Monday, October 29, 2007

Young and Old

Aging and retirement hardly resemble the "golden years" one often sees and hears. In truth, by the time we have finished decades of working, instead of enjoying the freedom to do whatever we want most of us are burdened with health issues, either our own or those of our loved ones. Since we live so long these days, many also have a parent in their upper years to worry about. With the value of our dollar having taken a nose dive, our "safe" investments are worrying us. We may not immediately see the price increases in our daily lives, but they will come. With crude oil approaching $100 a barrel, transportation of goods is going to skyrocket. Many European manufacturers are trying to keep their products competitively priced here, so they may be selling them with small profit or even at a loss. Otherwise we would see a 40% increase in every imported item, from Swiss chocolates to automobiles. It won't be long before oil and gold will be priced in € or some other stable currency and that's when the chaos will hit us. With America being so cheap to tourists we should see them come here in the millions, but with the paranoia they are greeted upon arrival here, many will pass the opportunity. Face it, we wouldn't like it either if every country we visited would fingerprint and photograph us, and arbitrarily deny entry, possibly throwing us in jail because of a "suspicious" last name or an entry stamp in our passport. Just follow this link to read about horrendous treatment of my fellow Finnish musicians in Minneapolis by U.S. Immigration officials. How would you feel if you had been in my countrymen's shoes?

That said, many of us worry about how to finance our later years. Even pensions which we have counted on may not exist. Social Security is looking more and more like Social Insecurity and many employers have opted to break contracts and stop making payments to pension funds, perhaps in order to give the illusion of a balanced budget. Having paid for long-term care insurance for decades, people find out that the company isn't willing to pay a dime. Insurance is a funny thing. It is successfully sold to us because of our fears, yet the companies only exist as long as they can make a hefty profit. In a nutshell we end up paying into it far more than we'll ever get out of it. Take my dental insurance for example. As a result of a biking accident in my childhood two of front teeth got an invisible hairline fracture. Fifty years later one of them snapped while biting into a slice of pizza. Luckily the dentist was able to save the tooth but it required a visit to an endodontist, plus a post and a crown. The insurance with its yearly maximum covered the work on the root canal and $18 of the post and crown, leaving me a balance of two thousand to pay. Yet we pay that much to Aetna yearly for a coverage which will never amount to the sum of the premiums. My late mother-in-law was truly smart: she flew to New Zealand more than a decade ago to have her dental work done there for peanuts. They have since changes their laws regarding foreigners... I shouldn't complain as I will be able to work until my health makes it impossible, but that is not the case with most of us. And I could ask if having played the violin for over 50 years isn't enough, but obviously paying for health insurance and children's education will keep me busy with the fiddle. Of course it wasn't supposed to be like that; on paper I was well protected. Life goes on, however, and I have a hunch that I'll have the last laugh.

As our friends and older family members get sick and pass away, there seem to be less and less to look forward to. Nature is merciful as many elderly lose their short term memory and the sense of now: they can happily live in the past in their memories, with everyone dear to them alive and well. For others, children and grandchildren can be a source of joy. Just today my second daughter gave birth to her second child, a healthy boy of ten and half pounds. I spoke with her and she sounded happy indeed. I just wonder if I'll ever get to really know those grandchildren. As my first family ended up in a divorce, one daughter stayed closer, both physically and emotionally, to her mother, the other to me. Of course we have a loving relationship, but L.A. is far and I don't feel the urge to hop on a plane and fly there every chance I get. Gone are the days when families stayed closely knit. Today one's children are likely to end up in different corners of the country, or even the globe.

