Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Roman holiday

We were on vacation in Rome this past weekend. The hotel clerk suggested if we were planning any daytrips, Saturday would be a good time to get out of town. A demonstration had been planned and travel within the city would be chaotic because of blocked off streets. “What are they protesting?” I asked. Berlusconi, banks, and the general economic situation, he replied. “Berlusconi?” I thought. “Count me in!”

I’ve been casually following the Occupy Wall Street movement and was aware that sister demonstrations had been planned for October. But I didn’t know when. This sounded like one of them. But even if it wasn’t, a chance to demonstrate against Berlusconi, a disgusting man who had survived yet again another vote of confidence that same day, was reason enough to show up.

We arrived at the designated starting point at the designated time and saw a few hundred people milling about. I was disappointed. Where was everyone? I’m angry and I don’t even live in Italy! We saw banners for what appeared to be political parties, unions, and other organized groups. That was okay, but I wanted to see everyday, unaffiliated people protesting – ordinary individuals who are fed up with the Berlusconi government and the general state of affairs in Italy.

We scanned the crowd and saw a middle-aged woman and a middle-aged man sitting on the edge of a large fountain with homemade signs around their necks. I approached the woman – I hoped she spoke English – and asked her what her sign said. For a better Italy, she answered and directed my attention to a newspaper she was holding with a similar headline. She explained she was a secretary from northern Italy near Berlusconi’s home town. She was a temporary worker who could not find a permanent job and this was the third year she had demonstrated in Rome.

I asked my perennial question: if people dislike Berlusconi, why does he keep getting elected? Because the politicians are too vested and have too much to lose if they don’t back him, she said. [This may explain parliamentary behavior, but it doesn’t explain why voters continue to support this outcome.]  I asked her about the various groups and what other homemade signs said. My favorite, held by a man, read “I’m here for my daughter.” I went over to talk with him and get his picture, but the crowd started moving so we joined the flow.

As we inched along, I noticed a little girl holding a sign. I asked her presumed dad what it said: "I vote, you vote. They say we’re a democracy but we’re not."  Along the periphery, I occasionally noticed one or two people wearing hoodies and black bandanas across their faces. I wondered who they were. A couple of them climbed a lamppost and I wondered what they were up to.

We soon entered a large public square and the march stopped. It was warm, and people chugged beer and chain-smoked. (After all, this was Italy!) The crowd soon became dense and we realized we were in the middle of it. I wanted to be closer to the edge so we pushed our way out to a side street. By now my youngest daughter had had enough – it was hot, her back hurt, and she was nauseous from cigarette smoke. She and my husband left, but my eldest daughter and I stayed.  

I spied three people with homemade signs and went to investigate. One of them explained they worked with public services and were protesting cuts to service programs. She herself worked with family planning.   

Half an hour later, the crowd seemed to be moving again and we eased our way down a main thoroughfare. Occasionally we heard sirens but I didn’t think much about it. Sirens are a way of life in Rome. We had progressed several blocks when suddenly people became very agitated and started shouting. I looked to my left and saw a group of maybe fifty hoodies. People backed away and hollered at them as they cut through the crowd. Several of the hoodies wore helmets.

I looked for someone who could explain. “It’s the Black Bloc!” a man sputtered indignantly.  Who are they? I turned to someone else. He spoke better English. “They’re troublemakers,” he said. “They just want to fight. I was yelling, ‘Show your face!’” We started walking together. “No one knows who they are. When you see them, you know there’s going to be trouble. Some people think they’re policemen.” I thought maybe fascists or neo-Nazis. But whoever they are, the man and I both agreed that in a democracy, people who protest in good faith have no need for masks.

I asked about his job. He worked for the foreign ministry. He was protesting because he was worried about Italy’s future. We discussed the Euro and the country’s financial state. He talked about Italy’s industrial decline. “The country had lost its steel and milk industries. All that’s left is tourism and design.” He also contended that education money is being channeled to private schools and that public schools are being bled dry. A few minutes later, he saw some friends and we parted.

About an hour after we left the public square, we came upon a dismaying scene. Five or six cars had been burned. The fires were out but an astringent odor hung in the air. We saw a store whose windows were smashed. It was named Élite. Several windows of a bank were cracked, along with those of a couple other stores.

