Saturday, June 24, 2006

Living in Sweden, pt. 1

I've said it before, and I still wonder: how did anyone ever get Sweden to convert to Christianity? I've never in my life seen such an ardent band of sun-worshipers! I'm not Swede-bashing, honest. In fact, I find it a little endearing that the towns go quiet when summer rolls around, because the entire population has pulled chocks and flocked to their summer houses in the country. Of course, this makes living in the towns a little harder.
Maybe I should back up.
We need an iron. In moving here nearly a year ago, we had to put most of our MANY possessions into a storage unit in the States and pick & choose what would come with us. Most of what we brought was in our luggage when we came, but we also had some later-essentials (winter coats, a wall clock and such) shipped to us by some friends. Nowhere in that plan did an iron fact, I'm not even sure we had one to begin with. Anyway, my wife has been travelling to conferences and will shortly be interviewing for a new job, so the condition of her clothing has become a matter of increasing concern to her. Hence, we need an iron.
She's away right now at one of her things, in London, so I'm on my own here at the homestead. While I was here, before I travel to meet her in Stockholm and on to Bangkok and Australia, I thought it might be a nice idea to go into town to try to track down a travel iron (or indeed any iron). (This was further encouraged by a recently-acquired shirt of my girl's sitting here getting no less wrinkled before I pack it to go with me...)
It was afternoon before I decided to head into town, and I'd already started burning a CD I wanted to listen to on my way in when I discovered the next bus was in 15 minutes. In waiting for the disc to finish, I missed it.
The next bus was in another 20 minutes, at five past the hour, so I felt I could just catch that. I waited until on the hour, and headed over to the stop just a couple minutes' walk away. I got there with, by my watch, time to spare, but when it came to 15 past the hour I figured I'd missed it and came back home.
It would be another 40 minutes for the next bus, and it was still pretty early, so I just hung out and read until my watch showed it was about time I should be going. For some reason, though, I looked at the time on the computer and it read THE time I was supposed to be at the stop! I rushed out the door, but as I was putting the key in the lock, I could actually hear the unmistakeable sound of the bus going by...
Back in I went, and checking the schedule yet again I found the next bus wasn't for another hour, at about ten to four, and I knew the shops downtown would be closing by then. So, I just bit the bullet and decided to ride my bike in.
I don't have any problem with riding my bike, in fact I quite enjoy it. But since the wife's been gone, I haven't been sleeping well and a long trek into town on a windy day was not something I was looking forward to. In truth, riding bike on a windy day ranks high on my (VERY long) list of things I don't like to do. But what choice did I have: tomorrow's Sunday and shops may not even be open, and Monday afternoon I'm leaving the country!
The ride was as arduous and unpleasant as I'd expected, though it's really a beautiful day outside and (other than the severe wind) fairly ideal to be out biking in. Any biking trip around here tends to be hampered by the strangely idiotic behaviour of other bikers and pedestrians in this town. I'll never understand that: everybody bikes around here, but nobody seems aware that anyone else is there! I had two guys in front of me at one point who were taking up the entire path riding side by side, then at the crosswalk, when I thought I could pass them, one of them couldn't get his bike going and the other suddenly decided to turn right into me. Jackasses.
But I did get into town, and it really should have been a dead giveaway that there was only one other bike in the usually busy parking area at the edge of downtown. I locked up my bike, though, and headed for Clas Ohlson, the chain hardware, etc., store where I hoped to find an iron. Instead I found closed doors and little else, in spite of all the posted hours saying they would be open until 4.
For some consolation, I went to the grocery downstairs (which was open) and picked up a bag of Rollos (not the chocolate-covered caramel American candy, but a fudge-filled British soft toffee I've gotten totally addicted to). Then, I thought I'd walk over to the magazine stand where I buy MOJO, on the off-chance the new issue'd come out since I checked three days ago, and then I'd be halfway to another shop where I wanted to pick up something for the wife. The way there is through a store-heavy people's mallway, and every store that didn't sell food was closed. And they all had hours posted saying they'd be open until four! The newsstand was closed, so I didn't even bother going to the other place, and instead went back to my bike and headed home.
Now, I don't know if today's a national holiday or not; I would have almost no reason to know, and it's not as though we have a Swedish calendar to tell us. But, I blame it all on the Swedish population not working on a beautiful day, because they love the sun.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Something About a Puzzle

