Monday, October 08, 2012


Veikko and Ilkka Talvi, 40 & 3

It was exactly a year ago when my wife’s cell phone rang in the morning and I answered it, not something I would normally do. The message was somber: my brother had just received a call that our dad had taken his afternoon nap and didn’t wake up. It had been a good morning. No suffering; his time had finally arrived. In the Finnish way of counting days it was 9.10.11., a perfect date to remember.

I used up over a quarter of frequent flier million miles on Delta and flew the long distance to my father’s funeral, coming back in three days. Less than four months earlier I had visited him for his 100th birthday. At that age every day is a gift and I was well prepared for my dad’s death as it had to happen sooner or later. What I didn’t foresee was the emptiness his passing left behind. I realized that not only my parent but also my best pal was gone. All of a sudden I felt my own age and mortality which now had to be accepted differently from before.

Our relationship had been quite different from what my two siblings experienced. They had started seeing him regularly only in his final years; the closeness I always had wasn’t necessarily how they remembered him. It is very difficult for a parent to show the same affection and interest to all children equally. However, I gratefully accepted what Dad had decided to give me. Recently in an email my brother lamented the fact that our father had to reach his 90s before he could talk about the horrors of the wars between Finland and the Soviet Union. Reluctantly I replied that I had heard all the details already as a child and umpteen times since then. No, he probably wasn’t a model parent to my brother or sister but to me he was everything one could wish for in a dad.

Music must have played a large part in his interest in his youngest. I had just turned five and while he and my mom were taking a walk in the cool late autumn weather, his violin came out of its case and when they walked in, I proudly declared “see what I can do” and played a melody in higher positions as the full-size instrument was too big for me to play in first. I read any text fluently, also music having studied the piano since three, and I did have perfect pitch. My dad started laughing and he seemed to be trembling. The next day a small violin and a teacher candidate appeared but I refused both. There was a three-quarter size instrument for a little while but I didn’t like its sound, so basically I learned to stretch and taught myself on a full size violin. Dad was almost always present when I practiced and from early on we played duets every night. I joined the quite excellent orchestra he conducted before my sixth birthday, playing in the second violins, second stand. It took quite a while before my feet were able to touch the floor but it didn’t matter as making music with my father conducting was the ultimate fun activity.

So, lets fast forward. After starting family number one, teaching at the Sibelius Academy at the age of 20 and performing all over, it was time to leave Finland. After a year in Sweden, my family with two children in tow, ended up in Los Angeles, a city I already knew. The studio work seemed very strange at first as did the free-lance scene in general. Money was plentiful although I missed the regular vacations of Europeans. My mom came for a visit and wasn’t very impressed; a couple years later my parents traveled together and America was seen more favorably. I took my dad to the beach in Santa Barbara. Tide was coming in rapidly and my father’s shoes got wet. He laughed: “I came to greet the ocean but the ocean greeted me first”. I was given permission to bring him to a studio session at 20th Century Fox where we were scoring a major movie. He also attended a few concerts, both by my L.A. Chamber Orchestra and Henri Temianka’s California Chamber Symphony. The latter had Ricci performing Kreisler’s fake Vivaldi concerto as soloist and my old man was sweating as the little Paganini expert wasn’t having one of his best nights. My dad’s ear was as phenomenal as ever in his final years. Of the first ensemble where I played as principal second at that time, he warned me about its conductor: “He is not musical and he likes himself too much”. I should have listened to his words more carefully and perhaps turned down the job offer here in Seattle a couple years later. However, once I remarried and we moved here, both my parents fell in love with the beauty of this heavenly corner of the Earth. They would visit at least once a year and we would return to Finland every summer. After my mom was stricken with Alzheimer’s, my dad would visit her in the hospital every day but still take time off for long trips here. A few years later, my mom passed away. I returned for her funeral and then brought my dad back with me for over a month. He clearly felt at home with us; the two little granddaughters absolutely adored him, as did the two older ones who would try to see him regularly, too.

