Wednesday, September 19, 2018

News and Updates

1. It occurs to me that most of what I’ve written in the last month has concerned our vacation, which makes perfect sense to me since that’s mostly what I want to write about, but which I can understand being perhaps less than fascinating for others.  But you know.  It’s my blog.  I’m allowed to be self-indulgent.  We did eventually come home and thus the posts will have to end at some point, so if reading about someone else’s travels isn’t your thing just know there is a light at the end of that particular tunnel.  But in the meantime, I write what I want to write.

2. One of the really nice things about being away for a while is that I was mostly out of the range of American news.  There were no constant updates about the latest illegal, unconstitutional, eye-wateringly immoral, catastrophically short-sighted, freakishly misogynistic, financially irresponsible, blatantly racist, or criminally stupid antics of der Sturmtrumper or his minions, lackeys, sycophants, cronies, enablers, cultists, or brownshirts.  And you know?  It felt really good.  It’s been rather dispiriting coming back and realizing that all of that only got worse while I was gone and has continued exponentially on that trajectory since I returned.  Seriously – if the GOP-led Congress had any respect for law, human decency, morality, or the Constitution, der Sturmtrumper would have been removed months ago, run out of town on a rail, and held up as a shining example of what happens when Corrupt and Stupid is entrusted with Power.  As it is he’s still there, indelibly staining the American republic with his foul presence, and the cheerleading GOP is very much part of the problem.

3. Just for the record, I spent 17 days in five different countries, all of which are strong American allies, and never once did I hear or even overhear anybody say anything remotely positive about der Sturmtrumper.  Not once.  I did hear a lot of negative things from a truly wide array of people, though, and sometimes people even came up to me at random to tell me some of them.  But nothing good.  Yeah, folks – we got us a real problem here in the US of A, and everyone knows it but us, apparently.

4. It’s been hot here.  Last weekend it was over 90F here in southern Wisconsin – in mid-September, mind you.  It should be 20 to 30 degrees cooler.  Good thing the climate isn’t shifting because otherwise?  I’d be worried.

5. What?

6. Naturally this weekend was the time that the blower motor on our AC decided to die.  There was the AC unit, pumping out nice refreshingly cool air like a champ, and it wasn’t going anywhere useful.  So now that’s fixed, to the tune of A Serious Chunk of Change, though not as serious as if it had been the AC unit itself so we have that going for us.  I swear I’m going to retire to Scotland for the weather.

7. After two years and change, Lauren finally has no metal on her teeth.  She has been looking forward to this for months.  She was a bit bummed when it became clear that this would happen after our vacation rather than before, and further bummed to discover that “Braces Off Day” was exactly the same as School Picture Day, but she made it through with grace and aplomb and the school photos went fine.  Dinner that night, by request, was corn on the cob.

8. The initial rush down at Home Campus is now over – the deadline to add classes has passed, the first payment was due Monday, and except for dropping classes the students have the schedules they’re going to have.  Advisors have a different calendar than faculty do – they’re busy the first two weeks of the semester while faculty are just ramping up, then it slacks off toward the 1/3-mark when faculty are in the middle of midterms.  Then we get busy again when it’s time to sign up for next semester’s classes, while faculty are in cruise control, then we slow down toward the end of the semester when the faculty are madly running around with end-of-the-semester projects and finals.  It’s nice to be past the first big advising rush, but since I was fortunate enough to get a couple of classes this semester that just means I have moved on to the first big faculty rush.

9. Not that I am complaining, really.  I like both of my jobs, and I have a kid in college.  More work, more paycheck, more better.

10. When the halftime score is 56-0, it’s time to call off the dogs.

11. The American football season has begun again and I’m still on something of a honeymoon after the Eagles’ championship last year, so I’ve been keeping an eye on things that way.  But you know?  Part of me really doesn’t care if they win a game this year.  They won it all last year.  I’m good.  I can go back to my years-long slide into apathy about a game I once devoted a lot of attention to but which has definite moral aspects of cockfighting these days.  On the other hand, the NFL players have, willingly or no, found themselves in the forefront of some important social justice issues and that’s enough to keep me supporting them.  Folks, if you are forced to participate in patriotic rituals, it isn’t patriotism anymore.  That's not that hard a thing to grasp.  So we’ll see how it goes with the NFL this year.  I have no doubt I’ll be watching a few games here and there, and cheering for my Birds.

