Monday, December 7, 2015

A Sentimental Journey

A couple of weeks ago, I made a slightly weird trip to America, to my home state of Georgia. It wasn’t exactly an impromptu trip, but it was unexpected in some ways, even extraordinary.

In the past, I usually traveled to my native land with my family during the summer, when the kids were out of school, back before they were all grown up. This time I went alone, and this time it was in autumn, a season in which I have found myself in America only once in the past quarter-century.

As odd as the timing was, the route I took was also unusual. It was convoluted, you might even say highly impractical and in some small way adventurous. I hope to share some impressions from that trip in later posts, hopefully before they fade. We’ll see.

Ever since my father died in 2006, I have had some unfinished family business back in Georgia that I’ve kept putting off, especially as my visits back there became less frequent. I am even now a bit shocked to realize I have been to Georgia only twice in the past ten years, and the last time was over five years ago. I guess that’s how things go.

Anyway, feeling that I finally couldn’t put off making a short trip to Georgia any longer, I jumped at the chance when I saw that SAS was offering super cheap flights to the States this autumn. Only, none of these flights was to Atlanta. The closest destination was, in fact, Washington, D.C.

Still, I convinced myself that Washington, on the edge of Dixie, is not that far from North Georgia. And, I’m always certainly up for doing a little road trip, although doing one solo was a completely new experience for me.

Anyway, that’s how I found myself in the States, road tripping on my own some 500 miles (800 km) to Georgia, not exactly on holiday, but driven by a need – a need tinged with profoundly bittersweet expectations – to wrap up some personal affairs.

One item on that agenda was the bringing back to Finland of an heirloom, my father’s guitar. That was a small challenge in itself, considering how we are long past the golden age of passenger-friendly air travel when you could bring all manner of luggage onto planes without incurring extra charges.

I was also acutely aware that wrapping up things, finally, at the old homestead meant I might not be coming back again for some time. Or maybe I will. Who knows? In any event, when you leave any place there is never a guarantee that you will ever return. 

So, my quick trip Stateside had all the makings for a very sentimental journey, and it was. 

I was able to re-connect with some places from my previous life. I was able to spend time with close relatives I don’t often see, though sadly only a few, so short was the time. And I was able to get some superficial feeling for what’s going on now in that part of America – on the ground, as they say.

It seems I should be able, after such a trip, to sit down and reflect on all the places I went and all the things I did, process it all and then discover one or two gems of understanding, of revelation, of self-awareness that sums up the whole experience. If there are such "gems" to discover, that is.

The best I can come up with is this:  We should try as hard as we can to hang onto family, no matter how distant and different we might be. The passage of time is relentless. It can be a brutal reality to face. The past really is past – sometimes a hard, but necessary, truth to grapple with. And the landscape of my own past life, still familiar from so many memories, is moving on without me, making me feel less and less a part of it. 

With each long-delayed visit back there, America seems increasingly to me to be a weird place in some ways. More than ever, the country I grew up (especially the South) and I seem to be diverging, moving further apart. Traveling to my hometown, I felt more than ever like a mere visitor there, a foreigner. I guess that's natural after so long. 

To quote the writer Thomas Wolfe, whose own hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, I paid a quick visit to during this trip: “You can’t go home again.”

Tell me about it. 

Selfie somewhere deep in the woods of North Georgia. 
I do miss the sunshine.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Listen, Ben Carson, Always Listen!

After recently watching a video clip from Fox News, I realized that Dr. Ben Carson, Republican candidate for president of the United States, is in big, big trouble.

In the video, Carson is trying to explain to Megyn Kelly why he, like Donald Trump, has been claiming that, during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack that shook the world, he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, when in actual fact he did not see this at all. It was all a misunderstanding that arose from a confusing encounter with a journalist.

I think I see where his problem lies, and as someone who has done a bit of media training in the past, I feel qualified enough to offer Carson one small piece of basic (and free) advice on how to answer questions from reporters.

And here it is. When facing down journalists, it is of utmost importance to listen to their questions and understand them fully before answering. Listen to all the words.

This is especially important if the question is a long one, say more than four words or so.

Although you may be struggling to stay awake, you must force yourself to listen to the entire question. Otherwise, you might miss some crucial detail that makes your response look foolish, and require you to appear on TV later to explain to yet another reporter what you actually meant. Failing to listen can lead to a tedious and vicious cycle of endless Q&As.

Let’s take this entirely hypothetical set of questions that a cunning journalist might throw at any unsuspecting presidential candidate.

Reporter: “Were American Muslims in New Jersey cheering on 9/11 when the Towers fell? Did you hear about that or see that?”

Not only is the first question 13 words long, it is immediately followed by a second question that, on the surface, seems intended to clarify the first, but might only serve to confuse the candidate. This combination requires extra concentration.

Beware also of the specificity of some parts of the question, specificity that you might miss without proper listening. “Were American Muslims in New Jersey cheering on 9/11 when the Towers fell?”

Use of such specificity by journalists is a well-known “gotcha” tactic for tripping up candidates. By slipping some specific details into the question’s “word salad” of nouns, verbs, etc., the reporter is hoping to pin you down to a concrete position, whereas you would prefer to answer in vague generalities, as is your God-given right.

Without careful listening, you may be lured into answering this question with a simple “Yes”.

This will lead the liberal media into believing that you saw American Muslims cheering in New Jersey on 9/11 when the Towers fell – when that could not be further from the truth.

