tax rates in the industrialized world, and if everyone over a certain income level (including corporations and religious groups) paid taxes at a fair, across-the-board rate… well, I was dreaming when I started this line of thought in the first place.

Only about 1% of tax returns are ever audited. Those are pretty good odds and Americans know it. Joe Antenucci, professor of accounting and finance at Youngstown State University said, “Any gambler will tell you, when you have a high payoff and low risks, that is when you want to be involved.”

Just like with check writing, when everything goes right, taxes are also a headache. Each year, Americans labor through confusing tax forms, calculate their taxes, and live in fear of the IRS. A national poll conducted by the Discovery Channel in 2000 showed that 57% of Americans feared the IRS more than God.

Nothing’s scarier than getting an envelope in the mail with their logo on it, even if that logo looks like a chicken with big tits.

How does this have anything to do with my ongoing discovery of Swedish culture?

Rightfully so, both check writing and self-calculation of your own taxes seem totally insane to Swedes. As you might have guessed, the back-asswards process of individuals calculating their own taxes and being responsible for the errors is uniquely American. It’s almost as insane as trusting someone who writes down an amount of money on a piece of paper, thereby magically transforming that piece of paper into a bank note worth that amount.

In Sweden writing a check to make a purchase or pay a debt is something that happens only at very high levels of corporate trade and finance. Ordinary people never come in contact with checks.

Instead of personal checks, in Sweden (and in essentially every European country), they use a system called giro (or girot, depending on the country, all pronounced JEE-roh). The nearest thing Americans could equate it with is direct deposit. However, the difference between giro and direct deposit is that giro goes in both directions. It is not just for deposits and the system is accessible to individuals, not just large companies.

For example, if you get a bill in the mail for your rent, telephone service, cable TV, school tuition, or anything else, it comes with a tear-off stub that has a unique giro number on it. You take the stub to your bank and give it to the teller. The money is instantly transferred from your account to the requester’s account. No waiting. Because of the unique number assigned to each stub, the company instantly knows you have paid them. Of course, this can all be done online as well, and some of these debits happen on regularly scheduled dates, requiring you to do nothing.

Wow, this giro system that processes instant payments from account to account sounds pretty modern, right? It must be on the cutting edge and reliant on fairly new technology. Guess again. Sweden implemented the giro system in 1925. By the 1950’s, practically all of Europe was using some variant of it. For decades, it has been the standard way money moves in Europe.

Sveriges Riksbank, which is Sweden’s central bank, says that in 2007, “giro transfers accounted for a good 94 percent of the total value of transactions and for 29 percent of the number of transactions” in the country. Most small transactions are completed with debit and credit cards, and by “most” I mean practically all of them. Riksbank says it was 62% of all transactions in 2007. Paper money was barely a blip on the radar (which is a shame since Sweden’s currency is downright gorgeous) and checks were basically non-existent.

In fact, several of my Swedish friends have told me they have never seen a check in real life. They know what checks are only from American films and television. You’d think it would be funny, like when you see an 8-track tape in an old movie. To the contrary, even in Sweden, a country intimately familiar with American culture, someone writing a check is one thing that seems truly foreign.

Swedes use debit cards for everything. Even the tiniest, little amounts, like one cup of coffee or a candy bar at a convenience store are paid for with cards. Almost nobody will run a tab at a bar – each individual drink is paid for with an individual debit card purchase each time – and most of these transactions require a PIN code entry at the point of purchase.

A few months ago, while I was in Sweden, someone made a duplicate of my debit card and went on a shopping spree in Florida. Sophisticated thieves are apparently now able to manufacture fake cards with real numbers and use them in stores. Someone’s card number can be intercepted virtually anywhere and a new card can be produced from it. This was the second time it has happened to me.

Every Swedish person I talked with about the situation asked the same question, which was not “How did they get your card number?” but rather, “How did they get your PIN code?” Swedes are blown away by the fact that you don’t need a PIN code to make a purchase with a card in America, all you need is the card. And if you’re making a fake card, you can just put a name on it that matches an ID you have, on the off chance that a merchant asks for your ID.

Checks, giros, debits and taxes all cross paths at this point in our discussion. In Sweden people are paid from their jobs in essentially the same automatic way as they pay their bills. On the 25th day of every month, money appears in their accounts automatically. (Good luck going out to eat or to the state-run liquor store Systembolaget on the Friday after the 25th.)

