Nineteen Facts and One Lie about Denmark

  1. This past electoral year featured a remarkable first: the first candidate for Prime Minister ever to pose on his campaign poster wearing nothing but a cowboy hat, a holster and a six-shooter.
  2. The Danish media color codes political parties opposite to the now-conventional American coding. In Denmark, red represents the leftist parties, while blue represents the conservatives.
  3. Danish political parties are identified with a letter of the alphabet.
  4. The right wing Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) is represented by O.
  5. The socialist party, Enhedslisten, is represented by Ø.
  6. Ø, a nonphthongal close-mid front rounded vowel, may be the most difficult letter for non-Scandinavian speakers to wrap their lips around.
  7. When I try to pronounce an ø, I sound like a Frenchman expressing disgust while mimicking an English accent.
  8. A Dane once described a Swede speaking Swedish as singing. He described a Dane speaking Danish as a Swede getting gut-punched.
  9. Written Danish is verbose. For instance, Christopher Paolini’s Eldest, which clocks in at 704 pages in English, in Danish run 935 pages in Danish and is split into two volumes.
  10. Correctly pronouncing the dessert rødgrød med fløde, a red berry compote atop a groat custard, marks one as an official Dane.
  11. The unofficial Danish national dish is smørrebrød, an open-faced sandwich on dense rye bread.
  12. Most smørrebrød shops in Denmark open at 7 in the morning and close just after lunch at 2.
  13. In Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, one can have smørrebrød in several restaurants, including Kähler I Tivoli and Grøften.
  14. Tivoli Gardens, the second-oldest amusement park in the world, served as an inspiration for Disneyland.
  15. Adult admission to Tivoli Gardens is 99 DKK ($14.50); to Disneyland, it’s $99.
  16. Tivoli Gardens isn’t the oldest amusement part in Denmark. That honor goes to Dryehavsbakken in Klampenborg, just north of Copenhagen.
  17. In 1669, King Frederick III closed Dryehavsbakken and turned it into his private hunting ground.
  18. The Danish film The Hunt was nominated for the 2014 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.
  19. The Hunt lost to the Italian The Great Beauty.
  20. That Oscar snub put the 1956 cultural agreement between Denmark and Italy in jeopardy.

When I called 123_box_348x490_originalmy parents earlier this month, there was a sense of jubilation and relief when they answered: “You’re the only one who calls us regularly without having to be reminded.” (Which wasn’t exactly true, since I called in response to an email my mother had sent, asking us, the children, what we wanted to do for my father’s 80th birthday. Shall we meet in Houston or Denver?  I wanted to vote, emphatically, for Denver; Houston, in July, was a non-starter.) “We haven’t heard back from your brother, but he might be working in Malaysia.” my mother said. “And, as for your sister, well, we never know where she is.”

My sister splits her time between Saigon and San Francisco, with the majority of the split in Saigon. She goes incommunicado for long periods of time, and the family’s only knowledge of her whereabouts are what we glean from Facebook posts. Of the siblings, she’s moved the farthest away, both physically and psychically.

It wasn’t always this way. My brother moved away first, after college, to work in Midland, Texas, never to return; I left next, fleeing to the East Coast for college, though I moved back to Colorado periodically, in between jobs. But my sister followed the path that had been set out for her: living at home, teaching for Denver Public Schools, being the obedient daughter. Maybe, in that way, she was like Little Edie. The one who stayed behind. The one who put her life on hold. The one who deferred her dreams until they had congealed into an amalgam of love, guilt and resentment.

At times, I can sometimes understand that resentment. My mother gets stuck on an endless loop of worry—When will the University offer you a full time job? Do you have health insurance? When was the last time you went to the dentist? Despite her best intentions, she can be smothering, oppressive, a presence that demands attention.

Little Edie only left Grey Gardens once her mother had died. She went to New York, had a cabaret act, and, at 60, became the star she had always wanted to be. She burst forth onto the stage of Reno Sweeney for eight shows, enrobed in a crimson gown with a swath of red-painted plastic leaves on draping her shoulder like fire.