Though pithy, one-word answers can pose additional problems. They may lead the reporter to badger you further with follow-up questions such as: “Can you expand on that?”

You may be tempted to answer this follow-up with the common-sense observation that:

“There are going to be people who respond inappropriately to everything. I think that was an inappropriate response.”

Still obsessed with pointless specificity, the reporter may see this perfectly appropriate statement of opinion as an evasion of the original question, and pursue you further with a new gotcha question, such as: “Did you see that happening, though?”

Exasperated, you might feel compelled to answer in detail about how you witnessed the particular incident of people cheering, an event which the reporter can’t seem to move on from.

For example, you might say: “I saw the film of it, yes.”

Then, out of the blue, a different reporter – obviously in cahoots with the first – shoots off another, completely unrelated gotcha question: “In New Jersey?”

In your haste to be done with the matter, you might be tempted not to wait to fully understand the question.

Not so fast. The phrase “In New Jersey?” conceals some dangerous specificity that could affect your response. It could be interpreted by unforgiving political observers as referring to a particular geographic area. Without carefully parsing the words “In New Jersey?” you may not recognize the reporter’s hidden “agenda” of trying to pinpoint where you claim the cheering incident took place.

In other words, being too quick to answer with a “Yes” puts you in a position of appearing to agree that the event you witnessed occurred in some place called New Jersey, and that you appear somehow to know where that is.

This might become awkward later as you find yourself attempting to clarify to Megyn Kelly on Fox News that, in fact, you had no clue what the reporter was asking, and certainly didn’t understand that she was talking about that New Jersey – where naturally enough you never saw American Muslims cheering on 9/11.

Simply listening carefully to actual words can sometime save even the most inattentive non-politician from a world of embarrassment. It’s worth giving it a try sometime.

(Postscript: I feel a bit bad about making so much fun of Ben Carson, who is doubtless a pleasant guy, but as presidential candidate comes across as a clueless and/or self-delusional huckster. If I were a Republican, I’d be extremely pissed that so many of my fellow Republicans take him seriously enough to make him a frontrunner. I’d be ashamed. I really would.)

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Parable of the Selfish "Hero"?

There are so many strange little stories coming out of the US presidential race that it’s hard to keep up with them all. However, one involving Ben Carson has stood out in my mind.

In the wake of the fairly recent school shooting in Oregon on October 1st, Carson, the soft-spoken ex-neurosurgeon and Christian patriot, made some news by offering his advice on how not to get shot. I say “fairly recent school shooting”, since there have been at least three others in the ensuing three-odd weeks, though none as deadly.

In his reaction to the Umpqua Community College shooting spree in which nine people were killed and eight wounded, Carson instructed future victims of such tragedies to be proactive. He said that rather than waiting to be gunned down, the students in Oregon should have rushed the shooter.

On the face of it, this advice makes sense, but was seen by some people as being insensitive, as basically accusing the victims of being too passive. Others have suggested that in extreme-stress situations, such as facing an active shooter, humans often react differently than someone sitting comfortably in a TV studio might think they should. Even if that someone is a famed brain surgeon.

What is enlightening is that Carson, currently number two in the GOP race, does have some experience in facing someone with a gun. Following the kerfuffle over his remarks, Carson related a story from thirty years ago of how he himself had the barrel of a gun jammed in his ribs by an armed robber. He said it was no big deal.

It happened in Baltimore in a Popeye’s fast-food restaurant, where Carson was presumably a customer. As Carson has told the story, an armed man held a gun to him until Carson helpfully pointed out that the robber should be threatening the restaurant's cashier, not a mere patron like himself. Carson explained, no doubt patiently and with a wry smile, “I believe that you want the guy behind the counter”.

The robber apologized for his mistake and proceeded (perhaps sheepishly) to force the hapless restaurant worker at gunpoint to clear out the cash register.

To say this all sounds a bit off-kilter is not the least of it.

Imagine someone, intending to rob a fast-food joint, walks in and threatens the first customer he sees waiting in line to order his meal of Handcrafted Spicy Tenders. Maybe we can assume that the would-be robber had, in fact, never been in a fast-food restaurant. Maybe he didn’t realize how a retail business works and – unlike Willie Sutton – had no clue where the money actually was. The man’s potential for a life of crime at this point would have suffered an unfortunate setback, if not for the sage advice of the good Dr. Carson that he should instead stick up the cashier, or as Carson has phrased it the “appropriate person”.

The entire scenario sounds unreal. What’s more, reporters have not been able to find any official record of this particular robbery ever taking place. When confronted with this fact, a Carson spokesperson speculated that perhaps the police didn’t file a report. Right. Popeye’s must be a very forgiving corporation if it doesn’t require some kind of official paperwork to explain the disappearance of a whole day’s worth of receipts. With a laid-back work environment like that it's perhaps a nice place to work, though maybe prone to get robbed often, not least by its own employees. In other words, the notion of no police report being filed doesn’t ring true.

To my mind, it’s much easier to believe Carson’s little narrative never happen, or at least that it didn't happen the way he "remembers" it. It's called stretching the truth, and many a public figure has been caught out doing it (see Brian Williams, Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, etc.). 

Now, of course, a narrative doesn’t have to be true to be “true”. I went to Sunday School enough to know that Jesus supposedly told many stories that were not likely true, but had a moral point to them. I’m talking about parables, such as the Parable of the Talents, which apparently illustrates the moral of compounding interest rates and investing through the tale of a servant who came to ruin by burying money in the ground rather than plowing it back into the economy. (The same moral was put to music in “Mary Poppins”, though in that case it was portrayed in a negative light compared to the simple joy of “feeding the birds”).