Money appearing in your bank account is like direct deposit in America, and this happens with the taxes already deducted, but that’s where the similarity ends as far as taxes are concerned. For Americans, the amount removed from their paycheck is just one piece of a nerve-wracking puzzle that must be assembled in paperwork at the end of the year.

For the majority of Swedes, everything about tax collection is also automatic. Taxes are taken out of your wages before they are deposited into your bank account. At the end of the year when your tax forms come in the mail, all the numbers are already filled in. That is, when you open the envelope, all the numbers are already on the page. All you have to do is confirm that the numbers are correct, which you can do by telephone, text message, or computer. If everything looks right, that’s all you have to do. You’re finished. (There’s more to it if you’re self-employed or a business owner, of course.)

You’re not faced with a stack of confusing forms or the burden of fear if you make a mistake.

I should mention something else as well, that Swedish tax forms are comparatively beautiful. They’re borderline cute even (this year’s forms had a flower and a cartoon kitty cat on the front), colorful, reminiscent of Ikea order forms and easy on the eyes. The tax collection agency, Skatteverket, even has a logo that’s not so bad either.

Aside from automatic income taxes and the 25% sales tax, as I discussed a few months ago, there is one tax in Sweden that people are expected to pay voluntarily. That is the television and radio tax. This tax of about $250 a year helps regulate the airwaves and backs the operation of five publicly-funded television networks and more than forty streams of radio programming.

Whereas 40% of Americans are cheating on their income taxes, even though many Swedes hate the TV and radio tax and feel it is unfairly levied, 9 out of every 10 Swedes are sending in these additional payments voluntarily. Only about 10% are not.

Long story short, for every American who has criedthere’s got to be a better way” when balancing their checkbook or preparing their income taxes, well, there are better ways. Again, just like health care, these better ways haven’t been made available to Americans, probably because there are people somewhere making tons of money off of keeping the systems broken and confusing.

It’s only common sense that there should be no delays, doubts or leaps of faith necessary in financial transactions or tax collection.

Both of these complex, antiquated systems invite inaccuracies and unnecessarily allow the processes to become corrupted. Americans can’t be relied on to do the right thing if the opportunity to make an extra buck exists.

Further, in a country whose schools are so lacking, I’m not sure who ever thought it would be a good idea to trust the general public with math. We need not mention the complexity or comprehension involved in addition to the calculations required for paper-based banking and tax preparation.

Even though I had the advantage of being able to go to private schools in my youth, I was never in a course that covered balancing a checkbook, preparing tax forms, calculating annual percentage rates, or any of the basic, real-world financial knowledge every last dumb ass is expected to have.

No wonder 57% of Americans are more afraid of the tax man than the wrath of God. A simple mistake can put you in jail, and if you don’t understand how it’s supposed to be done in the first place, well, that starts you off with a pretty wide margin for error.

I know Obama’s got a lot on his plate and neither of these topics will likely ever be addressed, given the larger, pressing issues of the moment, but like those problems, I think these are indicative of a pervasive “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality. Such thinking can only ultimately result in nothing ever being improved, until it reaches the point of being unwieldy.

It is possible to fix things that “ain’t broke.” In fact, it’s advisable. If people made something, there’s always room for improvement. You can’t just keep adding rooms on to the outhouse until there’s a ramshackle mansion attached to it.

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Thursday, June 25th, 2009

Last Friday, I celebrated the Swedish holiday of Midsommar with some wonderful friends and met some new and memorable people as well.

Many Swedes have tiny country homes, garden houses, or small vacation houses outside the cities. It is a Swedish national custom to celebrate the midsummer holiday at your country home or the place of friends. Large gatherings are not uncommon. In fact, the streets of Stockholm were all but abandoned during the afternoon. It was like walking around an American city when the Super Bowl is on television, or through Louisville during the two minutes of the Kentucky Derby race.

Our friend Axel’s parents were out of town at a country home, so he was kind enough to invite a group of friends over to enjoy their empty house in Stockholm.

While there was no pole to dance around and no girls with wreaths of flowers in their hair, there was an amazing, extensive feast with traditional Midsommar dishes, accented with a round of snaps (“schnapps”), as is the custom of the day. Actually, it seems the custom calls for endless rounds, but even though I did not arrive home until after 6:00 the next morning, our party was not so extreme on the tiny shots of sweet, strong liquor.