12. The Premier League is in full swing.  The NHL is right around the corner.  We’re getting back to the point where they put curling on television on weekend nights to catch all the people who are too old or uncool to be out partying (and boy, do they know me!).  I’m not hard up for choices in my sportsball viewing, really.

13. Also, the new Doctor Who will be out any day now.  I’m looking forward to seeing what Jodie Whittaker will do with the character, though it has been a very long time since the last new episode.  Life is liquid, and if you take something out of it there is no something-shaped hole left to plug it back into when that something returns.  It will be interesting to see how that works out.

14. I have so many unattended projects.  I need a month just to do all of the things that I should have done by now, and another to try to get a head on them a bit.  And this isn’t going to happen.  So much of adulthood is just saying “I’ll catch up on that next week” every week until you die.

15. So far my US1 class has asked me questions about the Magna Carta and how that related to royal authority over the colonies in the 17th century, Spain’s relations with Portugal during the early phases of European expansion, and whether the age of the victim mattered as far as taste was concerned when it came to cannibalism (a question prompted by a discussion of the starvation conditions of early English colonies, where evidence of cannibalism does exist, and which prompted further discussion in which the word "veal" figured prominently).  I think I’m going to like this class.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Our Trip to Europe: We Visit a Big Gun on an Island

On our last full day in Sweden we decided to go see an artillery battery. 

We did!  And we enjoyed it!  You would have too, don’t kid yourself.  It was interesting and in a gorgeous place and really what more could you want? 

The Batteri Landsort sits at the northern end of the island of Oja (and you’ll have to imagine the umlaut over the O because while I have been informed that I could put it in there if I took the time to figure out how to do so I choose not to out of sheer brazen obstinacy).  The island is also often called Landsort, and that makes a certain amount of sense when you think about it.  Oja is the southernmost island in the archipelago of surrounds Stockholm, though not the southernmost island in all of Sweden.  Sweden’s coast is ragged and full of islands, and of Swedish islands there is no end.  It’s one of the nice things about Sweden.

You can’t get there by car – there’s no bridge – so you have to take the ferry.

We drove down to the Ankarudden harbor, south of Stockholm, to the ferry port that morning.  It’s about an hour’s drive, and we enjoyed ourselves on the trip the way one does when traveling with friends, chatting and watching the scenery go by.  We were running on something of a tight schedule though, since the ferry only runs a few times a day and we wanted to spend as much time as we could on the island.  Plus we had an appointed time to tour the battery and we didn’t want to miss it.

We got to the ferry with about ten minutes to spare, bought our tickets, and made ourselves comfortable.

It’s a lovely ride, really, along the coast from Ankarudden, and you can watch the scenery pass by either from inside the ferry or from the seats up on the rooftop.  You pass by any number of other islands – some of them bigger than Oja, and some of them barely the size of the ferry.  There are islands with people on them, and islands with birds on them, and sometimes just islands with trees on them.  We passed them all by, each and every one, and continued on our way.

The harbor is tiny, as you would expect, but with a bit of maneuvering we reached the dock and piled out onto the pier.

The ferry drops you off at the only real village on Oja, a cluster of homes on the southern end of the island that I later discovered was called Storhamn.  There are other clusters of homes here and there, some of which even have names, but this is the main one.  It’s a low-key sort of place – there aren’t really cars on the island other than the occasional 4-wheeler, so everything is close together.  The whole island is less than half a mile across at its widest point and maybe 2.5 miles long.  It’s walkable.

We wandered around the village for a bit until we found a place that would rent bicycles.  The battery is up on the northern end of the island and most of us were planning to walk there, but Sara’s knee was giving her troubles and it was easier for her to bike.  The woman who ran the place seemed kind of surprised to see us but was happy to let us have one of the many bicycles that she had parked in a line in front of her house, and – thus outfitted – we headed north.

