How Are You, Really?

I saw a news paper article about a Swedish woman who on Facebook had asked her friends state how they really felt about life and not give that standard glossy version. Apparently, she was astonished by the response since most her friends opened their hearts and told her and everyone else about was most important right now. This is not typically Swedish.

There have been attempt to use comments in social media to spot potential suicide candidates, such as the Samaritans Radar app. However, as indicated by Demos Alex Krasodomski-Jones' comments, this is very much a tricky task that would involve thorough research that would require lots of permissions from ethical committees.
But how easy is it to answer a question like that: How are you, really? Could it be that life is too multifaceted to be described in one or two sentences? Is it possible to feel full of sadness and happiness, have worries and anticipations, have hopes and shattered dreams, all at the same time?

One international attempt to measure well-being has been made by the OECD called How’s Life?, published every two years, provides a comprehensive picture of well-being in OECD countries and other major economies by bringing together an internationally comparable set of well-being indicators. It looks at people’s material conditions and quality of life across the population in eleven dimensions including: income and wealth; jobs and earnings; housing; health status; work-life balance; education and skills; social connections; civic engagement and governance; environmental quality; personal security; and subjective well-being.

In this study, Sweden comes out as a top performer in environmental quality, and it ranks above the average of the 36 countries in the dimensions of civic engagement, education and skills, work-life balance, health status, subjective well-being, income and wealth, jobs and earnings, housing, and social connections, but slightly below the average in personal security.

However, the OECD also created the Better Life Index which is an interactive web application that invites citizens to compare well-being across OECD countries and beyond on the basis of the set of well-being indicators explored in How’s Life? Users chose what weight to give to each of the eleven dimensions shown below and therefore see how countries’ perform, based on their own personal priorities in life. Apparently, the users in Sweden put most emphasis on life-satisfaction, health and the environment.

I wonder, maybe we put a little too much emphasis on life-satisfaction. I think I do. Or rather, I'm not thankful enough for the gifts life has brought me. I laugh everyday at work. I've spent 20 years in school because I wanted to. I love my apartment and my allotment. I'm close to friends and family. Playing volleyboll makes me happy, and training youngsters how to play gives me a sense of usefulness. Since I turned 18, I've voted in all Swedish elections, and although I'm not engaged in a political party I am engaged in political questions. I feel secure even when walking home alone in the night under the full moon.
Two out of the three times I've visited Boston, I've stopped at the Life is Good shop on Boylston Street. I bought soft t-shirts for my sister and brother-in-law, but also a pink sweater for myself with the brand logo printed on the front. I should wear it more often. Especially when feeling sad and sorry for myself.


Somewhere Out There

After the Christmas Day turkey dinner things slowed down. Some started to put together a jigsaw puzzle. Others were reading in front of the fire. My uncle was busy washing up the dishes. Nobody wanted to join me for a walk.

So I went on my own. It was pitch black and minus 9 degrees Celsius. No clouds and no wind. I decided to go down to the beach. To fight off the darkness, I started to sing Swedish Christmas carols.

Living in a suburb, I'm not used to seeing so many stars. I went down the hill to the cliffs and climbed up to where the lifebuoy is posted. In the distance I could see the lights from the former fishing villages and in the far west the lighthouses twinkled. The waxing moon crescent spread its silver light on the calm sea surface.

I lay down on the red granite and watched the sky. The Big Dipper, Orion with his belt, Andromeda. My hands started to feel numb. I saw distant planes and high-flying satellites. I heard the gentle surf caressing the stone. Then suddenly, I saw a shooting star. Instantly my heart made a wish.

Edith Södergran, "Dagen svalnar"
When night comes 
stars swarm in the yard 
and I stand in the dark. 
Listen, a star fell with a clang! 
Don’t go out in the grass with bare feet; 
my yard is full of shards


White Christmas

John had the brightest eyes, the nicest smile and the warmest hug. Everybody liked him. A great asset when working with PR and marketing.