Here are some highlights from the day:

The salad

Tiny, fresh potatoes

Some crazy, twin-yolk eggs that Axel’s parents purchased from a local farmer who sells them door-to-door. Axel said there was nothing unusual about the man, “He just lives right over there by the nuclear power plant.”

After Therese decorated the eggs they looked much less freakish and more like delicious works of art. The black stuff is like a vegetarian imitation of caviar. Soooo salty and tasty.

Erik prepared some vegetable kabobs for the grill which were coated in…

American Barbecue Sauce. This flag appears on pretty much all food that contains high fructose corn syrup. You know, the good shit.

French cheese cubes with very artsy illustrations, from the brand Glad Ko (“Happy Cow”).

Dagens, of course, to drink.

Erik at the grill

Axel and Therese


Me with rabbit ears courtesy of Iida

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iPhone and iPod Touch icons

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Over the weekend, I made custom iPhone icons for several of my websites. You can see them in the top row of icons in this screenshot from my iPhone.

If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch and you add one of my sites to your home screen bookmarks (using the + symbol in Safari), it will appear with a custom icon on your home screen. You may have to shorten the page titles when you add them, like I did here, so they appear nicely in the limited space under the icons.

One nice feature of this is that I can change or update the icons at any time. When you visit the site again the icon on your iPhone will update automatically.

Here are the links:

iPhone-formatted live headlines from News N Shit (

News N Shit’s regular site (

K Composite Magazine (

The Metroschifter (

Sweden Dot K Composite (

Louisville History Timeline (

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360° view from Långholmen

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

On my Saturday afternoon walk, I made this 360° view of Stockholm from a park at the top of a big hill on Långholmen.

Click images to view full size

It’s another lovely panorama of the city, interrupted only by graffiti, something that more than a few nice places in Stockholm seem to be affected by.

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City on Water (with a dirty mouth)

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

Saturday afternoon I went for a long walk and relaxed in the park to recover from Midsommar festivities. During my sunshiny day, I enjoyed some Reese’s peanut butter cups my parents recently sent from America. Mmmmm….

A couple people were also taking advantage of the gorgeous weather to row a boat out into the water between the city’s islands. I caught this view from Långholmen (um… “Long Island”). The tall building with the green and gold top is the City Hall – Stadshuset.

Here’s something I’ve never seen on the Long Island in America, but I’m sorry to report that I have no idea what the story behind it is. Perhaps the Beatles left it here because it wasn’t in their color.

I’ve mentioned before that there are no truly unacceptable words in the Swedish language. Every word in the the language can be used on television. The same goes for English in Sweden. It is not only the ubiquitous second language, but it is also totally uncensored. This shop window demonstrates that. “Summer Sale – but we also have some expensive shit.” This store recently had another sign up that said “Stor Jävla Rea!” (“Big Fucking Sale”) Hilarious.

Another example of the acceptance of all vocabulary is that when the cooking show “Hell’s Kitchen” airs here, nothing Gordon Ramsay says is bleeped out. I can’t tell you how much more enjoyable that show is when you can actually hear what he’s saying. That man really has a filthy mouth and it’s what makes him so entertaining. I’m not sure why you would want to broadcast the show any other way. I think the FCC must have some very good reasons for treating Americans like children who can’t be allowed to hear anything scandalous.

Here is a nice building I can’t afford to live in, but I bet they have amazing views and lovely dinners. I’m happy for them and I hope whoever lives here will invite me over some time. Please click the contact link. Thanks.

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Saturday, June 20th, 2009

Here are some scenes from the Tunnelbana station at Bandhagen.

The art installed at this location includes a gigantic measuring tape which bends through the entire station, from the outer sidewalk in front of the station all the way to the boarding platform.

The station was built on one of the green lines in 1952, between the central city and Hagsätra, where my first apartment with the crazy Dutchman was.

The ruler installation was designed by Fredy Fraek and added to the station in 1983.

The sculpture also includes a carved boulder of sandstone that weighs 19 tons and is wrapped by the ruler.

These photos were taken Saturday morning at about 5:00 am, while I was doing the “walk of shame” – that’s when you’re coming home from partying while people are going to work. This was the morning after the all-night Midsommar rager.

