Emily C. Skaftun

(skŏf • tŭn) n. A writer of speculative fiction.

Author: eskaftun (page 1 of 15)

Books I read in 2016 & 2017: an analysis

In returning to my much-neglected blog, I found a post from last year languishing in drafts, a year-in-review for books I read in 2016. I didn’t finish that post or publish it, but it was an eye-opener for me. Here’s an excerpt:

I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into which authors I read this year, picking whatever was recommended and what I could get through library e-book loan and manage to read before it expired. In the end I completed 34 books, which is a disappointment. In my defense, some were long!

Of the 34, 23 were written by men. Also a disappointment.

Of the 34, only 3 were written by people of color (and two of these are Cixin Liu) (and also I should add that this is based off of VERY cursory research and I in no way intend to deny the potential non-white heritage of the 31 white-looking authors whose photos I googled).

See, nothing against white dudes, but I know there is more out there in speculative fiction (which is most of what I read), and these numbers are hardly representative of it. So I started 2017 with the goal of avoiding books written by white dudes. Not forever, right? But for the year. Maybe that would mean a glut of white dude books on my to-read shelf in 2018, but that was a risk I was willing to take.

So how did I do? For starters, I read a bunch more books in 2017: 55 total.

Of the 55 total, 17 were written by men; of those 17, 9 were (apparently) white men. However, I did slightly alter my rule to allow also allow writers from non-English-speaking countries, and if you exclude those then only 6 were white men–and of those 1 was a re-read of something I couldn’t get out of my head and 3 more were sequels, so I grandfathered them in.

Of the 55 books I read in 2017, 22 were written by people of color (and 7 more were from non-English-speaking countries).

But the numbers tell only part of the story. It’s important to have a good time reading, right? In 2016 I gave five-star reviews to 4 books (look, I don’t just go handing those out willy-nilly, okay?), with my very favorite book of the year either going to Death’s End, the final installment in Cixin Liu’s fabulous trilogy, or The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers.

In 2017 I five-starred 7 books. Since that’s the year it just was, let me just tell you why you should read all of those. They’re presented in chronological order, not ranked, because I can’t choose my favorite.

1) Fix (‘Mancer #3), by Ferrett Steinmetz. You’ll have to read all three books to get to this one, and I think you’ll thank me for it. The world is one in which magic is real, but dangerous, and it’s based on love. That sounds corny, but when you read about how the characters’ love of paperwork or video games manifests, you’ll love it too.

2) Crosstalk, by Connie Willis. You can have a procedure done that links you to one other person, so our silly young protagonist does this with her boyfriend. Except she wakes to find out that she has an unexpected connection to someone she doesn’t care for at all. And things, in typical Connie Willis fashion, get wackier from there.

3) (and 5) The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) and The Stone Sky (Broken Earth #3), by N.K. Jemisin. The only reason that the second book in this trilogy wasn’t also five-starred is that it just wasn’t quite as brilliant as the first or third. The world is super volcanic, and now someone has torn it in half, starting a Season that will probably kill everyone. But look closer, and you discover that this is perhaps a world that needed a cleanse. What it’s about isn’t even as brilliant as how the story is told. You won’t want to put these down.

4) The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. This non-speculative fiction book deals with the police shooting of a black teenager, and it’s incredibly powerful. They say reading fiction helps you empathize, and that being the case every white person in America needs to read this book. No one is an “angel,” as the saying goes, but all the characters are fully human.

6) Kangaroo Too (Kangaroo #2), by Curtis C. Chen. Disclaimer: I know Curtis. But that isn’t why I adored both books in his series. Kangaroo tells his story with such humor that all the spying and violence of nefarious plots to upend the solar system just seem like a lark. Plus he has a portal to another universe that he uses in all sorts of fascinating ways.

7) The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, by Margaret Killjoy. This took me back to my days of living in a car and squatting in the UK, which is probably part of why I loved it. But it’s also got a great story about a killer deer god thing.

 

 

Looking at this list, there are other books from the year that I think I should have given more stars to. So honorable mentions to Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire, Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, and The Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo.

Which brings me to the other trend in my reading in 2017: Scandinavian SF, and particularly Finnish weird. I wanted to read Norwegian science fiction, but it isn’t a big genre there and I’m not sure what, if anything, has made it into English. But… I seriously recommend reading some Finnish stuff, and you can start with The Core of the Sun, which is just batshit crazy.

Happy reading! Here’s to dozens more books in 2018!

The white elephant in the room

How to make gift-giving fun

A white elephant with a santa hat on.

Image: Pixabay

Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American

For many years I thought the only way to make gifting possible for large groups was the Secret Santa approach. You know the drill: Everyone’s name goes into a hat and whichever name you pull out is who you buy a gift for. You hope your name got pulled by someone who has at least a vague sense of who you are and not that one coworker or family member who always gives bath salts. You know the one.

Then a few years ago I suddenly found myself in two groups whose holiday traditions included “white elephant” gift exchanges, and it blew my mind.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the term, it refers to a gift-giving party game in which people “steal” gifts from each other. The game goes by many, many names, including Yankee Swap, Thieving Elves, Dirty Santa, Rob Your Neighbor, Devil’s Santa, Steal-a-Thon, Snatchy Christmas Rat (really!), Gift Grab, Cutthroat Christmas, Rob a Santa, Grinch Exchange, The Grinch Game, and a few more that rely on offensive cultural stereotypes and have thus been left out by this editor.

The basic rules, according to WhiteElephantRules.com, are:

1. Each player brings one wrapped gift to contribute to a common pool.

2. Players draw names to determine what order they will go in.

3. The first player selects a gift from the pool and opens it.

4. The following players can choose to either pick an unwrapped gift from the pool or steal a previous player’s gift. Anyone who gets their gift stolen in this way can do the same—choose a new gift or steal from someone else.

5. After all players have had a turn, the first player gets a chance to swap the gift he or she is holding for any other opened gift. Anyone whose gift is stolen may steal from someone else (as long as that person hasn’t been stolen from yet). When someone declines to steal a gift, the game comes to an end.

