Thursday, January 24, 2008


As my father slowly but surely keeps slipping away, I have been thinking a lot about death and those friends and relatives who have recently left this life. Dying is a natural event and all of us will experience it. Most of us would like to go quickly when the time comes, yet there are those who hold human life so sacred that they try to prolong it at all costs. In the system like ours, savings of a lifetime can be spent on a few weeks of additional time. Back home in Scandinavia medical care is essentially free and the cost is obviously not a worry. Indeed there are, even in my home town's main hospital, a number of very sick and/or old people hooked to machines that keep them alive. Most often this happens due to lack of a living will. Families are reluctant or afraid to make a sensible and humane decision, perhaps because they haven't had the courage to talk to the patient earlier to find out in time what his/her wish would be. I don't think anyone would like to go on living attached to artificial life support system, knowing there was no hope. Many of us have pets that are really dear to us. The sign of our ultimate love and compassion for these friends is to make sure they don't suffer unnecessarily. Why would we treat the dying humans differently? Wouldn't the quality and living free of pain matter more than an extra two weeks of suffering? Doctors are often afraid of writing prescriptions for potent opiates for fear of turning patients into addicts, or being singled out by the system for creating junkies. Clearly an oncologist, a surgeon or a pain specialist will have to dispense a lot more of these scripts than a family doctor, not to mention a dermatologist. Yet even in an advanced system like my native Finland has, my aunt was given a low dose tramadol regimen for her pain after she was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer. I was shaking my head as I was taking twice the amount for my own chronic pain. A former health care worker, she started self-medicating with large amounts of ibuprofen which gave her considerably better relief. It wasn't until she was taken to the hospital near the end of the four or five months when she finally was given morphine. I just hope that her final days were relatively comfortable.

For a long time I visited a Seattle-based pain specialist, Dr. Anders Sola. Initially I was sent to him by my rheumatologist as a couple months of physiotherapy couldn't help my frozen shoulders, a condition obviously caused or at least worsened by work environment. Dr. Sola was one of those rare individuals who had the ability to think outside the box. Although he had discovered during the Korean War that injecting saline solution worked better and gave longer relief than local anesthetics, the initial fame wore off and he became somewhat of an outcast in the medical society. Long before it became fashionable, he studied acupuncture and developed his own style of it. With these needles he was able to cure my shoulders completely in two weeks. Dr. Sola was among the first group of doctors that were allowed to visit China after the Cultural Revolution. We became friends and spent many hours discussing medicine, our lives, art, philosophy and other topics. His mother was a first cousin to the great painter Edvard Munch. After the artist's death nobody wanted to touch his paintings, as he had always been a black sheep in the deeply evangelical family. Often I could barely drag myself to the doctor's office, yet a little later I'd walk away feeling great. In time the needles were put aside and a small laser was introduced instead. Used on trigger points it worked as well, often causing me to sweat profusely which he considered a good sign. There was usually Hawaiian music playing in the background and the patients were an interesting group, many of whom the good doctor introduced me to. I especially remember a truly big Native chief from Alaska who came down for treatments every so often. As the medical building was about to be closed, to make space for a new part of Northgate shopping mall, Anders Sola decided it was time to retire. I'm sure all his patients were sad and kind of lost as to where to turn to help. I myself went to see a Chinese lady whom Dr. Sola had recommended. However, I never felt at ease at her practice nor got the same relief. I did talk to the dear doctor a number of times over the phone, but not in the last three years or so. Finally last week I started searching on the internet and found a news item in the Idaho Statesman, telling of the doctor's death in that state just this past August, three months after the passing of his wife. I had never asked him his age and was surprised that he had reached 88. His bright mind was that of a much younger person.

A little more than two weeks ago we received an email telling of the death of Virginia Katims, the widow of the renowned violist and conductor Milton Katims. We knew that she was in ill health and frail, and had visited her in a home where we played a small recital for her and other music-loving occupants. Although her openness irritated many, I found it refreshing and always greatly enjoyed her company. She had no trouble telling me that I had gained too much weight, although I didn't explain to her why. After I weaned myself off prednisone, those over 30 pounds were lost rather rapidly and she was pleased by what she saw. I much preferred her truthfulness to the phoniness many others exhibit. She probably alienated some donors years ago, but if she didn't like something, she would tell it to your face, instead of pretending and speaking ill of you behind your back. Milton and Virginia shared an amazingly long lifetime of music together. I will miss them both.