Isä-Veikko or Pappa, as the younger ones called him, attended numerous concerts here. He was critical; again I heard the same comments. At the time my wife had her highly successful chamber music series and those seemed to please him a lot, with the exception of one where a recent L.A. transplant had been invited to perform. “She plays just like a student”, he remarked. What could I say as there was no fooling the old connoisseur of music. I took my dad to an opera, not his favorite art form, and after hours of sitting there he was more than ready to come home. The Nutcracker at the ballet was more successful, especially with Sendak’s designs. We would take trips to Canada and see the tulips in Skagit Valley. We traveled a lot and he felt that this area was close to Paradise and it reminded him of nature back home but with high mountains, like Finland's neighbor Norway.

I could write a thick book about this dear man and yet only scratch the surface. It is wonderful that we can live in two different realities, neither of which is more true than the other. My dad and I get to meet often at night and have our adventures together, play cards and then duets the next minute. After a wonderful night the morning may feel empty but a new opportunity for a revisit is close and even in this state of mind we call wakefulness our memories can be incredibly strong.

It is time to let the depression go. Both my parents are with me and my father will make sure I shall continue to play in tune. He had a beautiful sound on the violin and I can’t disappoint him.

My dad as centenarian, the last time I saw him.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Shining Light of Music and Humanity

It is interesting how differently we react to someone departing. Going away may not be even permanent as there is a likelihood that a person’s face will be seen again; yet people are elated and talk about a new beginning, in my field a Musical Spring. Then there are deaths which of course are permanent. Most of these are quickly forgotten, except by family and close friends. Occasionally a truly great individual passes away and thousands will keep on thinking of the person as he/she has deeply touched their lives. 

This past August 19th the father figure of Seattle’s classical music left us at an honorable age of 96. Vilem Sokol did more for young musicians than anyone I can think of, anywhere. He headed the Seattle Youth Symphony for 28 years and taught at the University of Washington for even a longer time, 1948-1985.  He inspired countless young people to become musicians and music lovers over the decades. With him at the helm, the SYSO organization reached its high point, an envy for the rest of America. Sokol was a father figure for everyone, beloved and admired. His own family was large with ten children, but his extended family was as huge as a big town. He worked tirelessly every day, bringing joy to the hearts of those thousands who were fortunate to have him as their guiding light.

Doing violin-related research I discovered a photo from not too long ago in which Vilem Sokol is having a conversation with two esteemed colleagues. The article linked to the picture talks about a famous violinist in Prague, Otakar Ševčik, whose life and work as a soloist and well-known pedagogue was quite familiar to me. What I didn’t know is the fact that Vilem’s parents in their wisdom had sent their son back to Czechoslovakia to study. Not only did he get a great musical education but also mastered the difficult language, unlike so many children of immigrants whose parents did their best to Americanize them, thinking this would make their success in the New World easier. Often elderly parents started forgetting what little English they had learned and their children had no way of communicating with them, a sad situation. I can remember the local opera company turning to Mr. Sokol for help with pronunciation when they produced a Czech opera, such as Dvořák’s Rusalka.
I remember playing as a part of a Mass honoring Vilem Sokol’s 90th birthday at St. James Cathedral here in Seattle. At the time it seemed like the iconic figure would live forever as he, a devout Catholic, gave us all an image of being close to a Saint. That he indeed was for so many music lovers. The orchestra in Heaven now has another great conductor on the podium.

I must return to a document of a very personal nature. I would not have made it public under different circumstances but since it refers to a difficult period in my life and Mr. Sokol's kind words and encouragement greatly helped me to survive, I think showing it here is in order.

The letter unexpectedly arrived about a year after a certain Mr. Meecham (today in Baltimore) called me in to discuss my contract and informed me that Gerard Schwarz was looking for new leadership. This was done shortly after I notified the Seattle Symphony that I needed surgery to remove a large tumor from my back. Mr. Schwarz never had the guts to talk one word to me about his unhappiness after my serving him for over a quarter of century, 20+ years of which here, or discuss his possible hormonal overload man-to-man. Add to the equation a local Mr. Kollektor who, I was told, offered the organization money to have me replaced. Anyway, by this time Schwarz, Meecham and the city’s most expensive law firm had lost their case in court and the issue was heading for mediation. This letter from Vilem Sokol gave me back my belief that goodness and compassion still existed and provided me with more strength to fight for justice than anyone else had been able to give. I shall treasure it for the rest of my life.

