Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Peace

This is Boxing Day in Finland, or rather Tapaninpäivä (“St. Stephen’s Day”). It’s not a holiday celebrated back in the Baptist heartland I grew up in. Well, it’s not exactly “celebrated” here either, but it is a day when most stores are closed and most people are off work. It’s a peaceful pause after the all the hectic activity leading up to Christmas. For me, it’s also a welcome sign that, now that Christmas is over, the long and grueling War on Christmas in America is over too, for another year.  

Americans do have a tendency now and then to declare war on things other than countries: the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror (the only such “war” so far in which bombs have been dropped on anyone, though mostly on people who are not actual terrorists). Luckily, the War on Christmas has resulted in no fatalities as far as I know. I did hear that this year a Salvation Army bell ringer was punched by a passing woman who was pissed when she was greeted with a “Happy Holidays” instead of a “Merry Christmas”. No doubt, Jesus would have done the same.

In Finland, there is no War on Christmas. Here, the holiday hasn’t become an ever-growing source of grievance and bitching for a “persecuted” Christian majority, mainly because – I would say – no one, for the purpose of scoring political points (or in the case of renown author Sarah Palin, also for turning a buck), is constantly telling American Christians how very, very persecuted they are. 

To be clear, the "War on Christmas" is how certain religious folks in the US describe the secularization of the holiday, as if this is something new. In my mind, it easily becomes an excuse to rally and rile up the faithful. And, boy, is it tedious

Here are some highlights of Christmas warmongering that the less belligerent Finns miss out on:

The Christmas Greetings War. "Defenders” of Christmas in America often complain that the recent corrupting trend of people using “neutral” holiday greetings, rather than the only truly acceptable expression of “Merry Christmas”, is due to misguided political correctness. Interestingly, I have a X-mas card my parents used around 1958 with the inscription “Season’s Greetings”. No mention of Christ. Could it be that way back then my parents, outwardly good, church-going folks, were actually part of a fifth column in the War on Christmas? Or, could it be that the outrage over saying “Happy Holidays” is just a recently manufactured controversy? Hint:  it’s the latter.

In Finnish, the word for “Christmas” is joulu, which is related to the ancient pagan festival of Yule. The name itself has no explicit reference to Christ, so taking “Christ” out of the greeting of “Hauskaa Joulua” isn’t an issue. He wasn’t exactly there in the first place.

The Christmas Race War. This year, one of the war’s most intense skirmishes was over the complexion of someone who doesn’t exist. Megyn Kelly, an anchor on Fox News, became a bit excited over the question of whether Santa Claus can ever be represented as any other race than Caucasian. To settle the issue, she declared, “By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white,” then adding for good measure, “Jesus was a white man, too.”

The Internet ignited, almost like a super nova appearing in the east.

If you think this kind of thing wouldn’t be worthy of any grown-up discussion, you certainly haven’t been paying attention to US politics over the last few years.

Now, I admit that St. Nick has always been depicted as white. You would expect this for an imaginary creature arising in Europe, famous as it is as the origin of such pasty-white mythical figures as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Smurfette. Okay, I guess even in European folklore there’s some wiggle room when it comes to skin color.

But, I don’t see why anyone should be too worked on either side of this issue. In a modern, multiracial country like America, would it be so unsettling for a kid to see an Asian Santa, a Hispanic Santa or even a Black Santa? On the other hand, after all of the millions of dollars that have been invested in plastering the world with images of a rosy-cheeked white Santa, don’t we owe it to a certain Georgia-based soft-drink company to resist any other possible visions of Santa dancing in our heads. We owe them. They’ve paid so much for that slice of our minds. They've paid so much.

Of course, this obsession with Santa is also good business for Finland, the one and only home of Joulupukki (“The Yule Goat”) and the site of a successful tourist destination, the Santa Claus Village, in Lapland.

Although Finland has adopted the Americanized version of Santa, white beard, red suit and all, the original Finnish Santa was a goat. Literally. No one here seems too worried about whether or not he was a white goat. I’m guessing he was gray, maybe with dark highlights.

Anyway, the fixation of Fox News and some folks on the right over the ethnicity of a non-religious character who nowadays is mostly just an ad-agency creation (not that there’s anything wrong with that) seems strange in light of how little it has anything to do with Jesus’ birthday. Which is nothing.

I’ve understood that in some European countries, such as Spain, Santa is often seen as an unwanted “Americanization” of Christmas. There, the celebration centers more around the January 5th visit of the Three Kings (known as the Three Wise Men in the US), who are the ones who leave presents for children. It ain't Santa.

The Three Kings also play a bigger role in Finland than in the American version of Christmas. In many schools, and even some company Christmas parties, a trio of boys (or men) dressed as wise men from the Orient and wielding cardboard swords perform a small song recounting the story of the Nativity. One of these Tiernapojat (or “Star Boys”) is always done up in blackface, apparently based on the tradition that one of the wise men bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Baby Jesus was African.

So far, there has been no controversy here over whether or not this is politically correct. But then again, Finns are not an especially contentious people, even at Christmastime.

Joulupukki as he appeared in our house this year,
helping himself to some gingerbread. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Uncivil Wars

Not long ago I borrowed from our local library a book, Punamustavalkea -- 1918 kuvat ("Red Black & White -- 1918 Pictures"), which documents the Finnish Civil War in a collection of photographs that are sometimes both banal and deeply unsettling.

One that particularly sticks in my mind was taken in my wife’s home town of Varkaus, a place I know well and, let’s be frank -- though it has its charms, I guess -- I’ve always found to be a bit dull. (This is my elitist cosmopolitan Helsinki sensibility showing through.)

In this nearly 100-year-old image, two men stand with their backs to a tall pile of cut timber, precisely the kind of stack of logs you can see anywhere in the Finnish countryside today. One of the men, the older one, has an old-fashion, Lech Walesa style moustache. Other than that and their dress, which I can’t help think of as being straight out of a production of “The Fiddler on the Roof”, the two look like any two Finnish men you would see today at a hockey game or in a office cubicle.

