Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Day 2006

What an odd time the past month has been for the denizens of our Pacific Northwest. Mother Nature has shown us all how vulnerable we are, and we are just beginning to realize what a tragedy we would face in case of a real catastrophe, such as a major earthquake. As we lost our power (and light and heat) for only 48 hours, it wasn’t much of a hardship for a Finn who spent two months every year during his childhood in a primitive summer cottage with no comforts whatsoever. It was somewhat lonely though, as other family members preferred being with friends who hadn’t lost their electricity, or at the workplace. I stayed home mainly because of our cat, and kept two fireplaces going with logs that were so wet from November’s rain that every new one started boiling when first added to the fire. We were among the lucky ones as others had to put up with the discomforts of cold and darkness for much longer. Needless to say, one cannot teach under those conditions, and the combination of snow, ice and freezing temperatures of the last week in November with this nearly hurricane-strength storm meant a loss of about 30 lessons. It would have been a great time to have taken a vacation, but nature seldom gives us mortals advance notice. Perhaps this was good since flying back home from Europe might have been next to impossible as London, Denver and other airports had to close down for many days because of their own weather problems.

Today is Christmas Day. We had a nice gathering of family and a more modest exchange of gifts than usual last night, as the custom is in my native country. I’m proud of the fact that this year I didn’t go to a mall even once, or even downtown for holiday shopping. Therefore I was able to avoid the ‘Nightmare before Christmas’, crowds at shopping centers and all the Xmas carols forced upon every shopper. People become noticeably more aggressive at this time, which is evident even on the road. Petty crime increases as well. My little one had her new iPod stolen from her backpack during a math class, and my eldest was a victim of another thief who emptied her wallet and stole her cell phone. This is true American holiday spirit for some. Yet I hope that everyone deserving got nice presents and the mean ones their lump of coal in one form or another. Those of us that celebrated Hanukkah, the good children and child-minded grownups hopefully got their share of shiny gelt, and the mean ones in turn felt the Hanukkah guilt. I know quite a few who belong in the latter category.

True presents are not something bought with money. My youngest daughter wrote all of us the sweetest personal letter that was included with her other little but meaningful gifts. The next one up learned about getting a 4.0 average this quarter in her college and being on the Dean’s list, in spite of having taken a most demanding course load, including two senior seminars. What could be a better present to a parent? Emails and other greetings from all corners of the globe have brought warmth to my heart, as did a surprise phone call from a dear friend in Sweden this morning. Preparing a traditional Finnish holiday meal was also a wonderful gesture from my eldest daughter.

Going through an old address book a few days ago made me realize how many friends and family members have left us in recent years. With an electronic database those entries are easy to delete but nothing removes an address and phone number written in ink. There are also those who are seriously, perhaps terminally ill, and might not be with us a year from now. Add to that people who, although living, are as good as dead in our minds, except that we don’t have any nice memories of them, unlike people we have loved. We often take health for granted until something goes wrong. Cancer, arthritis, diabetes and other physical illnesses are hard to cope with, but we must not forget all those of us whose health problems are invisible, be it chronic pain, depression or other mental illness, or Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Cancer often claims its victims in a matter of months from when it is diagnosed, but of course with today’s treatments many are allowed to live longer and sometimes are even cured. Mental illness, however, doesn’t really know cure, and at best a patient’s symptoms can be made manageable and quality of life improved. A century ago, a woman’s period was regarded as a sickness in America. Today, a great number of people taking drugs for their mood ‘problems’ are not sick at all, but our pharmaceutical companies have made us believe that feeling sad and blue is an illness that requires taking their expensive drugs. We are meant to feel high and low, just as there are days with abundant sunshine and others with rain. True depression is something else that casts a shadow on everything in a person’s life, and a bipolar person can destroy their life’s savings in no time while going through their manic phase. Living with a person who suffers from schizophrenia or any form of psychosis can be as taxing as taking care of a demented parent, with very few joyful moments, other than knowing that we are doing something difficult because we love.

Although life is often seemingly unfair and a lot of completely innocent people have to suffer a great deal, while greedy and corrupt people live in luxury, it also has a tendency at some point balancing things out by giving us all what we truly deserve. My wish for the New Year is that this process will take place sooner than later: let real justice be served.

Photo by Talvi

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Xmas Insanity

This season brings out some rather odd behavior in people. The commercialism of Christmas seems worse than ever, and since Thanksgiving happened very early this year, the selling and decorating scene got a jump start. We have neighbors who lit up their Xmas lights in mid-November. People have been brainwashed to think that this nation of ours isn’t doing well unless we spend, spend, spend. The pressure is on and a great number of people go deep into debt just to keep up the gift-giving image. Are we too proud to admit that perhaps this year we shouldn’t waste money we don’t have on stuff that nobody needs or perhaps even appreciates?