It was supposed to have been a cooler day, but the sun was bright and the air warmed pretty quickly as we walked up the spine of the island.  There’s only one road that runs from one end to the other, and as roads go it was pretty quiet – a graveled path wide enough for four or five people to walk abreast that took us through some wooded areas and some shoreline areas.  Oja has always lived off the sea, and the monuments reflect that.

We managed to find the battery – walk until you see the small sign, don’t miss the small sign, follow the small sign when it says to turn right, and there you are – and we sat out on a large rock to await our guide.

Jack was, at one time, a tank commander, and he is a man who truly loves his job.  I think you’d have to, giving tours of an abandoned military base on a small island, because otherwise you wouldn’t last.

The battery itself is actually pretty cool.  It’s four levels plus the gun on top, and it was built during the Cold War to guard against Soviet invasion.  It could house 25 men, though it was never permanently staffed (people would come in for service either when called or on a periodic basis).  It was designed to withstand a direct hit by an atomic bomb.  It was – as Jack proudly informed us – at one time the most sophisticated gun in the entire world, better than anything the Americans or Soviets had.  It could fire massive shells at a rate of 25 per minute and hit things 27km away.  And we saw all of it.

It’s cool and cramped inside, as you would expect, and you find yourself climbing up and down ladders and walking down narrow hallways, but occasionally you turn and find yourself in a large chamber full of whatever it was that they put in it – the bottom one had water and fuel, for example, and there was a big one in the middle for ammunition.  When Mats served his time in the Swedish military he had to do some things that reminded him a lot of what we saw here, which made it interesting that way, and Jack did a really good job of explaining it all.  Eventually we headed back outside through the camouflage canopy and into the sunlight once again.

At this point Sara and Helena went back down to the village on the bike.  The rest of us were supposed to follow by foot and eventually we did, but you know, we were that far north and there wasn’t much of the island left and we figured why not?  So we walked the little bit up until we found it, and my we were glad we did.  For one thing, it was gorgeous.

For another thing there were goats climbing around because of course there were goats.  Why wouldn’t there be goats?  Goats make everything just that much more ridiculous and we need more goats in our lives.  They’re the four-legged version of turkeys that way, except not as fragile.

Eventually we found a little cove where we could explore for a bit.

We also found what might have been my favorite road sign in all of Europe.  Let’s leave aside the fact that there really aren’t cars on Oja – we saw a grand total of one little 4-wheeler on the road the whole time we were there.  Let’s just focus on the fact that enough people drove off the end of the island and into the sea that someone felt it was worthwhile to put up a sign warning people not to do that anymore.  As if a sign would deter the kinds of people who would drive off the end of an island that had essentially unlimited visibility.  I think the kinds of people who need that sign are precisely the ones who aren’t going to pay any attention to it, and you have to love a sign like that.

Immediately after I took that picture I walked off the end of the island and fell into the sea.

No, actually, I didn’t, but wouldn’t that have been just the perfect end to that paragraph?  Don’t tell me I don’t know how to construct a story.

The walk back always goes faster than the walk up for some reason, and in no time we were back in Storhamn, though we did stop along the way to explore the little church by the side of the road.  It’s a surprisingly peaceful place, and I think providing peace is one of the most blessed things an organization can do in this world, so I’m all in favor of anything that creates more of it.

By this point we were starving and ready to eat the paint off the walls, but fortunately there was a nice little restaurant right by the water where we could get not only tasty hot sandwiches and other food, but also tubes of those Swedish butter cookies that we love.  Their slogan really translates as “For the sake of good taste” but when you look at it quickly, as an English speaker, it looks like “For a good smack in the skull,” and really how can you not love a butter cookie that wants to kick your ass with flavor?

This was also the time when it became imperative to find some facilities, and it struck me how informal they were about that on Oja.  There are some bathrooms that are clearly meant for tourists – they’re in a separate building with big signs and all – and there are some that are part of someone’s house except with a door that opens to the outside and a little sign that says you can use it.  It was kind of charming, really.

