Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Three weeks ago, the spate of wildfires that had plagued the Southern Appalachians for over a month took an especially tragic turn when one of them struck the resort town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

The various fires in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina had already burned a significant amount of forest land, produced a lot of aggravating smoke, and even forced a few small communities to take the precaution of evacuating, but as far as I know had not previously destroyed structures or taken human lives.

That changed with the Chimney Tops 2 fire, so named because it was the second wildfire to originate at Chimney Tops, a prominent pinnacle shaped mountain. It swept down the western slopes of the Smoky Mountains on the back of 80-mph (130-kph) gusts of wind and devastated parts of Gatlinburg and its surroundings, incinerating or damaging some 1600 buildings and leaving at least 14 people dead.

It seemed unimaginable that the normally damp, even soggy, Smoky Mountains could spawn a blaze big enough and wild enough to ravage an entire town. (Those mountains get their name not from smoke, but rather from fog and mist.) But it did, thanks to unprecedented drought conditions in the Southeast. In the wake of the fire, Gatlinburg and the national park that is the town’s lifeblood were mostly closed to the public for over a week, also highly unprecedented.

More than any of the almost yearly big wildfires typical of the American West, this tragedy hit home for me, since I have a long, intimate history with that part of Tennessee.

Unlike the world-famous Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks, the Great Smoky Mountains park, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina state line and is a little smaller than Lapland’s Urho Kekkosen Kansallispuisto, probably isn’t familiar to folks in Finland.

Yet it is the most-visited park in the United States, a destination for some nine million tourists, picnickers, campers, hikers, or mere sightseers every year. Luckily, for the sake of the park’s endless wild spaces, the majority of this vast horde of people never ventures more than a few steps from their cars, leaving most of the park untouched by humans.

Most of this recreational car traffic moves over the Newfound Gap Road, a two-lane highway that cuts the park in half as it crosses over the spine of the Smoky Mountain range. At either end of this winding 34-mile (55-kilometer) road lies two tourist towns hugging the very edge of the park boundaries.

The one on the east, Cherokee, North Carolina, within the Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation, always had a tacky feel to it, at least when I was a kid. Along the main street fronted by cheap souvenir shops, you could see black bears in cages and local Cherokee men oddly decked out in Plains Indian war bonnets, all for the sake of attracting and amusing tourists. There was an atmosphere of a carnival midway. 

(This made Cherokee the perfect setting, I guess, for the final scenes of German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s iconic movie “Stroszek”, which weirdly enough includes an arcade chicken dancing to corny music.)

On the other hand, Gatlinburg, at the other end of the Newfound Gap road, to me always had a more up-scale vibe to it, though the town (with a current population of about 4000, about the same as Lapland's Ivalo) did exhibit some symptoms of a tourist trap, such as a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum. 

My first visit there was when I was very young, maybe just a new-born. According to family lore, my parents had such a hard time finding a place to stay that they finally had to settle for a motel so run-down you could see the stars through the holes in the roof.

Things were a bit more prosperous there when I started making my own visits, back in high school and college, and my memories of the place are all good. By that time, my buddies and I were making epic hiking trips in the Smokies, in summer but later also in winter. At the end of some of the winter trips, after a few nights sleeping in tents in below-freezing temperatures, we would drive down to Gatlinburg to check into a motel.

Having just finished walking in the woods for a few days, once in Gatlinburg we naturally switched gears and spent our time walking around the town. I remember wandering around little pedestrian alleyways, deserted, the shops closed, the cold nighttime air filled with music, probably Christmas music, piped in through hidden speakers. It was a nice solitary atmosphere.

I also remember driving into Gatlinburg on a rainy night at the end of December. After coming down the mountain, enveloped in the deep blackness of dense woods in every direction, we ran -- with almost no warning -- headlong into the blaring lights of the bustling resort town. It was startling. Since I wasn’t used to driving at night in unfamiliar places, I found it a bit nerve-wracking cruising down the street, the pavement wet and glistening in the confusion of lights, from traffic and shops, all the while keeping an eye out through the rain for tourists on the verge of stepping off the curb. It was in many ways a premonition of what driving is like in Helsinki in the depths of a November night, still unpleasant.

On that night, New Year’s Eve 1974, we hunkered down in our motel, and celebrated “camping-style”. We set up our little, Swedish-made Svea 123 hiking stove (I still have it!) on top of the motel-room cabinet and fired the thing up (talk about fire hazards) so we could boil tea water and make hot rum toddies. They put us in a holiday spirit, for sure.

By the next morning, temperatures had dropped and the streets of Gatlinburg were covered in a treacherous layer of ice. We put the tire chains on my father’s pick-up truck and left town heading downstream toward Pigeon Forge. As there was no way we were going to risk going back across the mountain, we had no choice but to return to Georgia along the around-about, low-land route. Somehow when I think back on that morning, I always hear in my mind Linda Ronstadt singing a plaintive song, something that must have been playing on the radio as we left.

