...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Friheten



Dear blog,

Remember Juanita some years back?

Well I have a new project that began late summer 2014, and her name is Fixa. In Swedish, “fixa” means “to fix”, and the name basically says it all. When we got Juanita, she had a large hole on deck and a missing window. Fixa, a larger boat, had much larger problems. Unloved and uncovered for more than 10 years on land, the boat was filled with about a foot of oil-mixed water. The wood interiors were damaged by the moisture and mould. The pipes had corroded. But on the upside, she was also almost unused. Her foresail had only been folded once before, i.e. by the sail maker.

Depending on how you view it, I slipped, stumbled or willingly plunged into this project through persuasion by M’s dad. At that time, I had just graduated. He said that since I was doing so many projects anyway, including ham radio with marine frequencies, why don’t I repair a boat with him that could eventually be my own? Admitting that owning a boat through mere repair work sounds too good to be true, I said yes. But I admit I also felt kind of sorry for the guy. Aside from a few pizzas now and then, our contact had always been pretty sporadic. He always asks about M’s godparents at the countryside; offers that I could call him too like I call them. Obviously, this project was also an attempt to have something in common, “to act little bit like a dad”, as he once said.

All autumn and spring, we had been working with Fixa. We drained it. We took out all the wood interiors. I sanded and varnished each one of those wooden pieces three times. We scrubbed the dirty interior twice. We replaced one winch and all the rope clutches. We changed the pipes. We re-installed the interiors. I fixed the lighting. We installed new water pipes. I cleaned the tank and the stove. We installed a refrigerator and a septic tank. I washed the exterior. I aired the mattresses. I bought kitchenware at a second-hand store, I started filling the shelves.

Before

After

Before

After

All is well. Or was. The boat is launched and floating but I don’t know much else as of now. I decided that I didn’t want to be a part of the mess when M’s dad “discovered” on the spot on the day of the launch that the motor wasn’t working properly, the generator wasn’t charging, and that the sail was too long for the new furling system he just bought. What a damn surprise when you haven’t given them a look in the first place. Or had prioritized other cosmetic things. "Optimist" that he was, he was even thinking of sailing away on it on that very day which of course was ungrounded fantasy.

In hindsight, I know now that whatever the context, pity is a wrong reason to do things together with people. It’s only when people are on the same wavelength that working on a common project can become a joy. Otherwise, when you realize you’re not on the same page – and haven’t been on the same page in the first place with things such as goals and methods – those unresolved differences become a source of frustration over time, bubbling under the surface before it brings to a rolling boil. I’ve felt resignation, apathy and something very close to hatred, when I decided that I needed to get away from that project for my own good. Just sucking it in for the sake of invested work, for the price of losing sight of what's supposed to be pleasant with this job, just isn't plain worth it.

I’m prepared to admit that egoism may be a much better reason than pity or “trying to be nice”. Because, for the lack of a common wavelength with M’s dad, egoism must be the only reason why I’m curious to find out what has happened to Fixa since the day of the launch. That is, I want to go out sailing when my friend Kristine comes visiting next week. Yet as I prepare to call about the boat this weekend, I can almost taste my stress, in anticipation of getting frustrated again or discovering something horribly wrong that hadn’t been fixed with anything else than some provisionary bad solution, yet again. A working boat might be too much to ask for, how pessimistic that might sound. But I’m ready for the worst now. If things go well (which I anyway hope it does), I will be pleasantly surprised. But if I get too disappointed, at least I know the feeling would just last for another few days. Then I could just drive the heck away from there, take my kayak on the roof of my car and just paddle away to some other place. Away. Perhaps I should give the kayak a name. Like Färdig (complete) or Redo (ready). Or perhaps even Friheten (freedom).

Until next time!
 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Projects 2015 - 2016

Dear me,

It's July, but it's better late than never for your list of New Year's projects.

This coming year (2015-2016):

Go on a skiing vacation - even if it means going alone. Promise yourself this.

