Friday, September 23, 2011

Body Parts

The way some things are done back in the States make perfect sense to me, and some don’t.  One example of the former is the “right on red” traffic rule that seems to be in force in most states.  I’ve heard Finns who have driven in the US rave about this simple rule that allows a driver to turn right at an intersection, even when the light is red, provided there’s no oncoming traffic.  It’s left up to the driver to decide whether it’s safe to proceed.  I think it’s great.  It helps keep traffic flowing and seems to be safe enough. 

It’s hard to imagine this being allowed in Finland, or for that matter in most other countries I’ve driven in.  I once turned right on red in Panama City (in Panama, that is, not Florida) after seeing several other cars do it at the very same intersection.  Only, when I made my turn I got pulled over and was requested to pay the policeman an on-the-spot “fine” of forty US dollars, neatly concealed in my passport.  Apparently, he was really good at spotting me as a tourist. 
Something else in the States that I think makes perfect sense is how – at least in Georgia back in the 80s, and probably still today – drivers who want to be organ donors can have this indicated on their licenses.  As I recall, each time you renew your license at the DMV, you are asked if you want to be an organ donor, and if so, it is marked on your new license.  It’s an elegantly simple idea.  Let’s face it, a major source of donated organs is, sadly enough, traffic accidents.  And what better way to give the paramedics attending your demise a heads up that you are a donor than to have your status clearly indicated on the license they find among your personal effects.   

The Finnish donor card available on-line
and already obsolete. 
It's not done that way in Finland, so after I moved here my status as an organ donor lapsed.  This I regret, since making sure my organs can be put to good use if I come to an untimely end is something I feel strongly about.  When I finally got around to asking my wife about how I could correct this, she told me I just need to pick up a donor card from any pharmacy.  That turned out to be slightly outdated info, since nowadays the cards are (of course) available online and only need to be printed out and signed. 

But, it’s even simpler than that.  Until August of last year, the law allowed organs to be harvested even without explicit permission, confirmed by a donor card, as long as the deceased’s wishes were known.  A wife, knowing her late husband would have wanted it that way, could give the okay even if the lazy bum had never got around to signing a card. 

Such a policy might not fly in the US.  But last year Finland, to combat a serious shortage of organs for transplants, changed the law again to make organ donation even more elegantly simple.  Now organs can be harvested from any brain-dead patient, unless they were known to have explicitly been against donating their organs.  In effect, it’s an opt-out system, which is mirrored by several other European countries.  I can imagine that certain libertarian types in the US would have fits over such a policy, but here – where a reported 90% of Finns are personally in favor of donation – the switch to the new policy went largely unnoticed.  And that seems like a very Finnish attitude to me.  

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Tale of Two EU Capitals

I occasionally get plenty frustrated with the US Congress, as do most other Americans judging by the pitiful approval rating of only 12% that Congress enjoys today.  Its arcane procedures, its filibusters, its frequent inability – especially in the current toxic climate – to rise above petty politics do little, as they say, to enhance its reputation.  I’m reminded of graffiti that I once saw in a bathroom in Athens, Georgia:  If “pro” is the opposite of “con”, then what is the opposite of “progress”?  Congress!

Parliament's home in Brussels...
A case in point:  an important funding bill supported by 92% of the Senate was recently completely blocked until the last minute by a single Senator who didn’t agree with some small details in the bill.  If the issue had not been resolved, the agency that oversees all air travel in the US would have been partially shut down – for the second time this summer.

As dysfunctional as that sounds, Congress does have a leg up on the EU's parliament in one aspect.  At least it’s made up its mind where to sit.  Few Americans realize (or would care, for that matter) that the European Parliament is constantly moving between two cities. 

It does most of its work in Brussels, where most EU institutions are located and which is considered by most people to be the “capital” of the EU.  However, once a month (except for the holiday month of August) all 736 parliament members pack up for a one-week sojourn to Strasbourg, France, the parliament’s other home. 

And they don’t come alone.  The entourage making the twice-monthly 350-kilometer (220-mile) trip between Brussels and Strasbourg reportedly includes 2000 interpreters and other staff member, as well as some 15 truckloads of documents and other baggage.  It would be as if the entire US Congress decamped once a month to Pittsburg for a week. 

Strasbourg, which I understand is a delightful city, is in actual fact the official seat of parliament.  It is the place where, by treaty, all votes on EU legislation must take place, and is obviously a point of pride for the French.  Since unanimous agreement between all 27 EU countries is needed to amend the treaty, any single country can block any proposal to keep parliament in Brussels, and – it goes without saying – this will happen only over France’s dead body. 