A year or two later, we started making yearly family trips to Gatlinburg to ski at the nearby ski area, almost 1500 feet (460 meters) above town, called Ober Gatlinburg. Naturally. Underlining the European feel evoked by that Germanized name, the resort operates a giant aerial tramway, like you find in the Alps, that would take us directly from Gatlinburg’s main street up to the ski lodge. Our parents weren’t skiers themselves (far from it), but they were happy to indulge their children by arranging what became a family holiday tradition, one that I still have fond memories of.

Since those long-ago family trips, I’ve been to Gatlinburg only once or twice, the last time in 2001 with my own kids. We mostly just passed through. On a trip to Georgia last year, I could have visited the Smokies, driven over Newfound Gap and dropped into to Gatlinburg to get reacquainted.

But I didn’t, and now I regret that. If I ever get back there, even if it’s years from now, I’m afraid it will still feel forever changed by a tragic wildfire that no one expected. 

Gatlinburg, before the recent fire.
Photo: Bilnutne

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Chinese Wildfire Hoax

Friends and family back in Georgia have been dealing lately with something out of the ordinary and outside my own experience -- a series of big wildfires scattered all across the Southern Appalachian mountains. One of the fires, the Rough Ridge fire in the Cohutta Mountains, is said to be perhaps the largest in North Georgia's history. I've seen satellite images of smoke covering the northernmost third of the state, reaching down to Atlanta and Athens. It seems a bit unreal.

If it's the same Rough Ridge area that I once went camping with my father and brother, then it is some very rugged terrain firefighters have having to contend with.

Of course, in the heavily wooded mountains of Georgia and North Carolina, there have always been the occasional forest fire, though none from the past that really stand out in my mind.

Back in the days when my father was young, there was the habit of burning off the underbrush in the mountains in springtime, all the better for the grazing cattle that farmers let range freely during the summer. But that practice ended long before I was born.

As a kid, I can recall seeing just one wildfire, from a distance at night. It formed a crooked orange line in the dark as it burned on the side of Talona Mountain (which we called Reed Mountain, for some reason), an isolated "monadnock" that rose within easy viewing distance of my family's home.

And when I was in college at Young Harris, essentially at the base of Brasstown Bald, Georgia's highest peak, there was once a fire somewhere in the area. It was serious enough that the Forest Service asked for students to volunteer to help with the fire fighting. My classes wouldn't allow me to join, but some of my friends did and came back to school at the end of the day sooty and looking a bit exhilarated. I did envy them for the experience.

In any case, never when I was living in Georgia would there be so many fires burning at the same time, especially in November. Typically, autumns were coolish, and a bit wet, not what I would think of as fire season. 

The photos and reports that I'm seeing now seems like a smaller-scale version of something out of the American West, where fire is often enough an inescapable part of life. I know a family in Colorado who had to evacuate their house a few years ago due to an approaching fire and can still point to the spot just across the road where the flames thankfully came to a halt. And this is not not far from Storm King Mountain, where 14 firefighters lost their lives in 1994, a grim reminder of the deadly and destructive power of uncontrolled fire. 

A couple of years ago, we were driving across northern Arizona when the news came over the radio that 19 "hot shot" firefighters had similarly died at Yarnell Hill some 60 miles to the south of us. Later that night, we could see a small fire burning on Dean Peak in the Hualapai Mountains near Kingman, the faint smell of smoke noticeable in the car as as we sped down Interstate 40. 

Of course, fire is also a huge concern in Finland, a country made up almost entirely of forests. Fire prevention is taken very seriously here, and a typical feature of the evening news in summer is the latest update on which parts of the country are under metsäspalovaroitus ("forest fire warning"), when open fires in woodlands is strictly forbidden. Sometimes the entire country is under such a warning. That was surely the case in the summer of 2006, which was incredibly dry. Finland avoided major fires then, but even in Helsinki you could sometimes not avoid the smell of smoke reaching all the way from across the border in Russia, where numerous fires burned out of control for days, due to the lack of resources or motivation to extinguish them. 

Luckily, no lives or structures have been lost to the North Georgia blazes, and at the moment smoke is the biggest threat to people. But the smoke, if nothing else, is unpleasant and potentially unhealthy. The Atlanta area was placed under a Code Red air quality alert, indicating the smoke can be harmful for everyone, not only children and those with respiratory ailments. 

And conditions don't seem likely to improve. Apparently, there's a chance of rain this weekend for the area, but before that temperatures are still expected to reach 24 C (75 F), which to me seems unnaturally high for a week before Thanksgiving.