There are almost infinite variations that can make the game more or less stealy, but I’m going to tell you what I think makes this fun for everyone involved, based on the experience I’ve had with the two groups’ versions of the game.

You see, my writing group actually stopped playing the last couple years due to problems with the game. In my opinion, this was caused by a lack of clarity in the requirements for gifts. We’d set a price limit, but that was all. So some people brought genuinely nice gifts, some brought funny ones, and some were clearly trying to rid themselves of unwanted gifts.

This latter group might have been most in keeping with the name of the game—if the internet is to be believed, the name refers to the King of Siam’s propensity for giving albino elephants to courtiers he was displeased with, because the cost of maintaining the animals would be ruinous—but if you’re playing with people you like, the goal shouldn’t be to saddle them with something like that. It’s terrible to open a dud of a present, one that you know will never be stolen from you, and know right away that the game is over for you.

In contrast, my roller derby group has very clear and well-established expectations for gifts: socks. This works because it’s something that the members of the group pretty universally are into and because it means that they all have roughly the same worth. Yet within that framework there’s room for infinite creativity, and it’s terrific to see what people come up with hoping their socks will be the most sought after.

If you aren’t willing to go with as narrow a category as that, at least consider explicitly stating whether the gifts should be things people might actually want or simply outrageous things that are meant to entertain. As long as everyone’s on the same page, a good time should ensue!

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 17, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Obligatory write-a-thon post

photo: AHLN / Flickr
This might make a good illustration for the story that has hijacked my brain again. Can you believe I tried to write about people’s physical size being dependent on their esteem WITHOUT a monster rampage? Silly.

 

Hello, friends! I am once again doing Clarion West’s write-a-thon, because peer pressure.

Just kidding. It’s an amazing organization, and now more than ever we need to band together to fund such things. You can sponsor me here, and if you donate more than $15 I’ll send you one of my famous story postcards. What is that, you say? Well, one of the first housekeeping things I took care of this write-a-thon was to make a page for all of them. You can see them at eskaftun.com/postcards-from. There were more than I remembered!

But because writing is HARD when you work full-time for a newspaper and are in the middle of some (minor) renovations on your new house and also need to spend at least some time with your husband and cat and you have to get to roller derby practice because slamming into people while wearing roller skates is cheaper than therapy and it’s finally summer in Seattle so you also need to be outside as much as possible… the write-a-thon is almost half over already!

So this is also a progress report. How am I doing? Here’s the annotated list of things I said I was going to do:

• Add a year’s worth of old travel writing, book reviews, and other junk to the blog. (at least 2 posts per week) I’m on track for this one, so far. I’ve added 5 re-posts of articles I wrote for the newspaper to the blog. Now for bonus points I must remember how easy this was and do it at the time from here on out. Next up, travel writing!

• Um, actually submit some fiction for once? (at least 1 per week) Nope, haven’t even thought about doing this.

• Write and post new postcard stories. (at least 3 per week) I’ve drafted four of these, but haven’t inked them or posted them. So I’m a little behind. 

• Organize postcard stories on website. These are probably the most distinctive fiction I write, sadly, and they’re hard to find. DONE!

• Work on current WIP, a murder mystery set in a school full of invisible teenagers. This had been last year’s goal too, upsettingly. At that time I thought it was a short story, but it wasn’t. It’s a damn YA novel. On the bright side, I did “finish” it last year. Too bad I have to “finish” it again. I haven’t started on this yet, because a short story that I thought was finished told me it needed ANOTHER new ending. This makes four. Hopefully I can finish this up soon and submit it and get back on track with the novel! 

• If that doesn’t work, I have two other unfinished/abandoned novels I half-heartedly want to finish/update.

Midway through, this isn’t looking as bad as it feels. AND, I’ve been lax because I have no sponsors to answer to as of yet. If you sponsor me, I bet I’ll work harder on this stuff. 🙂

How to be proud of your heritage (even if you’re white)

Nate Beeler / Cagle Cartoons

 

Touchy subject alert!

Let’s face it: people of color have been treated badly in the United States since before it was a country. African slaves and Native Americans were literally treated as subhuman, and their forced labor and forced removal paved the way for the (until sometime very soon) predominantly white country that we currently live in. That’s just history.

But is it history? Somehow, in the year 2017, even after having had a (half) Black president, we are still talking about race. People of color are no longer content to sit in the back of the metaphorical bus, but discrimination remains. Meanwhile, some white people feel encouraged to express anti-minority and anti-immigrant sentiments so vile that we’d thought them permanently banished from public discourse.

Okay, you may be thinking, but why am I reading about this in The Norwegian American?

One category of sentiments that I’ve seen cropping up have to do with so-called reverse racism. You’ll hear someone say something like “We have Black History Month, but when is White History Month?” or “Why can a Mexican be proud of their heritage but I (a white person) can’t?” As the editor of a newspaper that celebrates pride in our heritage from a predominantly white country, a newspaper that I hope does this without being racist, I have opinions on this topic. Stop reading now if you don’t want to hear them.

First, the simple answer to the first question: White History Month is literally all of them. It’s not radical propaganda or fake news to suggest that the contributions of non-white (and male) people have been consistently minimized in the narrative that makes up our history. Mainstream history is white history, and having one Black president doesn’t change that.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg famously answered the question of when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court by saying “when there are nine.” In response to people’s shock, she reminded them that the court had consisted of nine men until 1981. Similarly, this country has had 43 white presidents in a row. When we’ve had eight Black presidents in a row (the proportional demographic equivalent to 43 white presidents), 11 Hispanic and Latino ones, and so on, then maybe we won’t need to prioritize those under-heard voices anymore.

Prioritizing non-whites isn’t “reverse racism,” because the term “racism” describes a system in which a racial majority enforces its privilege over another race through political, economic, and institutional means. When preferences are an attempt to level the playing field, rather than keep it tilted, that’s not racism.