We had now been marching for three hours. We had not reached the end of the route but my daughter and I had to leave. It was 5:00 p.m. About a quarter of the route, or an hour of walking, remained. We rejoined the family at the hotel and started chatting with a man who told us there was now rioting at the demonstration.  We turned on the TV and saw cars burning and windows being smashed. It looked very violent. But on closer inspection, I saw it was the cars and windows we had passed earlier in the afternoon. The perpetrators were the Black Bloc. It made for impressive TV but it was nothing like the demonstration we had just attended, although this may have been the reason for the sirens we had heard earlier.

We saw few, if any, shots of the crowd, which numbered according to subsequent estimates from 100,000 to more than 200,000 people. We also realized we were watching one of Berlusconi’s television stations, whose incentive was to downplay the crowd size and overplay the violence, although later in the evening I saw new TV reports that at the end of the route there had been nasty confrontations between the police and Block Bloc rioters with substantial property damage and one serious injury.

In the past when I have seen news reports of demonstrations that turned violent, I assumed an overzealous faction of the demonstrators was responsible for the mayhem. Now I know better: it may well be hooligans just out to make trouble. The danger, of course, is their actions undermine the right of peaceful assembly. It is a worrisome problem.

One Swedish newspaper I read today, Monday, reported that according to witnesses, a group that had partially masked themselves with hoods was behind most of the violence. This is not correct. I contend they were responsible for ALL the violence. When you come to a peaceful demonstration wearing a mask and a helmet, your intentions are not honorable. (See related story here.) The protesters I walked with were frustrated but ordinary, everyday people, like you and me.

© 2011 Kvick Thoughts. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The "invisible" kids

It was getting toward the end of lunch and I wanted ice cream. But I decided against it. I was eager to get out of the lunchroom and out on the playground before “they” came.

They usually came down after everyone else had eaten and we usually didn’t see them, but sometimes we did because we were sixth graders and the last group to eat. Although we tried not to, we stared in morbid fascination as they went through the serving line. There was the dark-haired girl with the very large head and very large body. There was a boy with a lopsided face that looked as if part of it had collapsed. Another boy had a large round body and a very small head. But the worst was the girl with the purple face: half her face was the color of blueberries and she walked with two crutches to support her mature but disproportionate torso.
In fact, they all had adult bodies but we didn’t know why. To us they were kids because they went to our school. But no one ever talked about them. They just appeared at lunchtime and disappeared after. They may well have been a classmate or neighbor’s sister or brother, or more likely, aunt or uncle, but no one I knew claimed to know them and no one talked about them. We kids certainly didn't, even among ourselves. We just pretended they didn’t exist, and were secretly grateful not to be one of them.

One day my teacher asked me to deliver a note to "Mrs. Smith." I didn't know Mrs. Smith so I asked where I was supposed to go. Her room was just around the corner and down the hall from ours.

I went and knocked on Mrs. Smith's door. When she opened it, I was amazed to see the boy with the small head and the girl with the purple face. They and the others were sitting at desks. There was writing on the blackboard and books and papers on tables and shelves. Special equipment was lined up against the walls but it was definitely a classroom, and Mrs. Smith was their teacher.

Who were these "kids"?

Sadly, no one ever told us, and we never dared ask.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Lady," "girl" but never woman

In July, Republican congressman Allen West claimed Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was not a “Lady” because she criticized his position on debt ceiling legislation after he had left the House floor (click here).

Marilyn French, we need you.

I was 28 years old and had just returned to my apartment in the city after a long bike ride in the country. As I unloaded my bike from my car, which I had parked in the circular drive in front of my building, another car pulled up behind me and a middle-aged man and woman stepped out to assist an elderly woman out of that vehicle. As the man walked past me he muttered, "I'll ring that bike around your neck!" I was flabbergast. I have no idea why he was angry, but presumably because he had to park a few feet behind me instead of directly in front of the building entrance. I immediately retorted, "You’re a bastard." (Not very diplomatic, but it was the first thing that popped into my head.) The middle-aged woman, presumably his wife, then said, "Hey! Watch your language! You’re a lady!" I snapped, "He's no gentleman."

It’s interesting that he could insult me, but I had no right to respond in kind. A “lady” does not speak her mind or talk back, at least not so bluntly. Was it my age or my gender, or both, that made them think he could express his contempt so freely and expect no reaction? If I had been male, would he have dared say what he did?  But I, a female, had inconvenienced him so I was not worthy of his respect, nor had I acquiesced quietly – a double faux pas. I had not played my expected role. I was not a “lady.”