As my grandson was born, my eldest daughter also gave birth as her first book was just published. "Women Behind Bars" is subtitled "The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System". The topic is obviously very serious and Silja's book is a result of many years worth of study, interviews, correspondence and prison visits. Some chapters will bring tears to any reader's eyes. After finishing the book one's mind is full of question marks about the logic behind our penal system and especially how it handles women inmates, most of whom are locked up for non-violent crimes. We learn about drug-dealing boyfriends or even husbands who manage to put the blame on their "loved" ones. The latter often have no knowledge of the "crime" that lands them in prison while the guilty party walks away free or gets a minimum sentence. Many of us hairless apes have no conscience and we are willing to say anything, even under oath, that will benefit us even when it greatly harms others. There are over a billion sociopaths walking on this earth according to some statistics, so all of us have encountered many of them, often without recognizing them.

If humans indeed were created as images of God, I hope that our Heavenly Father (or Mother) doesn't have these tendencies; otherwise the world and the universe are truly doomed.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Country Divided

No, I don't mean the United States, although it would politically fit the description; nor Iraq where the Sunni-Shia-Kurd partition exists de facto, no matter what our leaders would like us to believe. I'm talking about the land of delicious chocolate, great musical importance, Hergé and his Tintin books and of course, the European Union headquarters: Belgium.

Never intended to be a country as it is today, it was nevertheless created soon after Napoleon met his Waterloo. A German prince was invited to become a king of a new monarchy in 1831. Always an uneasy mix of Dutch (or Flemish, a dialect of the former) and French speaking Flanders and Wallonia, it nevertheless managed to grow in importance, not the least by being put in charge of the Congo and two East African countries, Rwanda and Burundi. Belgian Congo was always rich in minerals and became a major exporter on uranium for the Manhattan Project and the nuclear bomb industry.

Today, many openly question whether the country of Belgium should exist at all. The politics are strictly divided between language barriers. Formerly the farming Wallonia was better-to-do, but recently the Flanders have managed to overcome their southern neighbors, mainly because of industry and trade. Recently a fake report on television claimed that the country had been split into two and hardly anybody doubted the "facts" in this Lowlands version on "the Martians Have Landed". The issues preventing the division are a mutual love and respect for the king, and the question of Brussels, the "EU City". The latter is by far the most important city in Belgium and like Montréal in Quebec, mainly French-speaking. The Catholic Flanders wouldn't really want to join the Protestant Netherlands in spite of the common language, and France has enough problems or her own without being saddled with Wallonia's economic woes.

Musically the Conservatory in Brussels has been one of the most important in Europe for more than a century. Especially important is the Belgian, or Franco-Belgian, school of violin playing, often also referred to as Modern French. The great musical genius and virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe was a giant in the history of the violin, disciples of whom have had great influence in this country as well (Josef Gingold, Jascha Brodsky, Louis Persinger). His most important student, however, was Mathieu Crickboom. He played second violin in his teacher's his famous string quartet and later inherited the professorship in the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles. Ysaÿe also dedicated the fifth of his famed six solo sonatas to his student and friend.

In my childhood my father had a couple volumes of Crickboom's Le Violon – Théorique et Practique" and this is what I used to teach myself the violin. My parents were taking a long walk when I had just turned five, and I took out my father's full-size violin and decided to see what it sounded like. With perfect pitch I had no trouble playing the right notes and when my parents returned, I surprised them by playing a short piece from probably Volume I. I can well remember my father starting to kind of laugh, either nervously or excitedly, I couldn't tell. The next day a three-quarter size instrument appeared and soon a man was brought to the house as a teacher candidate. Well, I didn't really care for the fellow and thus no lessons followed. Also, I was unhappy with the sound of the 'little' violin and insisted on using my father's. Not long after that he purchased a modern instrument that had won a prize in a violin makers' competition. I treasured those Crickboom books and although I taught myself to play a lot of other material, these books always had a special place in my heart. As I started teaching my friends and even older kids at a very young age, it was always "Le Violon" that I used with them and got them to play so well that many ended up as professionals. I went through a lot of other methods but none ever came close to the logical and musical approach of Mr. Crickboom.