My sister, too, escaped. First into her own apartment, then into her soon-to-be husband’s condo. She decided: she’d get her MBA and leave the teaching profession all together. But on the way, she found a second husband, all the way on the East Coast, and, finally, Vietnam, and a possible third husband in San Francisco. And I see her, living the life she thinks she was denied all those years ago: the endless parties, the clothes that exude glamour and youth, the carefully constructed of her make-up and hair. And I see her still: parading in circles for the camera, picking the best costume to wear for the day, trying to keep the line between the past and the present.

122_box_348x490_originalViet Dinh

Street Address · City, State, Zip · (XXX) XXX-XXXX · email@email.com


Top producer with a distinguished track records in sales, customer service and client management

Best-of-Breed Go-Getter — Outside-Of-Box Strategic Thinker — Value-Added Self-Motivatior — Hard-Working Thought-Leader — Results-Driven Team Player — Detail-Oriented Go-To Person


Leveraged acumen to drive consistent increase in sales profits. Extensive experience in client satisfaction, appreciation and retention. Outstanding communication, networking, selling, customer service and negotiation skills. Adept at determining customer requirements and engaging in client-focused problem solving. Proven track record with bottom-line results.


Regional Sales Manager
Aurora Sentinel, Aurora, CO (1988)

Hands-on experience with all aspects of sales process, from initial processing of newspapers (tri-folding, rubber-banding, and wrapping in poly-plastic bags, depending on weather). Used varied and dynamic methods to achieve efficient distribution channels, including pedestrian-focused doorstep dropping, tossing from the handlebars of a wobbly bicycle, or flinging from the back of a Toyota 4-Runner driven by delivery associate. Took initiative when gathering monthly ‘donation,’ since newspaper was considered ‘free.’ Stoic in the face of slammed doors and irate customers insisting they had canceled their ‘subscription’ and no longer wanted product. Saved resources by noting addresses and not delivering product, subsequently recycling stacks of unused product at King Soopers for pennies on the dollar. Penetrated key prospective accounts while receiving payment, taking note of extensive wood-paneling, dun carpeting, wafts of cigarette smoke. Adopted innovative approach to increasing revenue, relying on innocent, doe-eyed look to extract tips more effectively.

Account Executive
World’s Finest Chocolate, Aurora, CO (1984)

Proactively recruited and retained secondary sales force. Spearheaded workplace entrepreneurship, delegating tasks as necessary to maternal and paternal contractors. Mentored members of sales team, insisting that catalog rewards were not the end goal. Instead encouraged civic pride in Parklane Elementary School, in spite of established sales quotas necessary to earn year-end bonus. Generated adequate volume with new accounts despite heavy competition from other independent sales associates accessing the same markets. Expedited sales by eating product, five-inch chocolate bars with the color and texture of a paper bag, a single almond in each segment. Compared product to others on the market to gauge marketing strategy, decided on innovative approach of not mentioning flavor whatsoever. Achieved and exceeded sales goal when contractors pooled resources and announced, ‘Look, it’s just easier for us to buy you whatever you want from the catalog.’ Donated all proceeds to local charitable organization, left on good terms after the 5th grade.

Area Sales Associate
Innisbrook Wrapping Paper, Aurora, CO (1982)

Accountable for all aspects of sales, business development and client management. Effectively prospected clients door-to-door using a hard-copy, glossy catalog. Pursued leads to generate revenue growth. Emphasized the need for foil-embossed wrapping paper and the indispensability of having several rolls on-hand at all times. Generated leads in a four-house radius, cultivated person-to-person contact. Wrote order forms, negotiated delivery dates. Prepared closing documents, eyed prizes in the rewards catalog: Atari 2600, Huffy Bike, Personal Gumball Machine (gumballs not included). Earned erasers in the shape of monsters.

121_box_348x490_originalAlternative Viet #1: This Viet knows what he wants and gets it, always. In high school, this Viet isn’t the shy and sheltered teenager who is constantly surprised to discover that his classmates are, indeed, having sex. Instead, this Viet is sexually active and sophisticated, having both male and female lovers. This Viet doesn’t stare at people longingly, wondering what it would be like to love and feel love, but is already jaded about the whole deal, with the insouciance of a European playboy. This Viet doesn’t stay home on the weekends, listening to Saint Etienne’s So Tough album on endless repeat, translating British ennui into a more pedestrian, suburban heartbreak. No. This Viet is not at all like the other one.

