Thursday, June 23, 2011


Veikko Talvi, 100 on June 21 2011
Upon arriving at the public senior home to see my dad, I heard sentimental songs, originating many decades ago. At first the sound came from loudspeakers but as I walked on, a Roma (or Gypsy) with a golden voice came to my sight and I realized this was the home’s dance hour. The dark-skinned baritone (for a Finn) was accompanied by a skillful accordion player and the old tunes were familiar to all present. As there were more women than men, the caregivers helped out by dancing with those who hadn’t found a partner. There was sweetness in the air and I had to delay entering my dad’s section of the building. Had he possessed the strength, I’m sure he’d have been the first one on the floor. I was mesmerized by the healing power of this quite basic but sincere and melancholic music making and spent quite a while witnessing the scene.

Today no one seems to know what direction music performances should go. Orchestras are particularly at a loss as nothing simple and small is cost-effective. By seeing the pleasure and happiness on the faces of the seniors I couldn’t even begin to deny the power of live music. There he was, a singer from a minority group in my native country, probably not particularly well known, giving joy to the elderly and even to me. One doesn’t need a star soloist or a bombastic performance of a Mahler symphony to fulfill the needs of a music-loving listener. In its simplicity the slightly amplified vocal-accordion duo hit the spot.

Two serenades
My dear dad turned a hundred years old two days ago. Although his age shows by now, he was amazingly perky for the two-hour reception. I had forgotten how proper my countrymen are in such events: just about all the male visitors were wearing black suits in spite of the festivities falling on the longest day of the year. I was the exception in an orange short-sleeved dress shirt and a Moomintroll tie with no jacket. However, my old man was admiring my colorful outfit which naturally pleased me. He was serenaded by two violinists: his very first student, now up in his years, played a long czardas from memory and amazingly well considering his age. The other musical greeting was by my niece’s daughter, four generations younger. In spite of the pressure of an audience and a grown-up’s impressive solo right before, she stood her ground and her great-grandfather was a keen listener.

Midsummer Eve is tomorrow and my brother Tuomo was busy getting ready to play the keyboard for a daytime dance with one of his bands. They were expecting hundreds of participants and I was admiring the enthusiasm with which the over 70-year-old was packing his car with sound equipment. Even in my childhood I was outright envious of the pleasure my elder brother got out of playing and performing music. The fact that he never did it for living didn’t hurt. I “retired” from studying the piano at 7 or 8 (I actually used this expression to notify my teacher) mainly because I felt I could never reach the level of my sibling who was eight years older than I. The Chopin Etudes seemed too difficult ever to master for a little tyke and I listened with amazement to the skilled improvisations that came directly from my brother’s heart. So, I concentrated on the violin, teaching myself and soon others. The fiddle was my father’s instrument and I knew he would be thrilled by my rapid progress. However, I must admit that I probably never got the kind of satisfaction out of performing my brother did and still does. I can play very well, no doubt, but the love and enjoyment doesn’t reach the level of my brother. I should have followed my mother's advice and have had a career outside of music: that way I could still love it. The wise French said that one should never work in a field what they love most as it was too close to one’s heart. They also claimed one shouldn’t marry the person they loved above everyone else: that one I can’t quite agree with.

It was interesting to hear again complaints about young people losing interest in classical instruments, in spite of Finland’s generally excellent and widely available music education. In particular violin has suffered in popularity, probably because there is no way one can get instant satisfaction from it. No matter how good one’s ear is, learning the instrument takes a lot of hard work. Edison said that a genius is composed of 95% sweat. With a string instrument, particularly the violin, the percentage must be closer to 99. There are really no shortcuts, no magic bullets. My country, even during these globally hard economic times, invests a lot of public funds in classical arts, annoying the larger part of music lovers who prefer a lighter fare. Helsinki is finally getting a decent concert hall which should be ready any day now. Probably it will be packed for many years like new auditoriums tend to be, even when their acoustics leave a lot to be desired. How my country (and the rest of Europe) will be able to finance classical arts in the long run is of course a big question mark, but at least people assume the funding will come from the government or big cultural foundations which are large in number. Music there is not for the wealthy by the wealthy, a much healthier approach that we have on this side of the Atlantic.