As you can see, it’s more of a ruler-style sculpture and not actually accurate for measuring anything. The numbers are not equidistant (yes, English also has some cool, efficient words).

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Thursday, June 18th, 2009

This weekend will bring the Midsommar Festival in Sweden, a tradition which goes back many centuries and marks the longest day of the year. As you might have guessed, midsommar means “mid-summer.” Swedish ain’t so tough, see?

This time lapse image from the Slussen webcam shows one photo from every hour yesterday. As you can see, there’s really nothing left of our old friend, the nighttime. Don’t worry, though, like an unwelcome guest he’ll be back in the winter. It’ll seem like he’ll never leave.

Although the past couple days have been sunny and breezy, it’s unfortunately looking like rain will fall all over these festivities. But weather permitting, there will be lots of singing of traditional Swedish songs, eating tiny fresh potatoes, drinking schnapps (“snaps“) people dancing in circles around a flowery May-pole-style post (“midsommarstäng“), acting like frogs and wearing wreaths of flowers in their hair.

The Swedish word for “the wreath” is kransen, so the midsummer wreath is midsommarkransen. In honor of the significance of this holiday in Swedish culture, there is a nice neighborhood in Stockholm called Midsommarkransen. Part of the art in the Tunnelbana station there includes a giant midsommarkrans hanging from the ceiling.

If you ever had a book about different cultures of the world when you were a kid, the Sweden page probably had a picture of the Midsommar celebration.

(I think the Germany page probably had a picture of Oktoberfest, the England page had a dainty gentleman fancying a biscuit with an umbrella and a cup o’ tea with Big Ben in the background, the China page had one of the imperial temples, and the American page had a picture of a cowboy. The new version that kids have now probably has a picture of a blingy gangster rapper counting Benjamins and cappin’ a ho in the face. Click-clack!)

Swedes love to celebrate and will use just about any excuse to do so. It seems there has been a big holiday just about every month since I’ve been here. Midsommar and the recent National Day are non-religious holidays, but I couldn’t believe what a big deal Easter was, especially since such a small percentage of the Swedish population – only about 20% – considers themselves religious.

Currently, there are advertisements all around the city encouraging debate about the large role religion plays in society – even here.

The signs, sponsored by the Humanist Society, have the slogan Gud Finns Nog Inte. When I first saw them in the Tunnelbana stations, I thought that meant “God is not enough” and my first reaction was that this type of advertisement would never be allowed in America. Religious people (that’s code for “Christians”) would shit their pants and cry about it until every last sign was taken down and the people responsible were boycotted out of existence.

In reality, Gud finns nog inte actually means something more along the lines of “God is not probable” – which makes my original translation seem downright tame and my first reaction absolutely right. I don’t think such a campaign would even be attempted in America, namely because none of the companies who sell advertising space would risk the backlash from accepting the ads.

I should make it clear that I’m not trying to disparage anyone’s beliefs and I’m only bringing this up to compare the differences in cultures and perceptions. I certainly believe everyone is entitled to their own as long as they don’t infringe on anyone else’s ability to believe. That’s common sense.

Of course, if you’re interested, there’s plenty more of my opinions and those of people who disagree (and many who generally miss the whole point) in my fantastic, amazing, critically-acclaimed, hilarious, wonderful, insightful, captivating, page-turning book Letters to Saint Clinton, available now from fine online retailers like and K Composite.

As a graphic designer – and one who is not particularly religious but nonetheless peripherally interested in religious stuff – I have found it ironic that the Swedish flag appears to have a crucifix-style cross on it when hung vertically. The flags of all the Scandinavian countries are in this same style. The designers of this campaign have taken advantage of this characteristic in the ads by using it in a series of religious symbols. A nice touch.

Okay, enough already. Bring on the snaps and frog dances! Click-clack!

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Blue Line through T-Centralen

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

The Blue Line Tunnelbana station deep beneath T-Centralen hub was designed in 1975 by Per Olof Ultvedt. It’s a multi-level station with monstrous caverns of exposed rock, gigantic escalators and moving sidewalks.

My snapshots really don’t do it justice. Some professional images of the same sites can be seen at ArchiBase, an architecture site.

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Where the Action Is

Monday, June 15th, 2009

Despite a long weekend of rain, tens of thousands turned out Friday and Saturday for the Where The Action Is music festival in Stockholm.