Alternative Viet #2: This Viet has adopted Viet #1 as his own. It’s college, after all: who here knows who the ‘real’ Viet is, except for the daughter of the Asian supermarket owner? And how often will their paths cross? Very rarely, this Viet realizes. The time has come for a reinvention, for a radical makeover, and this Viet can be whoever he wants. This Viet creates his own myths and disseminates them as far as they will travel, because if enough people believe a story, doesn’t it, in fact, become true, like a dream made flesh? If he insists on the primacy of this Viet, the other Viets will fade away, become distant, apocryphal memories, almost as if they never existed, and no one would be the wiser.

Alternative Viet #3: This Viet is in trouble. He has been called to the carpet to reconcile the differences between the various Viets.  B___ waits for him to explain. B___ is this Viet’s first boyfriend, and this Viet wants to get this right. But the history he has given B___ does not comport with the histories of Viets #1 and #2, which Viet’s friends have shared. How can there be so many Viets running around? Who is the ‘real’ Viet? B___ says that he understands the urge to become someone new. Who doesn’t want to be cooler than he really is? B___ says, even though B___, himself, has gone the opposite direction, converting to Catholicism from Protestantism because Protestants aren’t ‘by the Book’ enough. This Viet wonders: what difference would it make if the history he’s told B___ is the ‘real’ history—the virginal history, the history of sexually inexperience and ineptitude? What if all the Viets have begun to bleed together, the confidence of the other Viets giving this one more of a sense of self-worth? Why would anyone ever want to be a normal Viet, confused and stumbling about, when there are other Viets out there in the world, Viets who know what they’re doing, Viets who make no apologies, Viets who might be able to tell him the right thing to say to B___ so that the surgical excision of the other Viets from this one won’t hurt as much.

120_howtogetahead_originalMy mother is in the hospital for an infected wisdom tooth. She thought at first that the soreness was her sensitive teeth, and, to compensate, she chewed on the side of her mouth that didn’t hurt. As the pain progressed, she self-medicated with Tylenol, with its effects diminishing after an hour or two. Before long, her jaw had swollen, and she could only open her mouth a crack—not enough to eat or drink. A friend urged her go to the emergency room.  If that infection gets into your blood, my mother’s friend said, it could be fatal. And so, my father took her to the hospital. He called to deliver the news, deadpan:  Happy New Year. Oh, I’m fine, but your mother is in urgent care.


In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag enumerates the ways in which people conceive as cancer as the Other: a mutant, an invader, a colonizer, “a cosmic disease, the emblem of all the destructive, alien powers to which the organism is host.” But sometimes I think the body itself is the Other, unknown and unknowable.  Despite the holistic promise of mind-body unity, who knows what’s really going in there? The medulla oblongata throws up its hands and takes a nap.


In the hospital, my mother wasn’t allowed to lie down and had to sleep reclining. She was forbidden to eat or drink and received nourishment through an IV. But despite the fluids, she complained of an aching thirst, a mouth-dryness that could not be quenched via the median cubital vein. My mother is eighty, and this is the first time she’s been hospitalized. She hadn’t fully read the admittance forms, so she didn’t know that she had to request painkillers. She suffered the discomfort until it became overwhelming. The nurse went straight to the hard stuff: morphine. But what if I get addicted to it? my mother asked, as if contemplating the ways in which her body could continue to work against her, as if it were separate from her conscious mind, now frightened, unsettled, disoriented.


Our bodies betray us constantly. They sabotage us at inopportune times: a sudden erection at a dinner party; a sphincter unwilling to hold its gas in a crowded elevator; a boil that speaks its mind and refuses to be placated. The corpus gives the middle finger to the consciousness: You think you’re in control? Just you wait. Our bodies, our subversives.


My mother is back at home now. She can only eat purees through a straw but seems in good spirits. The offending wisdom tooth will be extracted two days from now. If she wanted to, I imagine, she could confront her tooth: How could you do this to me? Did I not care for you? Did I not brush you with Sensodyne? It doesn’t matter, I suppose: soon enough, her tooth, a hard nugget of pulp and enamel, will be dead, extracted from its host. But maybe its dying wish will be to bite back, one last time.