Spend this Christmas with loved ones.

Go kayaking in Nedre Glottern. It's beautiful there, surrounded by pines and cliffs. I know because I was swimming there a month ago and saw a couple of kayakers in the distance, on water that reflected the evening sun. And I thought to myself that one day that would be me.

Good luck!
- Me

Monday, July 20, 2015

Annual summer leave


Dear blog,

I sometimes think about you like an old friend I should be writing to. And today, when I looked up at the ceiling from the guest bed here in the countryside, I thought that today was as a good time as any other. After all, writing is like a muscle – it atrophies when unused. And in the second place, time here in the countryside is slow. Though I’m not bored, I feel that I have infinite amounts of time here, as if time were stretched. That means I have the whole day ahead of me to sit the cat, tend to the garden, go for a run, and to sit down and write those lines I’d been thinking I should write to you one day.

As I write, I’m on a five-week long vacation – the longest break I’ve had since school summer vacations. It was rather scary deciding to be free for so long. What was I going to do with all my time? Yet, I felt that I owed it to myself to decide on a long break. When I had a part-time job last summer, I don’t remember taking more than a week’s leave. And two summers ago, I was too busy working on my thesis I practically worked all summer. That said, I had nice summers and I also did some memorable activities worthy of the name summer break. But maybe I should try this thing normal working people call “annual leave” for a change. Whatchathink? 

So far so good.

I’ve gone on The Hobbit and Harry Potter movie marathons at home. I finished all the movies in about a span of about a week and a half!

It's also nice to be home since I'm tending to my vegetable-growing project on the balcony. Here's how the plants looked like in the start of June: two kinds of parsley, chard, kale, zucchinis and strawberries. I've already harvested chard- and kale leaves. And as of last week, the zucchini plant had 4 small veggies the strawberries grew bright pink flowers.

The plants are bought from seedling and planted in contrainers that were all found in the trash (a large red plastic pot someone threw away in the building's trash room, and two file cabinet shelves).

I loaded up on summer reading at the second hand store. My reading theme two years ago was Robinsonade, featuring Kon-tiki and Robinson Crusoe. I continued the exploration theme last year with Into the Wild and a book about the failed André expedition to the north pole. This year, my reading list is Norwegian-themed, featuring Aku aku (by the same Thor Heyerdahl who rode and wrote Kon-tiki), crime novels by Jo Nessbø and an old book about car trips around Norway (which remains a thing to do in my life). I also have a couple of new non-fiction from the internet, The Cloudspotter’s Guide and Cooked. The Cloudspotter's guide probably needs another read before I can tell all the cloud species, but I know so much more now about weather than when I began reading; all from "herring sky" to why a red sunset means good upcoming weather and why fronts are called fronts.  

 View of lake Vättern from Jönköping.
Altocumulus in the foreground and cirrostratus in the background?

I’ve started running again. And most importantly I’ve begun to break the 10-kilometer mark again. It feels good. It feels indescribably rewarding. At first, it was hard to motivate myself to run again after a long pause. Short runs felt good but weren’t enough to keep me hooked. I was convinced that only long runs could give me the lust for running again. So I did a couple of very slow 10 km jogs first, with the goal of just making it to the end. I even bought a copy of Runner’s World to keep me motivated. And it worked, after a couple of weeks. Now beyond the 10 km-hurdle, I look forward to long runs again. Running is my take on meditation; I’m quite convinced it makes me into a better person. In a run I have no phone, no music, and I just listen to sound of my breath and the birds, and I feel that everything else can wait.

