Juniorette Sings Cohen

Juniorette is a precocious seven years old. Here’s her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s 1984 song “Hallelujah”, with the Swedish lyrics by Py Bäckman. The performance is influenced to a certain degree by another young Swedish singer’s version, Molly Sandén’s on her 2009 album Samma himmel.

While Cohen’s beautiful lyrics deal mainly with broken love affairs through biblical allusions (compare the Pixies’ “Dead” and “Gouge Away“!), Bäckman’s lyrics are a bit too churchy for my taste. “[The song] has something that takes hold of you / And leads you from night to day / And suddenly you want to sing ‘Hallelujah'”.

Did you know, Dear Reader, that “Hallelujah” is a formulaic Hebrew expression meaning “praise / sing praises to JHWH”?

Juniorette is not churchy. On Saturday I drove her and a friend home from a birthday party for a classmate whose dad is a Swedish Church minister and a really nice guy. (Junior has a steady babysitting gig there.) Juniorette’s friend commented that though Nora’s dad isn’t the parish shepherd proper, he’s usually the one officiating at church. “Does your family believe in God!?”, asked my daughter incredulously. “Yeah, but we don’t go to church often”, said her friend. “I’ve been, like, maybe five times?”.

I’ve written before about the casual godlessness common among modern Scandinavians.


Skiing Holiday, Broken Bone

Sweden is shaped like a ski, and people live mainly in the southern quarter, but in the other three-quarters there are many skiing resorts. I’ve been going there every few years since I was three. I’m not a competitive or particularly elegant down-hill skier, but I enjoy it and I can get down all kinds of slopes and I rarely fall.

In recent years my wife and I have taken the kids to one of the country’s southernmost skiing resorts, simply because if one of you is going to spend most of their time on the kiddy slope with a neophyte, then there is little reason to drive for seven hours one way. My wife had tired of Romme near Borlänge, so this year she did the booking and put us in BjursÃ¥s near Falun. It took us less than four hours to get there from Fisksätra, lunch break included.

BjursÃ¥s (“beaver sauce”) offers a modest number of ski lifts and slopes, and few of the latter are very long or steep. This was the year when Juniorette really became a serious skier, who ploughs down the slopes at considerable speed with little fear and few falls. And Junior is an excellent babysitter & skiing partner these days, so part of the time they zipped around on their own.

I don’t like gadget sports. I enjoy buying as little gear as possible, so this year I wore a cap I bought at the Great Wall outside Beijing years ago, a staff jacket from the VästerÃ¥s town paper that my wife got me when she worked there in ’99, a pair of gloves someone left at my house one gaming night, and faded jeans. But oldest of all was my actual skiing gear: given to me by my parents in ’88 and still sporting my childhood phone number written in my dad’s hand. Quality stuff, I just sharpen the steel edges now and then and I’m fine. The boots are actually the best I’ve seen, with a single open/close latch instead of the crazy Gigeresque alien armour current ski boots look like. (I remember now that I wrote about my gear last winter too.)

Anyway, to my dismay I broke one of my poles this year. I was in a sitting lift with a mid-slope station, and when me and Junior passed that station one of my poles got lodged against the wooden deck and bent. Aluminum cylinder, broke when I tried to straighten it. So goodbye 80s ski pole. Still, I did have one perfectly usable one left… So I went down to the rental shop and asked if they had any solitary ski poles of the right length. Sure enough, they did – and they gave me one for free. So now I’ve got mismatched recycled skiing poles and I feel pretty smug about not throwing away gear or money unnecessarily.

Distinctly non-smug is how I felt yesterday afternoon though when Junior came down a light slope at his usual sane clip, braked, fell over in front of me and broke his left arm. So we spent last night at Falun main hospital. But as my friend David the physiotherapist commented, if you must break a bone, break your radius. The ulna will keep it straight and it’ll heal just fine. In this case, we were particularly lucky about it: it’s a “green stick fracture” with no displacement of the bone ends at the break, which is pretty much the kind of fracture you’ll want if you must snap off your radius. And of course you’ll prefer to break your second hand, not your first.

Did you know that patients are no longer encouraged to carry their broken arms in a sling? Apparently this causes immobilisation, muscle atrophy and poor circulation, all of which prolongs and impedes rehabilitation. So Junior walks around with his plaster resting on his left-hand shoulder and uses his left-hand fingers for sundry small tasks. But he complains about difficulties when using the bathroom, and last night I washed his face for him the way I used to when he was a little kid.

Oh, and one of the slopes is named Pot Nook, HarsprÃ¥nget. Dalecarlian stoners…

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The Mindless Conventionality of an East Asian Upbringing

East Asian child rearing is notorious for the heavy pressure put on children, but also famous for the great feats of technical brilliance and hard work many people who grow up under these conditions perform. Kids are sent to evening classes, weekend lessons, hardly have any free time. And then many graduate at the top of their years.