We've been in Sweden for just under a year now, so we've only experienced one winter. I wouldn't call it harsh, certainly not compared to the winters I'm accustomed to in the northeastern US, or the ones I experienced in the Pacific Northwest...on an island. It was cold, certainly, but it rarely got windy or completely, bitchingly, make-you-want-to-die freezing (not like nights I remember my friend Matt and I would work until 3 or 4 in the morning at a video arcade in Pennsylvania and then have to walk home...). It would just snow alot, and never in any life-threatening way (well, not to us, who walked or biked everywhere and didn't have to deal with the long, flat stretches of highway here). So, the day in February when I decided to walk the pathless way from our nearby 'mall' to the almost-near-that Toys 'r' Us, there were maybe two feet of snow on the ground, but it wasn't very cold.
Still, why would I do that at all, you may ask. Why would I trek through deep snow, with no more than thermals and jeans covering my legs, just to go to a toy store? (Well, I guess that's not a question you'd ask, since you probably know me if you're reading this, and if you know me that doesn't seem so outlandish, but...) As trite as it's going to sound, I was doing it for L-U-V love!
About a week before, my wife's sister had come to visit us. Right after her visit, my wife was going on a trip of her own. So, we decided to cap off the sister's time with us, as well as see off my bride, with a couple days in Stockholm. This was the first time we were there, and we had an excellent time. The last day there, though, my wife and I (having seen the sis safely departed) went to a toystore in the city, a place called BR that's roughly equivalent to the US's KB -- right down to the logo. I'd wanted to pick up one of those plug-and-play video game controller dealies and this was looking like the only place to get it.
While there, we stopped off at the puzzle section, which was not as large as one might expect and in almost total disarray. Well, even in the mess, my wife found one puzzle that completely caught her attention. She's got a slight thing for egyptology -- or at least the imagery thereof -- so it was pretty natural for her to like the 2000 piece jigsaw we found of a painting titled 'Israel in Egypt,' though the box just called it 'Egypt.'