Maybe Ben Carson sees his Popeye’s story as a parable, not factually true, but serving a larger purpose. The trouble with that generous interpretation is the moral to Carson’s story can be summed up this way: “When faced with a dangerous criminal, it’s best to redirect the danger away from yourself towards someone else.” The Parable of the Selfish Non-hero?

It’s baffling why someone running for president would trot out such an unflattering story, even if it were true, especially if it were true. Maybe he really believes it. Or maybe he sees no reason to let reality stand in the way of a good story, even if the story's not truly that good.  

Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Honoring Tater Patch

This summer, President Barack Obama made a much-publicized trip to Alaska, during which he emphasized the effects of climate change on the state. In addition to photo ops involving glacial backdrops and face-to-face meetings with native Alaskans on the verge of losing their village to rising sea levels, Obama’s trip took him above the Arctic Circle, making him the first sitting US president to venture so far north.

Obama also attended an international conference named GLACIER, as in “Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience”. Kudos to the PR person who managed to make that cumbersome acronym work. Mostly.

The GLACIER conference agenda reads like a workshop for high-level bureaucrats, which it kind of was. I was a bit surprised to see on the evening news Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini hosting one of the GLACIER panels. But, of course, that does make sense, as Finland is in that select group of eight nations with territory within the Arctic Circle, or as they say in Finnish, Napapiiri.

Still, it seems that the thing that got the most attention in the US during Obama’s trip was the announcement just before the trip that he was renaming the highest mountain in North America.

It was amusing to see how some American conservatives fell over themselves to complain about the move, though this act by the Obama administration has, in fact, long been desired by the people of Alaska, Democrats and Republicans alike.

The mountain previously known as McKinley.
Courtesy the National Park Service

Denali, as the mountain has traditionally been called locally (and will now be known officially nationwide), was given the name Mt. McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector who was a supporter of presidential candidate William McKinley. The prospector favored McKinley’s strong position on the gold standard (as any self-respecting gold prospector would), so his christening of the mountain was a bald-faced act of branding for political purposes. The name caught on, however, especially after McKinley was assassinated in 1901. 

Caught on, that is, except in Alaska, were locals have reportedly always referred to the mountain as Denali, its name in one of the local indigenous languages. Since 1975, the State of Alaska has lobbied the federal government to change the name, but politicians from McKinley’s home state of Ohio have successfully prevented any such “disrespecting” of their native son. It is the very essence of petty politics.

Anyway, this whole episode brought to mind something I read recently, something much closer to home than Denali.

I have a book about the history of my home county in Georgia, published in 1965 by George Gordon Ward, the husband of my second grade teacher. The book is not a straightforward history, as such, though at some 600 pages it is in many ways a comprehensive one. It consists of a sometimes randomly organized collection of interesting bits and pieces about Gilmer County and the people who lived there in the past. As the author was also something of a small-town “booster” with an eye toward advancing the county’s prosperity and economic progress, he even included in his book some suggestions for improving the county’s image. One such suggestion was the renaming of a mountain.

Mr. Ward felt that some of the local mountains had decidedly hillbilly-sounding names that reflected poorly on the up-and-coming prospects of a county like Gilmer. As he saw it, "some of these early-day designations were temporarily applied by pioneers as a joke or without thought the names would stick." Sounds a bit like how Mt. McKinley got its name. 

As an example of an "absurd" pioneer-era name, he singled out "Tater Patch", as locals usually refer to Potatopatch Mountain, a high ridge dominating the horizon north of my teenage home. For this 3560-foot (1085m) knob on the edge of the present-day Cohutta Wilderness area, Mr. Ward proposed the more respectable name of “Mount Ivan Allen”, in honor a prominent Georgian at the time. 

Tater Patch Mountain, the ridge line to the right in this photo.

Reading about this long-forgotten proposal-in-passing made me cringe a bit. While someone bearing the name Ivan Allen had been active in public life in Georgia for some 70 years, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the name, even now, is office supplies. As in paper, pencils and desks.

The company founded by and named after Ivan Allen was an Atlanta institution, I guess, and well-known far beyond the city. In my youth, the company’s adverts reached across North Georgia, though perhaps not quite as far as the secluded and forested summit of Tater Patch. At least, they must have stuck with me somehow.

When I ran across our homegrown historian’s suggestion of assigning Allen’s name to natural spot I remember well, it struck me as very wrong. For my taste, the Allen’s name reeked too much of commercialism to deserve being honored in that way. 

As I researched (read, "Googled") Allen's background, I learned that he was quite the civil booster himself, active in service organizations and writing booklets promoting business in Atlanta. He also donated land that he owned on a mountaintop near my home for the creation of Fort Mountain State Park, a recreation area I have a long history with. This act of charity is probably what prompted our homegrown historian to think of bestowing Allen's name on a different, but (as he felt) poorly named, mountain nearby. 

So ingrained was the name of the Ivan Allen Company in my mind that I didn’t even remember that Ivan Allen's son, Ivan Junior, had been a leading light in his own right during my childhood and a two-term mayor of the big city a couple of hours south of my birthplace. Obviously, I didn't follow the news a lot back then. 