Nowadays, when every little thing gets politicized, I'm amazed I haven't yet seen anyone trying to score political points over these unprecedented wildfires, and I hesitate to do it myself (a bit).

I've always been extremely annoyed by conservative pundits or talk show hosts who poke fun at the notion of global warning wherever there is an usually big winter storm somewhere. Erick Erickson comes to mind, declaring something like, "Well, with all the snow covering Buffalo right now, it sure looks like 'Global Warming' to me. Ha, ha, ha!" Or something like that. Appealing to the common sense of the common man.

Hearing this kind of nonsense always makes me want to pull my hair out, thinking "No you idiot, you have to look at the trend, the overall trend. You can't look at just one isolated event and declare that climate change is bogus." Especially, when the event goes against the prevailing trend.

By the same token, you should also guard against making too much of an unusual weather pattern when it seems to confirm the reality of climate change. You never hear folks like Erick Erickson doing that.

That said, rare drought conditions and historically bad wildfires certainly seem to fit predictions of a rapidly warming planet. You would think the warm, tinder-dry conditions in the Southern Appalachians in late autumn would make local people, many of whom voted for Donald Trump, stop and consider that maybe this is a sign of global warming. Maybe it's not a Chinese hoax after all, despite what Trump has claimed over and over again.

You would think they might finally take the issue seriously and be alarmed that the next head of the Environmental Protection Agency might well be a climate change denier.

Or, maybe not. Maybe they'll just breathe in the pungent smell of burning timber and, with a sense of self-satisfaction, think to themselves, "Ah, nothing to worry about. That smells like Trump's America to me!"

Wildfire in California, 2008. 
Photo: Bureau of Land Management.

Monday, November 14, 2016

One Man's Political Correctness...

Listening to news and analysis following the shocking election of Donald Trump last week, I heard someone suggest that the number-one fatal mistake that Clinton made was that she used the word “deplorable” when referring to Trump supporters.

Never mind that she was talking about one subset of Trump's supporters, for example, those from the alt-right who have a habit of gleefully sharing Internet memes featuring Pepe the Frog or monkey caricatures of Obama.

That distinction, of course, got lost, and it seems every last Trump supporter felt insulted by her remarks. No doubt that was not Clinton’s intention, but it did open herself up for misinterpretation. It was political malpractice in the extreme, so the commentary went, to use such a derogatory term for any voter.

That got me to thinking. Looking at it that way, it was political in-correctness that did Clinton in. She applied an offense, impolite term to a large group of people. She painted a lot of folks with the same broad brush. She forgot to be politically correct.

This is hugely ironic, of course. Folks who constantly warn that America is endangered by “political correctness”, folks who shrug off the notion that there’s anything wrong with Trump calling illegal migrants “rapists and murders” or Syrian refugees “terrorists” or women “fat pigs”, these same folks take offense, YUGE offense, when called “deplorable” by Hillary Clinton. And, oh yes, “irredeemable”.  

Should they take offense? Maybe so. Actually, who could blame them? Should hard-working undocumented workers from Mexico take also offense being called “rapists” by Donald Trump? Well, heavens forbid no, because that was just Trump speaking his mind, and as we all know “speaking your mind” is the highest form of expression. Clinton, on the other hand, was just being condescending and rude. 

Logical, right?

The thing that has bothered me for so long about the right's obsession with the “political correctness” boogieman and Trump's willingness to give it the middle finger is this: using measured language and holding back your most primal thoughts might actually serve a purpose in a society where not everyone is a clone of yourself. It might help moderate the temperature of personal interactions. It might help maintain social harmony. It might help people get along.

Maybe you desperately want to tell the guy sitting in the pew next to you in church that he’s an “asshole”, because deep down inside that’s what you think he is. Maybe you're dying to tell your wife to for God's sake please lose some weight. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be like Trump and throw off the shackles of political correctness and just say out loud what’s on your mind?

Such liberating free speech can have consequences, however. Your fellow congregant might stand up and punch you in the nose. Your wife might exact revenge in unspeakable ways. American voters might discover more reasons to despise Hillary Clinton. And Donald Trump might succeed wildly and get himself elected president.* Things work differently for him, it seems.

Last week on Facebook, I called Trump supporters “gullible” and was promptly told to “shut up”. Maybe I deserved that. What I said was insulting, especially if his supporters didn't really believe his endless casual lies, but supported him for purely cynical reasons. 

But it was what was on my mind at the time. I was just saying what I thought. I wasn't holding back. 

Well, that's not entirely true. What was really on my mind was far worse. So, now I have a dilemma. In the future, should I be more politically correct and refrain from saying anything remotely insulting about anyone who voted for Trump. Or should I take the less politically correct road traveled by Donald Trump himself and call many of them ignorant (as opposed to merely "gullible"), or even racist? 