119_withnail_originalYaldā:  the longest night of the year. On this night the Sun-God Mithra was born, he of the wide pastures, of the thousand ears, and of the myriad eyes. He emerged from the light from deep within the Alborz mountains and was equal to Ahura Mazda and Anahita. Our friend, Hamid, prepare a pot of fesenjan, serving it with crackling, saffroned tahdiq. We snack on green olives to protect against scorpions. A stainless-steel samovar puffs on the kitchen counter, offering water for bitter black tea. Hamid gives me an amber rock of sugar. Hold this in your cheek while you drink, he explains. It will sweeten the tea.  Our friend Jenn marvels at fresh quince. A pomegranate waits to be cracked open, the seeds as red as dawn. The last fruits of winter.

This year, Hamid’s boyfriend, Warren, invites friends with whom he used to live on a pagan commune on the outskirts of Philadelphia. They reminisce about midsummer bonfires and fertility rituals. Warren is now earning his Ph.D. in nursing; Scott and John are now a well-to-do gay power couple, an architect and schoolteacher, respectively. Everyone’s radical days seem far behind them; even the drugged and drunk Marwood, at the end of Withnail & I, cuts his hair and prepares to embark—seriously—on his career.

J___ proclaims himself the fire-tender for the evening. He has the build of a construction worker and keeps his hair pulled back into a ponytail, a spurt of plumage at the back of his head. Fueled by red wine, his voice grows larger as the evening wears on. What we need, J___ says, is a vertical fire. His big-hearted benevolence explodes. He stacks the logs into a pyramid teepee, and they’re soon blazing. The night is unseasonably warm—almost 50 degrees—and with the fire and the steam from the samovar and food, the room is a tub of embrocation.  How did the ancient Persians, gathering in the mountains to watch the miracle of dawn, vent their caves? J___ says, This reminds me of a sweat lodge, but I hope it isn’t the one in Arizona where three people died from heat stroke. The guru, James Arthur Ray, claimed that the dead “were having so much fun” in their out-of-body experiences that they didn’t want to return.

At the end of the evening, we gather in the living room. It’s a family tradition, Hamid explains, to make a wish for the new year and then to turn to a random poem by Hafez. The translations by Gertrude Bell—the woman who helped shape the borders of modern Iraq at the 1921 Cairo Conference—are prolix and convoluted, an remnant of Victorian imperialism; the translations by Daniel Ladinsky are cleaner and more sonorous. I throw pistachio shells onto the fire, where they spark and pop.

The subject tonight is love
And for tomorrow night too
As a matter of fact
I know of no better topic
For us to discuss
Until we all

118_sull_originalWhen Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea enter the flophouse, they look around, dismayed. Sleeping vagrants litter the floor in a knot of rags, and when Lake and McCrea find a free spot, they curl into a protective cocoon, batting away strange, errant limbs. On the wall is a curious sign:  Have You Written Your Mother?  Those thick block letters have an oddly chiding tone, a schoolmarm’s fat finger waving at those unfortunates who have just endured a fiery sermon to sleep here.

No, I have not written to my mother. I call, though not as frequently as she would like. My father answers and pretends I’m a stranger: Who’s this? he asks, as if caller ID weren’t a built-in feature of their life.  My mother replaces Hello with Why haven’t you called? As she runs through her litany of concern (Have you gone to the dentist? Found a permanent job yet? Get your flu shot?), I feel like I’m eight, and I wait, irritably, until I finally become an adult, and she tells me what’s been going on at temple, with her friends, in the family.

She sends out emails too, though her use of diacritical marks depends on which computer she’s using. Behind the desk in the computer room (my old bedroom), my father has taped a sampler of the Vietnamese fonts he’s downloaded. With these, the accents are accessible via keystrokes. I imagine her sitting there, tapping out appropriate vowel tones. But if she’s in her own room, sitting up in her waterbed, tablet on her lap, I imagine that she most likely can’t be bothered.  It doesn’t matter, really, if the marks are there or not, since I’m barely literate in Vietnamese. I scan the email for words I immediately recognize— root canal, endodonist, dental insurance, osteoporosis—and infer the rest. The diacritical marks dot the screen like dust.