This plane is approaching Seattle and I’m eager to see my loving family again after a week. Without them there would be very little to keep me here; add to that our gorgeous nature, a lush version of Scandinavia. My values differ too much from the American norm. Money is nice to have but it shouldn’t become an obsession. I like a system where people are taken care of, whether they are well off or less so. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of wonderful people here; they just don’t make much noise. And we have more than our share of ignorant fruitcakes: anti-science, anti-women, anti-progress but pro-guns, pro-war and pro-greed. After witnessing the care every person in my dad’s home gets makes me realize what a primitive society we in so many ways have.

Happy Midsummer to all!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Midnight Sun over Canadian Arctic

I have flown over this frozen tundra almost every middle of June for 45 years. Having been a geography buff all my life the landscape is oddly familiar. I can name the larger lakes and tell by the occasional mountains exactly where we are. For the first time I see open water where ice still should cover the sea. Lakes are frozen but the salty water isn’t. Of course floating sheets of ice are still visible but the amount of melt water is shocking. I feel sorry for the polar bears. Yes, they are great swimmers but distances to solid ground from a shrinking ice float can be many miles long. Already there are numerous prizzlies or glolar bears as their formerly separated living areas have become mixed.

Clearly our climate is changing, although certain politicians claim otherwise. Seattle may have had the coldest spring in recorded history and back home in Finland past winter was extremely cold. Yet global warming doesn’t mean warmer temperatures everywhere but more of extreme weather. Storms have become more violent globally. Last summer’s long stretch of almost 100° F weather in Finland was highly unusual; we are on both sides of the Arctic Circle after all.

Now we are over coastal Greenland. Baffin Bay was filled with fishing boats, many of which have travelled great distances. One could see numerous icebergs but mainly the ocean water was ice-free. What is shocking to see are the freshwater lakes that have appeared on the snow and ice: they seem to be all over. One mustn’t forget, of course, that Greenland was tropical at some point. Perhaps we are heading in that direction again.

Out of nowhere the Icelandic coast appears and the Boeing 757-300 touches ground almost immediately. A bumpy landing in windy weather and we all rush to the terminal. Since we are going to continue to another Schengen country, we need to go through another security check point. There are signs saying that the American and Canadian methods are not thorough enough. Perhaps so, but annoying they are for sure. This time I had forgotten to remove my very ordinary belt and the SeaTac airport security went through each inch, bending it every which way. No wonder people avoid flying if they can. This sour looking fellow had to manually check the area of my pants that the belt had covered, perhaps looking for explosives. Next time I’ll ask to be hand searched. I know these people are just doing their job but clearly the profession attracts a certain type of a person, such as the police force has members who love the fact that they carry a gun and feel powerful. Often they could be on either side of the law. By being in the police force they can shoot legally without much fear of punishment. Of course, on the other side they make much more money but there is always a risk of being caught.

Finally we are on our way to Finland. The plane’s auxiliary turbine malfunctions so an extra hour is spend on the plane. Finally a truck is able to start the engines and off we take. Three hours later we land in Helsinki. It seems like all flights are coming in at the same time so another hour is spent waiting for luggage. I see my brother and his wife and off we drive to the Finnish beautiful countryside.

The reason for this quick trip is to be present when my dad turns a 100 years old. I’ll also see some other family and friends. Then I return to my brand new grandchild Ellen and the rest of my American family. It is amazing to think that the infant and her great-grandfather are almost exactly a century apart. The world for sure is a very different place from when my father was born, with more than twice the amount of people and ever increasing number of problems. I shall also return to a liberated place. I love Lucy but despise Lucifer. The Devil has returned to his own territory: there is hope in the air. But more about that later.