...and its second residence in Strasbourg.
The choice of somewhat provincial Strasbourg as the official seat of parliament is not accidental, as the city holds a special place in European history and geography.  Situated on the border between France and Germany, Strasbourg has been a bone of contention between these two countries time and time again.  Peacetime Strasbourg is living proof of the reconciliation between France and Germany, and a fitting symbol of the union that was formed to keep these two former enemies from going at each other again.

Symbolism aside, this itinerant parliament arrangement can best be summed up by the precise legal term, “idiotic”, especially when you consider that the annual cost of this monthly schlepping back and forth is a reported 230 million euros ($300 million).  Green members of the EU Parliament from Britain have also estimated that, in addition to the monetary costs, the arrangement results in emissions of over 20,000 additional tons of carbon dioxide every year.  The joke about political hot air contributing to global warming just writes itself.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wild Swimming

Recently I saw a report on a British news channel about the growing popularity in the UK of something called “wild swimming”.  For me this immediately conjures up images of the kind of water play that my kids excelled at when they were small and couldn’t get enough of the wet stuff. 

Instead, “wild swimming” in the UK simply refers to the idea, apparently novel for most modern-day Brits, of swimming in lakes, ponds, rivers, or presumably any body of fresh water that is not a swimming pool.  There are, according the TV reporter, groups in Britain dedicated to promoting the sport and even guidebooks pointing to the best spots for swimming in untamed waters.  Public-safety authorities have also taken notice, sternly warning the citizenry to avoid this kind of rustic outdoors bathing.  Maybe there is such a thing as nanny-state overreach, after all.

From the perspective of someone in Finland, this all sounds patently ridiculous.  Here, “wild swimming” is what most people do on a regular basis (in summer, that is) without pausing to ever consider the it could possibly constitute a “fad” meriting special clubs, guidebooks or TV publicity. 

To be fair, you can’t expect overly urban Britain and overly rural Finland to share the same attitude toward swimming al fresco.  For one thing, with at least 60,000 lakes (with a combined shoreline of some 130,000 kilometers – seven times that of the Great Lakes) and a seacoast supposedly several times longer than Florida’s, Finland was made for “wild swimming”.  And then, of course, there’s sauna, the Finnish obsession that requires overheated Finns to dip repeatedly in the nearest lake, stream, or hole cut into the frozen surface of the sea.  No wonder wild swimming is nothing new for folks here.

My wife, who could swim by the age of six and spent much of her youth in the water, didn’t tip her toe in a man-made swimming pool until she was 14.  My own childhood, as for many other small-town Americans, was similar.  While I did learn in my hometown’s public pool, growing up we mostly swam in various mountain creeks and lakes, some more secluded than others.  One of our favorite spots was under a tall highway bridge on Mountaintown Creek, a perfect little swimming hole where the fast-moving waters of Mountaintown joined with a smaller creek to pause briefly in a wide pool, almost six-feet deep, before rushing downhill again. 

A nice thing about this swimming spot is its mix of warm and cold water, not typical in the mountains.  Because Mountaintown passes through a broad stretch of open pasture  one of the most scenic highway vistas in the county  before reaching the swimming hole, the water is warmer and muddier than most mountain streams when it merges with the cold, clear water of the smaller creek flowing in from the woods. 

Besides recreational splashing, the hole was also used by our church for baptisms, with the whole congregation standing on the banks in their Sunday best singing hymns while new converts were dunked under the muddy water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

The last time I visited this venerated swimming hole was seven or eight years ago when my father and I took my sons and nephews there.  The spot surely held lots of memories for my father as well, since the bridge over the creek is where he and his teenage buddies would hang out back in the 30s. 

On that visit, the younger generation of our family enthusiastically followed our Mountaintown tradition.  The four boys waded right in and had a great time of it, cooling off in a mountain stream and – like their fathers had done on hot summer days too long ago – swimming wild.  

"The Swimming Hole" by Thomas Eakins, 1885.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Photo courtesy: Michael Foran

Ten years.  A full decade now of a world changed in a single day by 19 murderous men.  In some ways it doesn’t seem so long ago; in other ways it’s a lifetime.  My kids, especially my daughter who was only five at the time, probably have no real sense anymore of how life was any different before that day. 

Of course, it’s not the same for us living in Finland as it is for Americans Stateside.  As far as I can tell, life for Finns has not changed much except in the most superficial ways.  Thankfully, there have been no terrorist attacks here, and no pervasive feelings of insecurity.  A total of two Finnish peacekeepers have been killed in Afghanistan.  Finland was not among those willing to be dragged into the mess of the Iraqi war. 