But my mother also writes letters, short communiqués on the free notepads charities send out when they try to guilt you into sending donations: Red Cross, World Wildlife Foundation, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Her handwriting is crisp and spiky, insisting that it be absolutely understood. Just a few words on each note: I’m sending you this check, it says, because of ____, and I’m forced to sound out each word, to remember which tone goes with which mark. The hỏi asks a question, and the ngã breaks. Sắc is like the French accent aigu, while huyền is the French grave, and nặng is the heavy thud, a cannonball of a vowel. The diacritics sometimes double up on the same vowel. Depending on its marking, the word ‘ma’ can mean: mother, or ghost, or however, or horse, or grave, or rice seedling.

My mother asks if I can read her notes, and I always answer yes, even if I can’t. I put her notes, folded in half, in the back of my desk, where they remind me: communicate.

117_box_348x490_originalAutumn will always be associated with death. It’s the way the leaves turn red, then brown, then fall. It’s the colder winds, the longer nights. It’s the onset of winter. Look at the holidays: Samhain, All Saint’s Day, El Dia de Muertos, P’chum Ben, Famadihana, my birthday. I dreamt last night that I had an L-shaped gash on my thumb, from the tip down the knuckle, and that I could peel back my fingerprint to reveal what was underneath. And instead of flesh and muscle, there was instead what looked like the inside of a rotting, hollow branch. Thick cords of dark organic sludge, white spots of what I assumed to be mold. Something out of a Quay Brothers film. This is the inside of my body, I thought, I dreamt.

Nowadays, roadkill is more abundant. Sometimes there’s nothing left but a rusty streak that stretches from the blacktop and up onto the sidewalk, but more often, smaller carcasses line the gutters and the medians: raccoons, possums, the occasional fox. Whenever we pass one, Matthew coos, Poor thing. I no longer point out dead cats.

On the highways, deer obstruct the shoulders with their thick, dun bodies. Apparently, deer collision cause about 200 human fatalities a year. It’s unlikely that the deer walk away from these incidents unscathed. The carcasses of whitetail deer can be collected, if the gatherer files a claim with the regional game commission for a permit number. Without a permit, the gatherer is required to butcher the deer himself, rather than taking it to an official deer processing center. Delawareans donate more than 20,000 pounds of venison to charitable organizations statewide.

Hunting season has come again.

The landowner in Diary of a Chambermaid asks his son, who has been hunting, Aren’t animals more beautiful alive than dead? His son replies, Hunting… is hunting. The son then teaches his father how to hunt butterflies. As the father shoots one off of its flower, the son asks, I thought you liked butterflies? and the father replies, I do. I rather I’d have missed.

A few years before she died, Matthew’s cat, Gwinny, hunted butterflies in his backyard garden. He watched her, of course; she was 13 years old—elderly for a cat—so she never caught one, but her eyes grew wide and wild at their fluttering. She couldn’t meow, but instead squeaked, at times imploring them to come within reach of her paws, of her fangs. When Matthew moved from there, he gave the house a thorough cleaning.  In the living room, as he was vacuuming, he pulled back a curtain to discover a pile of butterfly corpses, a mass grave years in the making. There were a few intact specimens, dried and discolored, but most of them were in pieces: a wing flake; a torso; some dry, crisp antennae. Monarchs waylaid on their migratory path. Dismembered swallowtails.

Perhaps Matthew yelled at Gwinny. Perhaps he was secretly proud. Either way, I imagine her response would have been a single squeak: What did you expect? It was their season.


A few years ago, as I was driving south down I-95 late one night, near the Pennsylvania-Delaware border, I saw a house on fire.  The highway was mostly empty, and I slowed to look.  Emergency responders were already on the scene, but they seemed on stand-by—the house looked like a total loss, and they were on-hand to keep the fire from spreading.  It was eerily beautiful, the way the flames ate away the night.  In my car, I could only imagine the intense heat, the smell of the cinders, the smoke of a person’s life in the air.  When I drive by that area now, if I remember, I look to see if I can find where the fire had taken place, but I can never find it.  Another house has already grown over that spot, I imagine, like scar tissue.