Americans look at money in a strange way. On one hand we complain about the price of fuel which we still get a lot cheaper than our European cousins. Price of prescription medicine is criticized and for a good reason as it has skyrocketed, just to fill the coffers of pharmaceutical companies. However, for those of us with medical insurance, we only have our deductibles to worry about, and even those who are without that protection, Wal-Mart and Target offer their $4 (or $9 in some states for newer medicines) plan for generics. Of course, for that money one doesn’t get the latest creation from the companies’ labs, but in many cases the old tested products work as well, if not better. Yet we complainers are ready to spend an average of $27,000 on a wedding (often the most expensive mistake in one’s life) or bury our dead in tomb-like coffins costing fortunes. The ultimate in financial stupidity showed up in today’s New York Times: many colleges are increasing their tuitions in order to look better in the eyes of the applicants. Do we really believe that just because a product costs more, it is better? Apparently so, as many schools have had their enrollments go up as a result. Yet more of them are willing to give just about all the students some form of financial aid, amounting to discount of the tuition increase. This is like the commercials on television where viewers are duped to believe that they are getting $50 worth of merchandise for just $10 if they call within the next ten minutes. Are you sure that the $120 music lesson for your child is twice as good as someone else’s $60 one? Does a mediocre provincial orchestra become a true ‘world class’ ensemble just by tripling their ticket prices? Perhaps this tactic should be tried and see how gullible we really are.

Other worthwhile news of the day tells us that the Arctic Ocean will shed its ice cover in perhaps only three decades. Yet there are people in our federal government insisting that there is no global warming and it would be unfair to require a drop in greenhouse gases. Many state and local governments beg to differ and have instituted stricter regulations of their own. Why are our leaders, at least some of them on the very top, so na├»ve and childish? A possible answer to this came to my mind: because they were born again and again and again…

A rabbi from local Chabad decided to sue the authorities for having Christmas trees at the Seattle airport, and the trees were quickly removed to avoid costly litigation. I guess the rabbi just wanted to put his menorah up next to the trees, but in public’s eye he wanted to destroy the holiday, and as a result security has had to be tightened again at all of the area’s synagogues and institutions deemed Jewish, for fear of a backlash. All this because of a pagan symbol that the Europeans conveniently converted to represent a holiday that originally also was pagan, but was turned to commemorate the birth of Jesus, which happened months later in the spring... For crying out loud, there is nothing Christian about the tree: why not call it a Hanukkah bush, Kwanzaa pine or whatever, and let people have the symbol what they have associated with Christmas, a federal holiday! Everyone should see the Seinfeld episode where George’s father has had it with all the Xmas humbug and decides to celebrate Festivus, with a metal pole as its ‘tree’. That wasn’t such a dumb idea after all.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Outstanding Journalism

Writing for publications and other media comes in many forms. On top of the list is investigating journalism which often takes weeks or months of intensive research. It also is the most important kind as it brings to public’s attention facts that either have never been known or have been intentionally kept secret, for the benefit of the government or big business, for example. This type could be thought to be a society’s conscience as it forces the reader or listener/viewer to face facts that are not necessarily pleasant to accept. Second, at least on my list, are thoughtful, fact-based opinion pieces, which are however only opinions and clearly labeled as such. News reporting is often just repeating information that some source has stated or perhaps quoting an eyewitness. Humor obviously has its place: we all can enjoy a good laugh. Then there are those writers whose output shows up in print simply because it can. Much of sports writing falls into this category, although it often has some entertainment value, at least to sports fans. Finally there is writing similar to diarrhea of the mouth written down, and the importance of it is, to use a Finnish expression hyttysen pieru, comparable to a mosquito’s fart. If it didn’t exist, nobody would miss it.

Even if she weren’t my daughter that I’m proud of, I would pay close attention to Silja Talvi’s work. She mainly writes on issues that others rather keep quiet about: social and racial injustice, immigration issues (how quickly we’ve forgotten that we all come from an immigrant background, minus the small and neglected native population!) and seemingly the least popular topic, prisons and inmates. This country has locked more people behind bars than any other ‘civilized’ country, a great portion of them mentally ill or convicted of drug-related crimes. We don’t seem to like the idea of rehabilitation and with the ‘three strikes’ laws in place in many states, people have been put away for life, whereas with rehabilitation most of them could have become productive members of our society. Recently the BBC talked about mental illness and especially schizophrenia which many British doctors feel should be eliminated as a term. In that context an expert said that about one percent of the population suffers from that type of mental illness. Is it just a coincidence that approximately the same percentage of our population is incarcerated or on probation? States provide less and less mental health care and it is no wonder so many of the ill people end up in jails and prisons, not being able to afford to seek help. Presently Silja is working on a book about women behind bars; it should be out next year.