To the second question, I say there is no reason that you, white person, can’t be as proud of your heritage as a Mexican (or Korean, or Iraqi, or Tanzanian), but let’s be specific about it. Clearly I think it’s okay to celebrate being Norwegian and Norwegian American. But if the reason you’re proud to be Norwegian is because of the melanin deficiency it may have given you, or if you think that all Norwegians look a certain way, then we are starting to have problems. “White” isn’t a heritage, and not all Norwegians are white.

“But!” I can almost hear my hypothetical antagonist objecting, “If ‘white’ isn’t a heritage, then why is ‘Black’?” And my answer to that is again a very simple one. While many recent immigrants from Africa know exactly what country their ancestors are from, that is not the case for most African Americans, whose ancestral culture was erased from their memories by the cruelty of the slave trade. So I’d argue that “Black” is a heritage in a way that “White” can never be, because dark-skinned people from all over Africa were lumped together—and banded together, over the generations, to form a culture.

So by all means celebrate your heritage, person of Irish or German or French or Danish descent, as we try to do here at The Norwegian American, recognizing those things about our ancestral lands that make them special, recognizing that those countries today are more diverse than they were when our grandparents or great-great-grandparents came here, and perhaps if we look deeper even seeing that those countries were always more diverse than we imagine. As is this one.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Education isn’t one-size-fits-all

Photo: Daniel Lee / Flickr
Those burgers aren’t going to flip themselves. Not yet, anyway. When they do, another big chunk of workers will find themselves needing training for new jobs.

In my mind, as a teenager, there was never a backup plan: I was going to a four-year college, and I was going right away. Anything else would have felt like abject failure.

I’ll admit that my views were a bit extreme, but they weren’t created in a vacuum. Our society is constantly telling us that the only way to get ahead is to go to a university and get a bachelor’s degree, then perhaps a master’s or even a PhD.

There are other paths, and not only are other paths valid, it’s absolutely essential to a functioning society that people follow them. We have to change the narrative that says that the best way forward is a liberal arts education.

First, a clarification: when I say “liberal arts,” I mean any education in a four-year college or university, because they all employ the philosophy that well-roundedness is a vital part of higher education. And who’s to say that it’s not? I learned things in Psychology 101, and I learned a whole bunch in my Women in the Middle East seminar. For me personally, as an “undecided,” the first year or so of intros to everything was a feature, not a bug. An open mind is not, despite what a local church once wrote on its marquee, “a waste of space” (no, I’m not kidding—I could write a whole separate article on my college town’s local church).

But this kind of dabbling isn’t for everyone, nor are most students privileged enough to afford it. Shouldn’t there be an option for students who know what they want to do with their lives to just get on with it?

Of course, technical and vocational schools exist. I would never in a million years have gone to one, even if my true and undying passion in life had been styling hair or repairing cars, because I had been trained to see that path as the lesser path, only suitable for those who weren’t good enough for “real” college. I suspect I am not alone in this.

Post-college I grew to envy those who’d gone to beauty school or learned to weld and had already been employed for years making more money than I could conceive of. I worked office jobs, made coffee, bussed tables—and occasionally was lucky enough to land a job in my “field,” writing soul-suckingly boring copy for $10 an hour. Bussing tables paid better. Why had I gone to college?

Perhaps the point of a higher education ought not be how much money you’ll make when you’re done. But it is sold to us that way: the promise of a bright and prosperous future is the carrot that gets students to go deeply into debt to attain the education and the degree that goes along with it, both in liberal arts and in vocational programs. Meanwhile, American colleges continue to offer courses of study with few career options waiting at the end (Creative Writing MFA, anyone?), while we rely on immigrant labor, both skilled and unskilled, to drive this country.

There is no one best path for everyone, and there is no one best path for society. Much analysis focuses on which industries offer the best-paying jobs, with computer-based skills a current darling. But a world of only coders makes no more sense than a world of only philosophers or a world of only assembly line workers. We need lawyers and doctors and artists and writers (though perhaps not as many of some of these as are being produced) and also plumbers and roofers and farmers and auto mechanics and hairdressers and yes, even grocery baggers and fast-food burger-flippers.

It’s very popular right now to heap scorn on those in the latter sorts of jobs. “Why should a burger-flipper make a living wage?” someone with a “better” job asks. But if that person wants to eat hamburgers, someone must do the work of cooking it, and it would be nice, I think, if even that employee could afford to eat.

There’s also been a lot of talk lately about jobs disappearing. Victims of plant closures or automation are often told to retrain for “the jobs of the future,” which is on the surface a self-evident solution. But putting aside the difficulty of predicting the future, the fact remains that education of any kind is often prohibitively expensive, and this is doubly true for someone who has just been laid off.

So what is the solution? At the risk of sounding like a socialist, first we must level the playing field by making higher education affordable, or even free. Many first-world countries (like Norway) manage this, and it seems to have a positive impact on overall quality of life.

It’s also crucial that we stop assigning social status based on education level or career. A hairdresser friend noted recently that in demographics surveys the options for education level rarely include vocational education. She bristles because her post-high-school education is given no value. This is how great swathes of society feel about those who choose the non-college path, and that must change.

Third, we have to improve our primary and secondary education. One of the arguments for a liberal arts degree is that it teaches people to think critically and exposes them to a wide range of ideas. Isn’t this something that should be happening in high school? It’s now said that one needs a college education to get by in life—that college is the new high school. If that’s the case, let’s put the education one needs to get by in life back in high school where it belongs!

And finally (beware, more socialism), we must have a living wage for all jobs, across the board, period. Of course it’s reasonable for jobs requiring a higher education to pay more, but the bottom must come up. Every person who cannot make ends meet working full time is a person who isn’t living up to his or her full potential, and that hurts us all.

It doesn’t take an advanced degree to see that.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Peer Gynt at Gålå mixes fantasy with reality

High in the Norwegian mountains is a legendary theatrical experience worth the journey

Photo: Bård Gundersen / courtesy of Peer Gynt Festival
The natural setting is as much a part of the play as the actors and musicians. Characters enter and leave on boats and wade into the water, they chop trees apart, and of course they do it all no matter the weather.