Since we were already down on the southern end of Oja and the ferry wasn’t scheduled to pick us up for a while, Mats, Maria, Lauren and I decided to walk down to the lighthouse that gives Oja its other name.  The Landsorts Fyr is, according to the map we bought, the oldest operating lighthouse in Sweden.  Most of it was built in the 1670s – the white part – and the red part was added in the 1800s.  You’re allowed to go in and climb up, but it’s quite a hill just to get to the lighthouse so we contented ourselves with wandering around the base and admiring the views.

There’s another set of batteries there by the lighthouse that you can explore if you want to, as well as a bunker leftover from early in the 20th century that you can go inside if you want – it’s kind of small and deteriorating a bit but if you’re there you might as well go inside.

I have no idea what the larger meaning of this statue is (you can kind of see it in the photo above, too), but I kind of like it.  I spent much of my childhood making paper airplanes.  This, folks, is Art.

Eventually other people in our group also headed out to see the lighthouse, but by that point we were back by the restaurant watching the jellyfish swim next to the tugboats, because what else would you do on a sunny afternoon in Sweden?

We made our way over to the harbor again when it was time to go, and it seemed like precisely the kind of place where we should take group pictures.  So we did.

Then we boarded the ferry and took the long ride back to Ankarudden.

It was a roundabout trip home, after that.  For one thing, we couldn’t figure out why the GPS was telling us to take all these tiny little dirt roads until we figured out that it had managed to reset itself to “Walking” rather than “Driving.”  Once we restored it to automotive thinking it turned out that our trip home was scheduled for only a tiny fraction of the time it would have taken us to walk!  It’s these little victories that make life sweet.

We also stopped by the theater where Maria was directing a production of Neil Simon’s Rumors.    She’d actually put together her own performance company to make this happen, and throughout the visit she had to take care of this or that production thing.  Theater is demanding that way.  In fact the day we arrived in Sweden she spent much of the afternoon building a set piece with one of her colleagues out on the lawn while we talked.  The show is going up in a nice little space, and we got to see how it will look.  We also met Maximus, who is handling some of the tech.

If you find yourself in Huddinge this weekend or in early October, you should go see it!

The evening was spent sharing dinner and talking and then getting ready to head out – packing, doing laundry, and so on.  The teenagers all retreated to one room and hung out together for a while, and the rest of us did the same elsewhere. 

It’s a lovely thing to visit friends, but then you have to go.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Our Trip to Europe: We Go to Museums

We decided that Sunday would be Museum Day, because we like museums.  Well, most of us do.  Lauren has kind of fallen out of the museum habit of late because she isn’t interested in going places just to look at things – she’d rather be doing things.  This is why the Tom Tits Experiment passed muster with her while the Hallwylska Museet and the Historiska Museet didn’t.

So we split up.

Lauren stayed home with Sara, Helena, and David, and they had a day on their own.  Kim, Mats, Tabitha, Maria, and I headed into Stockholm for a day at the museum or two.  We took the subway in rather than drive, which meant heading toward the light rail station in Huddinge and then navigating all of the various levels of rail and subway lines once we’d arrived.

It’s actually something of a trick to figure out where you’re going and what level of platform you are on.  They do try to color code them – there’s blue and there’s red and there’s green and it’s sort of cheerful in a subterranean way, really – but you need to have a good sense of spatial awareness in order to emerge into the light of day again.  Fortunately they provide 3D maps for you to get your bearings, and – as with the airports – they route you through a fairly extensive shopping area on your way out so if all else fails you can always stop for a snack or something.  I think Europeans shop while traveling more than Americans do, but then they also have better transportation systems than we do so perhaps it’s just that they can.

It was a cool, vaguely rainy sort of day – the kind that makes you think bringing a jacket is worthwhile but that putting it on is still optional – and we made our way through Stockholm toward our goals.

The Hallwylska Museet is one of those places that you really need to be in the mood for, because otherwise it’s just overwhelming.  It is a massive house, built in the 1890s for the Count and Countess von Hallwyl, who were wealthy and acquisitive during a time when good taste and riotous excess were essentially synonymous.  The place is full of Art and artifacts and pretty much, well, everything.  Minimalism really wasn’t their goal.