I have now come to realize how progressive, for the times, Ivan Junior was as mayor. He evolved from his early segregationist leanings to embrace civil rights in a sincere way and ushered in a relatively smooth racial transition for Atlanta during the turbulent 60s. He was even asked by President Kennedy to advise Congress on the creation of what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

He deserves recognition for, if nothing else, defeating the hard-core segregationist politician (and Georgia’s best-known embarrassment) Lester Maddox, who was then also running for mayor of Atlanta. Sadly, Maddox went on to become governor. My hometown, to its discredit in my mind, named a prominent street after Maddox.

Still, despite gaining some long-overdue appreciation for the legacy of the Ivan Allen name, especially Allen the Younger, I’m grateful that Mr. Ward's notion of changing the local map never caught on. I still prefer “Tater Patch”, a fine name just as it is. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Born in the USA

I admit it, I’m obsessed with Donald Trump, a man I detest so much that I’ve been known to switch channels the instant he appears on TV. Sadly this summer, avoiding him hasn’t been that easy. This does not bode well for the rest of the 2016 presidential campaign.

To say that Trump is breaking new ground in American politics would be stating the obvious which, unfortunately, has never deterred me before. He seems to possess some kind of weird animal magnetism borne from his giving voice, a brash and loud voice, to what is apparently a gigantic level of anti-immigrant sentiment in the US. Folks say he’s “tapping into” the anger some Americans, and I'm mostly thinking Tea Party types here, have over the approximately 11 million illegal aliens (or undocumented immigrants, pick your terminology) living in the US. I think it’s more like he’s exploiting that anger.

Anyway, with a substantial lead in the polls, this seems to be working for Trump. In the process, he is also forcing the other Republican candidates to ante up and match his more extreme opinions on immigration. Again, this does not bode well.

One of the Trump talking points now on everyone’s lips is “birthright citizenship”. This is a natural fixation for Trump, since it combines his interest in scapegoating illegal immigrants with his hobby of ferreting out who is and isn’t a citizen, at least when it comes to Barack Obama. Trump is, after all, a bona fide Birther, somehow convinced that Obama is not really an American because (in the alternate world of Birtherism) he was "born in Kenya". It would be sad if it weren't so idiotic. 

Birthright citizenship, currently the target of Trump's voluminous ire, is the legal right, enshrined in the Constitution no less, that grants US citizenship to anyone born on US soil. This means anyone, even if their parents are not US citizens and had barely set foot in America before going into labor.

Such jus soli ("right of the soil") basis for citizenship is typical in countries of the New World, no doubt due to the fact that they are all nations made up entirely of migrants, except for that minuscule slice of Americans, both North and South, able to trace their birthright back to the closing of the Bering Land Bridge some 11,000 years ago.

Jus soli is how I got my US citizenship. Or, at least, that’s my layman's legal interpretation of it.

The entire basis of me being an American is my birth certificate, a piece of paper that says I was born in a little town in Georgia. This was my only evidence of citizenship until 26 years later when I got my US passport – which was issued solely based on, wait for it, my birth certificate.

It was immaterial whether my parents were Americans. I assume no one at the hospital, or later at the county courthouse, demanded to see my parents’ proof of citizenship. I doubt my parents had any such proof anyway, other than, again, their own birth certificates. In any case, it didn’t matter what nationality my parents were. The fact that I was born within the borders of the US was enough.

It’s different back here in the Old World – the source, over the last five centuries, of the migrants “swarming” (to use David Cameron's term) to the Americas in hope of a better life. Citizenship in Europe has traditionally been based mostly on the jus sanguinis principle, that is, the “right of blood”. You were a German or a Finn at birth because your parents were Germans or Finns, irrespective of your birthplace. My children are Finns, not because they were born in Helsinki, but because their mother is Finnish. It’s all about the blood ties.

Sometimes, those ties can be surprisingly wide ranging. Finland recognizes a “right of return” for ethnic Finns, which means Finnish-speakers in Russia who for generations have never lived anywhere else can be fast-tracked for citizenship here simply thanks to their bloodline, while a child born in Helsinki to two Russian citizens will be a foreigner.

Of course, countries are free to define citizenship any way they want. In addition to birthright citizenship, the US also recognizes a form of jus sanguinis citizenship by allowing Americans to claim US citizenship for their children born abroad. That’s how my kids became American.

A few European countries even practice a form of birthright citizenship. France, for example, grants automatic citizenship to second-generation immigrants. Germany has since 2000 granted Staatsbürgerschaft to the children of foreign residents who meet certain conditions (one of which, I presume, would be the ability to actually spell "Staatsbürgerschaft").

And, some countries do make the kind of radical changes to citizenship criteria that Donald Trump is now envisioning.

The Dominican Republic ended birthright citizenship in 2004, which, as I say, it is free to do. However, the Caribbean country went a major step further by recently making the change retroactive. Suddenly, upwards of 200,000 Dominican citizens of Haitian descent became stateless, instantly being turned into undocumented foreigners in the only country they’ve ever known.  

I doubt (or at least fervently hope) that even if Donald Trump gets his wish and the US revokes birthright citizenship, it doesn’t go as far as the Dominican Republic. Interestingly though, such a retroactive move could strip one prominent Republican presidential hopeful of his citizenship. Marco Rubio was born on American soil, but to Cuban immigrants. While it has to be said that Rubio's parents were in the US legally, I still have to wonder whether he falls into the category of "anchor baby" that conservatives rail against so much.

I’m not sure what affect Trump’s proposal would have on another GOP presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, who came by his US citizenship in the same way as my children did.