It must be springtime, judging by the scattered patches of snow in the background and the brightness of the day. One of the men has carelessly thrown his coat on the bare ground beside him, the other holds his cap in his hand. They both, with eyes downcast, stand expectantly facing a group of other men, fellow Finns, standing not four steps away with rifles leveled straight at these two hapless men. A moment later, after the photo was snapped, they would be dead.

What I find so moving and compelling about this image of an impromptu firing squad (“summary execution” in today’s media-speak) forever frozen in time, is not only the tragedy of two men standing there, dazed, grappling at that moment with the horrible knowledge of their imminent death.

It’s also the “ordinariness” of the setting, an early-spring day in a place I associate with drowsy summer vacations. And it’s the fact that any of those men with rifles could easily pass for one of my neighbors. It’s not impossible that some of the men about to pull the trigger were neighbors of the two poor souls standing impassively before them.

I can’t say I know much about the Finnish Civil War (Suomen sisällissota) beyond what little I’ve read, but I have understood that it was brutal. From late January to mid May of that year, 1918, right after Finnish independence, conservatives (the Whites) with the help of German troops fought and defeated the supporters of the Finnish Social Democratic Party (the Reds). In just over a hundred days, Finns on both sides slaughtered over 20,000 of their fellow countrymen, many in cold-blooded bouts of terror and retribution, a fact that somehow seems completely incompatible with the Finland I know today.

There are still small reminders of this cruel conflict, however, beyond mere photographs. I recall seeing in Lahti, a small city best known for ski jumping, a memorial commemorating the massacre of Reds that took place there. The National Museum in Helsinki has famously preserved a bullet hole left in its front door from the fighting. My wife remembers the impressive constellation of bullet holes still visible in the side of a shed at her childhood home in Varkaus, a paper-mill town and a stronghold of Red supporters, probably like the two condemned men in the photo.

Red Terror depicted in a socialist newspaper, 1918.

In the scheme of things, this shockingly violent internal conflict took place not that long ago, much more recently than the one fought in the US.

And that’s what strikes me – how, in only three generations, such a short-lived, but bitter confrontation has been so completely healed over. Or so it seems. Living here now, in this land of civil tranquility and political consensus, it’s hard to imagine the killing spree that went on 95 years ago, while in America echoes of an even bloodier civil war still seem to reverberate.

To outside observers like myself, any real acrimony from that part of Finnish history has long since vanished. I do know someone whose grandfather and great-grandfather were interned together in the harsh prison camp on Suomenlinna for their leftist activities during the war (the elder one was among the 10% who did not survive the camp), and even whose father was unable to find work in the early 1950s due to the “sins” of his fathers. But for the present-day generation of Finns, such former hard feelings seem well and truly buried.

Maybe Finns are expert at sweeping things under the rug, even the killing of an average of  200 citizens a day at the hands of their compatriots. Or maybe they truly have moved on.

The conventional wisdom is that the threat of Soviet takeover in 1939 united the country, burying any lingering grievances from twenty years before. Perhaps this is why every year on Independence Day (Dec. 6th) the classic WWII movie Tuntematon sotilas ("The Unknown Soldier") is shown on TV, rather than any cinematic depiction of the civil war that erupted at the dawn of independence itself.

Americans sometimes don’t seem as adept at getting over the past. In the last few years, the US Civil War has surfaced as a surprisingly live issue for debate, with some folks refusing to accept that the true cause for the war was the odious institution of slavery. Such blinding denial so long after the fact is amazing. I hope it’s just a fringe thing.

At the same time, US politics seems to be flashing back some 150 years as old North-South divisions are re-emerging and the states that made up the Old Confederacy are increasingly coalescing into a solid reactionary bloc, thanks to the Tea Party. For example, all of the former CSA states, except Arkansas, have strongly resisted key provisions of Obamacare.  

The word “secession” has even been branded about, and not just by angry, crackpot letter-writers (or bloggers), but actual state officials. Of course, this is not to say any of these trends should be taken too seriously I expect the Tea Party will run out of steam well before  the point of open insurrection.

Still, it does feel that the scars from American’s own domestic bloodbath are surprisingly tenderer even now than those from the horrible-enough violence that Finns inflicted on each almost a century ago.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Merry Christmas Creep!

Judging by all the buzz on the Internet the last week or so, some folks in the States are less than happy about how the holiday of Thanksgiving is being treated.

In short, one big family holiday where copious amounts of food are consumed is being eclipsed by another such holiday, namely Christmas. This year, many American stores -- perhaps a little too eager to kick off the shopping season -- have been putting up X-mas decorations and promotions a week or more before Thanksgiving. It all seems a bit unseemly for some.

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) by Jennie A. Brownscombe

It’s like the main act of a concert taking the stage while the warm up band is still in the dressing room. It’s like being a little pushy with the Christmas spirit. Now in addition to the supposed "War on Christmas", there's a "War between Thanksgiving and Christmas". Only in America. It’s been dubbed “Christmas Creep”. 

Not only are some stores decking their halls prematurely, others are going a big step further. Some major retail chains, not satisfied with the recent practice of opening the cash registers one minute past midnight on Thanksgiving night (getting a head start on Black Friday, usually the busiest, some would say most gratuitously cutthroat shopping day of the year), have risked the ire and eternal condemnation of the public by announcing they will open on Thanksgiving Day itself.

Lights at home.
This is unprecedented for this sacrosanct feast day steeped in tradition, a day when loved ones travel from near and far to come together, eat, drink, give thanks, watch football, and try to avoid arguing politics over a carved turkey. My US-based Facebook friends, on both sides of the political divide, seem united in their disapproval of the idea that retail workers are being forced to skip all this and work on Thanksgiving, and I have to agree. 

Here in Finland, without another autumn holiday like Thanksgiving to feel overshadowed and unappreciated, Christmas Creep isn’t an issue.