24 March 2005
Dear Ilkka:

Ever since you have been dealt an appalling blow by people you considered friends, I have tried to rationalize the reasons behind all of this.  Try as I might I cannot find any logical reason that has anything to do with your musicianship, your ability to play the violin superbly or your ability to lead a section of violinists, or for that matter the entire string section.

I’ve concluded after thinking about it for a long time that the reasons can only be political. You have become the scapegoat. You know as well as I who the culpable one is. Your dismissal from the orchestra is just a distraction from something else that may surface someday. It is my hope that it will.

Jenny and I continue to pray for you and for Marjorie. We admire both of you. You are not only admirable musicians but also high-principled human beings.

Continue standing up for your rights. Justice is on your side.
With my warmest regards,
(Bill Sokol)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Stranger in the World

Last month I made the mistake of purchasing a licence to watch television programs from Finland, country of my birth. Due to their strict copyright laws only news broadcasts and such can be broadcast for free over the web. This service I subscribed to,, charges a yearly fee similar to what every Finnish household must pay for such a licence, a common practice in Europe. The main channels are ad-free; some others are financed by commercials. Naturally I watch local television there whenever I visit but do so seeing it as part of life and culture over there. All of a sudden the distance has been removed and part of my old home has followed me here. The broadcasts have all been recorded and are available on demand, similar to using a DVR or a service like TiVo. My feed comes from Chicago which is closer and thus more reliable than trying to reassemble data packets ten timezones away.

Moomin family on Finnish TV
Why am I calling this wonderful opportunity a mistake? Simply because I am able, or rather forced, to compare life and values here and back in the place of my origin. Instead of American predictable documentaries and movies with chase scenes and special effects but little else, I can follow very smart science programs from numerous European countries, deep philosophical conversations and European movies, crime and other dramas from the U.K., Germany, Italy, you name it. I have been especially impressed by Finnish educational programs. There is a classical music series where most of the presenters, both in speaking and musical roles, are just kids themselves. Naturally classic arts are not to everyone's taste there either, but watching these youngsters talk and play or sing certainly might make others of the same age at least somewhat curious about the subject. I'm beginning to understand why my home country has done so well in global comparison. Unfortunately I grew up in the old system. Living away from the big cities meant that instruction after elementary school was for the most part given by teachers with no interest in making students learn. Many of these people were bitter because they hadn't been able to land better jobs. In today's Finland there are no bad schools and teaching is one of the most competitive and respected professions.

Since the end of a busy summer has finally been less hectic, I have had the opportunity to follow politics, geography, various sciences, medicine and many other interesting topics. It has been twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and freedom for Finland's neighbors to the south in the Baltics. A lot of most interesting programs from the old archives have been rebroadcast, especially about Estonia, a small country that shares so much with its northern neighbor. Programs have subtitles but in most cases I don't seem to need them. Danish is hard to understand when spoken fast as is Dutch. I heard plenty of the latter today in a long documentary on Rembrandt. Having read quite about him, I was amazed to learn results of recent discoveries and the methods of investigating the true nature of many paintings attributed to him but recently found having been created in his workshop, by gifted students who had been taught the master's technique and style.

Rembrandt had no problems with signing his name on the bottom of a picture which wasn't his but this way fetched a far higher price. In the violin world the French master Vuillaume was a similar businessman. Most of the numerous Stradivarius copies were indeed done by students or workers in his shop; only relatively few truly unique instruments were actually Vuillaume's handiwork. He was an expert in creating fake Italian master instruments that look and sound as good as the originals. Actually they are better than the real things as they are newer and less damaged from wear and tear. There is absolutely no way of telling which is which: the famous Hill of London admitted long time ago that at least a third of Stradivari violins they had authenticated were most likely in made by the Frenchman a century later.

All this information has suited my plans well. As Alzheimer's runs on my mother's side of the family, I try to challenge my brain by studying numerous different topics every day, supposedly the best way of keeping the dreadful illness from developing. Obviously my newly discovered television programs are not enough: I also read a lot and do daily research on the computer. Family members and people who know me well often call me a walking encyclopedia. That I hardly am but admittedly know a lot and increasingly so every day. Seeing the mental decline in my mother and later in her brother, both extremely smart people, was enough to scare me for good, and I certainly don't want ever to be in a similar situation and become a terrible burden to those who love me.