I knew even before setting foot in the place that it would not be for me, so my plan was simply to accompany the group there and then start wandering semi-randomly around Stockholm.  I like cities.  I like walking around in them and just seeing the things that are there.  I’m more than happy to wander aimlessly through the streets without much more of a plan than that, and I spent a happy two days in New Orleans doing just that, back in March when Kim was at her conference.  Mats said he’d wander with me, so when we got to the Hallwylska Museet Kim, Maria, and Tabitha headed up for the guided tour and Mats and I did not.

There is a part of the Hallwylska Museet that you can tour for free, however, and Mats wanted to go through it. 

It’s clearly the sort of place where money was no object.  We went through maybe half a dozen rooms, each of them full to the brim with baroque and rococo trimmings, things, and decor.  There wasn’t half an inch of space that wasn’t occupied with something – luxurious paneling, expensive artifacts, intricate hangings, fine paintings, musical instruments (including a grand piano made entirely of inlaid wood and consumer envy), antique weaponry, on and on.  It was eye-wateringly over the top, and I’m actually pretty glad that we stopped at that point and went back outside.  Kim, Maria, and Tabitha had a good time exploring the place further, but it would have just made my head hurt.

We spent the next couple of hours wandering around central Stockholm.

At one point we went through a small park that had a giant orb dedicated to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat whose desperate efforts to stymie the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Hungary saved thousands of lives but who was captured by the Soviets at the end of the war and disappeared.  It’s good to remember people like Wallenberg these days, particularly when there are so many echoes of Fascism being heard in Europe and the United States now.  Heroes know that there is no such thing as a good Nazi.  Nazis are not fine people and should never be treated as anything other than the human waste products that they are.  Anyone who says otherwise should not be trusted with political power.

We also walked around the harbor, from Gamla Stan on past the National Museum, which we waved at as we walked by.  The harbor is a lovely place in the grey and wet.

The ship in the background there, behind the winged statue, is apparently some kind of youth hostel, or it may be a restaurant.  Might be both.  I don’t remember anymore, but it was interesting to walk by on our way around the harbor.

We crossed a small bridge to the islands of Skeppsholmen and Kastellholmen and continued wandering about.  Sometimes it would rain and sometimes the sun would come out, but either way it was a pretty walk.  Hilly, but pretty. 

At one point we ended up on a high sort of rock looking out across the waterway at Grona Lund (you’ll just have to imagine the umlaut over the o in Grona, since I don’t have a Swedish keyboard on my computer and my desk has no room to put one – those things are about a half meter long and contain three entirely different sets of characters depending on which shift button you press.  I also don’t feel like finding the magic key combination that will produce an umlaut on my keyboard, since experience has shown me that it will just make the Blogger platform lose its little electronic mind and start printing gibberish).  Mats said that his company will sometimes rent out the place for a company-wide event, and it’s a lot of fun.  There’s no way over there from Kastellholmen other than a ferry ride, though, so we sat there for a while and then moved on.

There’s an entire museum devoted to ABBA not far from Grona Lund too, because of course there is.  ABBA is Sweden’s most famous export.  You know all of their songs, whether you want to or not, and without quite recalling how you learned them – you just know them, because they come pre-loaded into your consciousness.  They’re all fiendishly catchy.  There’s a law that says whenever “Waterloo” comes on the radio you’re required to mime the piano part, even if you’re driving.  The Abba revival of the last few decades has been the source of more traffic accidents than texting.  ABBA also has some kind of memory blocker because you think they’re just a bubble-gum pop group with a set list of cheerful little songs until you listen to the lyrics and are surprised to discover, once again, just how melancholy they all are.  There’s a reason they’ve managed to squeeze two entire movies out of their back-catalogue, after all.  I didn’t know about the ABBA Museum at the time and I don’t know if I would have gone there this trip even if I had, but it’s nice to know that it’s there.  There really ought to be an entire museum devoted to ABBA.  That’s just proper.