Cruz was born in Canada, and he’s a US citizen solely thanks to his American mother. His father, a Cuban, wasn’t a citizen at the time, but that doesn’t matter, since you need only one American parent to become an American yourself. Ironically, Cruz also had Canadian citizenship until recently, since birthright citizenship is also a thing north of the border. Apparently, Cruz wasn’t even aware of his dual citizenship status until someone pointed it out a couple years ago after he became a rising star of the Tea Party. I have no idea whether Cruz could also claim Cuban citizenship through his father, but obviously that's not something he's eager to do.

And even more ironic, the circumstances of Cruz’s birth (born in a foreign land to a foreign father and an American mother) is exactly the same as Barack Obama’s back story would have been if he had, in fact, been born in Kenya, and not Hawaii. It’s that mythical Kenyan birth that many “Birthers” believe disqualifies Obama to be president. Tellingly, none of them is making the same claim about Cruz, not even the most famous Birther of them all, Donald J. Trump.

Trump is, after all, pretty heavily invested in the Birther Myth. In 2011, the last time he threatened to run for president, Trump dispatched, to great fanfare, a crack team of private investigators to Hawaii to dig up evidence that Obama was NOT born there.

Those super sleuths must still be there four years on, still searching for clues, since Trump has never revealed the outcome of that investigation, though he did claim at some point that his investigators “couldn’t believe” what they had uncovered so far.

In fact, “unbelievable” is just the word that comes to mind when I think of anything to do with Donald Trump, and his take on American citizenship. Just unbelievable.

Friday, August 28, 2015

It's a Pieni Maailma After All

One day this week I was at the summer cabin we’ve been building about an hour east of Helsinki, trying to apply another coat of paint to the log walls before the last of the precious warm, summery weather completely evaporates.

It’s usually very quiet there on the shore of our sheltered bay, far from a paved road, surrounded by forest, with just the sound of birds, or an occasional boat or airplane passing by, or children playing on the opposite shore.

At one point, as I swiped the paintbrush back and forth over the wood, I noticed a faint, percussion-like sound in the distance behind me. At first, I took it for the sound of blasting, like someone dynamiting granite bedrock at some construction site. But this sound was sharper than that type of rumbling explosion. And it continued for a while, rhythmically, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

I had a fleeting thought that it could have been a Finnish navy ship somewhere in the open Baltic to the south, firing its guns in some sort of war exercise. That would be extraordinary, to say the least. I have no idea if those kinds of exercises ever take place.

Then I realized it probably could have been Santahamina, the sprawling military base occupying an island just offshore from Helsinki.

A few years ago, during my son's compulsory army service, I undertook an almost weekly ritual of driving over a small drawbridge to the gates of Santahamina on Friday evenings to pick him up for his weekend leaves. It’s surely a place well known to many young men (and a few young women) in this part of Finland. As Santahamina is practically just another suburb, Helsinki residents can sometimes easily hear the boom of artillery practice on the island. And since it’s just a little under 25 kilometers (15 miles) from our cabin, as a seagull flies, I decided that this must be the origin of the dull, thumping sound I was hearing.

And with that thought, an old memory stirred, a reminder of how small the world can sometimes be.

In the early 1980s, I lived a couple of years in a basement apartment in an antebellum house in Athens, Georgia. “Antebellum” in this case meaning a house predating the American Civil War of the 1860s. In fact, it was a registered national landmark of some kind, although unlike the finer southern mansions elsewhere in Athens, this house was badly rundown, almost decrepit, in a relatively seedy part of town, behind the bus station. It was musty and infested with cockroaches, but was cheap – the monthly rent was a mere $75 – and it suited a certain bohemian lifestyle I envisioned for myself at the time.

As it happened, the person living in the (hopefully less decrepit) apartment above me was someone I was acquainted with from Young Harris, the junior college in north Georgia I had attended a few years earlier. That’s not so surprising, since many of my classmates from Young Harris had gravitated to the University of Georgia upon graduating, and Athens wasn’t such a big town. Still, it was a coincidence. 

Charles was older than me, and actually maybe more of an artist than a student. At Young Harris, he had been a director of one of the men’s dorms, more mature than us 18-year-old freshmen.  

When later, as fellow tenants in a crumbling Athens landmark, I introduced Charles to my future wife, he was intrigued to hear she was from Finland, and happy to share an unexpected memory with us.

It seems that as a young child, Charles had lived in Helsinki. What are the odds of that? It is a small world, after all.

This would have been in the late 50s, early 60s, a time when Finland was even further off the beaten path than when I arrived some twenty years later and was an even more unlikely a place for someone from Georgia to end up.

The explanation was that Charles’ father, an officer in the US military, had been stationed to Finland in some capacity, perhaps in connection with the American Embassy, no doubt a plum assignment at the time, as Helsinki lay only some 40 miles from the Soviet Union.

Whether or not Charles had any other early memories from Helsinki, the one thing he did mention was hearing the booms of artillery from his home there. 

My future wife knew immediately where that had come from, the only place it could have come from:  Santahamina, which even today occasionally emits – from the edge of a peaceful, even sleepy, capital city – war-like sounds that can be heard miles away by random, misplaced Georgians. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015


Once, when I was a kid, we had a visit from the family of my mother’s uncle, a preacher who at the time was living in Macon, Georgia. For some reason, we decided to take them, including his mostly grown sons (my first cousins once removed) on a little excursion to one of our favorite spots in the foothills of the Cohutta Mountains, a place called Bear Creek, a place I’ve taken my own children many times for picnicking during summer visits back to the States. 