The signs that the season is upon us are everywhere, in the stores, on TV, and most noticeably on Aleksanterinkatu, one of Helsinki’s busiest shopping streets, where the traditional Christmas lights were switched on already on Monday. At our house, we strung our outside lights last weekend, and we were by no means the first in the neighborhood.

I doubt anyone in Helsinki begrudges a little early Christmas cheer. Certainly not me. The lights are especially nice to see, what with the gloomy weather (not even any snow!) and the pitch-blackness that descends already at five o’clock. Any electric candle you can light in this cursed darkness is an early gift from St. Nick, if you ask me. 

Aleksanterinkatu at Christmastime. Photo by Sigketill.

Happy Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and yes, why not, even Christmas!

Friday, November 22, 2013


Fifty years ago today, I sat in the school cafeteria of Southwestern Elementary in Georgia with my fellow second-graders, in fact with the entire school, as we watched a TV that had been hastily set up at the front of the room. At least, that’s how I remember it.

The tragic day when John F. Kennedy was shot is probably the earliest memory I have of an event outside of my own life.  I was seven years old at the time and likely didn’t have a firm grasp of the news coming out of Dallas that afternoon. Maybe at the time it was hard to grasp for anyone of any age. I, like most of the rest of the country, was infatuated with Kennedy. (On my part, as I recall, it was largely because his name almost sounded like my own. I was only a little kid, after all.)

I can’t recall if I, with the embryonic world-view of a little kid, was traumatized in any way by the events that day or had any real inking of their historic gravity, beyond the fact that our teachers had gathered us all together to witness it.

And I don’t remember anything any adult in the cafeteria that day might have said to us about the events unfolding in Texas, or even later as the whole nation worked through its grief over the slaying of a president.

What I do remember is taking it upon myself to enlighten one of my classmates as we sat there in the cafeteria. Besides learning that President Kennedy had been shot, we had also heard that the Governor of Texas, John Connally, who was riding in the same open car as JFK, had also been hit. It’s possible that we even thought he’d also been killed.

With a greater measure of confidence than accuracy, I informed my friend that a “governor” is the man who makes the money, as in actually creates the dollar bills. I quickly reassured him not to worry, though, since there are other people who know how to do that. Such was my gasp on the workings of government.

(A bit surprisingly, I also recall not being convinced when told that Jack Ruby had shot JFK’s killer Lee Harvey Oswald out of grief over the assassination. It didn’t sound right to me, though generally I don't go in for conspiracy theories at all. Perhaps whatever sense of cynicism I’ve ever possessed peaked at the age of seven.)

My wife, even younger and in faraway Finland, also remembers that day. She recalls how her father, upon hearing the news, walked over to the family’s bookcase, took down the encyclopedia volume containing the article on John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and penciled in this next to the date of birth: “kuollut 22.11.63”.

It was a kind of precursor to the continuous updating of history that now, in the age of Wikipedia and instant information, we are so accustomed to half a century after that horrible day when my young classmates and I tried to understand what was happening in Dallas. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

National Bargaining Chips

One of the notions that is drilled into the head of every American practically from birth is that the United States, of all the countries on Planet Earth, is uniquely “exceptional”.

This is such as a firmly anchored article of faith that to question it in the least is to risk almost branding yourself as anti-American.

During Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, (I forget which one, since he won twice), one of the many accusations that his opponents hurled at him was that he didn’t believe in “American exceptionalism”. This is a serious charge.

American exceptionalism ranks right up there with a belief in God when it comes to the standard litany of heart-felt convictions that all American politicians must profess, loudly and often, if they hope to attain any office higher than that of dogcatcher.

As you might guess, I don’t completely buy into American exceptionalism, at least in the sense that many conservatives like to think of it. But I do agree that the US is exceptional in other ways that Americans should be proud of. One is its multicultural society. Another is its National Park System.

Now, the fact that the US is blessed with an unusual abundance of natural spots of amazing scenic beauty is something no national leader can take credit for. It’s just a lucky feature of the North American landscape.

Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon were spectacular long before any forefather, who might have been inclined to bring forth a new nation on any continent, ever set foot in the New World. And these places will remain spectacular long after the last vestige of the “United States” has faded away.

It’s not just that the US has an outstanding wealth of natural wonders, or even that it’s the only country so blessed (I’m thinking of places like Switzerland and New Zealand here). What really makes America exceptional is how, thanks to visionary men like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, the nation decided to protect these wonders, making open to the public immense swaths of the best scenery America has to offer.

I’m grateful and proud that the US has a National Park System that, in many ways, has set the gold standard for safekeeping natural treasures.

Growing up in North Georgia as I did, a natural treasure that we often gravitated to was the chunk of wilderness that makes up the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a teenager, my buddies and I spent many days exploring some of the more remote corners of the Smokies on extended hiking trips that I still remember fondly.

Over the years, National Parks have often played a big part of our family vacations from Finland. We’ve taken our kids to various parks whenever we’ve traveled somewhere in the States. This past summer, we briefly visited Mojave National Preserve in California, Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, and the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona (my third time there).

We are not unique in that regard. Every year, there are some 280 million visits to some part of the National Park System, and this out of a nation of 314 million Americans, plus of course foreign tourists who flock to sites as varied, and iconic, as the Grand Tetons and the Statue of Liberty.

It’s little wonder then that, for many average Americans, the national parks are a very visible and familiar part of the federal government, the federal government that many of those same average Americans seem to otherwise detest and think they could live much better without.

On the Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, 2013.
When the federal government partially shut down on October 1st, thanks to some unwise negotiating tactics by Tea Party Republicans, one of the most immediate and visible impacts was the closing of all national parks, sadly bringing places set aside for nature and recreation to the front and center of a nasty political debate.

Some conservative pundits and politicians, openly giddy over the prospect of a federal shutdown, tried their best to downplay any negative fallout from the sudden disappearance of most government services (98 percent of NASA, for example). “What? The sky didn’t fall?”