I always thought I was much more comfortable with the first option, but maybe I should get with the times and go with the other one.

* By the Electoral College, not the popular vote. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Net Stupidity - The Voter Fraud Edition

A few weeks ago, I saw on the Internet one of those provocative memes about all the voter fraud that supposedly took place in the 2012 presidential race.

At the top of a list of "very suspicious" voting "irregularities" was the fact that in 59 districts around Philadelphia, not a single vote was cast for Mitt Romney. Not even one.

This, the "author" of the meme informed the Internet universe, was a "statistical and mathematical impossibility". 

Now, I'm pathetic at math (ask my wife), but even I realized that that was a dumb statement. "Impossibility" is a strong word. The rest of the list of alleged Democratic transgressions was even more sketchy.

I really don't understand why people who are trying to make a point have to resort to making stuff up. I guess it's because the facts, in some cases even reality, are otherwise not on their side. Sad.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Mökkis and ERs

Here in Finland, we are in full autumn mode, meaning the days are certainly shorter and often gray, and plant life has either died or shed its leaves or otherwise gone into some form of suspended animation.

For my family, it also means the end of the mökki (summer cabin) season, the end of frequent trips by my wife and I out to our little sauna-cabin on the water.

While we certainly enjoy being there, paying attention to all the activity – both human and wildlife – on the bay below our log cabin, much of our time there is spent working, since we still have plenty to finish up to make it a place for fun and relaxation. One day, we’ll get there.

Still, this past summer there were fewer of those work projects to do, and perhaps because of that we needed fewer trips to the Emergency Room. In fact, none.

The summer before was different. That summer I gained some first-hand experience of the Finnish medical system.

Now, I’m not naturally inclined to publicly share details of doctor visits. But, with health care once again front-page news in America due to Obamacare insurance premiums going up sharply next year, this seems like a good time to share some personal insights on how it works over here.

Luckily, I haven't normally been in much need of medical care, not in recent years anyway, and for nothing life-threatening. I’ve been very fortunately that way. Knock on wood.

Of course, I can’t take any credit for that, other than by not smoking or overeating and generally trying to stay active. Staying well, as we all know, is not only a matter of choice. No one wants to be sick. It’s not a matter of consumer demand. Hospital visits are not on anyone’s shopping list. Illness and accidents happen to us -- hopefully not often -- and not because we wish for them. 

Anyway, in the summer of 2015, I made three visits to the ER (päivystys, in Finnish), all because of our mökki. Well, rather, because of my own carelessness, at the mökki.

The first incident occurred when my wife and I took a stab (groan) at trimming the broad sweep of reeds that grow off our shore. Most of these reeds can be reached only from the water. So, while my wife paddled our canoe back and forth among the tangle of vegetation, I sat in the front armed with a sharp sickle. A very sharp sickle.

I was doing a respectable amount of damage whacking at the reeds, mowing them down, so to speak, as they swayed in the breeze until – for reasons that remain unclear to me still – my free hand got in the way.

It wasn’t a huge cut actually. It was mostly a clean slice down the side of one finger, but it did bleed profusely, and there was a flap of skin dangling from the finger.

My wife hurriedly paddled us back to the dock. It was clear that some stitches were needed to keep the flap of skin in place, so a trip to the doctor was in order. While I held my finger tightly in a cocoon of paper towels, my wife drove me back to Helsinki to the Malmi hospital. The hospital in Porvoo would have been almost as close, but the one in Malmi is closest to our home, and thus the one we're supposed to use for non-routine health issues. And at least we knew how to find that one.

The ER wasn’t very busy. After a bit more than half an hour or so in the waiting room, I saw a doctor (female) and nurse (male) who cleaned the wound and stitched the flap of skin back in place. They were both young and, I have to say, insanely good-looking. That has not always been my experience in Finnish hospitals. Checking my records in the health system database, they could see I probably hadn’t had a recent tetanus shot, so they gave me one of those just to be sure. 

My wife and I were back at the cabin before sauna time, though there would be no sauna that night due to doctor’s orders. Obviously. 

My previous experience with Finnish emergency rooms has mostly involved broken bones. Not mine, but my kids. ERs in Helsinki are busy places during the annual ski holidays in February, when school kids are off for a week of what is hoped to be prime skiing, sledding, and skating weather. And, unfortunately, these are the times that all three of my kids have broken arms or hands while enjoying the slippery white snuff that makes winter bearable.

Myself, the only bones I’ve ever broken have been an occasional toe and once a couple of ribs that I cracked when I fell off a ladder while putting shingles on the roof of our outhouse (a classic mökki mishap, that one!).

I didn’t see a doctor for those injuries, because, seriously, what can you actually do for a broken toe, or even a cracked rib? There’s not much point bothering with a doctor in such cases.