I only remember this little outing because, as we walked along the graveled Forest Service road deep in the woods, my brother, sister and I spotted some ripe blackberries growing on the sunny slope of the road bank. We immediately started helping ourselves to the berries, while our city cousins looked on, almost regarding us as feral children, wild people of the mountains. At least they declined to join in the berry picking themselves.

I thought of this earlier this summer when my wife and I were walking along a similarly graveled road near the little sauna-cabin we’ve been building not far from Helsinki. We spotted some ripe wild strawberries (metsämansikoita, or “forest strawberries”) on the side of the road and started sampling them. No one passing by would have batted an eye at this. 

Foraging for wild food like this is extremely typical in Finland, and one of the local customs that unexpectedly echoes a familiar way of life in faraway North Georgia. 

In the past few weeks, all along the road to our cabin we have been seeing cars parked in every little pullout or side road, a sign that the blueberry- and mushroom-picking season is well underway. With the summer so cool and rainy this year, everyone is expecting the season will be exceptionally good, and in fact we’ve already found keltavahvero (chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius) in places where you don’t normally see them. I didn't grow up foraging for fungi in Georgia, and I'm far from being an expert. Even now, chanterelles, along with suppilovahvero (winter mushroom, Cantharellus tubaeformis), are the only ones I can safely identify by myself.

My first haul of suppilovahvero, winter mushrooms.

Growing up in Georgia, we didn’t really do much foraging for blueberries, either. What we did go after was blackberries. I remember our whole family, donning boots and long-sleeve shirts in the middle of the sultry Georgia summer heat to wade chest-deep into a thicket of blackberry vines (as we called them), an almost impenetrable tangle of thorns. It was worth it. My mother would turn our haul of fruit into jellies and jams and usually more than a few blackberry cobblers that I can still almost taste.

Blackberries (called karhunvatukka, “bear raspberry”) don’t grow wild in Finland, but their cousin, the raspberries, do. The converse is true in North Georgia – raspberries are the less common of the two, as I recall.

The woods where I grew up didn’t off much in the way of blueberries. There was something we called “huckleberries”, growing low to the ground and bearing tiny, round fruit full of gritty seeds. They were probably poor specimens of what the British call “bilberries” (Vaccinium myrtillus) and basically the same thing as Finnish blueberries, only apparently not as well suited to the habitats of Georgia.

The “huckleberries” we knew as kids weren’t very good or abundant, and reaching down to pick them at ground level seemed a risky proposition in the snaky country I grew up in. It was therefore a revelation when we discovered a higher alternative.

It was on a short hike with our parents one summer day to the summit of Springer Mountain (3780 ft., 1150m), the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, literally at the very edge of my home county. On the approach trail, we noticed blueberry bushes, not at ankle level, but five feet or more in height. And they were full of large, tasty berries.

Although spending a lifetime in the woods, we’d never run across these “high-bush” blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) before, and maybe they’re not all that common in Georgia anyway. We only ever encountered them in the cooler, open forests of the state’s higher ridge tops, a fairly limited environment after all.

The much more mountainous landscape of western North Carolina is another matter, however. I used to go hiking regularly in a slice of that landscape called Shining Rock, a federally protected wilderness area of stark, 6000-foot peaks that are mostly bare of the dense forests more typical of the Appalachians. The scenery there is much more “western”, completely out of place in the Southeast.

Often on the way to Shining Rock, I would stop at a spot along the Blue Ridge Parkway where a slope of brush and grass, interspersed here and there with clumps of trees, rises gradually from a high-country stream. This place, Graveyard Fields, already a bit magical and mysterious, was also rampant with high-bush blueberries.

When the berries were ripe, the “fields” would be filled with Cherokees, from the small reservation nestled next to the Smokies, foraging no doubt in the manner of their ancestors.

You might think the berries there would also be a big draw for foraging bears. I never saw one in Graveyard Fields itself, though I know of at least one instance in which a bear got a taste of its berries.

This was on a camping trip with my parents along the Parkway one summer. We had picked some berries at Graveyard Fields that day, and my mother had used them to whip up a pie back at our campsite. Since we weren’t able to finish the pie before bedtime, we put the rest in an ice chest, which we (unwisely) left sitting on the tailgate of our truck. It didn’t sit there unnoticed for long. We awoke in the night to the sound of the ice chest crashing to the ground and a bear devouring what was left of the berry pie.

I haven’t heard of any encounters between people and bears in Finland over blueberries, but the competition between human foragers can sometimes get tense, as well, despite the fact that Finland's "everyman's rights" allow anyone to pick berries anywhere they please, including private land.

Last month, a popular tabloid asked its readers to share stories of the altercations they have experienced with other berry pickers. The resulting examples of marjaraivo ("berry rage") included tales of pickers being threatened by dogs, tractors, and a red-faced old lady, and in one instance the air being let out of a berry picker’s tires.

Normally, foraging competition is limited to keeping your favorite mushroom-picking spots a closely held secret, especially when it comes to the highly prized keltavahvero

Chanterelles from the Finnish forest.

(My parents exercised the same kind of secrecy when it came to the locations of ginseng, a slightly different kind of wild forest product that they loved to search for in the mountains of Georgia.)

Showing off the harvest from your undisclosed mushroom location on social media, is of course extremely typical. In summer, photos by Finnish friends of basketfuls of chanterelles or buckets of blueberries appear on my Facebook feed with the kind of regularity that American friends post memes praising Jesus. Foraging is that central to the Finnish way of life.

