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.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

We Like Sheep

The message in Georg Friedrich Händel's oratorio Messiah is slightly different ("All we like sheep have gone astray") but to the listener, those three words stick in memory. For an Englishman it might create a craving for a dinner of mutton, and when sung by one of the many truly excellent gay men's choruses, someone's wild imagination might bring produce other mental images. Nevertheless it is a great song, a catchy tune indeed.

Countries of sheep fall in two different categories. There are lands where the animals far outnumber people, such New Zealand (1 to 12) and Australia, with a slightly smaller ratio. I like to think a sheep farmer takes care of his flock for the wool, a great insulator, and not the meat, but unfortunately many young lambs end up on our dinner table. For instance, in Iceland meat production is the main purpose for keeping sheep, and perhaps that explains why the animals there are not very docile as, for a good reason, they don't trust the people. However, in a similar climate in the sparsely populated Falkland Islands, in the Southern Hemisphere, fine wool is their pride. Personally, I don't have a problem of having a domestic animal such as a cow ending up slaughtered when she gets old and her life is more pain than pleasure on the pasture and the farmer no longer gets milk from her. The same is true with an old hen which doesn't lay any more eggs. We are so spoiled in our quest for tender meat that we insist on growing animals in conditions where they cannot move and thus prevent their meat from becoming tough, more like that of a game animal. A Russian delicacy is to rip open a pregnant mother sow and cook the unborn piglets. I'm sure they are succulent but I'd rather put a tough old hen in a pressure cooker and enjoy the delicious soup, unless I decided to stick to a vegetarian diet.

The other category of sheep nations is the kind Händel had in mind where people end up behaving like sheep with their scared herd mentality. Countries differ a lot in this respect. America lives up to its reputation as "Sheep Country USA". Although at one point we were very much of a worker's nation, since the passage of the Taft-Hartley bill in 1947 (which President Truman tried to veto), unions and their members lost much of their power in the American society. Of course, those were difficult times with all the military men coming home from two fronts and not finding work as much of the industrial output had been geared towards making weapons and other supplies for the war. Socialism and communism seemed frightening with the Soviet Union flexing its muscle and conquering and occupying Eastern Europe as well as a third of Germany. Union leaders had to file affidavits with the U.S. Department of Labor declaring they were not Communist Party members or sympathizers. The U.S. Supreme court finally overturned that requirement as unconstitutional in 1965.

The independent, too-smart-for-us presidential candidate Ralph Nader stated in 2002: "Taft-Hartley entrenched significant executive tyranny in the workplace, with ramifications that are more severe today than ever. – It is past time for the repeal of Taft-Hartley". Most of us have experienced such tyranny in one form or another. Our unions have become weak and much of the work force isn't taking part in organized labor. Since Ronald Reagan delivered the striking Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization a severe blow in 1981, most unions have been reluctant to go to that extent with their labor disputes, one exception being the Teamsters. We thought of the striking Hollywood writers as a big deal recently, although it only meant more reruns or perhaps presenting the viewers with older treasures they had never seen before. I had just immigrated to Los Angeles when studio musicians went on strike as their demands were not met. A new Local 47 member, I had to go and picket in front of the Paramount Studios many times during early hours of the day. Of course, no one honored the picket line and all the studios had their music produced overseas, in another city or even locally, in secrecy, by greedy union members themselves. I remember the studio scene upon my arrival in 1977 when one concertmaster X would say that if I ever worked for concertmaster Y, he would never hire me again. They were perhaps six of these people seemingly hating each others' guts. But then came the strike and all these individuals formed a wolf pack, playing three sessions of illegal gigs together almost every day. That taught me a lot about people and their principles, or lack of, in this business. After six months or so, the union had to accept an offer that was lower than the studios' initial one.

Much of the sheep mentality comes out of fear. Having been threatened by a cruel and inept manager that if a lawful grievance wasn't withdrawn, one's benefits and salary would be cut off immediately, very few employees have the backbone to stand for their rights. It is a well-known fact that most people are unhappy at their place of employment and they would leave if it didn't endanger their health insurance or income at least short-term. There have been enough horror stories of people and their dependents getting sick while the person in question has been between jobs. Fortunes can disappear in medical expenses and no private insurance is going to accept an application from a seriously ill individual. If we finally become like the rest of the civilized world and start offering people universal health care, perhaps we start acting more like our European, Australian or even Canadian counterparts. Just last week France was paralyzed by striking teachers whose jobs are threatened by President Sarkozy's proposed budget cuts. My first memory of a general strike in Finland was when I was just seven and had to learn to drink black coffee as no milk or cream was available for a month. Yes, strikes can be a nuisance and should only be used as a last resort, but at least everyone in other industrialized nations knows that such an option exists. If the seemingly powerful American Federation of Musicians couldn't help their Los Angeles local with labor issues, what makes a little "Prayers Organization" think that they have any say? Come contract negotiations, their wishes and demands are like prayers indeed.

There are ordinary sheep, some black sheep, and a number of rams, but also goats and stubborn Billy-goats that don't give wool and in the latter case even milk. They are all surrounded by sheep-dogs, which often enjoy their seemingly powerful status as the flocks' middle managers. On the top you have the humans, herds' CEOs and executives, who decide whether you will live or die, but also a powerful pack of wolves, coyotes and other blood-thirsty wild carnivores. We all know many of the latter surrounding the human sheep.

"The Flock" by Millie Ballance