The behavior of a “lady” is predictable, which is a comfort to men. That’s why men, and apparently some women, assign women this role. A few years ago, I worked with two men five to ten years younger than me who when they swore in my presence apologized for their language. Prone to a few expletives myself now and then, I wondered why they did this. Did they think intemperate language would offend my delicate sensibilities and cause me to swoon? For that matter, if they really believed I was offended, why do it at all? In hindsight, I think they were unsure about how to behave in my presence – I didn’t fit their preconceptions of female colleagues – so they found it easier to categorize me as a “lady” than deal with me as a peer. The effect was to marginalize and exclude me from the group.

It’s also what happens when we refer to adult females as “girls.”

I’m not talking about a friendly “You go, girl!” between female pals. I’m talking about almost complete absence of the word “woman” in everyday conversation. Listen to people around you: they actively avoid the word, especially in the performing arts and the entertainment industry where all women are “girls.” In our age and youth-obsessed culture, young is good. But how young?  Girls, by definition, are legal minors and not allowed to make adult decisions. The word “girl” applied to women connotes youthfulness, but also immaturity. It’s a false compliment.

Some critics may scorn, “You’re just a bitter old feminist.” Well...yeah. They may claim we live in a post-feminist world, and that calling a woman “girl” means nothing. I’ll buy that argument when we commonly and casually call men “boys.”  Boys become men; why can't "girls" become women? It’s as if the gender wars of the 1960s and 1970s never happened.

When I watch TV and hear an adult female referred to as “girl,” I automatically say, “Woman.” This happens so often my daughters complain, “We get it, Mom! Enough already!” But I can’t help myself. I hope when they are 25-years-old they never have a (older, male) job interviewer ask if they have a boyfriend, and wonder if it’s worth hiring them because the boyfriend might “whisk [them] away.” (Think “girl.”) Too much is at stake. Like autonomy and self-determination.

I am neither a euphemism (lady) nor a diminutive (girl). I speak my mind and think for myself. I am an adult human being who happens to be female.

Woman. It’s a good word. Let’s use it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Business as usual at Västmanland County Hospital in Västerås

Doctor's appointment at county hospital in Västerås this morning. After fifteen minute wait, nurse told me they were running late - no apology, no explanation, no estimate how much longer I'd have to wait. After 40 minutes, I walked.

It's nice to know there are some things you can always count on.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A not-so-everyday hero

It was a bright summer day in Minnesota and my friend Lynn had asked me to join her for a barbecue at her friends’ home. It was a casual gathering of ten or eleven people who didn’t know each other well, so the mood was open and friendly with lots of free-ranging talk. As we sat at the table eating, one of the guests asked, “Does anyone mind if I tell a racist joke?”

Abrupt silence.

Rule of thumb: if you have to ask, it’s not appropriate. But that point aside, the question hung heavy in the air.

I felt uncomfortable but didn’t know what to do. I was a guest in someone else’s home and didn’t want to appear rude or unpleasant by voicing an objection, which would probably have made the hosts and other guests uncomfortable. The interlocutor was from New Zealand and an unofficial guest of honor. I presume he was trying to be polite or display cultural sensitivity by posing the question before telling the joke, but he didn’t achieve his aim. I still felt uncomfortable but was paralyzed by mixed feelings. In the end, not wanting to appear boorish, I said nothing.

Suddenly Lynn said, “I mind.” All eyes turned to her. To my surprise, I added, “So do I.” The table was still quiet. Then Lynn’s housemate, a nondescript woman in her early 20s, spoke out: “I do, too.” I was stunned: she was the last person I expected to say anything. No one else said a word. Not knowing what to do next, the three of us stood up and left the table. The other guest told his joke.

I wish I could say I voiced the first objection. But I did not have the courage to follow my heart and put myself on the line as Lynn had. And I did not yet understand the other guest was imprudent for putting the rest of us in an awkward position and for not backing down when someone did object. There should be no doubt: if an action is inappropriate, permission to do it anyway does not mitigate its wrongness.

So thank you, Lynn, for your moral clarity and your will to literally stand up for your convictions.

I’m honored to know you.

