Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More Innocent Blood

Yesterday my shocked countrymen learned of yet another bloody school shooting within a year. This time a young man of 22 entered his classroom in a small vocational college, in an equally small town, Kauhajoki. With a legally purchased handgun he shot ten students plus the teacher to death, then started a fire in the classroom that has made identifying the victims difficult. Finally when the police and firemen arrived, he turned the gun to himself, after shooting at them first unsuccessfully. This was in an eerie way a copycat act of a high school shooting late last year in another small town, Jokela, where eight people died; even the weapon used was identical.

Finland has the world’s third highest gun ownership, after the U.S. and Yemen. The reasons are quite different from here: with the vast forest-covered land hunting is very popular. Most weapons are indeed hunting rifles and shotguns; handguns are more rare and usually found in shooting ranges and concealed pistols for self-defense are not allowed. In this case, however, the young man had been granted permission to purchase and use a handgun just last month, his first firearm. People had been alarmed by videos made my Mr. Saari on YouTube and notified the authorities. The shooter was actually interviewed by the local police just the day before, but no reason to revoke his license was found, in spite of a type of candle associated with death, funerals and cemeteries found lit on the school yard a couple days prior.

Today people are asking why this was allowed to happen with all the warning signs. There is a lot of finger-pointing, at the policeman who interviewed the killer, letting him go, and at the government minister who had promised a change after the killings of last year. Typical to politics here and there, such promises seldom count. In spite of the high scores that prove Finnish children are better educated than their counterparts in other countries (South Korea is their main rival), obviously the emotional well-being among the young people doesn’t rank as high. The Finns resemble in some ways Native Americans with their troubles. Neither hold their liquor very well and although my countrymen do financially very well, this success has resulted in unhappiness and problematic mental issues. Back when life was simpler, it was also healthier emotionally.

Unlike in the U.S., Finland’s constitution doesn’t guarantee the right to bear arms. Nevertheless, they are commonplace and lethal as guns always are. There is no powerful Finnish NRA lobby but the culture of owning a firearm goes back a long time. Even in my youth the priest and organist of the town’s main church were avid hunters.

The sign of changed times was evident in the news coverage of the country’s leading daily. They pointed out how this tragedy had placed Finland in the global headlines and almost bragged that it was item number two in France, right after the American financial chaos. Had they checked the BBC news on the web, it was actually the first one. However, it is perverted to be proud of such publicity. Helsingin Sanomat used to be a most respectable publication; in recent times more and more people see their journalism resembling British tabloids. They also publish an afternoon paper (available in the morning) which totally falls in the latter category. Attitude of the press has changed as it has here, and neutral, trustworthy news coverage in difficult to find.

What an interesting language Finnish is: the word for attitude is “asenne” which comes from the root “ase”, meaning a weapon.

At least hunting over there, with dogs leading the way in the thick of a forest, can be considered a sport. Shooting helpless wolves from a helicopter hardly qualifies as such. It would only be fair if the helicopter one day crashed in the snowy wilderness and the pack of wolves turned from hunted into hunters, dreaming of a tasty meal, lipstick and all.

MIKSI (WHY), headline in the Ilta-Sanomat extra

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sweetest Sixteen

One realizes he/she is getting old when the youngest child reaches early adulthood. There is a 22-year spread between my four daughters, enough years between each of them to have seen them grow up without being in another one's shadow. I'm proud to say that they all are high achievers but also more importantly great human beings. One's success in life isn't measured in material wealth or power but in the way one's children are. In this regard I'm among the most successful on the planet.

The youngest of them and the only one still home, Sarah, turned sixteen yesterday. In many ways I feel a unique closeness to her as she resembles how I was then, except in a greatly improved version. We share our values, our love for music, and our compassion for others. She is the only one who has ever been able to beat me in a Finnish card game that even my incredibly smart mother refused to play with me. Sarah thinks very similarly to me and anticipates my unorthodox moves; often I'm dumbfounded when she ends up victorious even when I have had a better hand and clearly should have won. But she also has the warmest heart of anyone: her love knows no bounds. To borrow the line at the end of Goonies: she is my best invention.

Last night I saw this poem on a large poster for her humanities class and with Sarah's permission publish it here:

I Am From My Sense of Belonging

I am from Mother Earth,
Born from her beautiful belly
In allegros and minuets
A melody in
Eb major.

I am from cultures intertwined,
Finnish vodka
Jewish wine
And a drop of mystery
Middle Eastern moonshine.

I am from Frida Kahlo,
Not knowing my insecurities
Would stem from every
Hair follicle;
But I am from Sisu,
My sisters of strength, and
Depth, and
Stubborn intelligence that lurks
Beneath dark curls.

I am from happiness,
Reverberating on the peripheral
Of my vision;
The sun melting on the playground,
The scent of a mowed lawn
And woodchips
Inviting through an open window.

I am from an introvert,
The coffee-sipping dragon
Who shares with me his shy
And sensitivity,
I am from a heart that thumps

I am from Rugrats and grape popsicles,
From rollerblading to
Slip'n slides,
From the friendships of
Satu and Hilary.