I also have a new acquisition: a kayak. I had been dreaming about owning a kayak for quite a while now, weighing pros and cons of buying vs. renting, thinking about where to store it, and thinking about models. Lately I’ve been talking about this dream again to some friends and colleagues of mine. And when things hadn’t been going so smoothly with the boat repair project – I have to write about that topic some other time this week – I had been seriously thinking about how nice it would be to just get out with a kayak and a tent somewhere. A few calls to kayak shops and a well-needed shove of encouragement and I was a kayak-owner finally. With no less than a kayak I am totally happy with. I used to say this during PhD days, but it still applies: I’ve got time and money, and that makes a lot of things possible. I was paddling some evenings ago to test my kayak and I am still convinced that this was my best buy in many years, to be enjoyed for many years to come.

*smile that ends at my ears*

See ya later, alligator!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Waiting for spring

Tomorrow is April and spring is in the air!

This day a year and a week ago, I was a newly graduated PhD. On the first of April, my parents and my sister and I flew to northern Sweden to Kiruna and further to Abisko to get some guaranteed snow. It was yet another snow-poor year in southern Sweden last year, so at last it was a pleasure to introduce them to the joys of snow. What I love about family visits (besides getting visits!) is how I can renew the first joy of discovering things through my family's reactions, and how our experiences become memories that we talk about for years.

We did everything we could do there with snow: We built a snowman, went on a walk in a snowstorm, cooked food in the cold with a camping kitchen, rode a dog sled, went for a day trip to the Ice Hotel and moved around with a spark. On our second in day in Abisko, I also rented a couple of skis. We discovered that mom definitely has better balance than dad on skis. And we learned that if you don't dare to fall, you can't give it your best try. So, we also had to lift mom from her first fall on skis!

Mom's a natural!

This one can go into the box of wacky family photos :-)

Dad has other talents though. He was better than all three of us on the spark, which is a kick-sled with room in front for a person or other stuff.

Behind the Ice Hotel...

... there's a tough race going on!

Lea and I took a longer tour together on skis around Abisko mountain station and a just bit into where the Kungsleden trail begins. I don't think this will be the last we see of Kungsleden together, though. Right, Lei?




Just to show contrast, I talked to mom this morning and she says it was 37 degrees C in Quezon City today!

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If go back to where this all started, it was this month nine years ago, on was a snowy winter in the countryside that I first set my feet on a pair of skis. It was sheer luck that the available boots were my size (and so were the winter clothes). I still remember how stiff my legs felt and how long my feet suddenly seemed to be, with these long skis extending on both ends of my shoes. Today, I own two pairs of skis; the newest pair I tried in January this year.

In contrast to my first cross country skis, my new touring skis have a metal edge and are great for making own trails, which I believe should be tested one day on a trip to a mountain station. Out in the countryside is not so bad either, nor the fact that the boots are compatible with free-heel ice skates.


I spent two days making different trails around Mats and Margareta's house. It's a bit strange how the landscape seems so flat now when I used to think that it was full of all kinds of hinders and bumps, not to mention the infamous "Joy's hill" where I repeatedly crashed for at least 5 documented years.

Margareta in the snow-covered field

Apparently, I haven't really had enough of winter before it's suddenly April and spring. But I must say I had some really nice days out in the snow and ice, judging from the season's pictures and as I remember them. I do have some winter plans bubbling in my head for next season. More downhill skiing is the dream picture I have. And in tune with the Carpenters: not a cloud in the sky; got the sun in my eyes!


Thursday, January 08, 2015

A dad joke

Winter this season has been very mild down here in Östergötland and the small amount snow that has fallen melts away after a few days. When it snowed yesterday, I sent this picture to my family as a winter greeting. Some people made a couple of snowmen in the building's backyard:


Dad sent a reply:

"What did the big snowman say to the little one?"

"I dunno. What?"

"Now you know why ice bathing is bad for you!"

Ba dam dam - Tssssh!


Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Start the new year with a cold spash (1°C)


January 1, 2015
 
”Idiot test”, ”Brrr!” and ”Urk!” were some of the words I heard it described when I told people I was going to go ice bathing on New Year’s Day. Well, I hate to start the year by breaking others’ bad expectations. Ice bathing was actually more like starting out in a spa and ending up in a roller coaster. And how could that be so bad?