Monday, July 18, 2011

More health care fun in Västmanland (and nationally)

I have Lyme disease/borrelia so I went to the doctor for an antibiotic. Because I’m allergic to penicillin, the doctor prescribed something else. That’s when a new round of Swedish health care fun and games began.

I decided to pick up the prescription in the afternoon when I was town. When I arrived at the pharmacy, the pharmacist checked her computer: “Hmmm…we don’t have that medication in stock. That’s funny because we usually do. If you hurry, you can check with the pharmacy down the street before it closes.”

I ran to the second pharmacy. That pharmacist checked her computer: “Hmmm…that medication is not available. It only comes in quantities of 100 tablets and must be ordered. I suggest you call Health Care Information (Sjukvårdsrådgivningen) for advice.” It was now after 5:00 p.m. on a Friday, and my clinic was closed for the weekend.

When I got home, I called Health Care Information for Västmanland County where we live. They recommended a new doctor appointment to get a new prescription. But when they heard the name of the medication, they checked their computer and said that it actually should be available – I just had to find a pharmacy that had it in stock, which meant I would have to systematically call all pharmacies in the area.

The next morning, my husband double-checked this information. (I was too frustrated to make any calls myself.) He called Apotek Information (Apoteksupplysningen), the only pharmacy chain with weekend phone service. They told him the medication was not available and that I needed a new prescription. They also told him the medication has not been available in tablet form for many months and that information provided by Health Care Information is often not up-to-date.

He then called Health Care Information again, this time in Sörmland, a county adjacent to Västmanland with which Västmanland has begun cooperating on health care and whose clinics are geographically closer to us, to schedule a doctor appointment at the after-hours clinic. (You cannot schedule an appointment at the after-hours clinic without going through Health Care Information.) Health Care Information called the doctor on duty at the clinic to see if we could get a new prescription. The doctor at first agreed to write one but then declined because she could not access my health care record: Sörmland’s computer system is not compatible with that of Västmanland. They then suggested we contact Health Care Information in Västmanland. (No one tried calling the original prescribing doctor at home on a Saturday to get a new prescription even though the doctor has a publicly listed home number and, I assume, a number on record with Health Care Information for “emergency” situations.)

So my husband called Heath Care Information in Västmanland again to see if I could get another prescription. But we learned that because our local clinic is privately administered, patient records are not available to publicly administered clinics and hospitals. (What happens if I have to go to the county hospital emergency room when my clinic is closed?)  They said a doctor might write a prescription without seeing me, but they couldn’t promise anything. The doctor on duty would check the phone log at midday so we wouldn’t know before then. But it was not likely the doctor would prescribe anything, in which case the earliest appointment would probably be some time in the afternoon. Fed up with the situation, we tried ourselves to call the prescribing doctor at home, but there was no answer.

After literally hours of phone calls, we were back at square one so we made an appointment for late morning at the clinic in Sörmland. (By the way, the after-hours patient co-payment is about twice that of the regular clinic. The after-hours doctor also told me that not counting the medication we had been trying to get, and which, apparently is unavailable, there’s only one antibiotic available in Sweden for people allergic to penicillin.)

The upshot? After a number of recent national and county health care reforms, more medications are available, but they’re not. Counties cooperate, but they don’t. Patient information is shared, but it isn’t, even within the same county. And the classic health care adage still applies: don’t get sick at night or on weekends. Plan your illness for Monday through Friday, preferably between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

At the beach at Lake Nokomis

It’s summer, and the weather is hot and sticky. As I walked past my daughter sunbathing in the yard, I recalled hot summer days of my own childhood.

We lived in what would today be called an exurb. It was the 1960s, and air conditioning was still a novelty. So on those extra shimmery days, there was not much to do except sweat and pray for a thunder storm to cool things down. We didn’t have a pool, and there were no lakes nearby except rural, weedy Lake Alimagnet.

But occasionally for a treat, we’d pile into the car and my father would take us to Lake Nokomis in the city. It was a grand lake with lots of people and big sandy beaches. It even had swings and a snack bar!

But most of all, I was impressed by the teenagers lounging on the float just beyond the roped area for little kids. I’d stare at the girls in their filled-out bikinis and the boys with their baby abs as they lay completely motionless in the sun listening to WDGY on transistor radios. They were so mysterious, and so grown-up! How I longed to be older and join them! I once tried to swim out the float but when I could no longer feel the bottom of the lake under my feet, I got scared and turned back.