A personal shocker came in the form of a phone message not long after. One of my wife's sisters had just learned from a nephew that their father John Kransberg had died in Florida, four months ago in September. His widow hadn't thought it necessary to notify any of his children. After divorcing his wife of 37 years when they were to move to Los Angeles from Beverly, Massachusetts, in order for my wife to study with Heifetz, he rushed to marry his Swedish masseuse. Wife number two didn't encourage a close relationship with any of the four daughters, least of all the young one still living with her mother. My wife flew to see her father in the Florida Keys with our little firstborn, but the stepmother made the visit intolerable. I never met my father-in-law in person, only spoke to him over the phone once. He did call here after learning about the accident that took my mother-in-law's life three years ago and told Marjorie that he still loved her mother. Perhaps the call was overheard as the next attempt to talk was cut short. The eldest of the sisters lived not that far and managed to have a relationship. However, after she was diagnosed with cancer and was given only a couple months to live, the father cut off all communications with her and didn't even show up at her funeral. What a strange man he had become. My wife had said her good-byes to him over those many years, so although the news must have made her sad, it wasn't the kind of a loss it would have been under different circumstances. Our society encourages people to dissolve their marriages instead of working differences out, claiming it is for the children's best. At least I beg to differ. The individuals may get their lives in order again, but the children will suffer, even in the most ideal of situations.

May the souls of all these people rest in peace, my father-in-law included. At least he helped to produce a wonderful wife for me, for which I'm eternally grateful.

Discovery Park, Seattle
Photo by Talvi 1/2008

Monday, January 07, 2008

A Remarkable Old Man

A number of past days have been filled with anxiety and fear as the news from home has been very discouraging. My father, Veikko Talvi, had taken a turn for the worse, with a nasty infection, partial loss of consciousness and trips in and out of the hospital. Everyone was prepared to hear the news of my dad's almost 97 years finally catching up with him. Yet today a received an email from my brother telling that the old tough man had again fooled death, as he did in the war against the Soviet Union some sixty-five years ago. Second in command with his regiment, one morning he was receiving new men and giving them their assignments when a soldier was killed by a Russian sniper's bullet less than five feet from him. It is possible the sniper had aimed at my dad's head, the officer's, but wasn't a real sharpshooter and ended up killing the soldier reporting for duty right in front of him. When growing up I always assumed my mother would outlive my father by at least fifteen or twenty years, as he was six years her senior. Well, he outlived two wives (the first died at childbirth during Russian bombings) and my mom will have been gone for a decade later this year and my stubborn old man keeps on going. Even his prostate cancer for four decades hasn't destroyed him as it did his father, my grandfather. No operation or even radiation treatment, just a small amount of hormones has kept the disease at bay. Today he had been perky, eating his meals with others and moving around the assisted living complex with his wheelchair.

My paternal grandparents had only two children, a rarity for that time. My father, born six years before Finland was freed from the shackles of Russia, was obviously their pride and joy, something his younger sister, by eight years, never came to terms with. He had the privilege to go to the university right after high school, something that must have stretched my grandparents' financial resources. My aunt had to obtain a profession out of necessity early on, working as a nurse and social worker, and was only able to receive her academic degree at an older age. As a student my father was happy, taking part in all kinds of activities, from the University of Helsinki orchestra and standing as one of the honorary guards at the 70th birthday concert of Jean Sibelius, to collecting information from old farmers and their help. He wrote down everything possible these people remembered, photographing them and even recording their songs. No wonder he soon became deeply involved in Finland's history, especially of local areas that were well-known and dear to him. After a short period of working as a reporter for a newspaper, he began publishing his research, now a mighty long list of works. For a few years he was the head of a community college but then started a decades-long career as the head of information, publishing and public relations for what was then Finland's largest paper company, one of the biggest in the world. The company gave us a huge old 1870s wooden house to live in, next to a large hydroelectric power plant and across the river from an impressive but scary chlorine producing factory. The latter separated chlorine from salt using massive amounts of electricity, and its incredibly bright lights kept our house lit during every night, unless we closed the blinds and curtains carefully. Once a month a gas emergency siren was tested a 4 P.M., after the fire alarm, and the sound of that would have awakened the deaf and even the dead. A few years later we moved to an equally large house, this time on top of a hill and a bit farther from the paper mill.