Professor Amy Chua of Yale Law School has recently published a book promoting this kind of strict and achievement-orientated parenting. I read an extract on the Wall Street Journal’s web site, and I find Chua’s child-rearing practices counterproductive and draconian. This is largely because I don’t share her highly conservative ideas of what constitutes success in this world.

To begin with, Chua forced her children to play the piano and violin for hours upon end. The value of this is apparently beyond questioning. I’m baffled by this. Few people can name any classical musicians, and extremely few can support themselves playing classical music. Why should I make my kids do that? Both took violin lessons until they tired of the instrument, and then they moved on to sax and piano, which they enjoy playing but don’t work particularly hard at. It’s just for fun. I certainly wouldn’t want either of them to try a professional career in music unless they were really motivated in themselves.

Furthermore, Chua demanded that her kids be No 1 academically in their years, and she forbade them to attend sleepovers, have playdates, watch TV and play computer games. This is just crazy from my point of view. Since childhood, I have always felt that having a lot of unplanned free time to play and laze about with a book or a computer is an important part of basic quality-of-life. Taking free time and play away from kids and teaching them to avoid those things as adults constitutes tragic misuse of a person’s life, from my point of view.

The qualities I try to cultivate in my kids are

  • Independent critical thinking
  • A sense of humour
  • Verbal skills (speaking and writing)
  • Solid general knowledge and insight into how everything connects up in the world
  • Curiosity
  • Social fearlessness
  • Creativity

As those who have met them can confirm, my kids have all of this in rich measure. I don’t think Amy Chua’s methods would have helped much here, on the contrary. And still, academically speaking, my kids are near the top of their years too.

At the root of my disagreement with Amy Chua lies my cynicism about the value of conventional achievement. I would never go to such lengths to get where Chua is in life, or to get my kids to where her daughters are going, because I don’t find that place attractive. I prefer to work 30-35 hours a week for a modest income and spend a lot of my time achieving nothing, just having fun with friends and family. And that’s what I teach my kids to value too. My goal as a parent isn’t to teach them to excel. It’s to teach them to be happy and have fun.

Update 11 January: Thinking about this, I realised that when I force my children to do things, it’s the opposite of what Chua did (apart from household chores). Ever since my kids learned to use a phone, I’ve made them call a playmate at 10 am on Saturdays and Sundays, to keep them from hanging around alone at home and being bored or watching daytime TV. This has ensured that they are experienced phone conversationalists and that they have always been invited to a lot of parties. Amy Chua prohibited play dates.

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Gingerbread Cult of Saint Lucy

A re-run from 12 December 2006.

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Tomorrow’s the feast-day of St Lucy, and my son’s school started off the celebrations a day early. So this afternoon, along with a lot of other parents, I had saffron buns and watched kids in Ku Klux Klan and Santa outfits form a long line and sing Christmas carols. One end of the line was mostly a few bars ahead of the other.

As a pretty recent tradition, the morning of 13 December is celebrated in Sweden with quite a bit of ceremony. It involves white-robed, predominantly young female carolers led by a candle-crowned girl, performing a specialised repertoire of songs in honour of St Lucy (Sw. Lucia) and St Stephen in addition to generic Christmas carols. Considerable amounts of candles, saffron buns, ginger biscuits, coffee and sometimes mulled wine are consumed in the process. It’s a huge deal in kiddie schools and Kindergartens. Flabberghasted Nobel laureates are woken before dawn at their hotels and relentlessly be-carolled.

This very Catholic custom is uniquely Swedish, which may be slightly surprising given the fact that the country has been Protestant since the 16th century. But winter in Sweden is dark and cold, with the weather steadily getting worse through the long autumn months. We really need a Candle Maiden in deep December when we’re still a week on the wrong side of the solstice.

Björn Fromén of the Stockholm Tolkien Society translated a combination of the two most common Lucia hymns beautifully into High Elvish (and I just can’t believe it’s almost ten years since we put it on-line!). Here’s the first verse:

Lumna cormóres nar
peler ar mardor,
or ambar alanar
caitar i mordor,
íre mir lóna már
ninquitar lícumar:
Ela i calmacolinde,

And in Swedish:

Natten går tunga fjät
runt gård och stuva.
Kring jord som soln förlät
skuggorna ruva.
Då i vårt mörka hus
stiger med tända ljus
Sankta Lucia.
Sankta Lucia!

The tune is a traditional Neapolitan one, and the original Italian lyrics, coincidentally, are decidedly Tolkienian: Sul mare luccica l’astro d’argento…, “The silver star gleams over the sea…”.


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Girl Power


Asked by her teacher to write five things she’s good at, and to illustrate them, 7-y-o Juniorette just produced this.

The speech bubble reads “Yes I win”. Then “I’m good at writing running putting my hand up eating candy and not liking liquorice.”

Next term she’s scheduled to chair the student council.

I wonder if I may have been a little lax in fulfilling my patriarchal misogynist duties with this child.

