Photos: Skating on a frozen lake in Sweden on a Sunday morning

We had a birthday party for my son – he turned three! – this weekend, and the day after, I got to go skating for an hour. I am not a good skater and I use hockey skates, not the long-distance kind, but I do not fall down, and it helps me embrace the winter and the crystaline, yet weak, morning light.

Our lake is surrounded by ugliness – even more so with the new national soccer stadium looming over it – but it is protected still by a thin wall of trees so you can feel the quiet, especially in the frozen winter when you can skate around and around on the big ice road.





Pedaling past traffic jams without even knowing it

I live near the traffic jam on the front of our local weekly.  The mess is because they’re putting in a tram line, which is very cool, but apparently a nightmare for drivers.

The beautiful thing?  I had no idea.  I ride my bike to work now, and if I didn’t ride, I would take the subway.  So the traffic patterns of my car-centric (for Sweden) Solna are a mystery to me.  We are talking about getting me a driver’s license but never for the day to day.

Here is something from a passage I wrote on why I still hate to drive:

But it took New York and New Jersey to finally take me from fast to angry, as I completed the crazy car trifecta of the Southland (LA), the Balkans and now the Tri-State area. I took a newspaper job that meant hours of driving up and down a 8-lane stop-and-go boulevard of dusty exurban strip malls. On weekends I suffered the potholes and chaos of New Jersey highways, the hell of the Brooklyn Bridge on a Friday night, and the gridlock of the West Side Highway on a Monday morning. I got buzzed time after time after time, almost always by young guys taking their rage out on me, never with the fastest car, now in a hand-me-down four-cylinder 2002 Dodge Neon.

Mine is not an aggressive rage. It is defensive, built on honor and a sense of outrage. I will not get in your face. But do not dare get in mine. Even then my anger does not ignite into a big ball of flame. I fume, sulk, hold a mean grudge. This withdrawn, quiet anger is just as male as the raving lunatic beating his chest, mirrored in how I cried easily as a child, and then learned not to cry.

Instead I learned to seethe.

The only problem with the bike riding is the dark.  I had to go buy a fluorescent vest today, to go with my bright yellow helmet.  It’s safe.  It’s necessary.  But I shudder to think what my 12-year-old self would say about me now.

Ahhh, to ride free in the California sun.

But I’ll take dorky over dead.  And I’ll take dorky over the traffic jam …

becoming an expert on sandboxes in sweden while on paternity leave

I am an aficionado of the sandbox.  Stockholm is a city of small parks, and, without even trying, I can think of 10 sandboxes where we have played regularly.

I was in four sandboxes yesterday.

I know which few sandboxes have shade, and at what time of day.  I know what kind of trees shade those sandboxes.  This is important because the sand in a shady sandbox is not as clean, though it will be cooler and filled with the damp sand that is necessary for a proper sand frog, sand cake or sand castle.

Not that it matters with a 16-month-old, for whom destruction of said sand creations is one of the great joys of life.

I know which sand boxes are frequented by daycare kids.  With a bigger kid, I used to chase the “day moms” and their broods, desperate for someone for NK to play with.  Now, with a smaller and more shy boy, I avoid them because the kids will just take the sand toys and Baby B will get quiet – though this is changing fast so maybe I need to shift once again.

I know which sandboxes come with toys and which are empty.  Which have stones and which do not.

I thought for a while that I was pushing Baby B into the sandboxes because I like them so much.  But no.  He likes them more, pulling out the sand toys even in the middle of the mall, looking to dig in a planter.

Negotiating the luxuries of Swedish child care

Daddyland is luxury.  Daddyland is choices.  Daddyland is freedom, so much so that an American immigrant can lose his bearings.

Take the issue of daycare and siblings.  In Solna, when I am on paternity leave, I “get” 30 hours of daycare a week for my older child – at the same old price, which is so cheap you don’t even think about it.  Other cities give you 15 hours a week but both Solna and surrounding Stockholm are at 30 – that is six hours a day at almost no cost while I am home with the baby and getting paid for it.

There are three main justifications I have heard for this luxury.  It is for the older child so they don’t get stuck at home and can continue to socialize and develop.  Or, it is for the younger child who deserves the full attention of mommy or daddy, undiluted by the older sibling.  Or, it is for the sleepless, overwhelmed parents who need the daily break in order to provide the best home possible for their kids.

Solna tried to go to 15 hours a week a few years ago.  People went nuts.  The city dropped it.

So this is cool.  It is not my battle to fight one way or another.  I am too new to Daddyland.  But that is the problem:  I am not Swedish.  On some level, I do not understand getting 30 hours of subsidized child care when one parent is at home.

I can adjust my mind to paternity leave.  I can imagine preschool – in the US, NK at three and a half years old would go to preschool.  But 30 hours?  What do I do with that?

For I feel guilty that NK does not get as much time with me.  But then if I do keep her at home, I feel guilty towards Baby B – who really does like the quieter time with Daddy and will have no parents on leave at all when he is three and a half.

I am also tired.  I also want to write.

So I am left to find my own balance, which is NK stays at home on Fridays and will likely stay home another half day a week.  At that point I begin to feel we approach American preschool levels, and she is three and a half and not nearly so tired in the evenings anymore, and with E studying, we will be spending huge chunks of time up at our country cottage.

And she will probably catch three colds in March and be home the whole time, and I will pull my hair out and dream of those 30 hours.