Years later I took my own kids to Lake Nokomis. As I splashed near the shore with my youngest while anxiously scanning deeper water for my eldest, I spotted a couple teens lying idly on the float. They looked so relaxed and carefree! I so wanted to join them! I stared for a moment then turned back to my youngest.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cross it off!

A couple years ago, I developed arthritis in my left knee and for the last 15 months have been using a knee brace that I call the “Forrest Gump” model. (Or as my loving children say to me, "Run, Mom, run!") While the brace was being fitted, I foolishly asked the orthopedic technician if there was anything else I could do to forestall surgery. Yes, he replied, lose weight (yeah, well…) and strengthen your knee muscles (what – exercise?!). Not the kind of thing a couch potato like me wants to hear.

But after nine months of false promises and self-delusion, I finally bought an elliptical, or cross-trainer, in December. I’ve been using it religiously ever since.

I started slowly adding 3-5 minutes every two weeks. I’m now up to 35 minutes a day. At the end of each workout, I check my heart rate. I hit a milestone a few days ago when my results went from “very poor” to just “poor.” This has happened only twice, but I’ll take what I can get! And although after five months I haven’t lost an ounce of weight (this gut is going nowhere), my overall stamina is a little better. I also know I’m making progress because I sweat like a pig. Just recently when my daughter saw me after a workout, she exclaimed, “Mom, you’re all wet! ... Is that sweat? Ewwwww! Stay away from me!”

Most amazingly, however, after years of turning up my nose at even the thought of jogging or a gym, I’ve found myself almost enjoying it! It happens when I hit my stride – that smooth, easy rhythm that makes you feel like you could go all day. Too bad it takes 25 minutes of huffing and puffing to reach those magical ten. Ahhh, endorphins!

But even better, I’ve found my mind settling. I do my best thinking on the toilet, in the shower, and now, on the cross-trainer. I won’t go so far as to say it gives me peace of mind, but, shall we say, equilibrium?

How long will I be able to keep this up? I don’t know. But this momentary balance of head and heart is not half bad.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Corporate give and take

A few years ago, I spoke with a man who lived in Sweden but owned a business with manufacturing in Thailand. He traveled to Bangkok regularly to check on production. Thinking about the low cost of living in Thailand for “westerners” or people with money in their pocket, I asked him why he didn’t live in Bangkok. Ugh! Too noisy and too dusty, he replied. He much preferred Sweden.

Although far away, it makes sense that his company located production where wages are low, raw materials cheap, and corporate taxes, I assume, correspondingly minimal. That’s what companies do – produce things as inexpensively as possible.

And although I’ve heard Thailand is a lovely country, I’m not sure I would want to live there full-time either. But there’s the rub: When I don’t live where I work, there’s not a lot of incentive for me to care what happens when I’m away as long as I get what I need to keep my business going.

I’m not implying my acquaintance was a heartless or uncaring person. But as they say, he “had no skin in the game” – literally. As long as he didn’t live in Thailand, I assume he had no direct interest in whether or not the community where he did business recouped its return on investment, and then some, in the roads, utilities, and other publicly funded infrastructure and services that benefited his company.

In this age of distant and diffuse corporate ownership, we need policies that reduce the disjuncture between absentee owners and local responsibility. We obviously can’t tell people where to live and work, but we can do a better job of creating tax and ownership policies that make companies behave as if they have a long-term vested interest in communities from which they derive their profits. (After all, in the United States, corporations are “persons.”) We need to reestablish the connection between where companies do business and what they give back to host communities.

Or think of it this way. We need to tax company owners and corporate shareholders for the privilege of not living in Bangkok.

See related post Age of selfishness (or getting my way - what I want, when I want, how I want).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Locked out or locked in?

Sometimes during sporting events you can see team owners and other VIPs watching the game from glass-enclosed corporate boxes. I envy them the soft chairs, good food, and close friends until I remember the time I sat in the stands of an American baseball World Series game.

A friend and I had won an opportunity to purchase tickets for game six of the seven-game series. Our team, which had started the series as the underdog, was now miraculously only one game behind. Game six, a home game, was “do or die” for our team, and “series fever” was high throughout the state. We counted ourselves among the anointed to be able to attend the game.

