Thursday, June 26, 2008

Midsummer Thoughts

In the far North, Scandinavia, Midsummer marks the opposite of the winter's short, dark days. Traditionally it was celebrated two days after the summer solstice, as was the case in my youth and still is in Estonia, our sister country just 50 miles South across the Gulf of Finland. My mother's birthday always fell on Midsummer Eve, June 23rd. She would have been 91 this year. On the actual longest day of the year, June 21st, my father celebrated his birthday. Although everyone expected him to leave this life some six months ago, having fallen victim of a nasty influenza virus for which the vaccine offered no protection, he perked up and is very much alive. As he turned 97 on the "new" Midsummer Day (now it is always on a Saturday to give people a long weekend of celebration), the actual festivities were two days earlier. These pictures are from this Monday when my brother's family was able to go for a visit. The young violinist is my niece's little daughter Seena. She has a wonderful ear and has already appeared as soloist for a local orchestra. When she was playing for her great-grandfather, he was conducting from his wheelchair. Still to this day his hearing is excellent. I'm looking forward to seeing him this coming winter when I'll be in the country playing and giving a master class.

A mile from our home, across the ship canal in Fremont, there is an annual Summer Solstice Parade with other festivities. It is very popular and includes an unofficial ride-through of nude bicyclists. Everyone is amused by it and no attempt is made to curtail this activity. It was interesting to hear our fifteen-year-old discussing nudism over the phone with a girlfriend. My daughter didn't see anything wrong with it and seems to think that people would be better off and less hostile if they saw each other without the 'body armor' of clothing. Back in Finland one sees plenty of naked bodies coming out of hot saunas to take a dip in a cold lake. This is perfectly natural for people and out of politeness someone rowing by will look elsewhere. Finns love their saunas and as this picture proves, students at the Technical Institute managed to build one inside an older VW minibus. This Midsummer the portable sauna caught fire, from overuse, being heated almost non-stop for three days. As it was well built, the damage was minimal and the vehicle could be driven away and I wouldn't be surprised if it had already been fixed.

Midsummer is also a time for love, with a lot of people getting married then. There traditionally is a baby boom every March, nine months later. Partially this happens because young people tend to drink too much during the weekend and are not always careful. Interestingly this year some alcoholic beverages have had a free condom attached to the can or the bottle. It would be difficult to picture something like that happening here, prudish as we are. Midsummer is also time for magical things. A young maiden is supposed to collect either seven or nine different flowers, put them under her pillow and in her dream the future groom will reveal himself. A husband's picture will appear if one looks at the reflection in a well or spring, preferably while naked. A young woman can also listen to the cuckoo bird. The number of years to wait for marriage corresponds with the cuckooing; if none is heard marriage will take place the same year. A big bonfire is also part of the celebration and the person first hit by the smoke will be lucky in love.

We could use some Midsummer magic in present life. Today's crude oil climbed past $140 and Dow Jones fell nearly 360 points. Consumer confidence is at an all-time low and for a reason. Granted, oil companies are making record profits and thus give a more optimistic picture of America's financial shape than it would be without them. I would hate to be in charge of a non-profit organization as people are not going to be able to donate like before. According to today's New York Times many people cannot afford to keep their dogs anymore since they have to choose between feeding their children or pets. As a result animal shelters are overcrowding with a record number of pets being euthanized. Many events are beyond the means of the ordinary working class. Vacation plans have been canceled or changed. With the plummeting dollar most countries have simply become too expensive for us to visit and airlines are adding all kinds of fees to already high fares. First we were told to check every piece of our luggage, but now doing so costs money and we are supposed to carry everything on board, desperately looking for space in overhead bins. People inspecting our luggage on behalf of our famous Homeland Security shamelessly steal what they want. My eldest daughter was recently returning from a conference in Philadelphia and without thinking placed her medicine in checked luggage. Naturally the pills never made it to Seattle. This Monday she came back from Scotland from another international conference and British Airways managed to lose her two bags, a scenario more of a norm than exception today. One hears of horror stories of anything valuable stolen at airport security checkpoints, especially if one ends up beeping walking through a metal detector and not being able to keep an eye on the basket where personal belongings go. Not only are we nearing a Third World country economically, Americans are behaving in a way we would expect in Karachi or Bogotá.

Every Finn's favorite author of children's books, Tove Jansson, wrote her fourth Moomin book in 1954, titled "Moomins and the Midsummer Madness." I remember reading it, in Finnish naturally, for the first time with great excitement at the age of five. There is a volcanic eruption followed by a surge of water. Everything and everyone washes away; most of the Moomin family eventually ending up on a floating theater stage. Moominpappa decides to write a play and every critter around takes a boat to see the production, including the remaining family members who are by now chased by police. The play becomes very interactive and hilarious, and naturally has a happy ending. Water levels dropping, the Moomin family is able to return home and everything is again as it should be. Earlier this year the animated Finnish-Polish-Austrian co-production had its premier. This link takes you to a site in New Zealand. Perhaps the suffering folks around the Mississippi river could have something to learn from the film. At least it would give them a bit of comic relief.