In the case of my second ER visit in the summer of 2015, there was.  This incident also involved a ladder at the mökki. I was working there alone, trying to finish up painting the sides of the cabin in late September while the decent weather still held. Attempting to reach a tricky spot under the eaves, I set up the ladder at a ridiculous angle and, with brush in hand, quickly climbed up it.

A minute or two later -- I don’t know how long for sure -- I woke up on the ground. I had a sense of having laid there on the gravel for some time, almost relaxing, maybe sleeping, yet conscious of the radio on the porch broadcasting news from NPR.

Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I realized I must have hit my head on the porch steps. My side hurt like hell. After slowly sitting up, I felt extremely groggy, like my head was full of cotton.

I phoned my wife, who was at work. She was in a meeting and couldn’t answer the call, so I sent her some WhatsApp messages, which I found difficult enough to tap out on my phone. Some minutes later, I looked at what I had written and had no memory of doing so. I felt mystified by how such messages could have gotten on my phone.

But my wife did get the messages, and was concerned enough to set out for the mökki to take me, once again, to the ER in Malmi.

This time the ER was busier, and it was a different doctor who checked out my head before sending me down the hall to have my ribs X-rayed. Nothing broken. Apparently, all I had suffered was a mild concussion. It took altogether about two hours.

One of my sons, however, was worried by the fact that the doctor hadn’t ordered a CT scan. Eventually, he convinced me to go back a couple of days after my initial visit and see if I should get a scan. It’s true I still had a headache and had been noticing a persistent ringing in my ears.

This third trip to the Malmi hospital was on a quiet Saturday morning. It didn’t take long to see a doctor (again a different one), who agreed that the persistent headache and ear-ringing might call for a CT scan. There results were reassuring, no brain swelling, no cracked skull. Before lunchtime, we were heading back to mökki to continue painting, this time a bit more carefully, to be sure.

A few weeks after these hospital visits, the bills started coming in. The first one was €32.10, the next one €32.10, and the last €32.10. That’s the flat “office fee" everyone pays for a trip to the ER. The sum total of my medical expenses that summer came to less than €100 (about 115 dollars). That’s for three trips to the ER, the suturing of a finger, an X-ray, a tetanus shot, and a CT scan.

What does this mean for my insurance premiums, deductibles, co-pays, etc.? Nothing. I do not have insurance. I do not need insurance, not with the kind of “single-payer” universal health care that we have here in Finland.

To many Americans, this is “socialized” medicine, a concept they are so very afraid of and opposed to. For the life of me, I can’t see why that is. Well, actually, yes, I can. They have been persuaded, you might even say brainwashed, to be hostile to it, just on principle, without really knowing what it’s about, without understanding it.

And, sadly, that is one reason I think reforming health care in the US, of which Obamacare might eventually prove to be only an ill-fated half-measure, will continue being the touchy and tumultuous political nuisance it is today. 

The sickle that did the deed.
(And this motif is not in any way a commentary on Obamacare. Quite the opposite.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Kokopelli, Actually Not a Finnish God

A couple of months ago, we finally got rid of our old TV – a massive cathode ray tube model that literally required two people to carry – and replaced it with a flat-screen smart TV. Modernity!

With this new technology now bringing Internet connectivity to a screen bigger and easier to watch than a mere laptop, I’ve been semi-binge watching Netflix now and then, especially the animated series “BoJack Horseman”. I guess I have a weakness for down-home stories about the trials and tribulations of the folks who labor in Hollywood (see “Californication”, “Entourage”).

Anyway, watching the opening scene of the episode “Escape from L.A.”, I spotted something in the background that caught my attention. In this scene, BoJack, once again suffering an existential personal crisis after simultaneously sabotaging both this movie career and his relationship, shows up in New Mexico searching for the one person (well, actually, a deer, a female deer) from his past whom he thinks will make him happy.

The thing that caught my eye in the scene was a storefront in the small town near Santa Fe that BoJack finds himself in – or is trying to “find himself” in. Above the storefront were written the words “Kokopelli Deli”.

I had to pause the playback to check that wording. And, yes, this is really small-bore TV watching, but that’s how I roll.

You see, the word “Kokopelli” looked to me a lot like a Finnish word, not what you’d expect to see in the desert Southwestern US. What I thought I was seeing was something like the familiar words koko peli (“full game” in English). Of course, the word I actually saw on our new flat screen was slightly different. There is an extra “l” in Kokopelli.

Naturally, I had to Google it. It turns out that “Kokopelli” is a fertility god worshiped by the Pueblo peoples, such as the Hopi and Zuni, whose ancestors have inhabited the Four Corners region of the present-day US for thousands of years. As a dancing, humpbacked flute player who chases away winter and renews life, Kokopelli sounds like one funky deity. Kind of like Ian Anderson  without the hump, that is. 