Just last month my daughter won a New America Media Ethnic Media Award, given in a ceremony in Washington D.C. for 'The Real Enemy' in ColorsNW Magazine about the often horrendous treatment of many immigrants in the post-9/11 atmosphere. Recently In These Times featured Silja’s investigative article of Taser-related deaths as their cover story. Promoted by the manufacturer as a non-lethal weapon for the law enforcement, it has nevertheless caused over 200 deaths. The story has created a lot of attention, was picked up by the UTNE Reader, and is being reprinted in many publications, even as far as New Zealand. Other media has also expressed interest, resulting in radio interviews about this controversial subject. As Silja points out, this weapon has often been used completely unnecessarily and by untrained people, be they prison guards trying to quiet down a psychotic inmate already in restraints, or police officers repeatedly discharging thousands of volts of electrical current on their already disabled target, resulting in shockingly (no pun intended) large number of cardiac arrests and deaths. While not light-weight reading in the class of Dean Martin’s biography or a trashy romantic paperback, it is essential that people know the truth before more deaths happen. We wanted to believe in an easy victory in Iraq, after all, yet in this morning’s Senate hearings the defense secretary nominee Robert Gates openly admitted that we are not winning the war there. It cannot be easy for our troops there to hear such an admission. A neighbor of ours was proudly waving the flags of the U.S., U.K. and Spain immediately after our invasion of Iraq. He hasn’t had anything on his pole lately. Facts are often not what we are made to believe, and Americans are very easily brainwashed by propaganda, no different from people in countries we like to label savage.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Unwanted

One of the curses of our information age is all the unwanted email that arrives in just about everyone’s online mailbox. This time of the year seems to be especially bad: on any given day I get over 300 of these nuisance messages. I have developed a rather efficient double filtering system and hardly anything unwanted ends in my inbox. Sometimes this method can be too efficient and ‘good’ email may end up among the bad. So, I have to quickly glance through the list of senders, before deleting everything for good. Once in a while my eyes stop on something. ‘Jesus’ has remembered me with quite a few spams. I also noticed an email from toxic sounding ‘R.M. Chlorine’, a name that somehow seemed familiar. Quick glance at the sender’s ‘girliegirl.com’ domain cleared any doubts and made me quickly delete the message without opening it. ‘Are you looking your best?’ asked another message from a ‘J. Adair’ which passed through the filter because of a name in an old address book.

It is very easy to adapt a fake identity, or to put someone else’s email address as the return address. Right now one of my accounts is being used by someone outside of the U.S. sending spam to India and Japan. At least my name doesn’t show up as the sender but quite of few bounced emails come back to that account’s inbox. A more serious issue is real identity theft. A couple months ago I purchased a new iPod for my youngest daughter, billing it on a credit card that I only seldom use and even then for large purchases. The person at the other end, working for a big national chain, must have sold my information to some creepy mass marketer, as I was soon sent stuff that I certainly have no interest in, such as diet pills, ‘Windows Professor’ software and various memberships, all of them without invoices. Tiny test charges soon grew in size but fortunately I checked the account activity online before a statement was printed. Chase was very helpful and their fraud unit got to work instantly, but knowing that there are people who would steal such confidential personal information left a bad taste. Of course, this wasn’t the first time false charges have appeared on an account of mine, but never before has someone actually ordered merchandise to be sent here. Since no bill was enclosed, shipments gave an impression of being nothing but free samples, a common marketing tactic.

Clearly something will have to be done with electronic spamming. Costing nothing, it has however reduced the amount of junk mail carried by the mailman. I’m willing to bet most users of email would be ready to pay a small ‘postage’ fee if that was made mandatory. Certainly a spammer would think twice before being charged a few cents for each of the million mailings that at present are free. Why we call this unwanted stuff ‘spam’ is strange, and probably insulting to at least the people of Hawaii where spam is almost a national food. And it is hard to claim all of these solicitations are without a merit. Perhaps there is more truth in a claim of a penny stock will quintuple its value in a week than in a moronic dilettante’s art critique on a paper's website that someone forwarded this way. Personally, of course, I put both in the ‘Junk’ file in a hurry and click ‘Delete’.