The rain was punishing and relentless. Sometimes heavy, sometimes cold, sometimes sideways. More than one person asked me if I was enjoying the Swedish summer and if I was having any second thoughts about coming here. I’ll stick with my original story that when the weather here is nice, it is astonishingly stunning. This weekend’s consistently rainy weather was unusual, though, because lately every day has included every type of weather.

Waiting to see if the rain would let up and holding out for a change, we missed the first few bands on Friday. Before eventually diving in and deciding to brave the rain, we enjoyed some drinks in the city at Iida’s new favorite bar, the Vampire Lounge (more not-so-subtle proof that all Swedish people are vampires).

Many people would consider the lineup of bands to be spectacular, but I think there may have only been a couple of them that I would have gone to see had they been playing a show on their own.

As you may know, I am an old sourpuss who only really loves about six bands, but believe it or not, I do enjoy seeing other bands sometimes, especially those who are legendary, popular or influential.

Erik was nice enough to get some free VIP passes for Therese, Iida and myself. This was fantastic because I was on the fence about laying down the 1400 kronors (more than $180) for the weekend pass. I knew the weekend would be entertaining, a great spectacle to see, a fun social event and a really Swedish experience, so I really can’t thank Erik enough for the pass. Since I expect he might read this, I can say it again: Tack så mycket, kompis!

I would have liked to have seen The (International) Noise Conspiracy, but we got there just after their set time was over. Back in 1999, I did a solo tour opening for them all around Sweden, from which I have some fond memories. Unfortunately, our paths have only crossed briefly in the ten years since, including once when I was living in Los Angeles. Dennis and Lars recorded a really cool version of a song I wrote back then for the Metroschifter Encapsulated album. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch them again soon since I’m in their part of the world now.

Not seeing The Pretenders was something I couldn’t have planned better if I had tried. This is one of those bands that I just don’t get. I never have. They are just not for me. Whooooo caaares!

The Pixies were playing when we arrived. The festival was held on the grounds of Stockholm University and it was truly surreal to walk up to the festival gates through the school campus, hearing them playing songs like “Head On” and “Gouge Away.” I felt like I was walking back in time.

I guess I never realized just how many familiar and memorable songs The Pixies have. Like almost every band I saw over the weekend, I’m not a huge fan of The Pixies, but they were really great and I’m so glad I saw them. Kim Deal even messed up the bass line at the beginning of one of the songs. That was one of my favorite parts, not because I like seeing people make mistakes, but, yeah, I guess it is because I like seeing people make mistakes. It’s refreshing when there are ten thousand people watching and you’re like, “Uhhh, whoops. Those were the wrong notes. Let’s try that again.” I’m paraphrasing her thoughts, of course. I don’t know exactly what anyone else is thinking.

Neil Young ended the festivities Friday night with a phenomenal performance. He opened the set alone, playing several songs with just a guitar and harmonica, without his band. The rain paused softly and a hush literally fell over the crowd when he took the stage.

I caught myself thinking about how insane it was to be seeing a legend like him – whose music seems so inseparable from the outdoors – in this beautiful setting, surrounded by the silhouette of the treelines and blanketed by the dramatic Swedish sky.

The audience’s quiet and respectful response was just as breathtaking. I couldn’t believe how many thousands of people I was seeing, reverently listening, still and muted, captivated by one man playing a song.

It goes without saying that the harmonica is the most annoying instrument in the world, but Neil Young seems to use it in a way that doesn’t wail or blast or destroy the rest of the song. When his band joined him onstage, the worship service instantly morphed into a rock concert, for which he had a list of countless, timeless anthems – okay, maybe they can be counted.

The festival had a policy of not allowing umbrellas for safety reasons and to ensure that everyone could see the bands. Because of this, the fences around the entrance to the festival grounds were decorated with hundreds of umbrellas that people hung there when they were told they couldn’t bring them in.

Our friend Therese unknowingly brought an umbrella and was forced to leave it behind at the gate. When we left the festival late that night, her umbrella and, it seems, all the others, were waiting outside, right where they were left earlier in the day.

This reminded me of a short story from the winter about how Swedes have a habit of hanging lost gloves, scarves and jackets in adjacent tree branches or bushes. If the owner passes by the same place again they can easily spot their lost clothing. Nearby statues are also dressed up with lost items.