Absurd Tractor

A buddy and namesake of mine has a father who is a literature scholar. He wrote his thesis on absurdist drama, Beckett and Ionesco, that sort of thing. This influenced his son’s vocabulary. Once about 1970, when the scholar was out on a walk with his little boy in a stroller, they passed a large tractor and a group of people. The boy was greatly impressed by the tractor, pointed to it and exclaimed, “Absurd tractor!”. The bystanders stared in amazement.

Sailing Camp

I’ve spent three days with my son’s class at Ängsholmen summer camp where the 12-y-os got a chance to reaquaint themselves after the summer and do some fun stuff together. My job, like that of the other three parents who came along, was basically crowd control and security. The camp is on a small U-shaped island, a former base of the coastal artillery, which once defended the Gällnö port narrows on an important shipping lane. There’s a sizeable decommissioned underground fort at one end, probably dating from the inter-war years. The kids swam, canoed, sailed Monark Avanti skiffs, did cooperation exercises and braved a tree-top climbing trail.

The camp is run by the YMCA and is mainly staffed by people just out of high school. They did a wonderful job of taking care of the kids, they cooked us excellent meals, and one of them was an enthusiastic DJ at last night’s disco.

Staying at camp really brought me back to my own boyhood sailing camps at Lökholmen and Malma. The smell of fresh wood in the paddle shed, the grafittoed bunk beads in the dorms… And best of all, sailing a skiff again! It felt like I’d been doing it only yesterday instead of two decades ago. Remind me in April that I need to buy a used skiff, please.

School Girls Fined for Placing Teacher Break Room Under Electronic Surveillance

Reports Swedish Broadcasting, Dagens Eko:

When two school girls in the 13-16 years age bracket found a lost key ring for their school’s teacher break room, they had an idea. They bought simple audio surveillance equipment in a tech store, waited until everyone went home, and installed the bugging gear in the break room.

Their idea was to snoop on a grades conference planned for the following day, thereby to glean information that they might use to improve their grades.

The plan failed, as one of the girls happened to reveal it on Facebook.

Instead of secret information and raised grades, the story ended with each girl being fined SEK 2000 by the district court.

Extra points for pluck and daring, though, kids!

Lars Aronsson comments: “Little Sister Is Watching You”.

Junior Live-Streams His Video Gaming Sessions

I used to play a lot of computer games, and 12-y-o Junior loves them. His gaming experience is of course different from mine back in the day, not only because the games look much better now, but also because of on-line interactivity. There are a couple of developments that surprise me a great deal.

One is the Let’s Play film clip. These are clips on video sharing sites where someone plays a computer game while commenting on it, and they’re really popular with kids. You don’t have to be extremely good at the game or record clips of hidden or hard-to-reach areas. You don’t have to say anything terribly interesting or witty. Just record yourself playing the first couple of areas in a popular newish game, and loads of kids will watch the clip.

And this brings us to the next step: live Let’s Plays. For his birthday, Junior wished for only one thing: a video grabber with cables. While before he could record only games played on the PC, the grabber now allows him to capture the output from his Wii console. And it has streaming video capability. Yesterday Junior streamed over twelve hours of live video from that console (we sent him out to bounce on the trampoline every now and then for exercise). Over that period, 400 people checked in to watch the stream and listen to his banter. At most, 28 people watched at the same time. And the returning audience members converse with him on Skype while he does this. He has buddies all over the US and UK! It’s like a crowd of kids in front of a gaming console and a TV set, lounging in the living room and watching one kid play a game — only they’re all on different continents. Mind-boggling!

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Little Interpreters

When a family migrates, the members who pick up the local lingo first and best are generally the children, and they soon become little interpreters. My wife wrote letters to the Swedish authorities for her Chinese dad from the time she was 11. And when time rolled around for the biannual talk with the teachers about each pupil’s scholastic progress, she was accompanied by her sister (1½ years older). I hear that such a setup, with all that it means for power relations in the family, can be a big problem for men from more strongly patriarchal traditions.

We’re planning Juniorette’s seventh birthday party, and we’re a little late. So instead of sending cards I called every family on the guest list. When I called little Juanita’s home, she picked up the phone herself. I identified myself as Juniorette’s dad and asked to talk to mom or dad. Juanita replied in a very civil tone and with perfect pronunciation that Mother doesn’t like to talk to telephone salesmen. After a little extra explanation, comprehension dawned and Juanita seamlessly switched into interpreter mode. I heard the mother in the background speaking Spanish (which I understand reasonably well if spoken slowly but cannot speak myself), and then I got a flawless Swedish interpretation from Juanita. At one point I got to talk a little to the mother myself, but it wasn’t any use.

Anyway, I think I got the message across. But just to make sure, I’ve written an invitation in English, run it through Google Translate to make some kind of Spanish of it, and printed it out. I’m cycling over to put it in their mail box.

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