But, the closing of the parks hit a nerve and has the real potential of reminding voters that there’s one part of the national government that they actually appreciate.

You would think that the disruption, or even ruin, of family vacations by the closure of parks would be enough to spark a backlash against those Republican politicians who, out of pique, so cavalierly caused this mess.

And maybe in some ways that’s the case. But in the eyes of some people, it has also somehow made the Park Service out to be the bad guy, the face of an arrogant and manipulative government.

Media images of WWII veterans being denied access to war memorials in Washington has been exploited by conservatives to fuel criticism of the Park Service and led to civil disobedience by conservative on the Mall this past weekend, presided over by the oh-so-ardent Tea Party celebrity Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, the shadow leader of the GOP.

The closure of open-air monuments that don’t require entrance fees seems a bit over the top, even to me. It would be like the Finnish government putting barricades around the Sibelius monument (standing alone in a city park) due to austerity measures. Unless there are some arcade legal reasons behind such closures of open spaces that I’m not aware of, it doesn’t really make sense and plays into the hands of Republicans who are all too happy for any excuse to vilify Washington.

Despite the opportunities for schmaltzy photo ops within walking distance of the Capitol, the Republicans soon realized how closing popular parks can come back to bite them. Early into the shutdown, the GOP-dominated House scrabbled to partly backpedal by passing resolutions to fund only the Park Service (along with a few other shiny objects that gained media attention, like cancer treatment trials for children).

Magnificent view of Yosemite Valley.
Photo by Eeek.
The Senate wisely didn’t go along with the piece-meal approach to governing, so the parks remained closed.

Except, not entirely. Some parks have now reopened after five states, desperate to stem the loss of tourist dollars, agreed to provide the money to keep marquee parks operating. Arizona, the Grand Canyon State, has agreed to fork over state money, to the tune of $93,000 a day, to keep part of the Grand Canyon National Park open for a week. Utah is transferring $1.67 million to the US Treasury to reopen five parks in that state for ten days.

What is interesting is that these states, bastions of the Republican Party, are two of the 28 or so that typically receive more money from the national government than they pay in federal taxes. Or, to put it in the parlance of Ayn Rand, these are “moocher states”.

I hope that having to pay out of their own pocket for services normally funded by the taxpayers of more liberal states like California and New York provides an object lesson to the good people of Arizona:  sometimes it’s beneficial to be part of a larger union of diverse states.

I dearly hope Arizona and Utah are not reimbursed, so as to drive that lesson home.

However, some people may be taking away a different lesson. I’ve seen some Internet chatter from folks who, miffed at how shutting down the hated federal government has also shut down beloved parks, have jumped to the conclusion that maybe it’s time to devolve the national parks to the individual states and let them run places like Yosemite and Yellowstone.

On National Public Radio recently there was even someone from the libertarian Cato Institute suggesting that the national parks, to me a true treasure of public heritage, should all be privatized.

I hope all Americans would agree that this would be a bad idea, an exceptionally bad idea. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Sweet, Sweet Irony

These days I spend a lot more time thinking or reading about politics in the US than I probably should, and certainly more than I used to. It’s become an obsession (benign, I hope) that was born when Barack Obama was elected president. No doubt, a few million Americans on either side of the political divide could say the same, so groundbreaking was Obama's election.

A Birther trying to make a point.
Photo: Bonzo McGrue
The obsession isn’t only due to my hopes and excitement over a Democrat and African-American winning the White House. It’s was intensified, in large part, by the ferocious backlash by many conservative Americans to Obama. If Republicans in the heartland had grudgingly accepted President Obama’s legitimacy, reined in their more obstructionist instincts, and allowed Washington to get down to business as usual, I suspect I would have become bored with politics as a spectator sport by now.

That didn’t happen, though. The total and strident opposition from the right, in the form of the Tea Party, turned the political scene into a slow-motion train wreck that I couldn’t turn away from.

I see the Tea Party as mostly older, mostly white, sometimes illogical folks lashing out over the fact that things aren’t what they used to be, that the US got hit with a gigantic financial crisis, and that – Heaven Forbid! – the Democrats won an election. (It has to be said that for some, though I hope not most, it is also all about the color of Barack Obama’s skin.)

As fanatical (or fanciful) as the Tea Party sometimes can be, there’s a subset that’s even fringier  the Birthers. These are the folks who believe (or pretend to believe) that Barack Obama is not eligible to be president because, as they claim, he was born in Kenya and therefore is not a “natural born” US citizen, as required by the Constitution.

I personally know many people back in Georgia who could be characterized as Tea Party supporters. I hope none of them is also a serious Birther.

For Birthers, it’s not enough that Obama is an American by right of being born to at least one American parent (in his case, his mother). In the astute legal opinion of your average Birther, laboring away over a keyboard in a doublewide somewhere in the wilds of West Virginia, Obama would also have to be born on US soil to be “natural born”. American soil!

Despite the fact that all evidence points to Obama being born in Hawaii barely three years after that state joined the Union, hard-core Birthers refuse to believe it.

For this reason, most Birthers seem delusional (meaning there really is something wrong with them), or else they are cynical pranksters trying to egg on those others who are delusion.

The worst offender, in my mind, is Donald Trump, who made the Birther issue the linchpin of his so-called presidential campaign. He supposedly went so far as to send a crack team of special investigators to Honolulu on a loudly publicized, but insubstantial, wild goose chase to uncover the “truth” behind Obama’s origins.

I’m sure Trump never really believed the Birther nonsense (he’s not that stupid), but he was happy to stoke the conspiracy flames for his own self-promotional, giving the movement a sheen (very oily sheen?) of respectability. Because of this, my opinion of the man went from him being mildly ridiculous and obnoxious to being outright despicable.

(Ask my wife how I feel about Trump. She has seen me practically leap over the sofa trying to find the off switch on the remote whenever his face appears on TV. Following the Birther business, I cannot stand the sight of the man.)