Time passed and somewhere I lost my valued five volumes of this series. It might have been during one of the big moves from one country to another or probably when my ex, in a fit of rage, got rid of all my music, along with other personal items such as reviews and other such clippings. Personally I think she lied about it, claiming that she had put the boxes on the curb and twenty minutes later they had disappeared. So she probably held onto all that stuff but I have no way of finding out. At the time my children were too young for me to put them through a nasty scene, so their mother got away with a murder, so to speak. Over the years I tried finding the Crickboom books in stores and online, but with limited success. Not long ago, I decided to try once more and to my surprise they popped up at an American site. The first book was not what I expected it to be but another Crickboom work on scales and technical stuff, very useful and intelligently formulated. Then I searched differently and, voilà, there they were at, some in French, some others in German or English-Spanish versions. I got my volumes II, IV and V just this week and going through them is like having found a lost childhood treasure. Volume III is on backorder and while waiting for it, I also ordered Crickboom's "Chants et Morceaux" , four out of five books. These pieces are supposed to be played when a certain point in the actual "Le Violon" has been reached. Granted, most of my students are past the level these books are intended for, but every once in a while one of us takes a young one under our wing, and it will interesting to see how this material can be used. There is nothing wrong with the Doflein Method we have used and it does introduce "modern" composers of the time (1930s) such as Orff, Bartok and Hindemith. However, the approach of Mr. Crickboom is more natural and logical.

So, one day there may not be a Belgium as we know it, but the unthinkable has happened before. Perhaps this country of ours should be divided as the Southerners once wanted. We could have the states that believe in universal health care in one union, and those who don't in another. Or make the split based on who wants to have the separation on state and religion and who sees it as one and the same. Living in a rather liberal and socially conscious part of union, we in Seattle really have very little in common with folks in Alabama or Texas. Another seemingly illiterate politician has his eyes set on governing this uneasy union of ours. Although many in the media chose not to report it and I first learned about the speech from a foreign online source, a presidential candidate recently claimed: "Actually, just look at what Osam — Barack Obama — said just yesterday. Barack Obama, calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq. That is the battlefield. ... It's almost as if the Democratic contenders for president are living in fantasyland. Their idea for jihad is to retreat, and their idea for the economy is to also retreat. And in my view, both efforts are wrongheaded." What a difference one wrong or missing letter can make, making a Mormon a Moron.

in pictures:
Tintin and Snowy (Milou), Mathieu Crickboom

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Soul, Human and Animal

For ages we humans have insisted that only our life form has a soul and thus is above the rest of the animal world. I am not alone with a different opinion. Having had several dogs and now this one-eyed 'wonder cat' with whom I've had no trouble communicating, I absolutely believe that any advanced animal is capable of thinking and feeling. Some are predators but so are a large number of us people. I especially remember a Boston terrier who had deep eyes, true mirrors of his soul. My late mother used to say that she strongly felt there was a human soul trapped in Daphnis, our little dog, someone that might have done something wrong in a previous life and came back as that wonderful, loving canine.

Back to the topic of this picture and Seymour, our “pirate” cat, here helping me while I tried to access a file with my bio. A month after my mother had passed away, on the morning of Thanksgiving at 8 a.m., one of our neighbors was at the door with a tiny black kitten. The little creature had wandered off from his home and had been meowing all night by this neighbor's house. As he knew we had children, he thought we might like to provide a home to this kitten. The children were excited although I tried to cry out “no cat” in protest but to deaf ears. In my childhood we had numerous cats but they all ended up devouring mice that had eaten rat poison and thus all these animals had suffered a terrible end before I could really bond with any of them. Later when I already had my best pal, a wire-haired fox terrier by the name of Tirry, my father and I brought home a truly wild kitten from a summer music camp. This cat was something else and I'm surprised that my doggie survived all the rough play they had together.