In anticipation of the big event, we followed that latest sports news on TV, purchased fan paraphernalia bearing the team logo, and made a bed sheet banner to bring with us. On game day, we arrived early like everyone else to a crowded stadium buzzing with fans and every kind of vendor imaginable. Our team had played in the World Series only once before, so more than anything, people were simply overjoyed that our team had made it this far. The atmosphere was electric.

The game began. Not being a baseball addict, I don’t remember the details except that it was a cliff-hanger. We hooted and cheered nonstop, and camaraderie was indivisible – complete strangers chatted and laughed, and hugged and kissed, each team our team scored. My friend and I were engaged in some serious flirting with two men in the row behind us when one of them leaned down and asked us to rub his head – it was the era of Kirby Puckett. We all snapped photos of each other and promised to share copies. But in the general chaos, we never did exchange names or addresses!

When our team hit the winning homerun, the stadium exploded. Hoarse cheering became wild screaming, followed by jumping, dancing, and more hugging and kissing! I found out later that early in the game, the din had broken the stadium's noise meter so no one really knows how loud it got in there that day. But it does explain why my hearing was muffled for three days. Our team went on to win the series and the celebratory parade, attended by thousands, was equally wonderful.

So now when I watch sporting events, I actually feel a little sorry for the people in the corporate boxes because I don’t believe they experience the same exhilaration and camaraderie you get while seated hip-to-hip with thousands of other devoted fans.

It’s also how I feel about country clubs and gated communities. Make no mistake: I, too, value cleanliness, comfort, and safety. But no glass walls or fences for me, please. I don’t want to miss life along the way.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bättre att vara eller veta?

(This article is a translation of the post "A place in this world" published on November 9, 2010.)

Min systerdotter jobbar nu och ett par månader framöver på en rättshjälps- och stödorganisation för kvinnor i Mumbai, och hon har skickat sin första ”rapport” (depesch) till vänner och familj. Även om hon är berest för sin ålder, 24, så finner hon Indien både fascinerande och utmanande.

”Inget och allt är en överraskning. Jag blir hela tiden förbluffad av saker som jag hade blivit tillsagd att förvänta mig – kor ute på gatan, överbefolkning, fattigdom, trafiken, men jag är fortfarande, hela tiden, på min vakt. Vilket är bra, för annars skulle jag bli överkörd av en bil, rickshaw eller en ko.”

Något jag särskilt lade märke till var att, även om hon trivs och tycker om många saker i landet, så, som en ung ”västerländsk” kvinna på egen hand har hon förstahandsupplevelser av kulturkrockar med män.

Om män:

”Vänliga gester är en inbjudan. Att råka nudda vid någons arm är en inbjudan. Ögonkontakt är en inbjudan. Att högt skrika: ’Nej! Prata inte med mig!’ är en inbjudan. Det är verkligen svårt. Jag går runt alldeles känslig för mäns blickar och är hela tiden på min vakt för min ’fiende’ – 50 procent av befolkningen. På min arbetsplats finns det bara kvinnor, och jag är en regelbunden resenär i kvinnornas tågkupé. Jag är rädd att jag ska glömma hur man umgås med män på ett normalt och hälsosamt sätt. Så, mina vänner, när jag kommer hem - ta det inte personligt. Det är en djungel för kvinnor där ute.”

Det påminner mig om en upplevelse jag hade för flera år sedan i Tunisien. Jag gick till en bank för att hämta ut pengar och när jag var klar med min transaktion sa den manliga bankkassören, ”I love you”. Först trodde jag att jag inte hade hört honom rätt, eftersom jag bara hade sagt ungefär fem ord.

Uppenbarligen var det inte personligt – jag tror att mitt utländskta pass hade väckt hans uppmärksamhet – men jag hade verkligen ingen aning om hur jag skulle hantera en sådan kommentar!

Jag antar att det var meningen att jag skulle bli smickrad, men jag blev snarare mållös. Jag mumlade bara tillbaka ”Thank you” och tog mig därifrån så snabbt som möjligt.

Min systerdotter hade också kommentater om några dagar i Dubai:

”Även om jag klädde mig väldigt anständigt/sedesamt så stack jag ut bara genom att vara kvinna och framförallt en västerländsk kvinna. Överraskande nog, kändes det mycket bekvämare i Deira än i de rikare delarna av Dubai. I Deira fanns det mycket mer människor, så man var mycket mer anonym. På andra ställen var jag anledningen till att bilar saktade ned och körde vid sidan av mig medan jag gick, eller körde till andra sidan vägen och tyst tittade medan jag passerade...Jag kände mig förföljd och terroriserad endast på grund av mitt kön... Chaufförerna trodde att jag var prostituerad för att jag var kvinna, ensam och västerländsk. Det föder en hemsk känsla av skam och sårbarhet. Det slutade upp med att jag spenderade mycket pengar på taxi.”