Most Birthers, however, are true believers convinced that Americans born on foreign soil (and, for them, that means Obama) cannot rightfully be president. So, imagine my glee when, a few weeks ago, there was an unexpected turn of events in the Birther saga. And it came from deep in the heart of Tea Party country.

A rising star in the Republican Party is Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas and a conservative with impeccable Tea Party credentials

Cruz is smart. He graduated Harvard Law School – just like Barack Obama. And he’s ambitious. There’s already talk of him running for president in 2016, even though he’s only a one-term Senator – just like Barack Obama. He has an American mother and non-US father – just like Barack Obama. And he was born on foreign soil – just like Barack, wait, no, not like Barack Obama.

Unlike Obama, Cruz is the real deal. He actually was born abroad, in Canada, a fact that people only seemed to realize recently, after months of him generating White House buzz among the Tea Party faithful. Mon Dieu! To quote an old Cheech and Chong routine: “You are Canadien, not you are?”

I love this. A charismatic conservative firebrand, the answer to the presidential dreams of Tea Partiers (and presumably Birthers), has the exact background that Birthers claim disqualifies the current, much despised Commander in Chief.

The good news (for Cruz) is that it seems most experts who don’t live in the fantasy world of Birtherism agree that being born in Calgary doesn’t make Cruz any less presidential material.

That would also be good news for my children, born American on the foreign soil of Finland, if they ever aspired to run for the highest office in the land, as long as they fulfill another constitutional requirement of living in the States for at least 14 years. In any case, becoming POTUS is nothing I would wish on any of my loved ones.

The bad news (for Birthers) is that the eligibility of foreign-born Cruz leaves them with a dilemma.

They have to either drop him faster than a disgraced Rick Perry or Herman Cain, or be forced to admit that they were wrong. They would have to face the fact that the singular "issue" that has outraged them over the past five years, the issue that they have worked themselves into a tizzy over, harped on, protested against, flooded the Internet with ALL CAP diatribes about, and even took Donald Trump seriously over, was, in fact, from the very beginning simply bogus.

Or they could bend logic and decide, as a supporter quoted on TV did, that “Canada’s not really foreign soil”. Either way, I am enjoying the irony of it all. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Road Trips

I’ve been back in Finland from our holiday in America for well over a month already and am only now getting around to posting anything about it.

At some point on the trip, along Colorado Highway 13, I think, among the empty (and I do mean empty) red-and-green landscape of Rio Blanco County, I had a pang of homesickness for Helsinki.

What I was feeling had more to do with family than any real longing for the cool, leafy corner of the Finnish capital that I call home. My wife, daughter and I were rolling at 65 miles an hour toward a rare family reunion later that day, and the only thing missing were my two sons back in Finland.

Still, we had been away from home for a while. It was Day Nine of our trip to America, and it was starting to feel like a long one. Maybe it’s a sign of aging that my desire for traveling begins to have a shelf life. (Who knew?)

It wasn’t always so. When I was about to set out on my first "buddy" road trip out west back in 1980, I recall my father advising me that I would find out that a week or so of that kind of traveling is more than enough. Beyond that, it’s no fun to be so far from home.

He might have been drawing on his experience from a hunting trip he made in 1963. For my father, this was no ordinary hunting trip. He and a few friends had driven along two-lane highways across the Great Plains to hunt elk in the Rocky Mountains of southern Colorado. I was too young to remember the details, but it feels like he was away a couple of weeks, though it might have been only one.

The most lasting impressions of my father’s trip came from the elk-head trophy that later towered over our living room and the grainy 8-milimeter home-movie footage he brought home from the trip. I even recall the night that the film was shown at the little community center near our home. It felt like a big deal, and for the time, it was.

I’m sure that the trip to Pagosa Springs had been a worthwhile adventure for my father and a great success, though tinged with some sadness (on the trip, a companion was stricken with the first signs of an illness that would come to kill him). With three young children back in Georgia, though, my father probably felt more than enough homesickness to put him off straying so far from home again without us. He didn’t go out West again until the road trip the whole family took to Wyoming thirteen years later.

In 1980, I was 23 and single with really nothing, or nobody, to miss back in Georgia. At least, not for a couple of weeks. So, I didn’t heed my father’s warning about over-extending my first own cross-country road trip, and in fact, homesickness wasn’t a problem.

My friend and I drove some 1600 miles (2500 km) to visit our college roommate in Grants, New Mexico, and then continued on to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and finally Las Vegas before turning back toward Georgia. I don’t recall feeling homesick even once.

It was the same, two years later, when I made a similar trip, this time for three weeks, though by then there would have been some cause for homesickness, or at least bittersweetness, if I had thought about it.

I called this my “Goodbye America” trip, because I was soon moving to Helsinki and was unsure how long it would be before I returned. I also wanted to show my Finnish girlfriend something of the American West. My battered Toyota station wagon carried us from Georgia across the southern tier of the US to Los Angeles and San Diego (and, for a couple of ill-considered and nerve-racking hours, even Tijuana).

We followed the coast up to San Francisco before hitting a series of national parks (Yosemite, Death Valley, Zion, Grand Canyon) on our way back East. We slept in the car in the hills above LA, took refuge in a Las Vegas casino after crossing Death Valley without air conditioning, and stopped to check out Aspen (where my future wife bought a Moomintroll book for me, as a kind of early introduction to Finnish culture).

In some ways, the trip we made this summer relived some moments from those epic road trips of my youth. We drove to the South Rim for the first time since 1980. On our first visit to LA since the “Goodbye America” trip, we toured some of the most memorable spots from before and tried to recognize others we only half-remember. We stayed at the same ski resort in Utah (and hiked to the same 11,068-foot peak) as we did on another epic road trip we took with the family almost a decade ago. And we met relatives and friends we haven't seen in far too long. There were certainly some nostalgic moments. 

We also broke some new ground and stumbled upon some unexpected finds, like dinosaur bones exposed in a wall of a naked stone, a street-side painting in a Utah ski town left by guerrilla artist Banksy, and an archeological dig, once frequented by the legendary Louis Leakey, now almost forgotten. 