The curtain cannot rise because there is no curtain, no proscenium arch, nothing but grass and a beach flanked by two shaggy hillocks between us and Lake Gålåvatnet. We are gathered here in the Norwegian wilds outside Vinstra to go on a journey with a character called Peer Gynt.

On and off the page
Peer’s journey begins just down the hill. He’s a farmboy with a bad reputation and a penchant for tall tales. The well-known opening line of the play is from his mother, Åse, who yells, “Peer, du lyver!” (“you’re lying”). He proceeds to spin a wild tale about riding a reindeer, which riffs on Norwegian folktales, and like a folktale cannot possibly be believed.

So it figures that his travels would run him afoul of powerful trolls and powerful forces that would dog him to his dying day.

The character on Ibsen’s written page is an enigma. He is a liar, and he is a loser. A big-talking charlatan whose answer to the trouble he gets himself into is to run away. Yet he is also a lucky man, and one who might be a sympathetic or even tragic figure. I found I couldn’t get a grip on the guy on the page, so I was eager to see what version of the man would step onto the stage.

Mads Ousdal, in his last year as Peer, didn’t step so much as gallivant, bursting onto the grassy lakefront and even onto a bench-like barrier between the audience and the stage with gymnastic moves and pelvic gyrations, as the band played eerie strings. Throughout the show Peer veered from excitement to a few tender moments to the character’s dominant emotion, spittle-flecking rage.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Mads Ousdal as Peer Gynt entered in an athletic, swaggery burst of personality that brought the action very much to the audience’s lap.


No Norwegian? No problem
Of course, much of the blame for the spittle lies with Henrik Ibsen, who wrote Peer Gynt 150 years ago this year. The language of the play is complex and rhymes to the beat of a different drummer, and it is clearly more than a mouthful at times.

But fear not, English speakers. The festival provides brief introductions to the play in English and German, and also offers an audio guide in those languages. Rather than step on Ibsen’s language with a word-for-word translation, the guide simply gives intros at the beginning of each scene. A word of advice though: one does have to keep the device engaged. I confess I took it off at one point and became hopelessly unsynced from the audio summaries. Thank goodness I’d read the script!

A range of dates to celebrate
Norway’s most famous playwright was inspired, during his time in the Gudbrandsdal valley, by the tales of the real Per Gynt, who’d lived across the way from him some hundred years earlier. He was a liar too, but in a more gentle way—a spinner of tall tales who entertained his neighbors in a pre-television world so thoroughly that his legend persisted for generations.

The Peer Gynt Festival was first celebrated in Vinstra in 1928, the 100th year since Ibsen’s birth. The second festival was held four years later in 1932, 200 years after the birth of the historical Per Gynt. After a long pause, the festival started back up in 1976, 100 years after the play’s initial premier in Christiania (Oslo). In the early days, the festival was mostly just a party, an occasion for “moonshine and harmonica,” as one local resident put it. In 1989 the play was first performed on the shore of Gålåvatnet.

With so many historical events to mark, the festival can find a reason to make every year special, but they are determined to mark the play’s 150th birthday with the respect the occasion deserves.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
The version of the production that I saw used costumes to great effect. The trolls had a lot of greenery about them, as one might expect, but they were also covered in trash, making them somewhat more urban—not to mention modern—creatures than what Ibsen probably had in mind. Later in the play, we were visited with mental patients armed with selfie sticks, and even dancing soldiers in camo fatigues.

The many incarnations of Peer
For the first 25 years of the festival, the play’s production remained largely unchanged. When attendance started to drop off in the early teens, they realized it was time for a change. There was nothing wrong with the original production, all those who’d seen it assured me. But like The Phantom of the Opera, there eventually comes a time when everyone who was going to attend has. What to do then?

The festival brought in a new Artistic Director, Erik Ulfsby, to remake the production. “Peer Gynt is like a big house with many doors,” he said. “I’ll do other doors than those done earlier.” The set was rebuilt, and the audience moved closer to the water. The music, partially from Grieg’s score, was modernized to de-romanticize Peer Gynt.

This is the play I saw. If Ulfsby’s goal was to make Peer’s journey more real, then he succeeded with flying colors. The reality of the play was one of my main takeaways. I’ve done a little work behind the scenes of plays in the U.S. and here safety is always a primary concern. So I was stunned to see actors doing things like waterskiing or hacking all the branches off a tree with an axe, let alone running and jumping about on rain-slick surfaces or jumping into lakes half naked. Yes, I was told, Mads had injured himself a couple of times. Never too severely.

A Peer for the future
2017 is another year of changes. Director Sigrid Strøm Reibo’s vision for the new production is to emphasize the long journey Peer undertakes. The title role will be split for the first time at Gålå, with father and son actors Jakob and Nils Ole Oftebro sharing the part. Though both are well-known actors in Norway, this will also mark the first time the two have been in a play together.

We will meet 25-year-old Peer in the 1960s and follow him until the present day. Details of the new production are of course as yet unknown, but we have also been promised a new approach to both the music and the musicians and “new tableaus and pictures that audience will not expect.”

Crazy as it sounds, I am seriously considering making another trip back to Lake Gålåvatnet to see how the interpretation of this timeless classic changes from year to year.

Photo courtesy of Peer Gynt Festival
The artistic team for 2017: Mask & Costume Designer Helena Andersson, Director Sigrid Strøm Reibo, Composer & Musical Director Simon Revholt, and Scene & Costume Designer Gjermund Andresen.

Notes on actually being there
The experience of Peer Gynt at Gålå is like if Broadway theatre and camping had a baby. High-quality performances in a rustic—yet hyggelig—setting.

My main words of advice are these: dress warmly. Wear all your layers. Yes, it’s August. No, it probably won’t be warm. Yes, it might rain, and no they won’t stop the show. For us it started to rain in Act I, and there was a mighty rustle as we in the audience all donned our ponchos. I had as much clothing on as I physically could, including a lot of borrowed items. If you won’t have anyone to borrow from, pack well.