I am from my sense of belonging,
The address I could repeat
A thousand times over
From memory,
I am from home.

By Sarah Talvi

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Listening to Hector Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique on a Philips recording of Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique with John Eliot Gardiner conducting is eye-opening. In general I am not a great fan of so-called authentic performances, not because I prefer modern style to the old, but simply due to the fact that so many mediocre musicians have seen an opportunity to become experts overnight in that venue. A bad and unsuccessful actor doesn't just start doing Shakespeare and receive instant recognition. That skill takes years and years of dedicated labor; the same is true with learning to master performance practices of centuries ago. However, this recording shows the colorful palette Berlioz invented by using instruments supposedly similar to those available in 1830. In this case the musicians play too well: that degree of technical capability in an orchestra musician simply didn't exist for over a hundred years. The breakneck tempi so perfectly executed would not have occurred back then except in the composer's mind.

Ah, the composer's mind. This long composition is often seen as a tribute to opium and hallucinogenic drugs in general. In the 19th century such substances were far more accepted than today; in fact most creative artists were regular users and were not in legal danger for that. Wine was often laced with opium, and later cocaine, and praised as being healthy. I can think of a conductor or two today whose unimaginitive interpretations might greatly benefit from this type of new insight. A well-known fact is that late in that century Bayer in Germany decided to forego aspirin in favor of the drug with more potential, heroin. After all, pain relief was immediate with the latter and the lift in one's mood as well. Heroin seemed like the ideal answer to the day's quest for perfect drug. It wasn't until later when society turned against all drugs, including alcohol, and passed laws of prohibition. In case of alcohol, these were eventually overturned, but the rest of now illegal drugs remained as such. It is interesting that in this country such drug use is at an all-time high and surpasses the usage in other countries. Actually a liberal-minded country, Holland, doesn't seem to score high at all, even though marijuana is available legally and other substances are generally tolerated. In America the usage is high in spite of the law enforcement concentrating their efforts in catching drug users and dealers and sending them to prisons. Ordinary criminals such as burglars can practice their trade in peace these days. Only the clumsiest and dumbest of them have a chance of getting caught.

The present economic downturn and lack of coverage for basic needs causes many to search for an escape from reality. I can't really blame them. Taking care of what is grossly wrong in this society would be far more humane, and for that matter cost effective for the taxpayer, than sending these unhappy and miserable people to jail. The upcoming elections don't promise much of change. As one foreign-born parent of a student said, the election at this point resembles television's American Idol. Nobody cares about real values and desire to change things for the better. Instead the country seems fascinated by a former beauty queen whose ideals regarding a woman's rights are from medieval ages. Even pregnant Ashkenazy Jews test their fetuses for Tay-Sachs disease routinely; this one candidate would encourage every premenopausal woman to get pregnant, never mind what cost to society the resulting Down syndrome children would be. Caring for a developmentally challenged child is a mighty big task and takes most of a caregiver's available time. Yes, there are wonderful parents with disabled children who make sure that the quality of life for them is good. However, I fail to see this person in question in that camp, knowing that such caring is a full-time job and keeping in mind her track record with raising children.

We are not the only country in trouble financially. Europe is hard-hit, from Iceland to Spain. Italy's Berlusconi is more preoccupied with passing laws that would protect him from the many lawsuits against him than helping the struggling country get back up to its feet. Yet people elected him to office again, probably thinking that the richest man in the country will make everyone a winner. Today's news from home tells about big cuts in Finland's paper and pulp mills. The two big multi-national companies will reduce their work force by about five thousand, closing sites where the factory has been a town's main employer. At least people there are covered to an extent with benefits Americans can only dream about. Still, a lot of people are going to have a hard time, both financially and emotionally. Everything has gone up in price due to inflation and in a system where people are not used to saving for a rainy day, every cut hurts, no matter how little. For someone in their fifties learning a totally new skill is almost impossible, and in a system that forces a retirement in the mid 60s, prospects of finding employment at such an age are next to nil. The reason for such drastic cuts in a country of little over five million is same as here: pleasing stockowners in our global economy. No one seems to care about the human cost. It is no wonder many of these laid-off people will turn to escaping reality. There the drug of choice is alcohol, especially for someone middle-aged. Perhaps they would have been better off in the 1800s France, being able to take a voyage fantastique as described by Berlioz.

I may be unfortunate in not knowing what pleasures would await me in the parallel existence. Not being in control of my thoughts and actions is an unpleasant prospect and will keep me on this side of the law. Falling into a ditch at a great-uncle's birthday party when I was seven was enough to scare me for life. The moonlight-spiked malt beverage given to a small thirsty boy was potent indeed. Even "harmless" Ambien caused me to remain stuck in a screen saver for hours. Although it was interesting to run around the kangaroo on the screen and hide in the forest behind it, I decided that it was far too dangerous a substance to help with sleep problems. Perhaps if I were a composer in the class of modern-day Berlioz, I could write a Symphonie zolpidem and eventually become immortal.

Fantastic Symphony by Harvey Dunn