So, the so-called War on Terror has been experienced by my family mostly as trivial inconveniences at airports, inconveniences that barely register with the kids since they’ve grown up with it. 

They don’t remember the days when boarding a plane was no more onerous than stepping on a bus, when a person could walk onto an airliner carrying a pocket knife or even – as my father would do – a .22 caliber bullet or two (he would sometimes have those in his pocket, for no particular reason).  Removing shoes and jackets to be x-rayed doesn’t merit a second thought for my children. 

We’re lucky that, on a very personal level, the events of 9/11 and its aftermath have not touched us much more profoundly than that.  Not so far.  Even ten years later, it’s too early to say it is quite over yet, as fears of a credible 10th anniversary attack in New York this weekend show all too well.  Perhaps, it will never be completely over within my lifetime, and in another 10 years we’ll again relive that day in 2001 with as much emotion as people are doing today. 

In 2001, I had spent “that day” in an off-site training session at a conference center surrounded by damp forest on the outskirts of Helsinki.  As I walked to my car for the drive home that afternoon, I got a text message.  At the time, several of my colleagues at Nokia and I were beta testers for a new mobile phone service being piloted by one of the Finnish telephone operators.  As part of this new service, we “subscribers” received breaking news headlines three or four times a day as text messages.  I’ll always remember that this was how I learned of the death of Finland’s iconic comic filmmaker, Spede Pasanen, a decidedly parochial event that will always be linked in my mind to the attacks that took place in the US four days later. 

The text message that afternoon read that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  I assumed it was a small plane, like a Cessna, a dramatic enough accident considering it involved the Twin Towers.  Long ago, when I used to play an extremely primitive version of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, I especially enjoyed “flying” my CGI “plane” through the narrow airspace between the Twin Towers.  And not being a very good pilot, I would sometimes crash into one of the buildings.  It was easy to see how the same kind of freakish accident could occur in real life. 

But as I drove home, news came over the radio that it was a passenger jet that had crashed into the North Tower, an accident much harder to comprehend.  I called my wife, who immediately went online and fed me updates from CNN as I navigated rush hour traffic.  By the time I picked up my daughter from daycare, the second plane had hit and we began to realize the truly sinister nature of what was happening in Manhattan. 

I remained glued to the TV for the rest of the day.  My youngest son came in from skate boarding and found me standing in front of the TV, visibly upset.  And that’s how I remember watching the tragedy unfold, mostly standing, unable to sit, as I tried to take in first the horrible images of the fires raging out of control, and then the unworldly sight of the towers falling in on themselves.  I recall saying aloud, mostly to myself:  “There will be consequences.”  That sounds absurdly obvious, and it was.

Because we didn’t have a satellite connection in our house at the time, I could see only the Finnish news and couldn’t follow the full story being reported, beyond the stark images that needed no explanation.  A British friend with cable invited me over to his apartment to watch the coverage in English, and I sat a few hours there listening to the BBC or CNN until I felt exhausted. 

All that has happened since – the wars, the extra security, the changed political and diplomatic landscape – has now been woven into the fabric of “normal life”, so much a part of our world that we might often forget the enormity of the event that started it.  Not this weekend.  As each news outlet has aired its own special remembrance of that horrible event, commemorating the nearly 3000 innocent people who died that day, the footage and images from 9/11 bring back to me the shock and sadness I felt in Helsinki 10 years ago as we watched the US being attacked.

Bizarre footnote:  Finland has one especially strange connection to the events in New York ten years ago.  It turned out that for some time, perhaps even years, prior to that September a woman in Finland had been a pen pal with Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers.  Through that correspondence she had developed, what was for her, a close personal relationship with this man, whom she likely had never met. 

Though perhaps no one will ever know the full circumstances of her relationship with Atta, I’ve understood it was completely non-political, only personal, maybe delusional.  Beyond that, I wouldn’t want to speculate about the woman’s state of mind.  Suffice it to say that she felt a strong enough personal bond with Atta that, even after his murderous actions on September 11th, her grief and sense of loss compelled her to commemorate his death.  Apparently, after several attempts, she was finally able to persuade the Helsingin Sanomat to publish an obituary for him, I dare say the only one printed anywhere in the Western world.  Even now, simply looking at the line denoting the date of death – “11.9.2001 New York City” – sends a chill down my spine. 

A very misguided tribute to a mass murderer.