As I told Therese, I think if people hung their umbrellas up like this at a festival in America, some assholes would come by and take all of them. If it was still raining later, they would probably try to sell the umbrellas to people leaving the festival. (U-S-A-! U-S-A-!)

It was just after midnight, so of course it was almost daylight out. To beat the crowd, we skipped the end of Neil Young’s set – which I can only imagine included “Keep On Rocking In the Free World.” We avoided the Stockholm University Tunnelbana station where everyone would be going. Instead, we walked toward Ropsten, a nearby neighborhood where Iida and Erik used to live. This backroad route took us a little closer to nature than we expected. We happened upon a field full of sleeping cows and later crossed a shaky footbridge over a creek, before reaching Ropsten.

A warm Volvo wagon with Erik’s parents in it was waiting to collect us in Ropsten and deliver us south to the homestead. On the way home, Erik’s mom jokingly asked me if I used to drive a Hummer in America. Nice people, and funny, too!

We began the Saturday show with Tiger Lou, the band Erik plays bass with. They seemed to be having a good time despite the conditions, and I think it translates to the audience when band members are enjoying what they’re doing. It would be very easy to phone it in if you were playing in such a tough venue… outdoors… at a festival… in the afternoon… when it’s raining. The crowd can feel it if the band members are on the same page with the audience and it becomes more of a shared experience instead of a “performance” with a wall between the stage and the audience.

Tiger Lou was accompanied by a minor downpour that I actually think enhanced the ambience of their set. The band’s fans actually are pretty fanatical about them which is always fun to see. It seems that most of the people who come to see them know the words to all their songs. This appeared to be true even at a festival event like this, where people are there to see any number of bands. It doesn’t hurt that the songs Rasmus Kellerman writes are the type that get stuck in your head for days on end.

Because we expected a lot more rain and a much longer day, we were a little more prepared. There was, of course, a wide variety of rain gear on hand. Some people were in serious head-to-toe rainsuits. I tried to shop some boots and a raincoat in advance of the festival at some secondhand stores, but returned empty-handed.

Without any proper rain gear, I had to resort to purchasing this “emergency poncho” from a street vendor outside the Tunnelbana station (seen here with Johanna). “Quick! How much is this?! I need a poncho immediately! This is an emergency! I can’t get wet!”

I think this guy had the coolest emergency poncho of the whole festival, one from the Legoland theme park in Denmark.

These Swedes combined their blue and yellow emergency ponchos into a perfectly Swedish scene.

For some of the day we hung out in the VIP area, where you could get rained on just as much as anywhere else, but alongside famous Swedes. And, yes, several famous wet Swedes were on hand to supply such an experience for us. I mean, nobody really famous like Björn Borg or Liv Ullmann, but famous in the Generation X sense.

Some of our friends were not super-exclusive VIPs like us (Viktigt Imponerande Personer?), so we kindly mingled with the common folk in order to accommodate them.

While Moneybrother was playing, Iida invaded my emergency poncho, using the arm hole as another hood. I presume it was an emergency.

I could not have been more excited about seeing Annika Norlin’s band Hello Saferide. Last year, my friend Emma introduced me to an album of Norlin’s previous band Säkert. That band’s songs were all in Swedish and I fell in love with them without really understanding what all of the songs were about.

Since then, Säkert has kind of become a barometer of my comprehension of the Swedish language. Over the past year, as I’ve heard the songs over and over, they have unfolded more and more in front of me. As I have begun to understand some of the words, I began putting the stories together, piece by piece, in my head.

I recently looked up some of the lyrics online, just to be sure she was saying what I thought she was saying. I can’t think of another artist whose songs are as painfully honest as hers. Some of the songs, while having almost a slightly fun quality to them, are still heart-wrenchingly sad. This is true of both her bands. I would hate to use the words sarcastic or ironic to describe it, because I think that would discount how sincere her songs are… but just because I can’t think of any better words doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about.

I like Hello Saferide almost as much Säkert, but Hello Saferide is sometimes hard for me to listen to. I think this is probably because the songs are in English and there’s no mystery or language barrier to filter the lyrics for me. Everything is laid out so bare and her truthfulness is brutal.