In Hellasgården, in Stockholm where I spent New Year's Day. 
Someone is going out from his swim in the ice.

What is ice bathing? I didn’t even know it was a concept until a couple of years ago, when two friends mentioned that they went for a dip in a hole in the ice. My first thoughts were that they must have been some kind of adrenaline junkies. In the summer months, swimming in 12 degrees C is cold enough. But ice water? They must really be out of their senses. One of them, Susanne, described it in such a funny way however that I was open to giving it a try one day: “You’re just in the hole in the ice a few seconds, like dipping a tea bag”. When she was describing it though, I was more interested in knowing how one actually manages to climb out of the hole in the ice.

Dipping yourself in ice water is not either very new. It’s been argued that winter bathing had been around for a much longer time than the medicinal baths in 1700-Europe’s bath houses, and have a longer tradition than the hot bath popular in countries like Japan. Apparently, however, the ice bath is in a kind of comeback. Or perhaps it’s been an ongoing trend in some circles that I just had no idea about. About five years ago, I read in Runner’s World that athletes use cold-water immersions after intense training to sooth the small inflammations in the muscles, and to help recovery. After that (for lack of a bath tub) I’ve always been showering my stiff legs with cold water after a long run until they’re nice, numb and cold. Now the latest issue of Turist devotes five whole pages to ice bathing. Like the RW article, the article also refers to health and wellness benefits such as stronger immune system and lower blood pressure, among other things. By pure chance, I also saw this other article in the New Scientist with the same claims, just days before I had decided that I’d give that ice bathing a try.

So all is pointing to a long tradition of people who haven’t died while ice bathing, and to some theories that this strange feat might even be good for me. Might as well try it anyhow. 


The procedure that people do differently is whether they first go and heat up in the 60°C-sauna before ice bathing or just go straight ahead and go for a dip, and then seek warmth afterwards. I found out about these two “schools” while warming up in the sauna myself, where about a dozen other sweaty ladies I didn’t know, of different ages from teen to grandma, gathered to experience and discuss the one thing we were all there for. 

“I think it’s better to just go for it because it feels colder if I start with a sauna,” said a woman who was probably in her 50s. Another sweaty girl, also a first-timer like me, wanted to double check if the sauna was indeed 60 degrees hot. The woman in her 50s then dumps a couple of scoops of water into the sauna heater, making the small room instantly stuffier and warmer in the increased humidity. “Aaaaaah!” is heard all around me. 

The sauna quite relaxing actually, although I wished the warmth reached down to my toes. The jovial conversation about ice bathing continues, and we discover that the grandma-aged lady apparently competes in ice bathing. She is there every other day, swimming several times between sauna sessions in order to gradually get her body used to swimming longer and longer periods in the ice cold lake. One of the teens related that she went ice bathing the first time as a child, as her whole family does it too. One of her relatives was there at the lake this morning, just to be able to say that she was the first one for 2015 to ice bathe there.

My feet finally were warm. My turn at the lake.


Outside the sauna, the surrounding January air felt quite nice to the skin. My body heat acts like a shield, protecting me from the cold. On the lake where I’m about to take a dip, people are actually skating. A few meters from them, in holes in the ice, others are emerging from their dip and drying themselves with towels. I had a choice between a big hole and a small hole in the ice. I choose the big hole, just because it might feel claustrophobic with the small one. 

Climbing down into ice cold water after a sauna is just as bad as swimming in a semi-cold lake in summer months: your body kind of suddenly pulls together in shock. In the smaller hole in the lake, I heard a splash and a shriek. However, most people, like me, are probably too stunned by the initial dip to even manage to let out a shriek. An observer might think it even looks controlled and calm.