A petroglyph in New Mexico depicting Kokopelli. 
Photo: Einar Einarsson Kvaran

This example of an accidental, though completely superficial, similarity in words spoken in Finland and in patches of the American Southwest is of course surprising. Or, for Finns maybe not that surprising – if they’ve ever visited Mesa Verde National Park.

Mesa Verde is the site of ancient cliff dwellings on a high, arid mesa in southern Colorado. It is an enigmatic place. Clusters of 600 or so rooms, abandoned by the ancestral Puebloans some 700 years ago, are ingenuously tucked away beneath overhanging cliffs and other sheltered places on the mesa. Perfect, desolate sanctuaries. The primitive architecture of tightly packed rooms honeycombed on top of one another is, to say the least, impressive.

One type of these rooms stands out by being underground. This is the “kiva”, a subterranean chamber used for spiritual ceremonies and no doubt an important center in the lives of the long-departed cliff dwellers.

About a dozen years ago, my family and I climbed down a ladder through a small hole in the ground to enter one such kiva at Cliff Palace, one of the biggest dwellings at Mesa Verde. My kids probably thought this cool and dim ancient cellar in the American desert was indeed kiva. As in “nice”. That’s because the Finnish word for “nice” is kiva. Nice.

If you were so inclined, you could even say Kiva on kiva, as in “The kiva is nice”. Again, nice.

The way most Finnish words are made up of short syllables, the language to me sometimes feels aboriginal in nature, like there’s a close kinship between Finns and other small tribal peoples of the world.

In the movie “Dances with Wolves” there is a scene where Kevin Costner is trying to convey to his Indian neighbors, by hand signals, that he had spotted buffalo nearby. When they finally understood Costner’s somewhat comical pantomime, they immediately supplied their own Lakota word for buffalo, “tatanka”, which Costner then started repeating excitedly. Watching  that scene, I remember thinking that “tatanka” sounded awfully Finnish.

Actually, the closest Finnish word I can come up with is tankata, which means “to refuel”. It also happens to be an anagram of “tatanka”, so hearing a similarity between the two is not so implausible. Another close one is tanakka, which means “stout” (the physical description, not the beer).

Of course, there is no actual connection between Finnish and the languages of the Lakota and Pueblo Peoples, and it would be weird if there were. The Finnish language did originate somewhere far to the east of present-day Finland, but not that far to the east. 

Not long after I moved to Finland in the 1980s, I came upon an odd book in the old communist bookstore that used to be located somewhere on Simonkatu. The entire book was one complicated argument that the Finnish people are supposedly the descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Now, that is a farfetched notion, to say the least.

I can’t say whether, in the mists of ancient legend, there has even been a “lost tribe” of the Lakota or the Zuni or the Hopi. But if there is one, I feel quite certain that the Finns are not it.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park.
Credit: NPS Photo

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Old School Trolling

Over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten a bit obsessed with American politics, perhaps to an unhealthy degree. This has led me to take a stab now and then at profound (cough, cough) political commentary, with postings of my opinionated thoughts on this humble blog. And, even worse, I've gotten carried away with clogging my Facebook page with unwelcome political observations, no doubt alienating some people along the way with all my poisonous liberal hogwash.

Maybe it’s a trap that men of a certain age, and uncertain maturity, fall into. But, in my defense, I come by it honestly. In some ways, I have a history of this sort of thing. I was dabbling in the same kind of political trolling some 35 years ago, well before the dawn of the Internet.

Back then, I was part of the university community centered around Athens, Georgia. That’s a way of saying that I was no longer a student, but hadn’t been able to force myself to leave the comforting, liberal milieu of that small, hip college town (the home of R.E.M.!).

For a couple of years at the beginning of the 80s, I had found work as a lab technician at various University of Georgia laboratories, putting my degree in zoology to some use before basically abandoning it forever when I moved to Finland.

As I spent most of my time on campus, almost as if I’d never left school, I was still fairly immersed in university life. That also meant religiously reading the daily student newspaper, The Red and Black. Not only that, I felt compelled to express my opinions on the politics of the day by dashing off the occasional snarky letter to the paper’s editors.

Somewhat surprisingly, all (or at least most) were published. I still have the clippings – a fact that says something about how pleased I must have been with myself over these pre-PC (as in “Personal Computer”) incarnations of trolling.

Here they are, in all their dated glory: 

Interesting to note that Phyllis Schlafy, a long-time anti-feminist, died only recently.

This was in response to some guy making outlandish and feverish claims in the paper about the “dangers” American society faced from “Communists, Jews and queers”. I had a lot of fun with that one.  

As I recall, the KKK was trying to establish a chapter on campus at the time, a move that was hotly debated, and they were trying to make themselves sound more palatable to student types. (And I guess "video recorders" were a big thing back then.)