Ice skating in the slush in the Daddyland Olympics

My second cousin Johnny Spillane just won three silver medals in the Olympics in Vancouver.  How awesome is that.  Our common great grandparents – Hungarian immigrants Mihaly and Erszebet Hegedus – would no doubt be proud and a little bewildered, as they were farmers from the flatlands of what is now northern Serbia.

Anyway, hoping to pick up the family winter sports flame, I walked off Saturday to our nearby lake to ice skate .. for the fourth time in 20 years, with two of those times coming the past two weeks.  The city plows a beautiful long oval on the lake and for a California boy there remains a real thrill to walking where only the geese swim come April.

I sloshed out to the oval, over slush on ice.  It was “warm,” meaning above freezing, and snow melts on warm days.  There were cracks in the ice and small round holes with water either bubbling up or draining out.

I skated anyway – the only one on the ice – through standing water, stomping through slush, sliding blades into cracks.  Finally my trust in Solna city and their ice judgment faded, and I panicked and walked – in my skates – through the slush and off the ice.

I am ready for the Sochi 2014.  I am thinking short track speed skating.

But I would have a better chance at the following paternity leave events – the national sports of Daddyland, so to speak.  These four are under consideration by the IOC for the games in Sochi, Russia.

1.  One-handed slushy stroller push

2.  Slush/puddle stroller obstacle course, with walking toddler

3.  Toddler/baby inside the apartment during Swedish winter endurance event

4.  Lost mitten backtracking chase

cut off from Daddyland in the February freeze

We do not have a natural daily support network.  We live in a very small apartment.  We have no car.

Usually, none of this matters, as Daddyland, read Sweden, provides more than enough leeway to wiggle through a tough winter day.  You got cheap daycare, good parental leave, all these “open” preschools and more buses, trains and subways than I can keep track of.

Then your kid gets sick, and it all evaporates.  It is the worst when the kid is only a little sick – no benefit from them knocked out on the couch.  Daycare is out.  Open preschool is out.  You can’t drive anywhere, immobile on a freezing, slushy February day.  You can’t be outside (I tried that yesterday and turned around too late and spent 20 minutes holding a screaming baby and singing to a sick toddler while pushing a three-wheeled stroller through the slush with one hand).

You spend five straight days with two little people in a shrinking space.

We have two sets of marks on our windows.  The first are from playing with the baby as he presses his face against the glass.  The other are scratches of screaming horror as the Wiggles goes on for the 41st time or as one kid wakes up the other from their nap.

I exaggerate, of course.  The toddler has hit a lovely stage of politeness and saying “I love you.”  The baby laughs a lot when he is not crying.  We are not watching the Wiggles, thank the Lord.  They just make for the best worst case scenario (people get really worked up about the Wiggles – a post for another day, I suppose).

Still, for all the exaggeration, it highlights our dependence on Daddyland and brings back all we did not have in the exurbs of New York City.  The result?  I shake my head in wonder once again that we actually sold our house one week before the real estate bubble burst, and I get a little scared that they will make me take the house back.

Sweden gone wild … at the library with Motley Crue

Sweden is far from its 70s stereotype of a liberated, semi-nudist land of earthy blondes.  In fact, as far as social norms go, it seems as, if not more, conservative as, say, liberal parts of the US.

But there are moments when you realize that Sweden is a liberated semi-nudist land of earthy blondes, at least in spirit.  Usually these moments are at the library. Yes, the library.  Flipping through the bin of books on the alphabet and numbers and new siblings.

And there somewhere is a book with, on page 13 or so, a full-on illustration of a naked man.  Then a naked woman.  Then the naked man on top of the naked woman.  Enlightening stuff for the preschool set, I am sure.

We actually checked this book out once so I could write about it, but then I got all caught up in questions like, Can I scan this?  Is it appropriate, even if in a book for little kids in the local Swedish library?  Does one book signify anything?  Maybe the (very stern and unearthy)  librarians don’t even know about it.

But here I am writing about it, and that is because I found another example of Sweden’s, ummm, looser standards.

I found the Crue.

Yep, Motley Crue.  I was at the library today, holding a baby, following a toddler, and the featured book in the youth nonfiction section was:

Motley Crue:  The Dirt – Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band

Now the youth section includes teenagers. I get it. But it also includes young teenagers, and this is a book about, according to

Whiskey and porn stars, hot reds and car crashes, black leather and high heels, overdoses and death. This is the life of Mötley Crüe, the heaviest drinking, hardest fighting, most oversexed and arrogant band in the world.

And lest you think this a mistake, the book next to The Dirt?

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

The thing is, now I want to read both books. I mean, a Swedish newspaper called The Dirt “a modern Canterbury Tales.” I never liked Motley Crue much, in fact I remember when Dr. Feelgood came out in the late 80s and I thought, boy, those guys are washed up and when would this hair band thing end, and in that darkest night, it was actually about to end, for I discovered Led Zeppelin soon after, the Black Crowes came out, and then a year later in college, I had Nirvana and Pearl Jam on constant replay, and the Crue was headed for tabloid hell.

But still, how can I pass up The Dirt now? I love the Canterbury Tales. I see Tommy Lee as the Wife of Bath, Nikki Sixx as the Miller and so on. So thank you librarians of Solna. And if my kid brings this book home when she is 12, you will be hearing from me …