Also, make a night of it! The performance itself is one thing, but there’s also dinner to be had before the show, in big heated tents strewn with cozy sheepskins. There are picnic benches outside if the weather permits. Bringing in outside food or beverage did not seem to be counter indicated, so I recommend it. At the intermission, get some coffee and a pastry. At the end of the night, if you’re up for it, hit up “Varm mat og etterprat,” a discussion with people involved in the play that also comes with soup, back in the tents.

But wait, there’s more!
The play runs for two weekends, with at least seven performances (and quite probably more added as these sell out). But you don’t want to miss the one-time-only “mountain concert” on the final Sunday. High atop another mountain you can nestle into the heather and relax with the view and incredible choral and instrumental music. For me this was a magical day—the only really sunny and almost warm day of my week in Norway. Your mileage may vary, of course.

This event cannot sell out, as I am assured that the mountain can handle it. Bring a picnic blanket and your matpakke or buy snacks and beverages from the many stands that pop up along the way, or have lunch at the charming Hotel Rondablikk and enjoy a hike around the area.

For more info on visiting the Peer Gynt Festival or to buy tickets, visit peergynt.no.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 27, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Those Time Travel Leaves Behind

The following is politically relevant Back to the Future fan fiction that I wrote just after the election. Since it is probably un-sellable as fiction, you can read it as a freebie!

 

My name is Jennifer Parker, and I’ve lived my whole life in a little California town called Hill Valley.

Yes, that Hill Valley. The one with the massive eyesore casino. The one that gave us President Tannen.

I didn’t vote for him. In point of fact, most of the country didn’t vote for him. But Biff Tannen never cared much for the rules. I know things about him…

Why didn’t I come forward before now? No one would believe my story. I could be committed just for admitting that I believe it—and I wouldn’t be the first person he had committed.

The year was 1985. I worked in his massive eyesore casino, because in the Hill Valley dystopia that’s just what you did. Biff didn’t think I was pretty enough to be in one of his pageants, but I was good enough to serve cocktails on the casino floor. I was seventeen. That didn’t seem to matter to anyone. With some makeup and my tits hiked up to my neck I fit in just fine.

It was a horrible job, as I’m sure you already guessed. Cocktail waitresses work for tips, and there weren’t a lot of big spenders on the floor of Biff’s Pleasure Palace. When their hands came near me it was usually to grope something, not to reward me for my excellent service.

When my shifts were over I liked to go up on the roof and smoke cigarettes and pretend I lived somewhere else. Maybe somewhere with a high school. You could see the stars, sometimes, and at the very least you couldn’t see the casino when you were on top of it.

Suddenly the door burst open and a teenager burst out onto the roof. I knew who he was, of course. You don’t grow up in Hill Valley and not know who Biff’s stepkids are, at least by sight.

Marty was the youngest of them, my age. We’d been in classes together, when he bothered to go to them. He’d flunked out of school long before it burned down, and was shipped off to boarding school. Sometimes he made headlines in the local paper for a drug-fueled episode that got him kicked out of another school—or at least he did before the paper’s editor mysteriously disappeared. Anyway, he was a wreck. I guess I would be too if my dad was murdered when I was five.

At first I thought that was all it was, Marty stumbling around in a drunken misadventure. But a minute later Biff himself came out the door, swaggering and repulsive with a gun in his hand a silk bathrobe barely covering the rest. I put my cigarette out and shrank deeper into the shadows.

That was when I saw how different Marty looked. He wasn’t drunk or drugged at all. He stood up straighter than I’d ever seen. His eyes—even though they were far away I could see something steely in them that hadn’t been there since grade school.

I saw a flash of something else. Marty and me together in a grassy place. A phone number scribbled on the back of a flier. A kiss.

With Marty? The kid who vomited in the king of Saudi Arabia’s private plane? But the guy I was looking at wasn’t that Marty. He stood right up to Biff’s gun (albeit while backing toward the edge of the roof), and that was when I overheard Biff admit to murder.

“The police will match the bullet to that gun,” Marty told him.

And Biff said, “Kid, I own the police. Besides, they couldn’t match up the bullet that killed your old man.”

You see now why I never told anyone?

I closed my eyes. Marty was either going to get shot or jump off the roof, and either way I didn’t want to see it.

But then I heard a really strange sound. Something I’ve never heard before. Like a motor running, but also like a vacuum cleaner or a bunch of kazoos or … I really can’t describe it. As much as I’ve hoped to, I’ve never heard that sound again.

I looked over and I saw … a spaceship!

Or so it looked to me at the time. Later, much later, when I saw a Delorean on the street I recognized it from that night. So I guess it was a car. But it hovered just at the edge of the roof like magic.

The wing door came up and knocked Biff out, and he lay splayed on the roof, the revolver next to his hand. I dared peek out a little further at Marty, who stood proudly and majestically on the roof of that flying car like something from a dream.

Maybe it was a dream. But for just a moment he saw me, and we locked eyes, and there was such a recognition in his eyes, a familiar, reassuring smile that seemed to promise me it would all be okay in time.

And then he hopped into the car and the door shut and I stood up from my hiding place with my mouth open to scream, Take me with you!

But I didn’t say a word. I crept past Biff and went downstairs and went home and the next day I went back to work and lived my pathetic little life.

I never told anyone what I saw, but I’ve thought about that flying car every day of my life. I guessed—hoped?—that it had come from a better future, one with flying cars and who knows what other marvels.

But it’s the future now, and we still don’t have flying cars. It’s 2017 and Biff is president and I don’t know, I guess I always thought Marty would come back in his Delorean and stop it somehow.

Sometimes I have flashes of another life where he and I are together. Sometimes it’s a great life. Sometimes it’s just okay. Sometimes we have kids who do stupid things. Sometimes there are flying cars.

But the Jennifer in those lives isn’t me, and the Marty here isn’t him. This Marty overdosed a few years ago. He was found on the floor of a trashed penthouse suite in Atlantic City. And I still work at Biff’s Pleasure Palace, only now I’m not pretty enough to serve drinks either, so I clean vomit out of gold-accented hotel rooms that haven’t looked classy in 30 years.