Even the routes and spots we did retrace and revisit all look new again after so many years, so it didn't feel as if we were simply rehashing the past. Not the whole time, anyway.

I hope to eventually post more about parts of the trip. But if my writing output since returning to Helsinki is any indication, it might have to wait until the next big Southwest road trip, hopefully this time in something less than 30 years. 

Photo: Taiga Korpelainen

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The World We Live In

In the early 90s, I was likely one of the few Americans working for a certain big Finnish IT company. In my case, it was part of a team in Helsinki writing user manuals for server and system software (very little of which I actually understood, it has to be said).

At some point, another American I’ll call James joined the company as a project manager. Apparently, he had been an exchange student here in his youth, and memories of those days had prompted him to make the unlikely move to relocate to a place where he had practically no connections.

He was, in some ways, the odd man out. He was older, unattached, and more buttoned-down than my other colleagues. And unlike the other expats I knew, he hadn’t moved to Finland because of romance, which was a bit rare in those days. This was long before the golden age of Finnish high-tech, when the chance of working at dynamic, cutting-edge firms (at least one in particular) was enough to draw smart, geeky foreigners, like James, to the cold, dark north.

Among ourselves, we joked that James must have been a spy. Remember, this wasn’t that long after the Cold War, when the working assumption among many was that Helsinki was a natural fault line for East-West espionage. (I still recall how the downtown office of the Teboil service-station chain was widely seen as a front for the KGB.)

I’m sure James was no spy, but with his deep roots in the IT world, he did know things. One conversation I remember from those days was when he explained the function of the super-secret National Security Agency, an outfit I’d probably never heard of before.

James described the giant dish antennas on the East Coast used by the big US telecommunications companies for the downlink of all trans-Atlantic phone traffic. He went on to tell about a second set of dishes directly behind the first, perfectly positioned to scoop up the very same overseas phone traffic and feed it to the NSA supercomputers that then searched this torrent of data for words of particular interest to the American government. Perhaps even back then, this was no real secret, but rather public knowledge to anyone interested enough to find out. I don’t know for sure.

Anyway, maybe that’s why, when calling my parents from Helsinki, I used to half-seriously envision that someone in the depths of the US intelligence apparatus might be listening as we chatted about the most mundane things imaginable. After all, mine was part of the “foreign” communication that the NSA was tasked with intercepting.

Things have changed since then, and in some ways, they haven’t. Washington is now in an uproar of the first magnitude over the revelations by a former CIA/NSA tech support guy, Edward Snowden, about the extent of the data harvested nowadays by the NSA from domestic phone and Internet traffic. It’s huge, and it’s not just foreign traffic.

Some Americans suddenly feel their liberty has been violated by the fact that information (metadata, mind you, not content) of every phone call they make is being routinely collected by the NSA, and not because any of these people are suspected of any crime. Not yet, anyway.

It’s a fascinating case. For one, the shock and outrage of some people is curious, considering that the broad outline of NSA’s expanded activity has been public for years. It was a key part of a new reality that Americans seem ready to accept after the horror of 9/11. (The Patriot Act, which expanded the NSA’s surveillance powers, sailed through Congress barely six weeks after the Twin Towers fell.)

And it reflects the new reality of an online world. In the Internet age of Google data mining and voluntary exhibitionism on Facebook, it seems almost quaint to find people suddenly so concerned about privacy.

It seems I’m not one of them. I belong to the majority of Americans (56% according to a recent poll) who tend not to be too bothered by this new reality.  Maybe I should be. At least, some people tell us we should all be.

It’s not as if my entire life is an open book, but generally speaking, I have nothing to hide. (And I do recognize how boring that sounds.) Well, I do have some secrets, but there is nothing I wouldn’t want surfacing in an NSA intercept. Nothing that I might talk about on the phone or do online is going to get me indicted, unless it’s a crime to spend too much time surfing the net. I’m not the kind of person the NSA is interested in.

That’s not to say that people who are skittish about the invasion of privacy are guilty of any kind of wrongdoing. It’s just that they have a more finely tuned sense of mistrust and personal liberty than I do. They are, in a sense, more principled. They will argue that the Fourth Amendment constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches (without probable cause) applies just as much to law-abiding citizens as it does to people who do have something to hide, maybe even more so. They will argue that giving up even a small measure of this privacy for the sake of more security is unacceptable. Until now, however, they seem to be a minority in the US.

Still, there is a certain segment of the population, for which privacy is an overwhelming fixation. I know people who are a bit freaked out that their house is visible on Google Maps Street View, as if that is significantly different from someone being able to see it in person from a public road.

There are people who chafe at the sight of security cameras at every street corner. (Once, I saw spray-painted in large letters on a wall on a London street the text “One Nation Under CCTV” – a terse commentary on the huge concentration of video surveillance in that city). Personally, I don’t mind being watched all that much. Apparently, others do. 

An especially telling example of this at the moment are the people in my home county in Georgia who are fretting that unmanned drones will soon be flying overhead, spying not only on moonshiners, but also on the ordinary citizenry.

This fear seems to stem from certain technology and business interests in Georgia trying to establish a center for drone research in the state. Why my hometown should feel especially threatened by this isn’t exactly clear to me, unless it’s a case of local officials trying to drum up business by offering the county as a potential site for the drone facility. To me, it sounds like a paranoid response.

It’s not as if concerns over privacy are always based on reality. Once, back when everyone in Helsinki still had a landline phone, I was complaining to a co-worker about how phone bills in Finland are not itemized (by number called, duration, etc.). I was surprised by her reaction.

In the days before cell phones, a common experience for American college students was the settling of the monthly phone bill. Going down the list of long-distance calls made with the phone you shared with your room- or house-mates, you would tally up who owed what for which calls. We’d also often discover calls charged to our phone by mistake (or “by mistake”, if you didn't necessarily think the phone company was trustworthy). Itemized bills helped keep both roommates and the phone company honest.