I wrote earlier in this post about having to compare life in two different worlds, whether I want it or not. My extended stay in this country spans over 36 years and yet I have difficulties in understanding American value system, or rather the lack of it. We are a country without a collective conscience, often hiding behind a religion and living contrary to its fundamentals. As a rich nation it is a shame that our poverty level is so high, that our people are uneducated and that the sick and old suffer under our very eyes which we prefer to close. A problem unseen isn't there, right? I should not complain: my family does fine, but it is the less fortunate and their misery that bothers me to no end. Pro-life seems to mean more frequent executions: is the life of a fertilized egg really more important than that of a grown-up who as mentally ill or in desperation has committed a serious crime but who possibly could be returned to society with proper mental health care or by re-educating and giving this person another chance?

At times I wish I could return. Theoretically I could, but most of my family lives here, three of my four daughters (one has returned) and the same number of grandchildren. Most of my old friends back home have passed away (I was "born old" and always gravitated toward wise people decades my senior) and my family there has shrunk. Additionally, I am approaching an age when the system expects one to retire: one cannot continue in a job past 65 or 67 years of age, unless one is his own employer. For now, people are well taken care of but the financial uncertainty is a curse there as well, with the failing Mediterranean EU economies causing havoc. Finnish companies have followed in America's footsteps of capitalism: paying 200 euros a month in India is twenty times cheaper than hiring people back home.

Perhaps something truly horrible will happen and our eyes will open. Mankind seems unable to start anew, with any humbleness and social justice, except after a global-scale catastrophe. As it stands now, our paper currency, rapidly losing its value, should say In Greed We Trust and leave God out.

If it weren't for my wonderful loving family and the happiness of seeing a thriving new grandchild, I indeed would feel homeless and truly a stranger in this world.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Childish Summer

Hardly anyone can deny that our politicians are behaving like spoiled children in Washington. The empire of United Greek States of America doesn’t see the necessity of common good. The mess in Greece has put the entire European Union in danger, and the Euro with it. The Greek don’t want to pay the taxes they owe and corruption is rampant. You go to the doctor and have to pay twice: first, the official fee and then the larger amount under the table. Priests get extra pay for leading a service and a similar bonus is given in certain other jobs if you wash your hands after using a restroom. The government has decided to use satellite photos to find out which houses have swimming pools as people’s honesty in non-existent.

Many outside observers have noted that the Greek problems resemble our own. This country’s 400 richest people pay an average of 18% of their income in taxes according to a Wall Street financier, Steve Rattner. Before Bush Junior’s era they paid 30%, not as much as they should have perhaps, but enough to prevent the country from sinking into the present mess. At least our rich individuals pay something which is not the case with many of our large corporations. G.E. made headlines earlier this year when it was discovered that not only was its contribution to the U.S. Treasury nothing but it also claimed a tax benefit of 1.1 billion. A 2008 New York Times article showed that two out of three American corporations paid no federal income taxes from 1998 to 2005. None of us like taxes but the government has expenses and has to make payments we all depend on, especially the elderly. Non-profits don’t even pay real estate taxes. In some cities with large universities and hospitals that can amount to a lot. Faced with increasing tuition charges and enormous hospital bills, one is baffled with these institutions’ non-profit status.

Ellen at 2 months
This summer has been childish in other ways, too: we have been blessed with a new beautiful, sweet and healthy granddaughter. I have two other wonderful grandchildren but they live too far, allowing only an occasional visit. Baby Ellen is less than a two-hour drive away, permitting almost weekly visits to witness the incredible speed little ones develop. This one doesn’t fit the typical image of an infant as crying isn’t part of her ordinary performance ritual. There are no sleepless nights. Bright, content and happy, she must be a dream-come-true to my third daughter and her husband. For the past month our youngest has been there helping and keeping company while completing her second-year Spanish at the university. The 18-year-old auntie has the same gift I possess: we both can instantly become children ourselves and be on the same level even with a little infant. I often think of the miracle of my own father being exactly a century older than this newcomer to the world. The circle of life continues even if today’s world seems like a scary place. Has there ever been a time when it didn't?