I keep thinking there’s a world in which we live happily ever after, but I don’t live in that world. The car flew away and now I’m stuck in this one.

Two ways to rush through Oslo

You can see more than you think on a short trip to Norway’s capital—even while smelling the roses

Photo: Nancy Bundt / Visitnorway.com / Vigeland-museet / BONO Frogner Park, a must-see in any Oslo trip.

Photo: Nancy Bundt / Visitnorway.com / Vigeland-museet / BONO
Frogner Park, a must-see in any Oslo trip.

With so much to see in a fascinating place like Oslo, you may think it best to budget a week or more in Norway’s capital city. I can’t argue with that thinking, of course, but the reality of traveling is that we can usually not spend as much time anywhere as we’d like (except for airports. We spend far too much time in those).

The first time I visited Oslo it was for one day, an afterthought squeezed in between uncooperative train and flight schedules. The second time I hoped would be more leisurely, but I ended up with just over two days! Still, one can see a lot in a short visit if properly armed and motivated.

For armaments, you’ll need an Oslo Pass and a map. If you’re privileged enough to have a smartphone that actually works in Norway (no, I’m not bitter at my cell phone carrier. NOT AT ALL.), there is an app for all of that, called Visit Oslo. I’m sure it works wonders. For those of us who find ourselves suddenly in the last century with regards to personal technology, a physical Oslo Pass and map will do just fine. You can pick these up at most hotels, and also at a visitor’s office at the train station. They’re available in 24-, 48-, and 72-hour versions, and the clock doesn’t start running on it until your first use. The Oslo Pass also comes with a pocket-sized paper guide to everything it offers. Which is an incredible amount! Between attractions and public transportation, it’s a real bargain.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun The finished statues in Vigeland Park are pretty great, but in the Gustav Vigeland Museum (park-adjacent) you can explore what it took to make them—and see examples of the sculptor’s other works.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
The finished statues in Vigeland Park are pretty great, but in the Gustav Vigeland Museum (park-adjacent) you can explore what it took to make them—and see examples of the sculptor’s other works.

On that first trip we arrived late in the evening, found some food, and wandered on Karl Johans gate and down to the Opera House before heading back to the hotel to plan our attack on the next day. The goal: to see as much as possible.

We started by taking the ferry (included!) from the Oslo Harbor in front of the Rådhus over to Bygdøy, where you’ll find a cluster of museums. If you’re into boats, this is the place for you: the Viking Ship Museum is there, along with museums hosting the Fram and Kon-Tiki (and Ra). They are all rather small museums, and all included in your Oslo Pass.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun The Fram is just one of the famous Norwegian ships clustered in Bygdøy. But it is one of the more impressive, and you can even go on deck.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
The Fram is just one of the famous Norwegian ships clustered in Bygdøy. But it is one of the more impressive, and you can even go on deck.

Next to these is the famous Norsk Folk Museum filled with brown farm buildings with grass roofs. You will probably want to spend a little more time here, to take in the living history demonstrators who bring the place to life, by, for example, offering you lefse baked on the medieval hearth in a farmhouse.

I’m pretty sure we did all of this before lunch.

After that, we took the boat back and walked toward the t-bane (subway), which allowed us to spot half a dozen points of interest at least enough to point at them. Ooh! The palace! Right here in the middle of the city, you say? Neat!

We took the subway to the Munch Museum, which is also pretty small—but mandatory if you’re into art at all. “The Scream” is in the National Gallery of Art, but since it was a theme Munch returned to over and over, there is also a Scream at his museum—the exhibit does change, but this seems to be a constant. After all, that is really what people are coming to see.

We hopped back on the t-bane and went to Frogner Park, which contains Vigeland Park, which is also mandatory. I don’t care how short your visit to Oslo is; go see the creepy iconic work of Norway’s best-known sculptor and take selfies with the statues.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun From the top of Holmenkollen you can see all of Oslo, looking shockingly far away.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
From the top of Holmenkollen you can see all of Oslo, looking shockingly far away.

Our last stop on that visit was all the way up to Holmenkollen, the ski jump that looms over Oslo like the launch pad for a spaceship. It hosts a small museum of ski jumping and of course the view from the top of the jump, which is to say the view of all Oslo.

Our assessment was that we’d seen the crap out of Oslo. Not bad for a day’s work.

My second visit, I was on a mission: to research articles like this one, yes, but I also had meetings in various parts of the city that disrupted the flow of my sightseeing. One thing I discovered early on was that, even though it was theoretically the height of the tourist season (early August), things close early. I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and there wasn’t much happening in the center of the city. Many attractions are closed on Sundays, or on Mondays, so plan your route with that in mind. Save parks for the evenings, at least when long summer daylight allows. Because for some reason, everything else closes at either 5:00 or 6:00 p.m.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Nils Anders lets out his angst in Marina Abramović’s sculpture, intended as a frame for the scenery of Munch’s “The Scream.”

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Nils Anders lets out his angst in Marina Abramović’s sculpture, intended as a frame for the scenery of Munch’s “The Scream.”

I started with Ekebergparken, a new sculpture park on the east side of town. One of the area’s claims to fame is that it is the view Munch used for “The Scream” and other of his works. Marina Abramović’s sculpture, a frame at the edge of a platform, gives you the chance to be your own Scream. You will have to hike a bit to get there. Yes, farther than you think. Make a left at Tony Oursler’s “Klang,” an A/V hobbit house wall (described by the park’s website as a “video grotto”), and eventually you will get there, even though it doesn’t seem like it!