I was three when it became possible again to purchase a car and my parents decided to buy the only available model for private people, a Russian copy of a pre-war Opel, called a Moskvich. My mother had a truck driver's license since she was young but my dad had never driven. He would secretly take the car for a slow spin, with me sitting next to him, figuring that the police would never bother stopping us. I soon discovered that by putting the car in gear and pulling the starter engine switch I could "drive" the car and before my fourth birthday my sister and I packed the car with seven or eight kids and drove around the local loop which all the company's trucks used. I had to stand on the seat to see out and steer and someone else, possibly my sister, operated the starter. After the quarter mile trip I neatly parked the car and we swore never to tell my parents. My sister would no doubt have, but kept quiet as she was as guilty as I. My father never became a very good driver and from early on I had to help him when he couldn't get up a slippery hill when visiting my grandpa. He could never understand how I was able to make the car move when he was stuck.

At an early age my dad had learned to play the mandolin quite well and was entertaining people during family gatherings and such. From that instrument it was just a small step to the violin and he became quite a musician, conducting and performing. When I came along I decided to beat him in his own game and one time when my parents were taking a walk, I took out my father's violin and quickly with the help of my perfect pitch taught myself to play, even though the full-size instrument felt a bit large for a five-year-old. I can still hear his nervous laughter after they returned and I played a melody for them, in higher positions because it was easier to do. He never pushed me into practicing like so many stage parents do, but instead loved hearing me play and we would make music together every night, probably playing through most of the literature written for two violins. We performed as a duo frequently and already at the age of five I became by far the youngest member of my father's orchestra, sitting in the back of the second violins, my feet dangling many inches from the ground. I wanted to imitate my dad to the point that from day one I always wore a long tie to school (the only kid in the 1000 student body to do so) and carried a leather briefcase, instead of a backpack like others.

Most people lose their hearing as their other senses such as sight worsen with age. Not so with my Veikko (as a child I always called him by his first name for some reason). Since the war, never being exposed to loud noises helped his hearing remain incredible. An eager concertgoer from early on, he saw and heard all the visiting artists in Helsinki, from famed soloists to conductors. He was always very picky, couldn't stand playing or singing that wasn't perfectly in tune and certainly knew what he liked and what he didn't. He came here to visit my family here every year, more frequently after my mother no longer could travel. I would get him tickets to concerts, whether in Los Angeles or in Seattle. He'd often shake his head and remark "the conductor likes himself too much" or "he cares more about his ego than music". There wasn't much I could say to that and usually remained quiet. A couple times I brought him to see an opera production but that clearly wasn't his cup of tea. A ballet production was much more acceptable and he particularly enjoyed the local "Nutcracker" with sets by Maurice Sendak.

It is time to take a week or more off to visit Finland and my father this spring. Of course I can't be sure that he recognizes who I am, as he lives in a world long gone, but nevertheless he is always happy to see me. I haven't been back since last March but at least three of my daughters went there on separate occasions over the summer and early fall. They all spent time with him. A couple days ago I thought I would be writing an obituary but instead, here I am retelling happy memories. Of course, at ninety-six one lives on "borrowed time" and nobody can tell what the next day will bring, so I have to be prepared for the inevitable sad news. But until that, here is "I love you, dad, and thank you for everything".