Since we were there for one thing, though, and she was on her way out of the country, I couldn't convince her we should drop the bills and pick up the one copy they had of the thing! We left the store (with my video game thing), and the next day she was on her way to the US and I was on my way home.
I don't work, so I had to have some cash to survive on while she was gone, and as soon as I had it in pocket, I decided I was going to find that puzzle and get it as a gift on my wife's return home. Little did I know what I was in for.
When I got back into town, I went into our little downtown and checked our two toystores. One didn't really have a puzzle section, and the other just didn't have the one she wanted. I knew there was an actual BR at our nearest mall-type shopping center (more like an inside strip mall, but the best we get), so I figured I may as well just bus out there and check it out (a decision made even easier since the bus would be free for 3 hours after my first trip).
The bus system here is pretty simple, and equally reliable, but it can be easy to screw up right in the center of town where all buses must stop...and that's what I did. I got on the wrong side of the road -- in spite of having checked the schedule posted -- and had to sit on the bus while it went in what I knew was the wrong direction, figuring I'd just stay on until we turned back 'round. Well, we reached the far end of the route, and I was the only one on the bus. The driver turned around and yelled something at me in Swedish (I barely know any now, and I knew even less then), so I went up to him to see what was going on. Turns out this was the stop where he took his break. He'd be going out to Marieberg (where I wanted to go), but I had to step off the bus for ten minutes while he had his required intermission. We were in the middle of a distant residential area (near a lake where folk go ice-skating), so all I could do was get out and stand at the snowy stop and wait. In about five minutes, the bus doors opened and he let me and the one new passenger in, telling me it was 'a short ten minutes.' Nice fella.
So, we had to go back through town to get to where I wanted to be, meaning a trip that should have taken only about 20 minutes was already an hour and a half! And, of course, when we finally got to the shopping center, it was to find that the BR there had about five puzzles in the store. I knew, however, that there was a Toys 'r' Us nearby. I'd never been there, but the same bus here went on to IKEA and we'd always pass TRU on the way. Unfortunately, it'd be another half-hour or so for the next bus. Rather than wait, I did the American thing and just forged blindly onward, pointing myself in the general direction I wanted to go and walking straight ahead.
There may well have been a path, but I couldn't see it for the deep, smooth snow covering the entire area. All I could do was first walk along the highway to get around the least hospitable looking area, then just plow right through whatever stood between me and the store. That turned out to be easily 50 yards of dense, powdery snow, with no concept of the underlying terrain. I came out of it with my legs covered in white up to my thighs, but I got to the store!
That should be the end of this story -- I buy the puzzle, get on a bus and go home -- but I (and you) should be so lucky. It took almost no time to find the store's puzzle section, which was well organised (by company and then piece-quantity) and covered about a sixth of the warehouse length back wall. The puzzle HAD to be here, right? Well, I spent about twenty minutes checking every one of the puzzles they had in stock, and there was no 'Egypt' in sight. Having worked in a store like this before, though, I knew that the stock wasn't necessarily rotated as regularly as it should, and that overstock was kept above the shelves. So, I started squinting at the overstock shelf atop all these puzzles, but it was about two feet above my head AND there was a rising lip that was blocking my view of most of what was up there.
Now, in an American store this size, you wouldn't normally be able to spend five minutes staring at a given section without someone accosting you, but here I'd been for about half an hour and none of the three or four employees who'd passed (I was right next to the store's back employee section) had offered to help. So, seeing that I was at an impasse, I went off looking for some assistance. The first person I found was diligently stocking wrapping paper, and just as I was about to ask her help I noticed a tall ladder laying on its side down the aisle. Being bold, I told her all I really needed was to use that ladder. She gestured to indicate 'go ahead, what do I care?' and away I went! (That's right, folks, this store employee just told me to go ahead and climb a ten foot ladder on their premises! Definitely not in America anymore...)
Okay, cutting this part of the story short, they had the puzzle, and I didn't fall off the ladder. I retrieved the jigsaw, returned the ladder and remitted my payment without bother to get a bag. Now, I just had to get home.
From where I was, I thought the nearest bus would be the one at IKEA (I'd find out later there was one a little nearer). I trekked the lots dividing the two shopping areas, as well as another few feet of thick white, and got to the bus stop only to find out there were no buses scheduled for that day! This meant I'd have to get back to the shopping center, where I'd first gotten off...
The trip back was easier than the trip there, as I could see from this way that there was actually a paved and shovelled sidewalk connecting the two places! I didn't see it the first time because it was in the opposite direction of where I wanted to be, so I didn't even look.
And NOW all I had to do was wait for the bus, and go home...
The story ends happily, of course, because I did get the puzzle. My wife came home safely and was surprised and delighted by the gift, and we got right on assembling it. It took us about two weeks of on and off hardcore work...

(It's pretty enormous! That's a pencil in the upper right of the table, for scale.)
That was around it's June, nearly July, and there it sits taking up an entire table. Occasionally, I'll dust it off. Last week, without thinking, I tried to vacuum it! After a moment of panic, while pieces were clattering up the tube and falling all over the table, I was able to shut off the machine and reassemble the damage I'd done. I'd only sucked up three pieces in the end, and thankfully the machine's designed in a way that makes it easy to retrieve things from the bag.
Was it worth it? Worth the trip and the trying, the space it takes up now and the money we'll eventually spend to (probably) frame it and hang it (yeah, we're like that...)? Damn right it was! Worth every second, just for that moment of seeing my girl smile. I know, how sappy can it be? Well, you were warned...