One morning he didn't turn up for work. This was not the first time, although it didn't happen that often any longer. This was why John's business partner Michael didn't worry that much.

All that changed when John's mother called. She hadn't heard from John all weekend. They were close and he had promised to take her out. Could Michael perhaps go to his apartment to check if everything was all right?

Michael went there but nobody answered the door. He tried to look into the windows but couldn't see anything. He went to John's mother to collect the spare key. She wanted to go with him, but something made Michael persuade her to stay. He promised to call as soon as possible.

He knocked again before entering John's apartment. The first traces of blood were on the floor in the hallway. He put his fist in his mouth and took a few steps forward. More blood. Blood everywhere. Finally he found John on the floor in the kitchen. No doubt he was dead.

Michael backed out of the apartment and closed the door. He dialled 112 and asked for the police. He stood on the porch in the cold until they came. Continued to stand there while they investigated what had happened. Stood there when they took away John's body.

He answered the questions they had and could confirm their theory. John had not been the victim of a crime and had not committed suicide, but had died of "natural" causes. They went away and he was alone again with the key in his hand.

Three hours had passed since he left John's mother. He could see that she had tried to reach him on his mobile. Tears started welling up, running along his nose, dripping down into the snow, into the footprints of the ambulance crew.

Michael went into the apartment and started to scrub away all the blood and stow away the bottles. He just couldn't let John's mother see the signs of the many hours of struggle he probably went through before finally passing out and dying. Having a massive bleeding in an ulcer and too drunk to call for help. An ulcer he had developed through drinking. That kind of social drinking that often comes with having the task of making sure that important clients have a good time. That often continues even when no VIP is around.

I miss John. I'm really sorry that I didn't see his drinking problem. We are very good at covering up for our friends and colleagues, pretending not to know. And there are so many people to see, to help.
It is for the sake of all children being abused by drunk parents, for all those killed in road accidents by drunk drivers, for all those who get hooked on other drugs after a couple of drinks, for all who die from cancer provoked by the abuse of alcohol. For the sake of Michael who had to scrub away the blood from his best friend. For the sake of John's mother, now facing many lonely years. For the sake of John who never wanted to become an alcoholic and die on the floor, with his life slowly trickling away.

That's why I do my best to restrict access to alcohol. That's why I support IOGT-NTO's campaign Vit jul (White Christmas), hoping that it will help more children have a holiday to remember, for the right reasons.


Tidings of Comfort and Joy

My Mother and I have a tradition of going to the Gothenburg Cathedral at Christmas. The choirs in the region compete to participate at the concert "Julsång i City" and this time there were at least ten of them present. The biggest choir was of course the congregation and we sang christmas carols from all over the world.

The concert host was the previous dean of the Skara Cathedral Bo Eek. He reminded us that the Swedish word "främmande" both means visiting friends and people we don't know. This is similar to the Greek word "xenos", found in the concept "xenophobia". He gave a very clear message to the unfortunately growing racist party Sverigedemokraterna that we have a responsibility as one of the richest countries in the world to help refugees. 

This help can take many forms. Some people give money directly to people begging on the street. Others give to organisations such as Göteborgs Stadsmission who provides shelter and food. Some, like Matteuskyrkan provide daycare for the children, while the parents try to find work and money having come to Sweden in search of a better life for their family. Myself, I donate money to SAM-hjälp who focus on helping children and families in Eastern Europe. 

According to the UN, more than 43 million people worldwide are now forcibly displaced as a result of conflict and persecution. This is he highest number since the mid-1990s. More than 15 million are refugees who fled their home countries, while another 27 million are people who remain displaced by conflict within their own homelands. Children constitute about 41 percent of the world’s refugees, and about two-thirds of the world’s refugees have been in exile for more than five years, many of them with no end in sight. Four-fifths of all refugees are in the developing world, in nations that can least afford to host them.