I once took an advanced Finnish-language course designed for immigrants to the country. In addition to grammar lessons, there were outings arranged with the purpose of introducing us foreigners to various aspects of Finnish life and culture. These included a visit to a Baltic herring festival, tours of a couple of national museums and, of course, a mushroom picking expedition.

Our little class assembled one autumn morning in Paloheinä, part of Helsinki’s Keskuspuisto (“Central Park”). Before we got started, our teacher briefly instructed us on which mushrooms were easily identifiable as safe, and which were obviously ones to avoid. She stressed that if there was any doubt, we should first check with her before picking something. 
Most of the class, those students from Algeria, Vietnam, Bangladesh and other such exotic places, stuck pretty close to the teacher as we combed the forest floor for edible fungi. I did likewise, since, even after over two decades of living here, mushroom picking is one aspect of Finnish culture this American has not yet managed to pick up.

One group of students, however, immediately disappeared, spreading out into the forest mostly on their own. The Russians. Well, the Russian-speakers, that is, which included Russians, Ukrainians, and one Azerbaijani. If there was one thing they required absolutely no help in, it was mushroom picking.

If anything, our boreal neighbors in Russia are even more dye-in-the-wool mushroom pickers than Finns are. I guess it’s one of those cultural things that transcends borders and languages when there are tasty things growing in the forest well worth foraging for. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Forsyth County

Finland has seen some unusually prominent political demonstrations recently over the question of immigration, including a massive peaceful pro-multiculturalism rally in Helsinki’s Senate Square and a neo-Nazi gathering in Jyväskylä that resulted in some violence.

I’m hoping to write more about those events soon, but since I had almost finished this post on a conveniently related topic, perhaps I’ll get this one out of the way first.

Almost thirty years ago, I marched in what amounted to the only political demonstration I’ve ever taken part in. I even hesitate to use the word “march”, since to my ear that sounds far too self-important. Let’s just say I showed up.

I wasn’t an especially political person in my youth. The part of rural north Georgia I was from was not exactly a hotbed of political activism in those days. I think the status quo was just fine for most folks in my solidly conservative and God-fearing county. There wasn’t lot of diversity of opinion there when it came to the biggest political issues of the day, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. I think it’s safe to say that most residents supported the former and were at best uneasy about the latter.

In high school, the only overtly political act I engaged in was at a public hearing held in my hometown to gather “public comment” about a new four-lane highway to be built between Atlanta and North Carolina. As I recall, there were five proposed routes the highway could have taken through the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I felt that at least one or two of them would devastate some beautiful, mostly secluded mountain landscape.

At the well-attended hearing in our old county courthouse one evening, I took my turn to stand before a microphone and briefly, and no-doubt awkwardly, expressed my opinion about which of those alternative routes should be rejected outright, mainly the one through Neels Gap, a high saddle along the Appalachian Trail. I thank God, or whomever, that there is no recording of my statement.

For what it’s worth, that four-lane highway was eventually routed through my own hometown, the least disruptive option really, so in a sense, my side won.

Also while at college in Athens, I don't recall there being any major student protests on the University of Georgia campus, where a diversity of opinions certainly could be found, as well as the kind of young, energetic, sometimes idealistic, student body that is tailor-made for political activism. If there had been some massive exercise of the right of assembly while I was there, other than for a football game, of course, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

Much later, after living abroad in Finland for a few years, I was again a resident of Athens, this time studying journalism, when an unexpected event occurred that harkened back to the civil rights movement of two decades earlier. That event occurred in Forsyth County.

Forsyth is a little county occupying some rolling countryside about halfway between Atlanta and the mountains of North Georgia, a county with a tainted history I had never heard about, despite growing up only two counties away.  

In truth, I didn’t know much about Forsyth at all. We never had much reason to go there. Cumming, the county seat, was not on the way to anywhere we ever went, though I have driven Highway 53 across the northeast corner of the county on innumerable trips back and forth between home and Athens – genteel enough wooded countryside that in a sense camouflages some truly horrible violence from over a hundred years ago.

In 1912, Forsyth County was the scene of some of the most explosive racial trouble to take place in the Jim Crow South. Within a week of each other, two women, both white, were assaulted by black men. Now, whether they were actually assaulted – and one certainly was – is almost beside the point, given the racial tilt of the criminal justice system in the South at the time (and arguably even today). The perception of assault was proof enough for the local white population.

In the first incident, it might have actually been only a case of attempted rape. Race relations being what they were, however, this was sufficient to stoke tensions to the point where white vigilantes patrolled the streets of Cumming, a local black preacher was nearly beaten to death for making disparaging comments about the white victim, and the National Guard was called out to maintain the peace.

The incident that quickly followed the first one was much more serious, resulting in the murder and alleged rape of a second young white woman. Two days later, a mob of townspeople dragged one of the suspects (just an accomplice, not even the alleged murderer) from the county jail, shot and then hung him from a telephone pole in the middle of town, no doubt to the great satisfaction of many of the white citizens.

The other suspects escaped mob “justice” only by being shuttled off to more secure jails in Atlanta.

The white mobs of Forsyth were not done, however. In the months that followed, practically every one of the thousand or so black people living in the county (about 10% of the population) were driven away, often forced to sell or even outright abandon their lands and homes. It was probably the biggest single example of ethnic cleansing to take place in Georgia since the Removal of the Cherokees.

By the 1980s, there were still practically no blacks living in the county, despite the fact that the urban spread of metro Atlanta had almost reached the southern borders of rural Forsyth. The county’s reputation as an unfriendly place for African-Americans had not been diminished in the least.