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Things What Come From My Body! Part deux

The last time I'd really been in a hospital in the US was about 15 years ago. While home for the holidays on leave from the Navy, I was out driving around with a couple female friends of mine. It was the last day of December. One was driving and the other was in the passenger seat, I was in the back left seat. We'd just been into town to get one of my favourite things to eat back then: a baked sub -- extra mayo -- from the Italian place downtown. I was pretty excited to be eating it, but had agreed to go for a drive with the girls before going home (at which point I should mention there was sort of a 'thing' between me and the driver).
Now, this girl hadn't had her license for long, and that's what I blame for what happened. We were tooling around on some quiet back roads, and I could tell she was going a bit too fast for the curves. I had my left hand out the partially open window, holding onto the top of the doorframe, and my right hand in my lap protecting my beloved sammich. On our way up a hill where the road curved against a rather steep drop into a field, I guess the driver lost control and off the road we went. The last thing I remember of the driving bit was hurtling through winter-dead overgrowth on our way down the hill, the trip feeling like going too fast on a dirt road.
Next thing I knew, I was laid out on my back in the field, looking up at faces looking down at me (just like that inevitable shot in some movies, where the camera's at floorlevel and all these people are encircling it saying something like 'You alright?'). Within minutes, and ambulance had driven into the middle of the field and I'd been hauled into it, the whole time insisting I was fine and demanding to know where my sub was. I'd find out later I was in a bit of shock.
Once we got to the hospital, I was set off into a private bed behind curtains. Some nurses came in and pulled off my pants, leaving me in my coat and shirt. My coat (a vintage Marine wool trenchcoat) was pretty precious to me, so I insisted we not cut it spite of the injury I didn't really know I had yet.
When the doctor showed up, he explained what had happened and finally drew my attention to my left hand. It was a mess and still pretty bloody in spite of having been cleaned at some point. Apparently, at some point in the powerdrive down the hill, the window I had my hand out of had smashed. It looked as though when that happened, I decided to shake my hand wildly in the broken glass: I had some large gashes on the outside back of my hand, minor cuts on the sides of two of my fingers...and my ring finger's tip was hanging by about a quarter-inch of flesh! The doctor found this amusing somehow, holding up my hand and tapping the dangling tip with his finger before finally sewing it back on.
After I got sewn up and drugged up, I was left to leave. The driver (who was pretty shaken up, but physically fine, as was the other passenger) had phoned my mum, who showed up understandably worried. We all went home, but as it was now New Year's Eve, plans were already made or needing to be made amongst the family and my friends. If I remember correctly, we went to a pretty dead party and ended up home before midnight. I don't know, but it's really not the important part of this story.
The important part is that, after my hand had healed, I noticed a hard little welt or something in the scar on the back of my hand. Not knowing any better, and not feeling any kind of pain from it, I just assumed it was some rigid scar tissue under the skin or something...though I occasionally mused that is was a piece of gravel lodged in my hand.
And I never did get to eat that damn sammich!
Cut to the present. Much time has passed, my hand wound is more a 'distinguishing mark' on forms than anything else, and I've long since forgotten the little hard bit in there. I'm married and living in Sweden, soon to be flying to New Orleans to see my wife ceremonially hooded for her PhD. About a week before the trip, she points out that my hand scar has been looking different lately: darker, swollen, something. I put off her concerns, insisting it was the same. Within the days before and after the flight, though, I finally admit that there is something going on.
Shortly after arriving in NOLA, I see that my swollen and darkened scar is breaking open. Loving, as I do, to pick and worry at festering parts of my body, I start scraping. I'm convinced there's just an ingrown hair or something in there. Sure enough, once I scrape off enough skin, I can see what appears to be a curled up, very thick and dark hair. Try as I may, though, I just can't get a grip on it. At last, I resort to sucking on the wound to try to work the hair out. In doing so, I feel something VERY hard against my tongue. I'm alarmed, but all it does is make me more determined (if more cautious) to get this thing out!
A little more work, and out it came:

(I shot it next to my ring for scale.)
That's right, it was a nugget of AUTO SAFETY GLASS! Lucky for me, though it was overlooked in the cleaning of my hand, it was clean enough to not cause me any problems for 15 YEARS! I guess it just took all that time for my body to naturally work it out of the skin, causing me to marvel anew at the amazing machines we are.
After taking the picture, though I was (again) tempted to keep it, I threw out the piece of glass that spent a decade and a half lodged in the back of my hand.
Au revoir, second foreign object to be removed from me in the space of a year!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Things What Come From My Body!