My first full day in Oslo looked something like:
• wander Karl Johans gate from Stortinget to the palace
• head toward the harbor but instead run into the Ibsen Museum and decide to stop
• meeting
• find myself at the Nobel museum and decide why not?
• by-appointment viewing of Emanuel Vigeland’s mausoleum (more on this in another article, I promise!)
• wandering, dinner

And my second day went:
• Gustav Vigeland’s museum
• Frogner park
• meeting, other meeting
• Munch Museum
• realize that there’s still time to get to the National Gallery, so go
• wandering, dinner

On both days the theme was one of being able to see more than I’d expected to. I wouldn’t be certain if there was time to properly see something, like the Ibsen Museum. But having the Oslo Pass emboldened me to give it a try—I knew it wouldn’t cost anything more if I needed to come back again, and I also never worried about spending money to visit a museum only to stay for a short time. Aside from E. Vigeland’s mausoleum, the Oslo Pass covers everything I did.

Also, and I say this with no disrespect, these are not overly large museums. Even the National Gallery’s permanent collection is possible to get through in an hour, and it has a more impressive Munch collection than the actual Munch Museum—not to mention other Norwegian artists. So maybe it’s not a museum to shock and awe visitors, but I find that a refreshing change of pace from one that takes all day, or many days (I’m looking at you, Louvre) to see properly.

That will perhaps change in the coming years. Three new museums are set to open soon—a new National Museum, which will combine the current National Gallery and History Museums, a new National Library, and a new Munch Museum in a whole new location (literally—the location is currently water in Oslo’s harbor). In the years after that, the expanded Viking Ship Museum will also come online.

So if you’re inclined to rush though Oslo, my advice is to rush to Oslo first, before its museums grow too big to handle.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 26, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlig klær?

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun As it turns out, I really don’t take a lot of photos when it’s raining. So here’s a shot from the relatively “nice” weather before the rain started at the Peer Gynt performance. I was concerned that that woman on the left was going to die, since she was wearing at least four fewer layers than I had on and was already shivering. Hanne Maren, right, is fully bundled up, and she spent most of the evening inside a tent.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
As it turns out, I really don’t take a lot of photos when it’s raining. So here’s a shot from the relatively “nice” weather before the rain started at the Peer Gynt performance. I was concerned that that woman on the left was going to die, since she was wearing at least four fewer layers than I had on and was already shivering. Hanne Maren, right, is fully bundled up, and she spent most of the evening inside a tent.

I knew right away when I stepped off the plane that I’d made a mistake. Skirts and tank tops had no place in my luggage for this trip to Oslo and the Gudbrandsdalen valley in August.

I thought I had planned so carefully. The weather forecast showed some rain for my trip, but temperatures in the 60s—not my preferred beach weather, but not so dissimilar from the old school “summer” Seattle had been experiencing. I packed the sort of clothes I’d been wearing. I very carefully prepared a special clothing plan for an outdoor event in the mountains: long underwear, a wool sweater to be acquired in Norway, and waterproof outer layers. It’s the mountains, yes, but it’s still summer, I thought. How cold could it be?

A Norwegian relative of mine shared a quote with me, of uncertain origin: “Norway has two winters, one of them white and the other green. The green one is the worst, because they don’t use the fireplace.” Whoever said it, that was exactly the phenomenon I experienced. In Oslo hotels the boilers are off, so forget about heating up your chilly room.

Put on more clothing! Norway is like a frugal father telling his kids not to touch the thermostat. The phrase “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,” is bandied about so much that it’s a Norwegian cliché, but do people really believe it? The unseasonably chilly weather (yes, even for Norway!) was a frequent subject for conversation, so I ended up asking a great many Norwegians their thoughts on the truth of the truism.

It was hard to find many who would speak out against their country’s weather. The final tally came in with eight firmly agreeing with the saying, four admitting that there is sometimes bad weather, and three weaseling away from the question by saying that it’s really both. For example, Ingrid, a Norwegian working in the U.S. Embassy, said immediately that there was bad weather. Her reasoning: she’d been biking into work and had forgotten her rain pants, and when she got in water literally poured out of her shoes.

“So if you’d been wearing your rain pants it would have been okay?” I asked.

Indeed. So whose point had she just proven? Camilla from Visit Lillehammer neatly summed up a sentiment I heard repeatedly: “There is bad weather, but there is also really good clothing.”

Kate from Norwegians Worldwide was adamant that the saying was true. She said she’d been camping during rains that had closed roads with their resulting floods and thought, “It’s a bit wet.”

Cecile from Lillehammer’s stunning Art Museum was the most outspoken in supporting the existence of bad weather, but qualified it by saying she wasn’t a very typical Norwegian. Typical Norwegians, she told me, wear very sensible clothing. Her style is, predictably, more artistic.

Even in the mountains at Lake Gålå, where actors perform outdoors in all weather, often wearing what I would consider very “bad” clothing, I couldn’t find anyone to condemn it. “The weather is part of the performance,” said Reidar, who dies in the play and must lie still on the often-wet ground. Another performer talked about adapting one’s performance to match the surroundings, making motions bigger.

I have nothing but admiration for these stalwart souls who embody the theatrical cliché “the show must go on.” I sat in the audience, wearing an additional four layers over and under the careful plan I’d made, wrapped in ponchos and a loaned woolen blanket, and found it mildly distressing when it started to rain. It rained steadily for the rest of the show, at least two hours during which not one of the actors let on that there was any kind of weather, despite being at times shirtless, often barefoot, sometimes wading into lake water I can’t imagine was much above freezing.

International developer for the festival Hanne Maren, who did say, “I’m starting to feel there is something wrong with that saying,” tacitly admitting to the existence of bad weather, denied that that evening’s rain qualified. It had been a nice night, she said. It was a balmy 12 degrees! (Celsius, of course). What was I complaining about?

I’d often thought there was an element of victim-blaming to the saying about bad clothing. It seems to say, “Oh, you’re cold? Should have been wearing a better coat.”

But perhaps it’s even more accurate to say that it’s a bit classist. I had considered buying rain pants for this trip, but the high price tag put me off. Hanne Maren loaned me a pair of hers, saying that you should never buy something for a trip, but only if you really need it in your life. But then how is a person to visit a place like Norway? For some, “bad” clothing is the only kind they can afford.