This is what I was complaining to my co-worker, about how you can’t do this in Finland because all charges, both local and long-distance, were presented together in one lump sum. I told her how I’d prefer to see all long-distance calls I’d made itemized in the bill.

Out of defensiveness, I think, over a foreigner like myself daring to criticize how things are done in Finland, my co-worker instantly exclaimed, “Well, I wouldn’t like that at all. I wouldn’t want anyone to know who I had been calling.”

I didn’t say it, but of course this is a ludicrous way to think. If there is anyone who knows precisely which numbers you have called, it would surely be the company routing those calls (and charging you for them). If you object to the phone company having this information, you might want to rethink whether you should be using a phone at all.

Of course, that was an extreme (and to be frank, stupid) example of an exaggerated sense of privacy. Now, with all the news about the NSA leaks, such concern over privacy is the one thing that some people will no doubt be all too willing to share with others.  

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Slow Slog through a Book

In my long slow struggle with the Finnish language, I sometimes run across little examples of what makes it so difficult, for me anyway.

In the past, I’ve looked for books in Finnish that are at the right reading level, yet interesting enough for me to actually make the effort to slog through pages of sometimes baffling text. After some false starts with children’s books (sigh) and detective novels, I’m now trying a little book I found in the library a couple of months ago, “Pitkä kävely Meksikonlahdelle”.

It’s a Finnish translation of “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf”, an account of legendary naturalist John Muir’s 1867 journey on foot from Indiana to Cedar Key, Florida, on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

I was aware of this book earlier, but have never got around to reading it. This feels like a perfect story to hold my interest, even if I have to keep referring constantly to my Finnish dictionary (okay, okay, actually to Google Translate – there, I said it, I am lazy). This classic chronicle by Muir, who went on to found the Sierra Club and was a driving force in the creation of Yosemite National Park,  combines three pet interests of mine: natural history, long treks, and the Southeastern US.

Anyway, on page 34 of the book, as Muir is progressing on his journey from Kentucky into Tennessee, I encountered a couple of examples of what makes Finnish so frustrating.

One was the simple word tennesseeläismaanviljelijältä. That is one word, 29 letters long. Geez. It doesn’t quite trip off the tongue like hölkyn kölkyn (Finnish for “bottoms up”).

As I’ve said before, Finnish often offers up its words in big meaty hard-to-chew chunks. To be fair, the word ”Tennessee” contributes nine of those letters, but the other 20 are down to the way Finnish grammar sometimes packs as much meaning as possible into single bloated monoliths of language.

The word means “from a Tennessee farmer” (20 letters total), which, for me as an English speaker, is much easier to get my head around. If you look carefully enough you can make out the word for farmer (maanviljelijä) in there somewhere. The suffix “-lta” gives the meaning of “from”, and tennesseelais- tells us that the farmer is a Tennessean. (Curiously, while in English we would say “American” farmer, we would never say “Tennessean” farmer. At least, I wouldn’t.)

The other two words that struck me as prime examples of the maddening complexity of Finnish were contained (in bold) in the following passage from Muir’s book: 

Suurenmoisimpia Kentuckyn kasveista ovat sen ylväät tammet. Ne ovat sen rehevien metsien mahtavimmat asukkaat.”
(The most magnificent of Kentucky’s plants are the noble oaks. They are the most spectacular residents of the lush forest.)

In English, if you want to say that oaks are more magnificent than the other plants of any particular state, you just put “most” in front of “magnificent”. Easy. It’s only slightly more complicated if you wanted to heap the same amount of praise on oaks by using a simpler word like “noble”; you would say “noblest”.  

That’s English superlatives in a nutshell. Either add “most” or “‑est”. Again, simple.

Superlatives in Finnish are also simple in theory. All you do is add “–in” to an adverb or adjective as in suurenmoisin (“most magnificent”) and mahtavin (“most spectacular”) and you’ve got the superlative – in the basic form, that is.

In practice, it’s another story, since in Finnish almost no word is spared being from transmuted almost beyond recognition into one of some 20 variations. The original suffix “-in” is used only in one of those variations, and is replaced by “-imm-” or “-imp-” in all the rest.

Still, once you know this, it’s not hard to recognize that words like suurenmoisimpia and mahtavimmat are superlatives. Even I can manage the passive act of reading and understanding those words.

What is still beyond me is actively using such forms properly in written language, and I’m light years from being able to pull a word like suurenmoisimpia out of my brain when speaking. I’ll probably never utter “Suomalaiset saunat ovat maailman suurenmoisimpia.” “(Finnish saunas are the world’s most magnificent.)”.

I doubt I can perform the mental gymnastics needed to figure out on the fly which form of suurenmoinen is required for that particular example, which in this case would be the partitive plural of the superlative. It even sounds like rocket science.

If you are strictly process oriented, you can work your way from the basic form to derive the correct form in four "easy" steps (making the changes in bold):

suurenmoinen (basic form) ⇒ 1. suurenmoisen (genitive)  2. suurenmoisin (superlative nominative singular) 3. suurenmoisimpaa (superlative partitive singular)  ⇒ 4.  suurenmoisimpia (superlative partitive plural)

Of course, you could also simply memorize suurenmoisimpia, accepting it as it is, a perfectly formed word emerging from the dark mystery of Finnish grammar, without trying to understand the convoluted path that brings it into existence.

Or, you could do what I’ll probably do – avoid ever speaking in Finnish about anything that could be even remotely considered to be the most magnificent. At least, that should be easy. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Some Gneiss Granite You Got There

I have an unfortunate weakness for really lame inside-family jokes, something my wife and kids will certainly vouch for.

There is one such joke that I unfailingly trot out whenever we travel somewhere where the landscape is especially rocky, for example, the Canary Islands or Utah. I look to my wife and say, “There’s a lot of geology around here.” She cringes.

This is, of course, not a “joke” in any sense other than it exasperates my wife to hear this again, as she has pointed out long ago and repeatedly that there is the same amount of geology everywhere, in the same way there is the same amount of weather everywhere.