Jag har pratat med andra kvinnor om det här dilemmat. Man försöker visa respekt för lokal kultur, man klär sig anständigt/sedesamt, man tänker på sitt uppförande och försöker att inte dra till sig uppmärksamhet, men det är mer än bara utseende. Det handlar också om ögonkontakt, uppträdande och, faktiskt, varje aspekt av ditt kroppsspråk - och det skriker självbestämmande och det fastställer dig som någons jämlike, man eller kvinna.

Dessa saker är nästan omöjliga att hålla tillbaka utan att förstöra den egna självkänslan, vilket är det kroniska dilemmat för västerländska kvinnor som reser i delar av världen där acceptabelt beteende hos kvinnor är mycket mer reglerat. Hur kan du maskera eller ändra på vem du är?

De säger att man inte saknar det man aldrig haft. Som en ”västerländsk” kvinna är det svårt att tolerera regressiva attityder; men det är hjärtskärande att veta att de flesta kvinnorna i världen sällan uppmuntras till att drömma, tro eller våga.

Åtminstone vet de inte vad de går miste om...hoppas jag.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Like shooting fish in a barrel?

In the interest of "fairness," I feel obliged to note a press release (see text below) yesterday where the Västerås hospital ("Bleak House") placed third in a ranking of best hospitals in Sweden based on a Health Consumer Powerhouse survey that looks at statistics from Swedish municipalities, county health care boards, and a website called "waiting time" (väntetider.se).

This boggles my mind.

I have no idea what the Health Consumer Powerhouse survey is and how it was conducted, but I can only wonder how a hospital that takes six months to report x-ray results and that upon referrals for x-rays, MRIs, mammographies, appointments with specialists, etc. notifies patients they will "receive an appointment within the next three months" (the maximum wait allowed by law) can be among the best in Sweden. And it really does take three months, or more.

Other hospitals must really suck or Västerås hospital services are extremely uneven, and it has been simply my misfortune to have to deal with the hospital's worst.

Based on my experience, the ranking makes no sense, and despite the outcome, neither the Västerås hospital nor the Västmanland health care board (landstinget) should be proud.

Press release text:
Västerås sjukhus rankad trea i Sveriges bästa sjukhus 2010

- Grattis Denise Norström (s), du fick ta över Sveriges 3:e bästa sjukhus!

Det säger Tomas Högström (m) tidigare landstingsstyrelsen ordförande i en kommentar till Health Consumer Powerhouse ranking där Västerås sjukhus får 704 poäng av 1000 och därmed blir det 3:e bästa sjukhuset i Sverige, bara Linköpings universitetssjukhus och Värnamo sjukhus är bättre. Rakningen baserar på Sveriges kommuner och landstings öppna jämförelser samt information från vantetider.se.

- Vi moderater har som mål att sjukvården i Västmanland ska vara den bästa i landet, det här visar att vi var på rätt väg och att sjukvården mår bra av moderat politik. Det bekräftar att landstinget är på rätt väg även om mycket återstår, avslutar Tomas Högström (m).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Potty talk

An American friend recently posted pictures of her summer cottage located in Sweden on Facebook. I snidely asked, “Where’s the outhouse?” “Oh, we have one,” she replied, “and it’s not just for show.”

And so began a spirited discussion of Swedish and American outhouses.

“It’s Pepto-Bismol pink on the inside. We haven’t repainted it yet,” wrote my friend.

“The one on our farm in Maine had a framed picture of Shirley Temple on the wall,” chimed in Stefan. “You got art hanging on yours?”

“We have art in ours,” I answered. “A nice display of faded calendar pictures and 45-year-old postcards of Stena Line ferries on their way to Denmark. Plus decade-old packets of floral sachet.” I didn’t mention the hurricane glass candle holder, the small red-curtained window that opens, and the little plastic heart that hangs outside and that my mother-in-law fills with wild rose blossoms in the summer.