My ex-roommate, who was still living in the apartment I had just moved out of, started getting a series of silent phone calls after this one was published.

Ah, those were the days.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Radical Islam

I keep hearing conservative critics lambasting President Obama again and again over his refusal to say the words “radical Islam” when talking about terrorism. 

The phrase has become a talisman of the right, a magic charm that if uttered, so it seems, would alone deal a huge blow to Daesh and its brainwashed followers. For me, it's hard to imagine how that particular combination of words coming from Obama’s mouth would strike a lot of fear into the heart of bloodthirsty miscreants in Raqqa. Seriously. It seems drone strikes would be more effective.

Anyway, I saw in a comment thread somewhere on the Internet recently what I thought was a very insightful comment (not “incite-ful”, which is rare for the Internet).

The commentator pointed out that the word “radical” in “radical Islam” can be seen as either a descriptor or an intensifier. As a descriptor, it clarifies what kind of Islam we’re talking about, as in the same way “fundamentalist Christianity” denotes a more conservative form of that diverse religious belief. "Radical Islam" is thus differentiated from, let’s say, mainstream Islam.

On the other hand, “radical” used as an intensifier is a whole other kettle of fish. In this sense, it highlights some essential nature of the word that follows.

The Internet commentator offered an example from the Cold War, a time when many conservatives in the US railed against “Godless Communism”. By using this choice phrase, the John Birch Society and its ilk certainly didn't intend to single out the unbelieving Communists for abuse, compared to those saintly Christian Communists. “Godlessness” was understood to be an inherent part of Communism, baked in to the Marxist cake, so to speak. Tacking on the word “Godless” just ensured that no right-thinking American overlooked this little detail.

The astute Internet commentator went on to say he or she suspected that folks who are most obsessed with the term “radical Islam” are using it like the McCarthite reactionaries of old did. That is, they see all Islam as radical by definition, and they want to make sure everyone knows it. 

Judging by how much anti-Islamic blather I see on the Internet scoffing at the very existence of “moderate Islam”, I have to think the commentator is onto something.

No wonder President Obama wisely declines to play along with that game.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Rio Games

The Summer Olympics finally came to a close in Rio this past weekend, with greatly disappointing results for the Finns. All and all, Finland garnered only one medal, for women’s boxing, and even that was only a bronze. This is a bit shocking, considering how there were reasonably promising hopes for medals in some other events, mainly sailing and javelin throw.

It is, in fact, Finland’s poorest result in its entire Olympic history, which is almost a decade older than the country itself. Finland, at the time a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, first took part in the Games in 1908, competing as an entity separate from Russia. I guess this is analogous to the way that – which was news to me – Puerto Rico participates under its own flag, though the Caribbean island is actually part of the United States.

The dearth of Finnish medals in Rio is a shame, especially since it's always seemed to me that the Olympics figures quite prominently in Finnish national identity, at least more so than for the average American. This is, after all, the land of the runners Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren.

Nurmi, the “Flying Finn”, was the winner of 12 Olympic medals over the course of his career, not too shabby in the 1920s. Some half-century later, Lasse Viren earned a total of five medals, four of them gold, during his two Olympic appearances. He famously fell in the 1972 games in Munich during the 10,000-meter final, but was amazingly able to overtake the pack and win the race. Coincidentally, the same thing happened in Rio with Britain’s Mo Farah, who also managed to win his 10K race after tumbling in the 10th lap.

Now, the era of Viren and other greats seems to be receding, no disrespect to the athletes of today. No doubt a lot of introspection has already begun over why Finland’s result fell so short, especially compared to the remarkable 15 medals that similarly sized Denmark won.

The last time Finland could boast a summer-game medal count in the double-digits was the 1984 Los Angeles games, when it brought home a full dozen Olympic medallions. Since then, Finland has averaged only three or four. That record might now be trending even a bit lower. As I said, that would be a shame.

Luckily, the Americans in Rio did spectacularly much better, based on all the news I gleamed from Twitter and CNN. (And I thought, according to Trump, the US "doesn’t win anymore”.) Watching the different events themselves on TV was a bit hit and miss for us, due to all kinds of scheduling complications, so we didn’t end up watching much of the Games this time. 

But there was once a time when we got to see the Games in person.

The Summer Olympics of 1996 where held in Atlanta, a mere 70 or so miles from my home town. Since we were making visits to my parents every summer in those days, a chance to go to the Olympics was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.

But deciding which events to see was tricky. As I recall, we had to place orders for tickets over a year in advance. For each day of the event, you could request up to three events, in order of preference, with a hope of getting tickets for at least one of them. Since we felt we couldn’t be assured of getting even one event for any particular day, we took a scattershot approach and tried to spread our ticket buying over a 7-day period, not necessarily expecting (or, considering the costs, even hoping) to get something every day. 