Photo of Veikko Talvi
Valta-Kuva/Eila Juuma, Kouvola

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Killing Fields

Christmas was not a particularly happy time for the Bhutto family in Pakistan. Something about the assassination reminded me of JFK's murder in 1963. Although I always believed that Lee Oswald acted alone as the shooter, he probably was hired to do the job and Jack Ruby, a terminally ill night club owner, was sent to silence him for good. How else would a stranger with a handgun be allowed to approach the accused and shoot him at a close distance in front of television cameras, unless it was made easy for him? Perhaps we shall know the truth at some point when all the parties involved have died. JFK had a lot of political enemies as did Mrs. Bhutto. Video footage from Pakistan shows a man with a gun and another one behind him in what looks like a suicide belt. Was the latter present to finish the job and to make sure the gunman wouldn't talk if captured? Even if he didn't order the assassination, Mr. Musharraf cannot claim total innocence, and should offer to step down. Of course he won't because just like any other dictator he loves to be in charge and, as we all know, power corrupts.

Many South Asians seem to think that Pakistan is a downward spiraling nightmare of violence and mayhem, and that in ten years or less, today's Iraq will seem like a kindergarten playground compared to the situation there. At least in that country they have real WMDs. Perhaps if India had been able to become what Mahatma Gandhi envisioned it to be, there would be less unrest in the region. Pakistan as a country should never have been created: belief in Islam alone is not enough to form a nation. Former East Pakistan left the union long time ago to form today's Bangladesh. Yet the mother country, India, still has as almost many Muslims as today's Pakistan and, depending on who's counting, more than the poor Bangladesh. Somehow they manage to live in relative harmony with the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians. In the "pure" Muslim state of Pakistan people are killing their own brethren with bullets and explosives. And this is supposed to be a nation we can trust in the war against terrorism: with friends like these, who needs enemies?

American media has been full of reports of the mayhem in Iraq calming down. However, 2007 was the worst year for American casualties so far, hardly an indication of more peaceful times. This also contradicts the reports claiming that violence is increasingly between the different religious factions and no longer aimed at the occupying forces. The same media also recently said that the number of Palestinians killed by the Israeli military is sharply down. This may be so, but the headlines across the ocean told another side to the story: one out of three Palestinians killed was an innocent civilian. It is interesting how facts can be twisted to serve one's intended audience. A typical trick is to publish news proving that a local or national problem is nothing at all: it exists everywhere, probably even in a worse form. Nothing is needed to back such claims; the fact that a "reporter" writes or says it is proof enough. It is not that long ago when people learned that our government was producing twisted news reports that were given to local media all over as factual. Of course these reporters were all invented and the contents of the "news" pure propaganda.

Back in home country, Finland, a young man snapped and went to his small school with firearms and managed to kill eight people, six of them students, the school's principal and nurse, before turning the gun to his own head. My countrymen have tried to understand why someone in the world's most admired school system would commit such a horrific act. Granted, this young man was inspired by the Columbine massacre, but according to many reports he had also been frequently teased by other students. Often it doesn't take much to make a person go over the edge. Just think of recent shopping mall shooting in Omaha, Nebraska. Hadn't the gunman just been fired from his job as a hamburger flipper? If one sees his/her life having been destroyed, suicide seems often the only solution in the mental state they are in. But like a Muslim with an explosive belt, person in a Western society, such as ours, doesn't want to leave this world without taking those responsible for his misery with him. How many husbands have killed their wives and children when they have learned about a spouse's desire to leave them? We have seen an endless number of cases where a former, or present, unhappy employee has shown up at the workplace with a weapon and caused a bloodbath. If I were in such a hostile job situation, for my family's sake I would have to dress up in bullet proof body armor every morning, especially if I had directly or indirectly caused devastation in an employee's life. More likely, I would relocate in a hurry, instead of waiting for the catastrophe to happen.

Mexico has seen thirteen musician murders in the last year and half, something that even the locals find puzzling and alarming. None of these crimes have been solved. All the victims have been well known country music performers. A 28-year-old singer survived the shooting but the killers followed her to the hospital to finish her off with two more bullets. Had the murdered been classical musicians, one would no doubt investigate a conductor, but this clearly isn't the case. Perhaps someone intensely dislikes country music south of the border. But back to Mesopotamia: the number of Iraqi civilians killed in 2007 was 23,000-24,000, close to one out of a thousand people. These are documented cases and published in a rather reliable source and the true number is probably quite a bit higher. In the United States the same ratio would translate to almost 300,000 dead in last year alone. And this we call progress?

John F Kennedy once said: "Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind."