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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Amber's Swedish History - Chapter 8

Amber Hist 8 

Crime and Punishment

A lot of Swedes remained Catholic in the early 1600’s, even though it was illegal. Nothing strengthens religions so much as repression, if you ask me. In Duke Karl’s Sweden there were about seventy crimes that could earn criminals the death penalty, or have their ears cut off . . . sometimes an arm. The heads of Duke Karl’s enemies were kept in cages at the entrance gates to Stockholm. If you said the wrong thing about the church you could have your tongue cut off, which must have been a real bummer. Murderers at sea were tied to the backs of their victims and thrown into the ocean. Those who murdered on land were buried alive.

It took about a hundred years for Gustav Vasa’s Lutheran reforms to take hold. People were given examinations to see how much they knew about the bible and Lutheran teaching. God help you if you couldn’t pass the test. In 1617 a new law demanded that all Catholics leave Sweden within three months after its passing, but there are still some Catholics in Sweden today, and Swedes still celebrate Santa Lucia at Christmas time.

When Gustav Vasa had been king for five years he decided it was time to get married. He was thirty-two years old, but didn’t have much of a kingdom, and people weren’t sure how long what he did have would last. This did not make him the most eligible bachelor in town. He wore a lot of fancy clothes in an attempt to look cool and improve his image.

 Gustav Vasa

Kat von Sachsen 
Wife No. 1 Katarina von Sachsen

He finally married Katarina von Sachsen, who was the daughter of a prince who’s kingdom was even smaller than Vasa’s, but the prince had a small army of mercenaries which seemed like a good deal. Katarina was eighteen when they married and managed to give birth to a son, Erik. Almost everyone was named Erik in those days. It was not a happy marriage. Katarina only spoke German, and Vasa only Swedish. Katarina died two years later while dancing with her brother in law.
Margareta Leijonhufvud 
Wife No. 2 Margareta Leijonhufvud

One year later Vasa married Margareta Leijonhufvud who was Swedish and a good breeder. She was twenty years younger than him and had a whole litter of children, ten to be exact. Margareta also died early, probably from having too many children.
The faces in these first two paintings look pretty much the same, if you ask me. I don’t think the artists paid much attention to what the queens really looked like.

Katerina Stenbock
Katarina Stenbock

This time the artist got it right . . . or wrong, depending on how you look at it.
Vasa married Katarina Stenbock next. He was fifty-five. She was sixteen, and a not-so-distant relative. It was another unhappy marriage and no children came of it, which was probably a good thing. Gustav passed a new law that made it illegal for priests to bless the marriage of two people, “…when one is young and the other old.”
*         *         *
Katarina’s first born, Erik, now six, and two year old Johan, one of Margareta’s offspring, sat with Vasa on the throne. Gustav Vasa summoned his councilors and bishops and had them kneel before him, placing their hands on his sword. He ordered them swear to allegiance to the King and all that inherited his throne, making Sweden a hereditary kingdom.
Son Erik – better known as Erik XIV- later became the first king to inherit the throne by law. He was pretty smart, spoke several languages, and was well versed in astrology, art, and music. He wanted his coronation to be a major event, and had some Flemish masters create a crown, scepter, key, and orb made out of gold and precious stones. I wouldn't mind having one of those orbs to fool around with, but the servants tell me they can’t afford one.

Ummm. Where was I? Oh yes, Erik. Like I said, he was smart, but he was unstable.

Erik's Crown 
Erik’s Crown

Next Week -Erik’s Evil Genius

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Cormac McCarthy

My favorite author, Cormac McCarthy, was born on this day in Providence, Rhode Island – 1933. He had no interest in literature until he was in the Air Force, stationed in Alaska, and had nothing to do but read. Soon after, he began to write. “I never had any doubts about my abilities. I knew I could write. I just had to figure out how to eat while doing this.” For years he lived in poverty, often unable to pay rent.

When he finished his first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), he sent it to Random House because it was the only publisher he had ever heard of. Albert Erskine, who had edited Faulkner, liked the manuscript and agreed to publish it. McCarthy barely sold very few books, but won awards and grants, which gave him money to keep going. He turned down regular jobs — and even speaking invitations. He moved to Texas. He said: “I ended up in the Southwest because I knew that nobody had ever written about it. Besides Coca-Cola, the other thing that is universally known is cowboys and Indians. You can go to a mountain village in Mongolia and they’ll know about cowboys. But nobody had taken it seriously, not in 200 years. I thought, here’s a good subject.” He wrote a few more novels, but they continued to sell poorly. He mostly lived in run-down motels, which were so dimly lit that he carried around a good light bulb so that he could see better to read and write.

When Erskine retired McCarthy switched publishers. His new editor arranged to have 30 pages of McCarthy’s new manuscript published in Esquire, and suddenly everyone wanted to read it. All the Pretty Horses (1992) won the National Book Award and was a best-seller. None of his previous books sold more than 5,000 copies in hardcover; All the Pretty Horses sold nearly 200,000 copies in its first few months. His other novels include Blood Meridian, The Crossing, No Country for Old Men, and The Road.
Ah, to be born without a doubt of one’s ability.

Blood Meridian: “I venture that no other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable.” Harold Bloom.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Amber's Swedish History - Chapter 7

Amber History 7A 

The Stockholm Bloodbath – 1520

Another Danish regent, Hans, the son of Kristan I, was the king of Sweden, but got driven off. Two decades later Kristan II. another Dane, decided he would take the crown.

Kristan II 

Kristan II

The Danes were stronger than the Swedish army. They resisted, but in time Kristan succeeded. He granted amnesty for all who’d fought against him. The losers happily accepted Kristan’s invitation to his coronation in Stockholm, where the new king had a change of heart. He had his men kill all of the attendants who had once opposed him, and their sympathizers. A hundred or more were executed in what is now referred to as the Stockholm bloodbath. Kristan topped it off by raising taxes, and passed a law prohibiting the carrying of weapons. He was soon referred to as, Kristan he Tyrant.

He had gone too far. Gustav Eriksson, a Dane, had not attended the deadly coronation, and tried to form a peasant army in Darlarna, but the peasants had no interest. Disappointed, he passed through the town and headed north. When people heard about the bloodbath they changed their minds and sent three skiers bring him back. They caught up with Gustav easily because he was not on skis. They still celebrate this event in Darlarna, with the largest ski race in the world, The Vasa Marathon. Thousands of Swedes compete over a 90 kilometer course  (56 miles). The race takes forever. I tried to watch it on TV last year, but fell asleep.

Gusav Vasa

Gustav Eriksson Vasa

Where was I? Gustav, known as Gustav Vasa, came back and defeated Kristan he Tyrant. He had it pretty easy for a while, as most of his competitors had been killed off. Gustav also became a tyrant in the years that followed, but centuries later historians would decide to make him a hero. It was now near the end of the middle ages. A new era had begun, but Sweden didn’t have an army or a navy, and the Danes had both. They would remain a threat.

Most Swedes farmed, and lived in houses with sod roofs. Goats and pigs were running around all over the place, but nothing is written about dogs because they weren’t important. Five thousand people lived in Stockholm. They were mostly Swedish, but some Germans, Scots and Dutch were there as well.

The king raised taxes again, and decided his people, who were Catholics, would be better off as Protestants. This move gave him control over the property of the church and its money. He became the richest man in Sweden, owned five thousand farms, and a fleet of ships. A New Testament was printed during his reign. It was the first major book published in Sweden, and began with a forward by Martin Luther, another German.

Gustav wrote critical letters of advice to common farmers, which have helped historians romanticize him as a beloved monarch, but they terrified the farmers at the time.

“Oh, shit! Another letter from the king.” You can imagine.

Gustav’s picture was on Swedish money for a while.

Gustav Kroner

 He ruled successfully, but there were problems. Sweden’s economy tanked, and the university at Uppsala was barley functioning. There were uprisings by the peasants who were angry about the new taxes, and changes to the church. Six revolts were put down, and their leaders executed in public.

There were attempts to poison Gustav. He was also stabbed, and there was a plan to blow him up by putting gunpowder under his seat at the cathedral in Stockholm on Palm Sunday. It would have been a memorable ascent to heaven, but one of the conspirators got drunk on aquavit and spilled the beans. Eight people were arrested, and beheaded . . . seven of them Germans. Kristan II thought it was a good time to return with an army of mercenaries, but he was defeated and spent the rest of his life in prison.

The peasants were now doing fairly well by now, except for the letters. There were no serfs in Sweden. Farmers lived a simple life and owned fifty percent of the land. They were described as crude, by Germans, wore old-fashioned clothing, belched at the dining table, and slept on the floor with their animals. Sounds okay to me, but there were rats, as they could not afford to import cats in those days.

Coming Next – Duke Karl and Crime & Punishment in Sweden

Monday, July 14, 2014

On Being Alone With One's Thoughts

Study: most people dislike being alone with their thoughts
July 4, 2014

Courtesy of the University of Virginia and World Science staff
Most people dislike being alone with their own thoughts and many would even rather give themselves electric shocks than just sit quietly, according to new research.
In a series of 11 studies, psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues at the University of Virginia and Harvard University found that study participants from a range of ages generally didn’t enjoy spending even brief periods alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder or daydream. The participants, by and large, enjoyed much more doing external activities such as listening to music or using a smartphone. Some even preferred to give themselves mild shocks.

“Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising. I certainly do but our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time,” Wilson said. The findings are published July 4 in the Journal Science.

“Even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking,” Wilson said.
He doesn’t necessarily attribute this to society’s fast pace or the prevalence of electronic devices, such as smartphones. Instead, he thinks the devices might be a response to people’s desire to always have something to do. In his paper, Wilson notes that broad surveys have shown that people generally prefer not to disengage from the world. Based on the surveys, Americans spent their time watching television, socializing or reading, and actually spent little or no time “relaxing or thinking.”
“The mind is designed to engage with the world,” he said. “Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world. And without training in meditation or thought-control techniques, which still are difficult, most people would prefer to engage in external activities.”

During several of Wilson’s experiments, participants were asked to sit alone in an unadorned room at a laboratory with no cell phone, reading materials or writing implements, and to spend six to 15 minutes – depending on the study - entertaining themselves with their thoughts. Afterward, they answered questions about how much they en¬joyed the experience and if they had difficulty concentrating, among other questions.

Most reported they found it hard to concentrate and that their minds wandered, though nothing was competing for their attention. On average the participants said they didn’t enjoy the experience. A similar result was found in further studies when the participants were allowed to spend time alone with their thoughts at home.
“We found that about a third admitted that they had ‘cheated’ at home by engaging in some activity, such as listening to music or using a cell phone, or leaving their chair,” Wilson said. “And they didn’t enjoy this experience any more at home than at the lab.”

The researchers took their studies further. Because most people prefer having something to do rather than just thinking, they then asked, “Would they rather do an unpleasant activity than no activity at all?” The results show that many would. Participants were given the same circumstances as most of the previous studies, with the added option of giving themselves a mild electric shock by pressing a button.

Twelve of 18 men in the study gave themselves at least one electric shock during the study’s 15 minute “thinking” period. By comparison, six of 24 females shocked themselves. All of these participants had received a sample of the shock and reported that they would pay to avoid being shocked again.

Wilson said that he and his colleagues are still working on the exact reasons why people find it hard to be alone with their own thoughts. Everyone enjoys daydreaming or fantasizing at times, he said, but these kinds of thinking may be most enjoyable when they happen spontaneously, and are harder to do on command.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Observing Sweden – Allsång

 Flier Fixed


        Last weekend was another Swedish first for me. Wife talked me into going to this sing-along which is really not my sort of thing, but I went along with it. This sort of thing is popular in Sweden. They have them on TV. Crowds of thousands, ecstatically happy, laughing, singing . . . having a good time. It’s weird. They don’t do this in America. Last time I remember was in my pre-teens. Movies used to begin with words and music on the screen. “Follow the bouncing ball,” it read. A little white ball would bounce along over the words so singers would know where they were with the lyrics. I don’t remember anyone ever singing, but someone may have. By the mid-forties the bouncing ball was a thing of the past, but people still have fun with it here. Almost 5,000 attended this gig. Photo above shows the crowd beginning to show up. People brought camp chairs, drinks and snacks. Cold drinks, coffee and pastries were sold.

       The show was led by Lasse Berhagen, who is famous and much loved in Sweden. Guest performers included Emmy Lou & the Rhythm Boys.


The poster scared me, but she wasn’t bad. The event seemed pretty corny to my American taste, but a good time was had by all, including me – which is saying a lot since I still speak almost no Swedish. It was fun.
(My next language class starts next month)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Amsterdam Diary - Day 3, Part 1 - Conversations

Amst Tree Big Fixed

A walk in the park
this sunbathed afternoon
stopping to rest at a respectful distance
from these youths.
How I would love
to be amongst
be one of them again
except without the inconvenience that attends
those years.

I’ve no desire to face the storms of of early times again
But ah, to join them
this sweet moment
bird of youth
so swiftly flown
into a labyrinth of memories.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Amsterdam Diary - Day 2

          I need to call my wife and tell her I've arrived okay, but it seems like all the computers have disappeared. Last year there were computers everywhere, now I can’t find one anywhere. I head down Warmoesstraat, asking questions at bars and shops. Does anyone know of an Internet cafe or bar that has computers. I get some bad directions. Two of the places recommended have gotten rid of their computers.

          There’s one at the restaurant below Hotel Victoria, I’m told. It’s very nice, and free. Sounds good, about five blocks from where I am. I order a coffee there and learn the computer is downstairs. There is only one, but it’s unoccupied and I am welcome to use it.

          Nothing is easy. The computer is in a dark corner, and for some reason the cord to the keyboard and mouse are each about four inches long - or short. It’s so dark I have to hold the keyboard tilted up in order to see the keys. After a few minutes probing I discover the machine is talking Dutch. I go upstairs and tell the barmaid who says she will be happy to change it to English. I drink my coffee and wait while she serves another customer. When finished she goes downstairs and makes the change. 

          “It’s okay now,” she says.

          I go back down and struggle with the keyboard and mouse. The computer is incredibly slow, and I am unable to anything with it. I go back upstairs and tell the barmaid what’s going on. She’s very nice and goes back down to fix it but cannot. “It’s in pretty bad shape,” she tells me, and then goes to the bar’s computer to look for an internet cafe. She finds one fifteen blocks away . . . not good. My left leg’s giving me some trouble - motorcycle accident when I was thirty.
          I end up walking 30 blocks, going past the place twice before I found it. They are selling pot, and computer time . . . six computers. I rent one for an hour, eight Euros, or about ten U.S. dollars. I’m still having trouble, but a black girl, younger than myself is very nice, and helpful. Part of the problem is that the computer is so well protected. I am finally able to look at my e-mail, but cannot respond. Finally, with the woman’s help I am able to get onto Facebook by changing my password. I leave a note for my wife.
“Arrived okay. Coin operated computers have been removed. Everyone is using cell phones - except me. I’m an analog man in a digital world.”

My Hotel
          The walk back to my 2.5 star hotel is painful, and think maybe beer will help. I find Sebastiaan at his table by the window, watching passersby. I always stay here, at this same hotel, and he is almost always here, drinking beer, watching TV, or sometimes reading the paper . . . four or five hours a day, an afternoon and evening shift. He’s a nice old guy, around my age I guess. I’ve never seen him drunk, or without a beer in his hand.


         Below is a blurry view of the bar. It always seems to turn blurry late at night. I don’t know why that is.

        I drink a beer with Sebastiaan, then begin the trek upstairs. It’s like climbing Everest. I registered too late this year. The had an almost full house already, and have put me on the top floor, three stories up with a view of the wall of a building across an alleyway next door. The steps are merciless.

           This photo shows the first, and easiest part of the climb. It takes two fights like this to each floor, six to get to my room. After this first flight the steps are more narrow and triangular, and dark. These old buildings are like living inside a smokestack. They are so damn narrow. Stairways corkscrew around, and around. I have to take a break after the second floor. I could stay at a better place, but I like it here, located exactly where I want to be, on a canal they’ve been rebuilding for the last three years, almost done now . . . almost.

           Renovation in the Red Light District never ends. Thousands of these old buildings are registered as historic monuments. No changes are allowed to their appearance. Many were built in the 1700s, and are starting to lean towards the canals. They rest on wooden pilings made from trees 20 to 30 meters long, driven into the ground until they hit rock, or packed clay. The pilings are placed a little less than a yard away from each other, with foundation beams placed across the top. They need to stay damp to keep from rotting, but the weather in Amsterdam has become dryer in recent  years. The tops of the pilings are starting to crumble, causing the buildings to list.

          The total cost to level off one of the buildings runs about $100,000. Most of the older buildings along the canal are privately owned, so there are financial problems as well.

            You can see one of the buildings leaning in this photo. Note the date at its top - 1725. I was wondering how men got underneath the buildings to work on the pilings. Sebastiaan told me they get there by breaking through the ground floor. Then some kind of collar is bolted around the top of existing pilings, and the tops are extended using with some kind of screw device. Cost is around $10,000 per piling. It’s estimated that there are five-million piles supporting the old parts of the city.
The sides of the buildings are butted up against each other, so they can’t lean sideways. If one of them was removed I suspect it’s neighbors would tumble like a string of dominoes.