Once you get to the end of Kastellholmen there’s nothing for it but to retrace your steps back across Skeppsholmen and onto the mainland of the city, but rather than go back to Gamla Stan we headed north into the Ostermalm (umlaut over the o again) section.  Our ultimate goal was the Historiska Museet – the History Museum – where we’d meet the Hallwylska crew, but we took our time and saw what there was to see.

It’s an attractive part of the city, a bit off the tourist paths though with a few things in it that might have been open had this not been Sunday.  The red brick building there in the second photo is the Royal Stables.  Sweden still has a monarchy, and people seem to enjoy having them there.  The first time we took the girls to Sweden, back in 2004, they were captivated by the idea that there were Actual Princesses floating around, and when we got back Tabitha wrote a letter to one of them.  She got a very nice reply from the Royal Secretary, along with a couple of post cards.  It was nice of them to write back.

By this point it was getting on lunchtime, and the problem with exploring outside of the tourist area on a Sunday is that not many things are open.  It took me and Mats a while to find something that looked inviting and was open but eventually we found a brightly colored burger stand in Karlaplan park.  The cheerful man behind the window made us a very tasty lunch for a surprisingly affordable price and we sat there outside in the little seating area, and it was good.

While all this was going on, Sara, Lauren, David and Helena were enjoying their own day.  Lauren’s original plan was to try to get her hair cut – the allure of saying she had a Swedish haircut was strong – but haircuts, like most things in Sweden, are expensive and that plan eventually fell through.  Instead they started out their day playing games in the kitchen.

After which they went out to lunch.

And after that they found the World’s Biggest Candy Store and looted it.  They came home with bags of the stuff, and that evening when we sat around the table playing “paper telephone” again we made short work of most of it.  You can’t beat that, really.  No, you can’t.

After our own lunch, Mats and I headed over to the Historiska Museet, which is devoted to Swedish history.  It’s a big place.  They have a lot of history over there. 

While we waited for the Hallwyska crew to arrive we went through the Gold Room.  It’s pretty much what it says it is, only more so.  Almost every archeological find in Sweden that has yielded gold or silver has been deposited in this room, which you get to by going down into a vault and passing through an entry with a forbiddingly sturdy door and along a corridor that no doubt has a wide assortment of Indiana Jones type booby traps to protect it from ne’er-do-wells (and, quite literally parenthetically, I think more people should use the phrase “ne’er-do-well” in conversation – c’mon, people, make an effort).  There must be a hundred pounds of gold and silver in there, some of it exquisitely worked and some of it kind of lumpy but all of it Very Impressive Indeed.

When we all met up, though, we went outside to the Viking history area.

There’s a lot of Viking history too, and that day was some kind of living history event where there were tents set up in the courtyard of the museum and you could try on chain mail, shoot arrows at a target, or just take it all in while others did so.

From there you went inside where an immersive exhibit walked you through several hundred years of Viking history, with runestones, grave goods, and other artifacts of Viking society all neatly arranged and explained.  I liked the model of Birka, a Viking town whose remains we actually visited back in 2012.

There’s also a long exhibit about the history of Sweden where you walk along a guided path and every step takes you a year or two forward.  It starts in the Neolithic and gradually winds you up toward the present, and along the way there are things to do, such as pretend you are 18th-century royalty – a task that seems to involve a great deal of cotton wool.

Toward the end there’s a powerful exhibit about the 1361 Gotland Massacre, where the king of Denmark basically slaughtered a force of farmers on the island of Gotland.  The bodies were then dumped – armor and all – into mass graves and preserved, and the museum has a few of them there on display (with their chain mail and everything – it’s kind of creepy if very compelling) as well as a fairly interactive history of the whole thing.  You should go.

They even had an exhibit about old pipe organs, with some working examples that you could make noise with.  Noise is good.

Eventually it was time to go, and we headed back to the subway and the light rail and Huddinge station.  We feasted on meatballs and salad and vegetables, threw in some laundry for the next stage of the trip, and gathered around the table for games and conversation with friends and family. 

Sometimes the world is a very good place, and it’s good to remember that.