If you are strong, you have an obligation to help those who are not so fortunate. One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. The Golden Rule can be found everywhere: in all the major international religions, in Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking, in the comic books about Bamse, in the doctrine on social justice by political philosopher John Rawls.

In his new book, researcher/author Stefan Einhorn claims that our modern deadly sins are the following (at least in Scandinavia): Dishonesty, Hate, Ruthlessness, Bullying, Narrow-mindedness, Xenophobia and Greed. The latter being the only one left from the original list.

Being an atheist, I don't think the potential wrath of God should be a driving force in this matter. My parents taught me to be nice to other people no matter where they come from or their situation in life. Anything else would simply be mean.


The Landscape of Music

When I was young in the 80's, one of my favourite Swedish bands was Adolpson and Falk. Light and soft synth pop, with oh so clever lyrics. Every year since then I smile when listening to the song "Mer jul" (More Christmas) because I really love Christmas and have lots of decorations up for at least two months.

One song that stuck with me was "Ifrån" ("From", my translation although some twists and turns definitely are lost):

Through the darkness of the night
I see the lights outside
Is it the sound from the train
Or the throbbing of my heart I hear
I'm miles away from myself
And I have no special destination
I'm not travelling to some place
I'm just leaving

Sometimes time stands almost still
But just as often it suddenly slips away
The line between hope and despair
Is all too thin
And you fall without mercy
But somehow you cope
By not travelling to something
but by leaving instead

Through their music, or perhaps rather the buzz around them, I came in contact with the landscape architecture profession. I had never heard of it before learning that Anders Falk was one. It even made me apply for the five year long university program and I was accepted. Although I ended up studying computational linguistics instead, I've kept an eye on the development in the area and I don't know how many gardens I've visited in Sweden and abroad. 

Lately I bought "Guide till svensk landskapsarkitektur" (The Guide to Swedish Landscape Architecture) and the lovely Natural Garden Style by Noël Kingsbury. I even asked for a list of plants from the Piet Oudolf Woodland section in Trädgårdsföreningen (The Garden Society of Gothenburg).
The housing cooperative where I lived is called "Ekkullen" (Oak Hill) because the quite extensive grounds actually include a small wood on a hill with around 40 "young" oaks. It's long been rather neglected and I've decided to try to convert it into proper woodland, hence the book-shopping. So far I've focused on clearing the shrubs but I'm dreaming of planting high grass and flowers in the new perennial style. However, I've left some raspberries for everyone to enjoy.


Fuck Yes, Or No

Some decisions are hard. For different reasons. How to go forward in a country after civil war is what constitutes a wicked problem, that has no right solution and where you can only hope to help people form a common vision of the future and start moving in that direction.

Deciding what cancer treatment to choose when the doctor presents the alternatives is hard because you are ill and tired and don't have the knowledge to understand the consequences. Putting down a beloved pet who is in a lot of pain and terminally ill is often a given choice, but so very hard to execute.

Another tricky situation is when two options seem equally good, but in different ways. Should I live in the city or in a suburb? Buy a Volvo or a Saab? If you don't find a way out of this situation, you will be stuck in what Robert Fritz calls an oscillating structure. The remedy is to list all the underlying factors and set them against each other. Is having a garden more important than being close to work? Is extra legroom more important than boot space?

Fritz has also developed a method for identifying what to focus on when an organisation is in trouble, but doesn't know where to start. He calls it digital decision-making. How is the market doing, fine or not? Growing or not? Are the employees fine or not? Is this a trend?

Some decisions shouldn't be that hard. For example, if you should stay at your present workplace or not. Or if you as a boss should help an employee find another job. Again, there is help available. This time from Marcus Buckingham, who investigated what characterises a good workplace and developed methods for doing strength-based employee interviews. I really like his book "First, break all the rules".

Another no-brainer should be what suppliers to keep and what customers to continue working with. Tom Peters has captured this well in his Lust Hierarchy for customer satisfaction. It ranges from satisfy, conform to requirements, exceed expectations, delight all the way to a big WOW from raving fans who lust to work with you and come up with excuses to do so.