One morning our housekeeper brought home raw lung that the butcher shop had given away free and after tasting it the cat would prefer it to anything else. For those who have never seen lung, it is a tough organ that is usually tossed away as one useless part of the carcass. One cannot even cut through it with a knife: a pair of sharp scissors were our only means of dicing the organ for the cat. He would be in ecstasy, tearing into the bloody and foamy substance with his claws and teeth, hissing, purring and singing all at once. This cat, too, had a taste for mice and often had a competition with the neighbor's Siamese. One cold winter morning when our housekeeper arrived, she screamed as there were ten dead, frozen mice in a neat row on our steps, in front of a proud cat, a night's catch. The neighbor cat had only six, but his row was equally straight. Soon our cat met with same fate as the others and hemorrhaged to death after killing a poisoned mouse. Thus I always connected cats with a tragic end. My fox terrier on the other hand lived a good life and even with a heart condition reached an age of sixteen.

Now, decades later, a new kitty came to my life. This little curious fellow managed to find an endless number of excellent hiding places in the house. We would open a drawer and find our kitten sleeping in it, having managed to climb in through the back. At times we would spend hours looking for him. Then our Seymour discovered the space between the ceiling of the ground floor and the oak flooring above. Roaming there became his favorite activity. My wife almost had a heart attack when a cat fell from the ceiling while she was giving a lesson.

This kitty lost at least one of his nine lives while still a baby. We came home late from an insipid dinner party where an East Coast violin dealer was unsuccessfully trying to get people to invest in his rather overpriced instruments. We were there to play and chit-chat. By our front door was our kitten with one of his eyes hanging out by the optic nerve. The next door neighbor's cat was by his side, as if to protect him. Off to the emergency vet who tried to put the eye back in. Naturally, the woman at the desk made fun of Seymour's name and commented how we should now rename him “Seeless”. All the bones of the kitty's head were broken as he must have been hit by a car. The vet wired his jaw carefully and made on opening in his throat for a feeding tube. Soon it became evident that the eye would not regenerate and had to be removed. We fed the poor creature by the tube for about two months. Finally the wires came off and the cat was so happy he ate five platefuls of Fancy Feast in one sitting.

Seymour was young enough not to depend on the peripheral vision two eyes make possible. Amazingly that never handicapped him: he could soon make incredible leaps, never missing his target or losing his balance. We got used to his pirate look and actually think that other black cats with two eyes look rather strange.

Now back to the question of soul. Unlike with my childhood cats I realized that I could easily communicate with this unusual feline. He thinks that I am his playmate and often I am full of scratches and scrapes. He doesn't seem to realize I lack the kind of thick fur he has. At night he sleeps by my wife's feet but sometimes feels insecure and wakes me up with a velvety paw, purring softly and wanting to cuddle in a position where his head is against by chest, enabling him to hear my heartbeat. If I have forgotten to feed him one of his small four to five daily meals, he'll come and bite by right ankle. When I'm about to choose what to feed him, I just look into his one eye and most of the time have no trouble reading what he would like (he is very finicky!). Every student is usually met at the door and Seymour usually stays for the beginning of the lesson, once in a while taking part by accompanying on one of the pianos. He has his favorite people, students and parents, but he certainly wants to be noticed by everyone.

Many of the people I've known and worked with have less of a “human” soul than this kitty, or many of the dogs in my life. Perhaps the Eastern philosophies that believe in reincarnation are not so far off the truth. There are and have been people who resemble more a crocodile or a poisonous snake more than what we treasure as human being. Just yesterday my wife and I were watching part of BBC's 2005 documentary on Auschwitz. Many of the former SS men and concentration camp guards interviewed showed no remorse for their horrendous acts. They still regard the Jewish people as subhuman and seem to be almost proud of their past actions. My theory for a long time has been that since there far more people on this Earth than ever before, there simply aren't enough human souls to go around and people end up with one from a hyena, a lizard, a shark or even an insect. And as I wondered before, perhaps some of us who have done something bad, end up coming back as another life form, possibly full of regrets like our Daphnis.

I am not surprised that the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats as gods.

photo and photo art

© ilkka talvi 2007