Thursday, September 22, 2016

Saving the Planet Scandinavian Style

From the moment we were hurtled into downtown from the Stockholm airport on their high speed train, it was clear to us that Scandinavia would be a place that was innovating ways to save the planet.

At the Stockholm airport, we took an elevator one floor down to get on a high-speed train that took us into downtown at 135 miles per hour. The thirty-mile ride took nineteen minutes and brought us to the Central Train Station a ten -minute walk from our hotel.

In the high-speed train station
The HTL Hotel was another example of high tech design. It’s no wonder that IKEA started in Sweden. I was so impressed with the design that I took a picture of our hotel room - something I’ve never done before. The room was small and had no closets or dressers. Two ample draws were built in under the bed. Several hooks were placed on each wall for hanging clothes. Although it looked small, there was enough needed space especially for a few day stay.

In the HTL Hotel
On the Under the Canals boat-tour, we rode past a “passive” apartment building. The narrator explained that it was termed “passive” because its net energy use was zero. Each apartment in the building has a pipe for depositing waste that is funneled into a nearby recycling station that transforms the waste into biofuel. Another pipe into the apartments brings the apartments biofuel that is then used for heat and electricity. In a recent survey, 77% of Swedes said that they’d be willing to pay higher rents to live in a passive apartment.

A "Passive" Apartment Building
Throughout Scandinavia we saw buses running on solar energy and other renewable fuels.

Especially in Copenhagen – but throughout Scandinavia – we were amazed by the amount of people riding bikes instead of cars. In Copenhagen, bicyclists definitely have the right of way and wide, safe bike lanes. Without a doubt bicyclists have the critical mass and have changed the way in which people move from place to place. Instead of huge parking lots for cars, one sees huge bicycle parking lots. For those who don’t bike, of course, they had plenty of public transportation. As a result, there are many fewer cars on the road than one would see in an American city.

Copenhagen Parking Lot
The Scandinavians are definitely leading the way in terms of ecology. Hopefully, the rest of the world will follow them in this regard. On a positive note, enough countries have signed the Paris Accord on global warming to make it a binding treaty by the end of 2016. People in all countries will have to look for ways to save energy. They can look to the Scandinavians for some innovative ways to do it.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

What Are Those Norwegians So Happy About?

Before traveling to Scandinavia, I wondered how the Danes and Norwegians always appeared in worldwide polls as the happiest people with the greatest overall sense of well -being. They live in a place with long, cold, dark winters even worse than Chicago’s. On our trip, I found out.

Yes, they have beautiful places where they can enjoy the outdoors. The fiords and mountains were spectacular to see. We heard from our guide that most Norwegians live for their opportunities to be outdoors skiing and otherwise enjoying their beautiful mountains.

There has to be more to their secret of national happiness than the beautiful scenery and there is. Norway has an extremely admirable social safety network. National healthcare is virtually free to all Norwegians. The government pays for daycare and most Norwegian women work outside the home. They get a 47- week paid parental leave. What can you say to that besides “Wow!”?

All laws are gender-neutral and in many families, the father is the one to stay home. After the leave, the parent has the option of working part-time.  Those women who don’t work are looked down upon by most of Norwegian society. The unions set the wage scales and the least anyone makes is $20 per hour. Of course, school through University is free.

Any Norwegian who has worked 40 years gets a pension worth about two thirds of his (her) salary starting at age 62. Anyone who has worked less than that can work until age 67 and get part of that amount. If someone needs to go to assisted living when they are elderly, he (she) pays 80% of his (her) pension check and their government pays the rest.

Norwegians are taxed heavily to pay for this generous social safety net. As a result, no one there is extremely wealthy. People there pride themselves on having a more equal society. If you want to become uber-rich, don’t go there. In Oslo, I was impressed when we were told to visit their most prominent, wealthy hotel. It was very nice, but I was impressed by how unimpressive it was. The Palmer House in Chicago is much ritzier. If you want to live in a society where everyone has at least the basics and nobody is homeless, Norway is the place to go. Most Norwegians will accept you as long as you work, learn to speak Norwegian, and try to fit into the norms of their society.

Of course, a social safety doesn’t prevent all problems. People can still become physically or mentally ill or develop addictions. They can still have family problems, disabilities, or other emotional difficulties. Nevertheless, I think how much easier it would have been for my former clients’ issues to be resolved had their lives been stabilized be such a safety net. We can certainly learn from the Scandinavians in this respect. In a way, it’s what my book Breaking the Fall is all about. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Stockholm, Sweden - A City Lacking Some Major Earmarks of Urban Life

Stockholm is beautiful, built on an archipelago of 14 islands. The best way to gain a perspective of it is to take a boat tour around it. We did on our last day there. Not having enough time for that the first day, we took a walk around Normann, the area that included the main business district and downtown of Stockholm. I was immediately impressed by how different it looked from anywhere else I’d been. Its architecture, a mixture of Swedish functionalism and buildings built a thousand years ago, somehow all fit together in a beautiful stately whole.

panoramic view of Sweden

The first thing I noticed missing were the panhandlers. All right, during our four days there, we saw a few –maybe five. In most American downtowns, one would see a lot more. Later on our trip we learned that in Scandinavia, people use credit cards for everything and carry no cash. All of their credit cards have chips and are impossible to use by someone who has stolen one. Since potential panhandlers know this, they don’t bother to panhandle. Thus, the government is left to help people in need instead of relying on the generosity of individuals.

The next absence we noticed was the homeless. We learned at the Nordica Museum and on the Under the Bridges boat tour that in the 1920’s and again in 1960, the Swedish government undertook a massive program of building affordable and low-cost housing for its citizens. In 1920, it was done to stem the emigration to America caused by poverty. In the 1960’s, a million housing units for upper income, middle income, and low- income people were built. For a country with a population of about 10 million, this is really remarkable. Most of the housing built were apartments. We didn’t see any large single- family homes but we didn’t see homelessness either. On the boat ride, we saw some government housing. It didn’t look beautiful but it was better than seeing people walking around downtown pushing shopping carts with all their earthly possessions in them because they have nowhere to live.

public housing in Stockholm
One of our first stops was to the Stockholm City Hall where we took a tour. The tours are given in English every half hour. We were taken through the banquet hall where the banquet for the Nobel Prize winners takes place. The building itself and the artwork in were definitely worth a visit. Upstairs, we saw the rooms where the Stockholm City Council has its meetings. One fact I found very intriguing is that the City Council members are part-time workers with other jobs who are paid only for the meetings that they actually attend. I am still working on a proposal to adapt this concept to the Illinois Legislature. It sounds like a great idea to me.

Stockholm City Hall

In the Banquet Hall

In the Stockholm City Hall
We saw a lot more in Stockholm in the following days. I felt that I had seen the future both in how to design a government that works for all its citizens as well as in some very innovative technology that goes a long way toward preserving the environment and slashing the carbon footprint. All in all, Stockholm is a unique, forward looking city.


Friday, August 26, 2016

Traveling in Chicago - The Chicago Cultural Center

One of the little known but great things about Chicago is the abundance of art and culture that’s free and accessible to the public. We took advantage at one of those places by seeing two art exhibits at the Chicago Cultural Center Completed in 1897, the building served as the main branch of the Chicago Public Library until 1991. You can enter the building on either 78 East Washington or 78 East Randolph St or through its Pedway entrance.

There are many free concerts, art exhibits, and other cultural events at the Chicago Cultural Center and the building itself is beautiful and well worth a visit. Free tours of the Cultural Center are given Wednesday through Saturday at 1:15PM. 

Free lunch time concerts are given year round on Mondays and Wednesdays at 12:15. I’ve attended several of them where I’d see many people coming from work to enjoy the concerts on their lunch hours.

Since we had been in the Cultural Center many times before, we went to see the art exhibits before going to Millennial Park. Most of the art exhibits are there for a few months. Unfortunately, the exhibit the works of Carlos Rolon/Dzine closed on July 31st. The exhibit Under the Pleasure Dome by Phyllis Bramson is there until August 28th. Ms. Bramson’s fertile imagination is something to see. She synthesized the ideas and images of Asian art, Freudian concepts, and her own imagination into very colorful paintings, collages, and other artifacts. Her works are quite unique.

Carlos Rolon/Dzine is also a very imaginative artist. From Puerto Rico, he draws on his origins in his work. He has created flower arrangements, sculpture, and murals in addition to paintings. His work is also unique and worth seeing. Look for it in other museums and galleries.

The Chicago Cultural Center is open every day. Check the website for hours. You’ll be happy that you stopped by.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Traveling in Chicago- The Swedish American Museum

America is a country of immigrants. Sometimes it’s good to remember the immigration story of a group that came a few generations ago before all the current strife. It's easy to do that in Chicago, a city of museums, many of which are ethnic ones. Before going on a trip to Scandinavia, we thought we’d get ourselves ready by taking a trip to the Swedish American Museum It was well worth the trip. This museum tells the story of Swedish immigration to America, but in a sense, it’s the story of all immigration to America.
Located at 5211 North Clark Street, The Swedish American Museum is located in the heart of Andersonville, the neighborhood that used to be a focal point of the Swedish-American community in Chicago the majority of whom emigrated in the late 1800’s. Although the Swedish community is now dispersed throughout the Chicago area, this neighborhood still has several Swedish restaurants, cafes, and stores.
on the corner of an Andersonville street near the museum

We started our visit to the museum by going to the third floor to see The Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration. This exhibit is great for children between the ages of four and nine. It has several interactive areas complete with costumes the children can wear while they pretend to be Swedish immigrants to Chicago. The museum also has  a simulation of a Swedish cottage and a farm as well and areas where children are invited to draw pictures. One part of the exhibit we enjoyed was an exchange of letters between Chicago middle school students and students from a middle school in a small Swedish town. I was so impressed with the English written by the Swedish students that I asked the museum guides if the students had written the letters in English themselves or had them translated. I was assured that the students had written the letters in English.

On the second floor of the museum is the main exhibit for adults. The visitor is directed to the entrance where the exhibit starts. It shows all the steps that Swedish people had to take before emigrating from there. The rest of the exhibit highlights some of the community’s history after it came to Chicago as well as pointing out some prominent Chicagoans of Swedish descent.

diorama of a Swedish man leaving for America

example of Swedish cabinetry

Swedish handicrafts

During the summer, the Swedish American Museum offers walking tours of Andersonville on the last Thursday of each month. We’ll have to do that sometime soon as well.

If you want to add to your museum experience, have dinner afterwards at Tre Kronor, our favorite Swedish restaurant located at 3258 W. Foster, just a few minutes' drive from the Museum. It will definitely complete the experience.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

When Muslim and Jewish Women Meet - Finding Common Ground

I have always felt that if people can meet across national, ethnic and religious lines, the barriers can be broken one dialogue at a time. So I was happy to introduce my daughter, an Orthodox Jew, to a friend who’s a Muslim.

We offered her some coffee or tea that she declined. She had just had something to drink after exhausting herself searching for a comfortable pair of shoes. Quickly the discussion turned to something that can unite all women – the difficulty women have finding comfortable shoes. Especially if one’s foot is wide or narrow as opposed to average, finding a comfortable pair of walking shoes that actually fit properly can entail an expedition to numerous shoe stores, often in vain.

My friend wanted a pair of comfortable shoes for her pilgrimage to Mecca. My daughter walks to and from religious services every week on Shabbat (Sabbath). If there is any area of common ground, it's definitely the ordeal it is to find the right shoes for the purpose of walking on this Earth.

When I went shoe shopping myself, I thought of them as I wore out every shoe salesperson in the store. After trying on about 40 pairs of shoes, I finally found a pair settling on something not perfect but comfortable.

My husband waited for me in the front of the store looking extremely bored. This is something I didn’t think would ever happen to us. When he planned to retire, I told him it was fine with me on the condition that he would never ask to go shopping with me. As an anti-shopper, he has always been very happy to comply with that condition but that day we were in the process of doing several different errands. Why did I think for a second that shoe shopping would be a quick stop? I should have known better.

“What do you think?” my husband asked. “Why aren’t women’s shoes more lasting?”

The answer was obvious. Most designers of women’s shoes are either sadists or misogynists or both. What man would walk a mile in these moccasins?


Do these shoes befit any religious pilgrimage? I wouldn’t even wear them to walk around the supermarket.

 When Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination for President, they shattered the glass ceiling. "When there's no ceiling, the sky's the limit," she said in her acceptance speech.

Thank heavens, we American women have finally achieved that milestone albeit after at least 20 other countries around the world. Now that we have, maybe we can focus on the ground again and the shoes women are forced to wear to walk on it. If we’re going to walk beside our men instead of lagging far behind them, we’re going to need more comfortable shoes to do it in. After all, how are we supposed to hold up Half the Sky in shoes like these?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Another Look At String Theory - Revisiting Ways to Extend Assistance to People

 There are many ways to say it. “Give someone a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and he has food for the rest of his life.”

“Not a handout but a leg up.”

Being vertically challenged – I’m 5’ tall- I’ve had a problem for a while. I have overhead fans with lights attached to them in several rooms in my apartment and if they weren’t on when I turned the switch, I had a few choices: I could stand on a chair and reach for the string wobbling as I got to it. I could do without the light. If my husband was home, I could ask him to turn the lights or the fan on or off for me. Not being able to do something as simple as turning the light on or off both infuriated me and reminded me of what disabled people experience sometimes on an hourly basis. Either do without or be dependent. Often there are simple devices that can solve the problem. Microwaves with the controls in Braille, voice-activated computers, and telephone connections for the hearing impaired are a few that come to mind. 

Finally, we decided to solve my problem. We bought extensions for the chains on the overhead fans and lights. Now I can turn them on or off all by myself. Wow! The feeling of independence feels so liberating that I find myself turning lights on and off just because I can. Why didn’t I think of that before?

In a way, this is a metaphor for the issues that I depicted in my book Breaking the Fall. In the book, Sherry, a Chicago therapist, works with people who face problems for which they seek her help. Often systemic problems in our society place obstacles to their healing. These people seek help so that they can live their lives as independently as possible. Sherry has to help her clients unravel their problems and find the solutions and understandings that will help them overcome the obstacles that they face. Many of the obstacles are ones that society places in their path and that threaten their lives and sometimes their very survival. Will Sherry be able to help them or will her own problems engulf her? That’s for the reader to discover by reading Breaking the Fall. It can be bought as a paperback on Amazon or read on a Kindle or a Nook.

All people are searching for is the string to pull that can unravel the problems. Usually it’s more complicated than a single string but being able to unravel any part of a problem helps and sometimes leads to solving another piece of it.

In the meantime, I’m going to turn out the light when I leave this room. It feels so good to be able to do it all by myself.