That is true, of course. Geology is everywhere; it’s just that it's more noticeable and interesting in some places than others, Finland being one of those.

Devil's Churn at Pihlajamäki.
Here in Helsinki, we live atop the Baltic Shield, a remnant of the Earth’s crust that has been around some for 500 million years since the Precambrian period (that is, before life really got going).

Coincidentally, I stood last summer on the edge of the Canadian Shield, another giant layer of Precambrian rock that, in the vicinity of Ottawa, ends in an impressive 270-meter (almost 900-foot) high escarpment overlooking a flat plain along the St. Lawrence River. See, geology is everywhere.

And in Finland, the Baltic Shield is everywhere, not that most Finns would think of it that way. For most people here, the visible parts of the shield is just the ordinary bedrock (kallioperä) that you find practically everywhere, if not fully exposed as naked stone, then just barely out of sight beneath the ground. (When we built an extension to our house, we were dismayed to find just how near the surface the granite bedrock in our backyard was. It eventually took three attempts to blast out a pit big enough for a small basement.)

The kallioperä is often covered only by a thin layer of soil, which has consequences beyond basement excavation. Trees here can be toppled in winds far below hurricane strength because their grip on the Earth is especially tenuous when their roots can’t penetrate much below the surface.

Tree toppled by winds last autumn.
Often the bedrock is the surface, with exposed granite taking the form of dramatic shorelines, barren islets and the countless rocky outcrops (kalliot in Finnish) that punctuate the generally flat landscape all over Southern Finland. These hills of solid rock often have to be cut in half to make way for highways, leaving some impressive road cuts that in winter are plastered with impressive columns of ice. It also means that Finns have a special expertise in carving out portions of the Baltic Shield to suit their needs.

In the lush, forested landscapes of my native Georgia, exposed rocky surfaces are rare, except for most notably places like Stone Mountain, a giant dome of granite near Atlanta – and a place I have still never visited. Typical, isn’t it?

Any lushness in the forests of Finland has been hard won in the last 10,000 years or so since living things started to reclaim this part of Earth bulldozed, sandpapered, scraped to the bare stone by a layer of ice three-and-half kilometers (over two-miles) thick. Signs of the so-called Weichsel glaciation, which covered most of Northern Europe, can be seen everywhere here.

One such sign was uncovered, and almost destroyed, a few kilometers from my home, when some roadwork was undertaken twenty years ago on the side of a kallio in Pihlajamäki. A portion of bedrock was being prepared to be blasted when a passerby noticed the outlines of two large “giant’s kettles” (called hiidenkirnut in Finnish, or “Devil’s Churns”).

Baltic Shield bedrock is never far from the surface.
These “kettles” are potholes formed when fast-flowing water carves out a round cavity in bedrock through the twirling, grinding action of stones that become trapped in the hole. I recall seeing miniature versions of these in the mountain creeks I fished with my father back in Georgia.

The giant’s kettles in Pihlajamäki are much bigger than those, the larger one being almost 7 meters (23 feet) across and eight and half deep (28 feet). They were formed over 50,000 years ago as the retreating Weichsel icecap unleashed torrents of meltwater lasting hundreds of years, eventually digging a hole spacious enough to dump ten VW Beetles.

This massive pit wasn’t the only geological fingerprint left by the retreating ice sheet, not by a long shot. Besides the gouge marks left on exposed rock by glacial scraping and scouring, evidence of the Ice Age is easy to spot in the innumerable glacial erratics (siirtolohkareet), eskers (harjut), and kettle holes (supat).

Erratic and uprooted trees in Helsinki's Central Park near Paloheinä.
 Erratics are isolated boulders, large and small, torn from their original location and carried off by glaciers before being dropped in a new neighborhood as the ice sheet vanished. Eskers are long narrow ridges of sand and looser glacial debris that can wind for miles, sometimes with lakes on either side, as with the scenic Punkaharju in eastern Finland. They are sometimes mined for building material, creating large sand pits that have also been used (at least once) as locations for Finland’s own low-low-budget versions of spaghetti Westerns.

Kettle holes (not to be confused with giant’s kettles) are large cauldron-like dents in the ground where giant blocks of long-gone ice left deep impressions in the sandy deposits around them.

Still, the most impressive holdover from the icy Weichsel episode is the one that is the most subtle, in fact, practically impossible for mere mortals to see except near the coast.

With the Baltic Sea on two sides, Finland has a long coastline that is rustic, rocky and, well...rising. In many spots you can find the rocky beds of ancient beaches well inland from the modern shoreline, signs that the waterline was once much higher than now.

Erratic near the seashore at Sipoo.
The reason is that frozen water doesn’t weigh nothing, and terra firma isn’t always as firma as it seems. An ice sheet two-miles thick exerts punishing pressure on the earth’s crust, which it turns out is a bit spongier than you might think. During the last Ice Age, parts of the Baltic Shield were pushed down by this tremendous weight. After the icecap disappeared 100 centuries ago, the Earth's crust started to bounce back – slowly.

It’s still rebounding today, at a rate in some places of a meter (three feet) every hundred years, most notably at the, ah, poetically named Merenkurkku (Throat of the Sea), the 25-kilometer-wide chokepoint in the Gulf of Bothnia between Finland and Sweden. (By the way, Merenkurkku should not be confused with merikurkku, “sea cucumber”, a distinct possibility thanks to Finnish’s odd use of kurkku to mean both “throat” and “cucumber”. Why not, it’s their language?)

Most likely, even in my lifetime some rocks that were once merely hidden boating hazards in the waters of Merenkurkku have now emerged to be visible boating hazards. Because Merenkurkku is only 25-meters (75-feet) deep, it’s possible that, if the rate of rebounding remains the same, you (okay, let’s be honest, someone who is not you) will be able to drive across dry land straight from Vaasa to Umeå, by the year 4513. Give or take a lifetime or two.

Typical rocky Finnish seascape.