Being, as I am, a lower middle class American, I tend to avoid medical care unless and until it's absolutely necessary. This kept me from seeking any kind of help with the large bump that started in the back left of my head sometime in the mid-90s and grew larger steadily until it was about the size of...oh, I don't know, but something bigger than should be growing out of a fella's head. This thing was clearly not supposed to be there, and I was worried about it, but I just couldn't afford/justify going to a doctor about it until it a) hurt or b) seemed to be causing a problem. It had never done either of these (save for a dull ache if I laughed too hard), so I kept the Bump there.
Of course, it wasn't really noticeable for years, until I shaved my head. That was maybe 7/8 years ago, and the Bump continued to grow since then, becoming more apparent now that it was out in the open. Still, the above reasons still applied, so there it stayed.
My wife and I, however, moved to Sweden nearly a year ago. For those who don't know about the way this country works, it's basically set up with a government that's meant to take care of the populace. This will sound pretty strange to Americans, I know, who have become accustomed to being at the bottom of the long list of governmental concerns (well after war, oil, major industry, etc.). We were, and are, the same way. Though our life in America seems a distant dream already, we still find it hard to understand a government that cares if we live or die...and not just for statistics.
Anyway, part of being a citizen in Sweden is that you pay HUGE taxes (about 30%). This would (and does) stun most Americans, who fail to understand that when you pay taxes, the money is supposed to go into the betterment of the State and the people (as opposed to spending more on an already-overwhelming 'defense' structure). Here, for example, that money partly goes to VERY inexpensive health care. When we were all set up to be recipients of said health care, we decided it was time to excise the Bump.
Through a brief series of doctor visits, I learned it was a cyst of some sort. It was caused the clogging of pores (so keep your skin clean, kids) and then the buildup of the secretions that would normally, um, secrete out of the skin. It was a minor operation, during which I was anaesthetised in the back o' my head, and the doc sliced open my scalp. After some scraping -- which resounded through my skull but caused only a slight mental discomfort rather than any actual pain -- the good doctor sewed me up and was through.
When the whole thing was finished, I sat up and asked if I could see the removed Bump. I mean, I'd lived with the thing for so long, but never really gotten a good look at it even while it was in my scalp. He surprised me by picking it up and essentially saying, 'Here you go!' as he handed the gory little mess to me! I wasn't grossed out or anything, just shocked: an American doctor would not be very likely to just hand you a piece of yourself and wish you both good tidings as you walked out the door. This fellow, though, was perfectly content to hand me this odd little piece of meat to carry home in my hand.
I kind of wanted to keep it, to be honest, if for nothing more than to show my wife what had been nestled against my skull for so many years. So, I got a little plastic cup (nothing elaborate like a specimen container or anything, just the plastic version of a Dixie cup) to take home my little friend.
Of course, once I got home with it and had shown it to my wife (who was pretty disgusted by it, as well as by the doctor's method of delivery), I didn't know what to do with it. I wanted to be able to have it around...but I didn't really want to physically keep it, and didn't really know how even if I wanted to. So, I did the next best thing in such situations and photographed it:

I would truly love to say that this was the last thing that I'd left in my body that shouldn't have been there to begin with, but sadly that is not the case...

A beginning, at least...

So, in the effort to continue the unending flood of crap people spew onto the internet every day, I figured I may as well be one of the countless bloggers who lay out their thoughts online. Why? Well, why not? I have an opinion, just like most folk, and anybody who knows me knows I make no bones about yakkin' about any given one on any given any time. Now I have a place to do it where nobody has to listen to it! Hoo-ray for progress!