So what is the answer? For me, I think there’s quite a lot that counts as bad weather—hurricanes and tornadoes leap to mind. But barring weather warranting a Red Cross response, I’m willing to entertain the notion that there is some level of clothing out there that would make it all okay, or even enjoyable. I simply haven’t found it yet.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 26, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Peer Gynt

And now here I am, at the main event! Today has been a treat so far, and the show will start in about half an hour. It has been raining off and on, but it’s currently off and I hope it stays that way. The sun even poked its head out for a second or two. I am wearing a redonculous amount of clothing–five layers under a rain shell, and a silly hat on top, and the possibility for even more with two ponchos and a wool blanket on loan. Right now (prior to showtime) I am quite comfortable.

There was one other English-speaker at the intro that my host Hanne Maren delivered. I would love to be responsible for other Americans showing up to this thing. I feel I have to, if I’m to pay my way for all the hospitality I’ve been shown.

It started to rain toward the end of the first half of the show, a drizzle and then a more serious rain, and there was a rustle throughout the audience as ponchos were donned. Hanne Maren had loaned me two of them, so I wore one and used the other to cover my things at the break.

Oh, but the play! Energetic, sexy even. The music… Creative. I will have to give the Peer Gynt suite a listen, because this was not that. A refrain of “We are the champions” played at one point while Peer was in Africa. The time period throughout was hard to place. They did start in bunads and farm clothing, but then in Africa it was modern, and Peer’s yacht was a motorboat. There was quite the explosion in the lake when the time came. I really enjoyed the lurking, red-gloved presence of the knappewhoever–the button molder / death.

This is the last year of this actor, Mads Ousdal, as Peer, and there will also be a new director for next year’s show, the 150th anniversary of the play. I will have to find out what they have planned, or at least learn something about the director. Personally, I think the role could have been played better. There was so much shouting and flying spit (though granted, at least some of that is Ibsen’s fault), and it seems to me that Peer could have played it a little cooler and earned a bit more sympathy. Especially knowing that the historical Peer was a respected figure, this one came across a bit psychopathic.

Mads Ousdal dancing in the beginning of Peer Gynt.

Peer Gynt, up close and personal. I was in the front row, so Mads Ousdal was basically in my lap at the beginning of the play.

I wasn’t cold per se, but the rain was pretty unpleasant and contrary to what I’d been told, I didn’t stop noticing it. Hanne Maren told me that it was actually very slight rain compared to a lot of what they have been having.

The play was very real. Peer chopped all the branches off a tree with an axe, and they jumped around on a lot of slick-looking wet surfaces and waded into the freezing lake and waterskied in for one entrance. Crazy shit that I don’t think an American theatre would ever allow. They also drank actual sparkling something, and threw it on the audience. I’d bet money it was wine. We would have gone to such lengths to replace labels on sparkling juice or some such. They just drink.

Trolls! This was the last photo of the show I got before it was too rainy and dark for my poor little phone.

After the play was “varme mat og etterprat”–soup and an interview with Mads. I didn’t get a lot out of the interview. But not nothing. More than from the play, for sure. One of the reasons I was invited to view the play this year was because of their new audio translations, which would provide a short summary of each scene at the beginning. I listened to the first one, then pulled it away from my ear to better watch the play. When I tried to start it again at the beginning of the next scene I couldn’t find my place, and I never did. Which I guess is sort of ironic?

After the talk, Hanne Maren took me back to her cabin and left me there while she went partying with the cast and crew to celebrate the end of the season’s run. Earlier in the day we had attended a prize ceremony for the volunteer of the year, the young woman who played Ingrid in the play. I had thought her a young thing, but there she was in the play with her boobs hanging out, so one hopes she was 18 years old at least. It was really quite the small-town honor, complete with a song written for her and speeches by the current Peer and a past one. And a text message from the director. She apparently joked in her speech about being close to Mads, because last year’s Ingrid is now pregnant with his child.

Before that, I had a real treat at the actual , historical, Per Gynt farm! Reidar, who was described to me as a “Peer Gynt enthusiast,” picked me up from Spidsbergeseter and drove me to places in the Gudbrandsdal, including the grave site of the historical Per Gynt, and up to the actual farm. We got very lucky there in that the current inhabitant, Mikkel Doblaug, saw us and invited us in for coffee. He gave us slippers to wear and sat with us at the kitchen table in his own very old and charming part of the property. There was even a plate of brownies on the table, with little decorative garnishes. Really? He said that he learned, when he moved to the country, that he must always have some cakes on hand.

He took us into the old part of the house, which would have been a very fancy house at the time, on the plan of all the other typical farmhouses that I’ve seen. He even has Per’s christening cap in glass in the room. The space, and more, was once a boutique hotel, but not for a little while. Maybe again in the future.

Inside the real Per Gynt’s house.

My final day in Norway was finally a nice one, weather-wise. I went with Hanne Maren up to the site of the Mountain Concert quite early, and got a tour of the hotel (lovely) and watched a bit of the rehearsal for the show in the almost-warm-enough sunshine. I had more layers with me, but couldn’t bring myself to put them on because the sunshine felt good–when the wind wasn’t making it actually too cold. I had lunch in the hotel, more stewed meat (probably lamb?), which I thought was pretty good.

And then it was time for the concert, which was also an amazing experience. Similar to being at the Gorge in Washington State, but with classical music and singing. I feel I would have gotten more out of it with stronger language skills, but there is something operatic about not understanding the singing too. I have some of the lyrics. My eyes did keep closing, but not from boredom. Tiredness, yes, but also being really warm and cozy enough to drift to sleep.

A nisse in front of a majestic Norwegian view.

Nils Anders Wik hanging out before the Mountain Concert that concludes the Peer Gynt Festival.

It was the perfect end to my week in Norway, capped off with an utepils with Camille from Lillehammer, who had joined us at the concert so she could drive me back to Lillehammer. From there began my long journey home: train to near the Oslo airport, a night at a business hotel, then from Oslo to Stockholm—long layover—Stockholm to Oakland, CA—another long layover—then finally home to Seattle. On the upside, back in Seattle it was finally summer!

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