Since it seems strange to just go in and out of the water, I tried a few quick breaststrokes. Four, maybe five. But my whole body was quickly turning numb so I decided to go out. All of this probably just took just a few seconds. In the immediate moments after going out of the water, it feels like just having stepped out of a roller-coaster. You know: the feeling where you still can’t believe the ride is over, and you’re back on the ground with a big high. Also, I soon noticed my skin was tingling, like being bitten by small bees, but all over the surface of my skin. But third, the logical-thinking part of my brain noticed how pretty disorganized I was becoming from the high. A result, no doubt, of the cold shock. For example, just before entering the water, I reminded myself that I had to take my slippers back to the sauna and that there was a numpad-code to open the sauna door. Going back to the sauna, I realized that I had almost forgotten to put on my slippers. I also tried opening the sauna door without punching in the code, before I remembered anything about a numpad. Interesting yet pretty scary experience, what shock does to your memory.
I felt refreshed but tired a few hours after the ice bath. And at home later that evening, I thought I was feeling extra cold. That was before I discovered that the radiator probably wasn’t working properly in my bedroom, which would explain it.

Already I’ve been hearing different reactions to this experience such as “Welcome to the club!” or “Don’t do that again!”. But all in all, it really isn’t half as bad or even half as scary as I had imagined it to be when I first heard about it.  As one my old Philosophy teachers used to say in a swimming-analogy (he was always quoted for it): Lundagin mo, baby! (“Just jump in, baby!”).

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

If a tree falls in a forest...


Miljöskadad. Swe. Adj. (lit.: "damaged by one’s environment"). Idomatic expression meaning that someone is affected by one’s background, education or other conditions, to see or perceive things in a certain way. For example, a language teacher automatically registers bad grammar on television shows even without trying to look out for them.


So I have a major in Philosophy. Which is why sometimes, I find myself pondering on thoughts – usually thoughts to which there are no clear-cut answers, or just some small thing that I think may be insightful – even when I’m watching a movie, out in the forest, on vacation, etc. Sometimes, I get interested response from other people when I share my thoughts. Or a prolonged discussion; a counterweight. At other times, people don’t seem to get me. But then again, that’s how it is.

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This November, in combination with my trip home to the Philippines, I was on vacation in Japan for six days with my high school friend and my sister. Our destination was Kyoto, the old Japanese capital before the Meiji era. With the shift of Japan’s capital from Kyoto to Tokyo, Japan saw a change from its feudal system to a democratic one. Kyoto is thus still home to the structures of “old Japan”, and is the face of the country that comes straight out of samurai stories. It is a beautiful place littered with temples, palaces and pavilions.

 The Golden Pavillion, Kyoto

 At the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, a landscape representing a pebbled beach

Japanese gardens often provide a beautiful backdrop to these temples and palaces. The gardening work in some of these gardens must have been enormous. Pictures of Japanese gardens are one thing, but looking at the gardens in real life just leave one with a sense of awe and speechlessness. Even thoughtlessness. I found myself at times devoid of any other thought than that everything around me – this nature – was beautiful. Yet, nothing in the garden was untouched by human hands. An anecdote from the Imperial Palace of Kyoto goes that gardeners used to pluck the pine needles one by one, to form the trees to what they are.

Undoubtedly, the landscaping of the gardens shows the viewer the beauty of nature. Human work has raised the natural beauty of plants and trees to a level where one can do nothing but gape and admire it in its majesty. It’s like an ode to the trees. But the trees and bushes in the gardens were also in a way – and I hate to use the word – deformed. Large tree branches, for example, could be supported by vertical logs to hold them up and help them grow their natural direction. But other trees were supported by trellises to help shape them and form them – train them into this beauty that really wasn’t the tree’s true form, but an idealized shape of a beautiful tree. 

 A tree growing from the rocks, being supported into the natural direction of its growth. Silver Pavillion, Kyoto.