Sure, not every single song of hers is going to tear your heart out, but she has many that are agonizing enough, and I kind of have to look away sometimes. It’s not always entertaining or fun to listen to something that is so traumatic, but I suppose that’s what – for me – makes her such an admirable artist. She is willing to go there.

Seeing them live was a highlight of the weekend. It was like riding a roller coaster – as soon as it ended I wanted to go again. Finding something I really like this much shouldn’t be such a unique and isolated experience!

Right when Hello Saferide was beginning, I met up with some more friends, including the gang Johanna hooked me up with for the A Camp concert back in April.

Here are Kajsa and one of the 2 million people in Sweden named Anna. Kajsa enjoys forcing me to speak Swedish. I can’t tell if she’s doing it to help me or only to be entertained by my awful pronunciation and sentence structures. Maybe a little of both. Either way is fine with me. I think I owe her some laughs because I could not get enough of how funny I thought it looked as she was multi-purposing the hood of her emergency poncho as a hands-and-beer hole.

Almost as priceless is the look on the guy’s face in the back – not the least bit amused by my camera. Sorry, dude! What you can’t see in the photo is that Duffy was playing, so this guy was getting drenched in rain while being crowded by people and surrounded by the sound of a baby-voiced girl singing retro sixties numbers. Double sorry, dude!

The Telia telephone company had an inflatable tent on hand with a ping-pong table and DJs inside. Here we see Johanna and Kajsa’s sister Marja taking a round of circular ping pong. I don’t remember what this is called, but the game starts with dozens of people walking in a circle around the table. Each person hits the ball once. If you miss, you’re out, and the game continues until it’s just down to two opposing players. Marja is a ping-pong enthusiast and writes an entertaining blog about it called Mitt Pingis (“My Ping-Pong”). Don’t get hooked on it, though, because I’ve been told she is a serial blog starter who may soon abandon it for another hilarious idea.

Erik, Therese and Iida

Erik and Iida

Fever Ray, a band I had never heard of before, totally blew me away. I don’t remember any of their songs and I’m not sure I could even describe what kind of music they play, but it was filled with the kind of insanely loud and deep sounds that move your clothes.

As you can see in this image, their light show included everything from lasers to house lamps. I could continue on for a while about them, but I simply don’t know what I saw or heard. I do know that it seemed like the fog machines they were using were presented in 5.1-surround. Yes, they had smoke machines behind the audience, too. Crazy.

The weekend ended with Nick Cave, another artist who is fanatically admired by seemingly everyone I know, except me. I don’t dis-like him, I just think I’m missing whatever it is he’s doing that everyone else is getting.

Kind of unrelated to this, Iida was telling me about how she had to ask for someone’s ID when working in the post office the other day. The person presented an old ID card that was no longer valid and Iida said she couldn’t accept it as legitimate identification. The customer became furious and said that the card works everywhere else. Iida explained that it shouldn’t work everywhere else. It only works everywhere else because nobody else is following the rules. She said basically, “Everybody is wrong except me,” a priceless quote.

Nick Cave sounded pretty fantastic Saturday, so it occurred to me that this might be an opposite case to the ID situation in the post office. Maybe everybody is right except me. It’s possible. But then again, the music I like is just my personal taste and preference, there’s no right or wrong. I don’t have to like it just because it’s loud and exciting and ten thousand Swedes are having a great time.

Sure, maybe I think too much and I should loosen up. I’m here for new adventures and such, right? Maybe I am in complete control of what I enjoy. Is it possible that I can just flick a switch and suddenly like Nick Cave or The Police or Bad Brains or anything else that everyone likes except me?

As much as it would allow me to have more fun more often, I don’t think it’s possible. Believe me, I’ve tried. Maybe I’ll just be reassured in knowing that when I go into a record store, there’s nothing I think is worth the money, so I can leave without spending a dime – or a kronor. Of course, every time I’m in a record or book store, I am also overwhelmed with the feeling that I’m wasting my life and my contributions should be represented on the shelves… but that’s an entirely separate bucketful of words.

Let’s just leave it with the feeling that I had a great weekend and I got to share it with some wonderful people. Even though it was raining the whole time, I think that added a lot of character to the experience. As I’m looking back at these pictures from the weekend, I couldn’t help but think that Sweden is still beautiful and fun even when the sun is not out.

And that reminds me of another great Iida quote: “This is really nice weather, if you’re a fish.”

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