Presumably, to highlight this lack of racial progress in a county holding such a fateful place in Georgia black history and to commemorate the original violent banishment of the black population, Georgia civil rights leaders decided in 1987 to hold a demonstration in Cumming.

The rally on January 17 was not a huge affair. Fewer than a hundred marchers gathered there. I can’t recall much prior publicity surrounding it, if any. I suspect that, like many others, I hadn’t noticed anything in the news about such a demonstration about to take place. By 1987, that sort of thing seemed mostly out of date, Page Two sort of stuff, you could say.

That changed quickly. The small group of marchers, led by Hosea Williams, was met by a counterdemonstration that included elements of the Klu Klux Klan. Rocks and bottles were thrown, and some of the marchers sustained small injuries. Eight counterdemonstrators were arrested.

The specter of peaceful civil rights protesters being pelted by bottles, almost a quarter of century after Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, captured the attention of folks well beyond a core of civil rights activists. It sparked outrage with the wider public, and rightly so.

A week later, a second march took place in Cumming, following a mounting wave of publicity. I felt I had to be part of it.

I confess that part of me felt this was a chance to get a taste of the civil protesting of the Sixties that I had been too young to appreciate at the time. But mainly I felt ashamed of what had just taken place in Cumming, where thickheaded throwbacks to Georgia’s segregationist past had tried to revive their bigoted ideology in the crudest fashion. I wanted to help show the rest of the world that Georgia wasn’t like that anymore. Looking back, maybe I was too quick to be so optimistic.

On that chilly, sunny Saturday morning, my housemates and I gathered with other Athenians in front of the El Dorado vegetarian restaurant on Washington Street. Whether by design or coincidence, this was also the location of the Morton Building, which was built in 1910 as home to one of America’s first black vaudeville theaters.

Someone laid some old bed sheets on the sidewalk and painted some slogans on them as makeshift banners. We then drove to Cumming, joining the other demonstrators at a little shopping center on the edge of town, to wait our turn to begin a slow mile-and-a-quarter walk to the Forsyth County courthouse. There were some 20,000 of us.

I can’t say I remember many details from the march itself, but a couple of things do still stand out in my mind. One was the wall of National Guardsmen in riot gear lining both sides of the road along the entire route. They were part of the reported 1,700 troops sent, along with some 500 police of different sorts, to prevent violence.

I recall that they were arrayed with their backs toward us marchers. It wasn’t us they were keeping their eyes on, it was the counter-protesters. And there were some of those to be sure. Here and there, on the other side of the phalanx of National Guardsmen, were pockets of outwardly hostile people, shouting at us, though they were no doubt a bit subdued by the overwhelming presence of the police and troops. At least, there was nothing thrown.

There were, of course, some people just watching. I remember one young man standing alone on the road bank, watching the flood of outsiders filing into his hometown. He was wearing a watch cap and sunglasses. He had a big piece of duct tape prominently covering his mouth, and he held a handwritten sign that said, “I have to live here”. The message was clear.

Some of the other onlookers, standing on their front lawns or porches, reminded me of people I knew from my own home county of Gilmer, which was also an all-white county (if that status has been due to a Forsyth-like banishment of blacks, I’ve never heard about it, but I can’t be sure).

Many of these locals seemed to be basic country folks, people that I saw as ordinary, mostly decent people. I felt they weren’t bad people, but just out of step with the times. Watching them watching us, I couldn’t help thinking that they were in shock over the immense public display taking place in what they probably considered to be a town just fine the way it was.

And the public display was immense, with the thousands of marchers and police, helicopters flying overhead, Oprah Winfrey supposedly broadcasting from a restaurant somewhere in town, leading national figures like Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, and presidential candidate Gary Hart giving speeches from the courthouse. The march certainly overwhelmed the sleepy little town, and I’m sure it blindsided the people living there. I felt they couldn’t comprehend why such a thing would happen. They just didn’t get it.

I didn’t necessarily see those individuals, watching from their lawns in stunned silence, as racists. And I had no reason, just by virtual of the fact that they lived there, to think they were. At least, not overtly so.

Nor did I necessarily see them as supporters of the hateful white-supremacists counter-demonstrators – many of whom, after all, had come from elsewhere, just we marchers had.

I had a bit of sympathy for them. Cumming, partly due to its history and partly due to its present, had suddenly become a focal point, a magnet of sorts, for the changing racial currents of America circa 1987, changes that were unstoppable and needed to happen. These folks, ensconced in a parochial, small-town bubble, were simply in no way prepared for those changes, as I saw it, though you could argue they should have been.

They were caught off guard, a bit like a deer in the headlights, at the magnitude of the change that was about to overtake them as. Despite their stubborn wishes for it not to be so, the world was continuing to turn and society was continuing to progress. I thought that for many of them, their biggest fault was only an inability to accept change.

Now, thirty years later, after seeing the recent furious uproar in support of the Confederate Battle Flag, which in my mind can only be seen as a symbol of racial hate, it’s obvious that resistance to change in the South is more entrenched than I would have ever imagined, at least when it comes to race. Not that much has changed. Even now, only about 3% of Forsyth County is black, compared to 26% in adjacent Gwinnett County. Race relations seem as fraught as ever, not only in the South, but all over the country, as witnessed by the Black Lives Matter movement, born almost exactly a year ago.

If I thought in 1987 that Forsyth County was an aberration in an increasingly progressive, modern Georgia, I’m thinking now I was wrong.