At the city park outside of Kyoto's Imperial Palace

 Layers / tiers of branches look almost like a pagoda

The paradoxical thing is that although the gardener’s craft has trained the tree, the gardener really could not have done the craft without the tree’s natural inclination to grow. The gardener, in a way, only uses what is already there and what is natural to the tree. In effect, the gardens give a peaceful and harmonious atmosphere – but also behind it, there is some hint of violence and human dominance over the natural world.

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I began to wonder if this was a good thing or a bad thing. In Sweden, one of the things I like the best is the easy access to the natural world: forests, lakes, mountains. Scandinavian aesthetics, in contrast to the Japanese one, prizes the “raw look” over landscaped forms. Yet, as I imply here, the untouched look in Swedish nature is also an aesthetic judgment. In fact, much of nature here is also formed by human hands and human will. Even the fact that nature reserves have to be left alone basically says: “Here, you may cut a branch and build a fire, but here you may not. Here, we leave the nature reserve’s natural beauty for future generations and generations of animals, plants and insects that live there.” The difference is that one may not always be aware of the human intervention and human will when things look “raw” – or in an attempt to problematize the word – when things “look natural”.  In the aesthetic forms of the Japanese garden, I easily reflect about the role of humans in nature, both as caretakers in a humble human role connected to the natural world, but also as being in a position of power and mastery over it. I don’t think I’ve ever had such strong thoughts in the Swedish mountains. There, there has been a same feeling of reverence and belongingness in nature, but I hadn’t really reflected much about the paths there made my generations of people. Possibly, I thought of the effects of increased tourism on sustainability, but even these are very technical aspects of human’s dominance (and the limits of our dominance) over nature. As a preserver of “raw beauty”, humans take another role – although also a master's role – as the preserver of what we believe and value to be the “original” order and harmony of nature.

 In Sweden, on the trail up to Kebnekaise mountain station

Lea somewhere in the forests of Kolmården near here (I believe by Getå ravine)

Bird watchers at Lake Tåkern, one of the largest European bird lakes. It is itself also a product of human intervention. The lake exists because of reclaimed farmland around it.

Swedish nature is also, in its own way, ordered in such a way to lift the natural beauty of the surroundings, for the sake of people viewing it. In other cases, gardeners and foresters may not really have tidied up the trees, but have instead provided a vantage point from which to admire it. In other cases, there has also been some landscaping, even when the effect seemed natural. In Norrköping, the city park was designed in English garden style to recreate an untouched look, contrasting from the French geometrical style that was the trend in the 1900s. Maybe our relations to the natural world, after all, goes through our character as cultural beings, and is closely linked to our sense of aesthetics.

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Another thing that I also reflected on while pondering about these thoughts is the aspect of time. In the Golden Pavillion in Kyoto, there stood a tree that was formed to such an unusual bending shape that I couldn’t help but be astounded, thinking how generations of gardeners shaped a tree into the form it is today. Each gardener probably saw very little difference in tree growth, but over a long period of time, their combined work displays itself in the form of the tree. Is this work an ode to their craft or an ode to the tree? Certainly, the human craft is apparent. But what struck me was that those who have worked generations on this tree – and we who admire at it – would live a miniscule time on earth compared to the tree itself. The tree will stand for generations to come, but also change and be changed with time.

 At the Abbot's quarters near the Golden Pavillion

I tried to look for a Swedish counterpart and thought of Jättegrytor near Kebnekaise, which are holes in the ground formed by ice and rock grinding downwards for thousands of years. In this case, it was the forces of nature that helped shape the rock. But when I stood there, I also got a feeling of being small with respect to Time.

 Near Kebnekaise, a "giant kettle" (Jättegrytor)

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Anyway, I would recommend Kyoto to anyone. Such a nice place to visit. Good food, good company, nice sights, friendly people. I admired the beauty of their gardens, and the philosopher side in me realized that these gardens were able to take me close to the questions so central to environmental science: What is nature? What is natural? And is nature and “the natural” something that exists independent of human intervention, value or aesthetics?

"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

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