In The Hidden Fortress, revelers at a fire festival intone an existential prayer as they slouch their way around a bonfire.

The life of a man
Burn it with the fire
The life of an insect
Throw it in the fire
Ponder and you will see the world is dark
And this floating world is a dream
Burn with abandon

And at that last line, they dance in a frenzy.  And as a fortune in gold is added to the fire, a princess and her bodyguard, who have been trying to evade capture with the gold, abandon their worries and dance.  The two peasants who have been helping them, however, look at the fire with sadness and dismay—the gold they’ve tried to protect is now melting, and as the bonfire blazes, it burns away their hopes, their dreams, their futures.

I tell myself that if I ever suffer a catastrophic house fire, I won’t rebuild.  The things that can be replaced, I won’t replace.  The books, music, and movies that I’ve spent a lifetime collecting and curating, I will no longer need.  If I’m ever reduced to zero, I’ll somehow make peace with zero.  As 17th century poet Mizuta Masahide writes:

Since my house burned down
I now own a better view
of the rising moon.

Tonight, I returned home from a long day at work to find the house lit up with paper lanterns—the Harvest Moon Festival.   I walked in to see, in our dusky living room, warm, glowing colors, floating in space.  Each lantern a constellation, a nebuIa, a galaxy.  I hesitated:  Is this my house?  Yes, it was.  Matthew had used up the last of the tealights, including the red ones that smell faintly of bayberry.  Dinner was warm on the stove.  Afterwards, as we prepared to retire upstairs, Matthew said, Oh, the lanterns! and even though there was no risk of them catching on fire and burning the house down,  we went back to blow them out.  And from the second floor of the house, in the room we call the library, where I keep my autographed books and my Criterion Collection DVDs, we got a better view of the rising moon.

115_box_348x490This is the lesson of Rififirings are nothing but trouble. A carefully planned and executed heist comes to naught because of a diamond ring given to a showgirl by a vainglorious safecracker (played by the director himself). That one symbolic gesture brings about the gang’s downfall.

When civil unions became law in Delaware, the wife of one of Matthew’s colleagues offered her planning services for our ceremony. I’m sure you’ll want to do this soon, she said. Matthew and I glanced at each other, taken aback that she was more excited about our theoretical unionization than we were. 

Matthew’s father once explained that, in marriage, there are three rings:  the engagement ring, the wedding ring, and then the suffer-ring.

When Matthew and I drive to visit his father in upstate New York, along Route 31 in Pennington, New Jersey, we pass a warehouse that sells ‘USA Tolerance Rings.’ Was this the new thing amongst the kids? I wondered. The middle ground between chastity rings for the Christians and the rainbow freedom rings for gays and lesbians? Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that tolerance rings are a manufacturing component used to join mating cylindrical parts.

I once gave Matthew a ring, which he flung away. I had bought it at the Colorado People’s Fair, from a tented vendors with stacked, felt-lined trays of jewelry. I bought him a simple silver band, though given the other stock—rings with dragons and pentagrams, intricate claddaghs, rings that looked like that had been blackened in a fire—I can’t be sure that it was actually silver. Or even metal. The ring turned out to be loose, since I could only estimate his ring size based on my own fingers. While he was pulling a plant out of his car, his hand flew back, and the ring went flying, with only a single tink! to indicate where it may have gone. Or so he claims.

Now that same-sex marriage has become the law in Delaware, Matthew and I play a variant of the gay/not gay game, in which we try to guess whether two people are together or not. An obvious giveaway, of course, is the presence of matching rings. If they, in turn, play the same game with us, I’d like to think that the answer is still obvious, despite the absence of any symbolic jewelry.

But, in the end, no one really cares about the ring in Rififi. The centerpiece of the film is, undoubtedly, the soundtrack- and dialogue-free sequence as the thieves perform their heist. They communicate with gesture and glance, having practiced and prepared. This silent partnership is the raison d’être of the film. It’s what people remember.

What I remember: Matthew and I, stretched out across our respective couches, reading.  I glance over at him and know what he’s saying: Get this damn cat off of me or I need a refill of tea. Why have a ring ruin all that?