For two of those days, our first choice was kayaking. The whitewater slalom competition took place on the Ocoee River, just across the state line in Tennessee and not far from my parents’ place. Our other first choices were one day of mountain biking and two days each of athletics and dressage.

I’m sure that at the time my wife had to explain to me what dressage was. The name itself doesn’t give much of a clue that it involves horses performing a precise and intricate (and slow paced) routine. 

It’s an impressive sport, considering the amount of control needed by both horse and rider to carry out such complicated moves, especially since I can’t imagine making a horse do anything myself. But as a girl, my wife had done a lot of horseback riding, even competing in jumping and dressage, so she better understood the appeal of the sport than I did.

For our second choices we picked athletics, gymnastics, horse jumping and, again, dressage. Third choices included tennis, basketball, baseball and cycling. At least, I think there were our actual preferences. This is all based on info in a computer file that has survived many PC upgrades and several disk crashes to remain intact two decades later deep, deep in my current hard drive – kind of amazing in itself.

In the end, we got about half of our first choices and one of the our second. Sadly, no kayaking. But we did get mountain biking and two days of track and field at Turner Field. And a full three days of dressage. I think we underestimated how much easier the dressage tickets were to get.

I don’t remember much about the competitions themselves, more about the atmosphere and the venues. Let’s face it, sitting in a big stadium, you see a lot less of what’s going on down on the field than the average TV viewer.

At the mountain biking race, that sport’s Olympic debut, I recall the conspicuous turnout of among the spectators of Norwegians, easy identifiable as Norwegian sport fans are around the world by their fondness for national flags and cow bells.

Funnily, I have only the barest memory of the dressage competition, or even the venue. But I do recall a little criminal activity that I engaged in related to the sport.

We had gotten a bit more dressage tickets than we expected, six all together, in reality about double the number we wanted. So, we decided to try and sell the extra and recoup some money.

We showed up at the Georgia International Horse Park outside Atlanta, which served as the venue for both dressage and mountain biking, just after the women's bike race. Feeling a bit awkward, I stood near the parking lot holding up our tickets trying to get the attention of all the off-road bike fans heading for their cars. Some young guys, upon hearing I was selling dressage tickets, said something like “Dressage? Dude, you’ve got the wrong crowd here!”

Someone else helpfully pointed out there were police in the parking lot nearby and suggested I should move further away before I got arrested for scalping.

Scalping? I had not even considered that what I was doing was remotely illegal. First of all, I was selling the tickets at face value. Being a poor excuse for a capitalist, I wasn’t trying to make a profit, just break even. 

To be honest, I don’t even understand why ticket scalping is a crime, especially in free-enterprising America. People sell things to other people on the secondary market all the time. Why should tickets to sporting events be any different?

Of course, arguing these points to an arresting officer might not be very productive. So, thankful for the tip, I moved deeper into the crowd of mountain bike fans moving toward me. I remember in particular a suburban mom who was put into a tough spot by my offer. She was accompanied by two or three teenage girls who practically squealed when they saw what kind of tickets I was selling.

I seem to recall the poor woman was able to resist their pleas. In any case, I managed to offload all the extra tickets eventually to someone and escape the clutches of the law. 

And to this day that small triumph remains my own personal best during an Olympics. 

Who knows? I might be somewhere in that crowd. 
Turner Stadium during the Atlanta Olympics. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Trump's Sacrifice

In the curious case of Donald Trump’s fight with Khizr Khan, the Muslim American who lost a son in the Iraq War, Trump keeps digging in his heels, and digging himself deeper into a hole of nastiness.

In response to Mr. Khan’s assertion, in his passionate speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, that Trump has “sacrificed nothing and no one” for America, Trump tried to claim that his hard work and “tremendous success” in building his business was somehow comparable to giving the life of your son.

Who knew that making tons of money could be both fabulous and a horrible misfortune. Should the US bestow a medal on Trump for his brave, opulent sacrifice? Something in the shape of a gold-plated toilet fixture perhaps?

Anyway, in his supreme cluelessness Trump has completely blown his response to the Khans. He’s shown no understanding, no empathy, no magnanimity. He has, however, shown his true character.

Or maybe not entirely. I suspect Donald Trump isn’t saying what he really thinks about the whole thing. I suspect that, even as uninhibited and unfiltered as he normally is, maybe in this case he understands enough to know he can’t express the one thing that, deep down inside, he truly feels about the Khans losing a son while his own family remains untouched by war.

This is what I imagine Trump really thinks in his heart of hearts:

“Too bad for you, Khizr Khan, but only chumps allow their children to go off and fight in a stupid, useless war. And I, Donald J. Trump, am no chump. You lose, I win. I always win.”