“Ahhhh. Excellent,” replied Stefan. “The floral sachets sound enchanting. We weren’t that fancy, just a can of lye on the floor to occasionally sprinkle into the netherworld.”

I have to admit. Our outhouse is a quaint edifice. It sits under a tall white pine near the shore of the Baltic Sea in the Stockholm archipelago. I like to leave the door open when “doing my business” and admire the view. My mother was so inspired when she saw it that she went home and pimped up their own with bumper stickers. Prior to that, it was a little bland, decorated only with wallpaper remnants.

“But you’re missing a poster of the Swedish royal family,” wrote Kristina, after my friend posted pictures of her facility. “A must in every authentic Swedish outhouse!”

“When Victoria becomes queen, maybe I’ll put up a photo of Daniel and her," my friend responded. "Not out of disrespect, though. I think she’s great.”

This is important. Outhouse walls, like refrigerator doors, are places of honor and only venerated art is hung there. After all, you really should like what you see every day or are forced to view when nature calls.

“Is yours a single-seater?” Stefan queried my friend. “On the farm, we had two adult-sized holes at normal height and a child-sized, L-shaped hole set a little lower.” Yes, she answered, and it has a Styrofoam seat. “If only we’d had Styrofoam,” rued Stefan. “Hay just didn’t do the trick.” And it “probably sticks to your butt,” my friend added.

My uncle built the bench of his outhouse from a discarded bank sign. The hole is positioned in the center of the bank logo thereby actualizing every banker’s fantasy – a deposit people are eager to make but reluctant to withdraw.

A few people admired the magazine rack on the wall of my friend’s facility. “We have lots of magazines – mostly home decorating, some old comic books, and some Swedish Science Illustrated. Stuff to satisfy any customer,” my friend wrote, although an acquaintance named Ann warned that magazines could be dangerous. “You might never get some people out.”

My friend’s biffy is truly the Cadillac of latrines, although it has no heat. It’s also eco-friendly. Unlike American outhouses, which are usually pit style (porta potties don’t count), Swedish models are equipped with buckets, which are subsequently lidded and hauled away or whose contents are composted as does my friend. More and more people, however, are installing electric toilets that incinerate the waste, and I’ve heard talk about discontinuing bucket collection. For anyone who feels nostalgic, there’s an outhouse museum in Eskilstuna, in the Old Town, that commemorates and preserves the city's last public outhouse, which was functional through 1988.

Stefan asked if my friend’s family uses tissue or yesterday’s newspaper, noting that his family had been “old Sears catalog folks.” But toilet paper was clearly visible in the photo along with the all important extra roll, which brings me to my concluding remark.

When I was a child, my mother always kept a phone book in the car in case she got lost on her way somewhere and needed to look up a phone number or address. One day we were driving the back roads of northern Minnesota when we needed to make an "emergency stop." As my dad ran into the bushes with the phone book, Mom hollered after him, “Don’t use the Yellow Pages!”

And never use the glossy ones.

Monday, January 3, 2011


One of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons is when Homer thinks he’s going to die. At the end, when he's still alive, he vows to live each new day to the fullest. The program closes with Homer lying on the sofa munching a bowl of pork rinds watching bowling on TV. As the closing credits roll, there is no music. The only audio is the sound of bowling pins toppling and pork rinds crunching. The moment is sublime.

I recall a similar moment of my own. It was a cold, dark afternoon in January years ago, but I was warm and comfy indoors with my ten-week old daughter snuggled close as I nursed her. I, myself, sucked a piece of peppermint candy as I watched Oprah (I confess!) on TV. I was totally content and completely at peace.

As I think about sublimity, I’ve concluded it’s simply complete and pleasurable satisfaction of all senses – hear, see, smell, taste, and touch – at the same time. More often than not, it arises from simple pleasures – soaking in a hot tub listening to music or gazing at majestic mountain scenery in pine-scented sunshine. The trick is to recognize and cherish the sublime as it happens because it’s usually fleeting.

It’s so basic, yet think how much energy we waste seeking the ultimate thrill or consummate experience when sublimity is attainable almost every day. Is this what they mean by “living in the moment”? I think I’m finally catching on.

Given a second chance, most of us like to think we would live each day to the fullest or accomplish something important to humanity. But isn’t this really self-flattery? When all is said and done, aren’t most of us happy enough with a chill out moment in front of the TV with a bowl of our favorite vice food?

And what’s wrong with that?