Finally, it shouldn't be that hard to see if a person is interested in you or not and make the decision to stay or to leave. This topic was explored in Sex in the City, where the message "he's not that into you" was coined and later turned into a book.

Mark Manson put it a little more crudely in his 8 minute read blog entry "Fuck yes or no", although the message is the same: If you’re in the grey area to begin with, you’ve already lost. 

We all deserve to be with someone who is totally into us.


Snark Hunting

Today I went to Hasselblad Center to have a look at the Ishiuchi Miyako exhibition "The Fabric of Photography". I very much liked her illustration of time as wrinkled hands. Some day I'll do a black-and-white series too.

I couldn't resist browsing through the books in the souvenir shop. Because of the celebration of the birth of Tove Jansson 100 years ago, there was a section with books written and/or illustrated by her. A thin and pale hardcover caught my eye: The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll. Apparently Tove was commissioned to illustrate a Swedish edition of this book in 1959, but it was forgotten for more than fifty years.

I stood there for more than a minute with the book in my hands, indecisive. It wasn't expensive, so I could easily have bought the book for myself. Especially since I could justify such an extravagance by claiming I deserved it since I have been ill. Still am. Finally, I put it down.

I wanted the book. Still do. However, I realised that I wanted it to be a true gift. From somebody who knows how much I adore English literature, that I read heaps of it and feel a bit embarrassed about how few Swedish authors I'm acquainted with (especially the contemporary ones). Who recognises I have a background in ICT and that I'm obsessed with metaphors and thus should enjoy Lewis Carroll. Who appreciates my weakness for Nordic design and have seen my coasters depicting Moomin running through the dark and scary woods. And knows what went through my mind when I bought them, or at least was concerned enough to ask. Who sees that when I'm close to tears I play the CD with the music from the Lewis TV series, since the oboe seems to have a soothing effect on me. And who understands that the connection between the book and the TV series is not the name Lewis, but that one of the TV episodes, The Soul of Genius, was about "The Hunting of the Snark". And who remembers that, although I do like Oxford, I simply love Cambridge.
From Pilane 2011
I suppose I'm also looking for the snark. But I'm done hunting.



After a month of more than 50 shades of grey, we finally had some sun today. And thus also frost. I hope the garlic and the Jerusalem artichoke I planted yesterday will make it until spring. I trust the book from the Mandelmann family "Självhushållning på Djupadal" (Self-sufficiency at Djupadal) that says it should be planted late in the season. Apparently some seeds such as lavender and verbena, also need a frost nip in order to kick-start the chemical processes that leads leaves and flowers. 

Maybe that's also the case with some people and some relationships. They need to get really cold to have a chance to survive long-term and not just rot.

They say that this winter will be very cold, because of the warm ocean. I hope that will entail snow. And lots of it. Winter becomes so much endurable with the bright snow and the prospect of skiing even in the south of Sweden where I live.

Snow also muffles the sounds and you long to cuddle in the sofa looking at an open fire, or, in my case, at lots of candles. Two songs come to mind, from Genesis' record "And Then There Were Three": Snowbound, of course, but also Undertow.

Better think awhile
Or I may never think again
If this were the last day of your life, my friend
Tell me, what do you think you would do then?

Stand up to the blow that fate has struck upon you
Make the most of all, you still have coming to you
Lay down on the ground and let the tears run from you
Crying to the grass and trees and heaven finally on your knees

Let me live again, let life come find me wanting
Spring must strike again against the shield of winter
Let me feel once more the arms of love surround m
Telling me the danger's past, I need not fear the icy blast again


Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

It's been a year of firsts. The first New Year, the first Easter, first Midsummer, first birthday, first All Saints Day and now the first Father's Day without you. We miss you. I miss you. The you you were before you got ill.

Mother is doing fine. You made a good decision to move back here. I'm so sorry you didn't get to experience it. She has reconnected with some old friends and have made some new ones. And she still keeps in touch with your old neighbors. She cries sometimes, especially when she goes to church. It's hard to see your Mother cry. But you know all about that.

We saw your brothers this Friday. Watched the play that might be the last one Henric does. He looked just like you on the stage. We saw that, both Mother and I. We talked about the decline of the Linnea. And we showed them the stone we got for you and Magnus. I hope you like it.

I know you were worried about my trip to Uganda. But I think that you got the message that I made a safe return. We never had the chance to really talk after that. You started your own journey, and we were not meant to come along.

I'm sorry I smashed your car. Although I know you would never yell at me or call me a bad driver. You'd only be happy I was still alive. I tried to save the sticker I got for you in Kivik, the one saying "Real men don't eat bananas, buy Swedish fruit!". It was difficult to make you happy the last years, but I know from Mother that you really liked this one. But it was stuck.

I think you'd have liked the new car we bought. A really small one. A black KIA. The kind you said was going to be your next car. You always made plans for the future. You did not go gentle.


Things To Remember

I admit. I'm a hoarder. The older I get, the more I keep on to things rather than throwing or giving them away. I also very much like my things. Not because they have any greater monetary value, but because they help me remember.

I've made several trips to Bangkok and every time I use one of the silk shawls I bought there, I remember how the breakfast mango tasted, I hear the roar from the traffic on Sukhumvit road, I feel the smoke from the fires at the temple yards in my nose and eyes, and I sense the warming sun on my skin.
From ITP I2W Bangkok 2009

Things also help me remember people. I keep my travel stuff in a black chest of drawers that once belonged to my father's aunt Bertha. She was a nurse, biking to her patients all over Småland, but also very active in helping the poor. When my father Göran went to school in Alvesta, he stayed with her and he was always very fond of her. 

Here I also keep the violet perfume flacon my mother's father Gösta gave to my grandmother Gudrun on Christmas Eve 1933 on their way back from Australia. There he transformed the stuffy Swedish church in Melbourne into a vibrant community with lots of activities for young people, a concept he took with him back to Sweden. Gudrun worked as cantor when she didn't run the vicarage. She made trousers for her daughters to wear, something of a revolution in the 1940's in rural Öland.

Not far from the sturdy chest of drawers stands a special shelf for sheets of music, simple yet rather elegant. It stood beside an old black piano that my father's mother Edith used to play. You can see and hear her play, 94 years old, at the end of Katarina Dunér's program on Swedish Houses. Edith loved reading and was always keen on learning. When her oldest son, my uncle Olle, started painting she wanted to try it herself. One of her still life paintings now hangs in my kitchen.

I've also kept a beetle boot jack. As a small child, it met me in the hallway to the teachers' house in Mistelås where my father's parents lived. Edith taught the small children and Martin the older ones. He was also very active in developing the community, initiating building a sauna at the stream and supporting the local football team. 
My parents got engaged at the football field, deep in the woods. It was my father who insisted on marriage. My mother Sigrun thought it wasn't that necessary, but he persisted, and they were married for more than 50 years. She now wears the ring she gave him in a necklace, where it encircles a small heart of gold.
Today we celebrate All Saints Day in Sweden. Although we have sadly imported the commercial American Halloween tradition to some extent, this is very much a time when we gather to remember and celebrate the dear ones who've passed away. Candles are lit at the churchyards and graves are decorated with fir tree branches and cones.



I saw you at the Central Station today. In your hoodie. Oblivious of the crowd. Enchanted, not by a broccoli forest, but by your smartphone.

My brain saw you before my eyes did and it gently steered me to the right to avoid a collision. Although my heart missed a beat, my step didn't falter and I continued to Moderna Museet.

I watched the exhibitions, sculpture after sculpture. And I wondered about what we choose to perceive. Social realism is not my thing. "I get enough of that in reality" I say when friends want me to watch a Roy Andersson movie. I also hide behind my camera, preferring not to see myself, unless reflected in some shiny object. It's a way of life. I try to not stay in the moment.
I suppose we' humans are good at not talking about the elephant in the room. We rather pretend to be saints and look the other way. Or ghosts, omnipresent but not really interacting. Nowadays, we can even let technology help us select what to focus on through augmented reality. Perhaps I should develop some Google Glass software that identifies people who are likely to make you miserable and gives you a nudge in another direction. I think the market is bigger than just me.

You didn't see me. I don't think you ever saw me. Saw. Me. I didn't want to see you. Not the real you. So, what did we see in each other? Perhaps we were just means for self-expansion and self-supression. What I do know, is that the elephant is still here.


We Never Went to Arthur's Seat

I've just finished watching the film One Day. It wasn't my choice and as I suspected, it hit a little too close for comfort. Still, I think it was a great movie with lots of truths in it. Or maybe not.

In one recent episode of Philosophy Bites, Peter Lamarque talks about the claim that great works of fiction often contains important truths about what it is to be human. He does not think so.

As an example, he uses Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and its famous beginning: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

I think the point he tries to make, is that we should look for the truth and real knowledge elsewhere and see fiction as providing other values. What is called "deeper truths" revealed in literature are perhaps things we need to think about and pay attention to, but perhaps they have no black and white answers and maybe it doesn't matter. For example, there's been no study investigating if happy families are more alike than unhappy ones and I don't think anyone would like to really know for sure. I suppose his book, The Philosophy of Literature, is not to be considered as fiction.

For a constructivist, of course, there is no truth, or perhaps more to the point, many truths. Perhaps we should develop the concept of "true truth" further, in accordance with the Cloud Atlas. Maybe then we can find the way to universal truths. Or at least the way to Arthur's Seat.


A Time For Everything

I go to the local library a lot. Last Saturday a book in a display caught my eye: "Cottage Dreams" ("Torpardrömmar" in Swedish). A very philosophical, down to earth and beautiful book about what it's like to live in a small, old, red cottage in the Swedish countryside. The wooden house and its creaking doors and smokey fire places. The surrounding woods with glades, lakes and tall trees whispering in evening. The sunny garden with ancient flowers, fruit trees, weeds and vegetables. The shy wild animals and the hungry although affectionate domestic critters. The smooth linen cloth descending from the blue fields long ago.

The very last chapter is about time and how everything changes, but also returns. Although I'm not a Christian, I very much appreciated the quote from Ecclesiastes 3:

"There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace."


To Be or Not To Be

Hynek Pallas wrote a review of the new Xavier Dolan film "Tom at the Farm" in todays SvD. A phrase caught my eye. Actually a quote from another critic: Carl-Johan Malmberg. He said it about Dolan's previous film "Laurence Anyways" and it really hit me. 

Malmberg said that this film was about the question of how we can be to the one we love what we want to be to ourselves (in Swedish "hur få vara för den man älskar den man vill vara för sig själv"). 

I don't think I'll get the answer through watching any of these movies, although I'm sure they are good. However, I'm glad they brought me such a precise and true question.


Colour Hermeneutics

What comes to my mind when reading professor Jeana Jarlso’s article about how memories impact our impression of colour is that there is a kind of hermeneutics involved. Similar to how we must take into account the social context and intentions of a writer (any writer, not only those involved in the text that happened to go into the collection called The Bible) when interpreting a text, we need to apply the same perspectives when looking at a picture.

In 2001, I visited the Sistine Chapel and saw the restored paintings for the first time. As Jarlso points out when quoting the historian Michel Pastoureau, it is difficult to really know what the painting looked like when new since so many are different from then. We now have electric light instead of candles. Colours change with age and we don’t know if Michelangelo, Botticelli and the others intended for us to have another experience of the frescos than when they were fresh.

How do we remember colour? Was my first home really that blue? When did my mother’s hair turn from blond to white? And what colour do we really refer to when we say we’re feeling green of envy? That is, what colour did Shakespeare refer to?