I just read about a German child psychiarist Michael Winterhoff. He laments the fact that at present children have overtaken families as their little tyrants. According to him, a typical modern youngster lacks discipline and responsibility and is narcissistic because his/her psyche has remained on the level of a little child. According to Dr. Winterhoff they will be like big children as adults, relying on their parents and unable to guide their own lives. The well-known psychiatrist claims that the fault lies with the parents who are too dependent on the love of their offspring in today’s uncertain world. This leads to emotional abuse of sorts: a parent begs children for love, treats them as their equals and identifies with them to the point that they don’t believe a child could do anything wrong. As a result the child as a grown-up has difficulty with accepting responsibility, being prompt or even getting a job. The author of three books on the subject fears that this all will lead to the destruction of our Western culture. Enclosed link to a short video interview is in German.

I have no firsthand experience in knowing how children are raised in Germany, but it is true that here in the U.S. they often feel entitled to many things that a parent may have trouble providing. And yes, a parent sometimes lives through the child. Perhaps the individual had certain dreams of his/her own which didn’t or couldn’t materialize and a child provides an opportunity to try again. However, this is nothing new. Yes, we have seen students whose parents act as if they are the ones wanting to become stars, but my wife and I experienced the same in our childhood and youth. Personally, our children grew up differently: our now-a-parent-herself daughter calls it “hands-off care”. There were no punishments for an occasional mistake. They knew when we had been disappointed and never repeated the act. No groundings, no taking away privileges. The girls learned to read our faces for signs of displeasure; verbal reprimanding was not needed. It is possible that they were exceptional human beings even as children and we based our way of upbringing on an instinct of knowing that. The truth remains that they grew up to be incredibly wonderful children and young adults. Best of all, they have a strong loving bond between them.

Let the country go bankrupt and EU economies collapse. It is time for a shake-up anyway: no empire lasts forever. The future belongs to our children and their children, not to today’s grown-ups who act like they are in their terrible twos or adolescence at best. Life will straighten itself out even if it takes time.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Veikko Talvi, 100 on June 21 2011
Upon arriving at the public senior home to see my dad, I heard sentimental songs, originating many decades ago. At first the sound came from loudspeakers but as I walked on, a Roma (or Gypsy) with a golden voice came to my sight and I realized this was the home’s dance hour. The dark-skinned baritone (for a Finn) was accompanied by a skillful accordion player and the old tunes were familiar to all present. As there were more women than men, the caregivers helped out by dancing with those who hadn’t found a partner. There was sweetness in the air and I had to delay entering my dad’s section of the building. Had he possessed the strength, I’m sure he’d have been the first one on the floor. I was mesmerized by the healing power of this quite basic but sincere and melancholic music making and spent quite a while witnessing the scene.

Today no one seems to know what direction music performances should go. Orchestras are particularly at a loss as nothing simple and small is cost-effective. By seeing the pleasure and happiness on the faces of the seniors I couldn’t even begin to deny the power of live music. There he was, a singer from a minority group in my native country, probably not particularly well known, giving joy to the elderly and even to me. One doesn’t need a star soloist or a bombastic performance of a Mahler symphony to fulfill the needs of a music-loving listener. In its simplicity the slightly amplified vocal-accordion duo hit the spot.

Two serenades
My dear dad turned a hundred years old two days ago. Although his age shows by now, he was amazingly perky for the two-hour reception. I had forgotten how proper my countrymen are in such events: just about all the male visitors were wearing black suits in spite of the festivities falling on the longest day of the year. I was the exception in an orange short-sleeved dress shirt and a Moomintroll tie with no jacket. However, my old man was admiring my colorful outfit which naturally pleased me. He was serenaded by two violinists: his very first student, now up in his years, played a long czardas from memory and amazingly well considering his age. The other musical greeting was by my niece’s daughter, four generations younger. In spite of the pressure of an audience and a grown-up’s impressive solo right before, she stood her ground and her great-grandfather was a keen listener.

Midsummer Eve is tomorrow and my brother Tuomo was busy getting ready to play the keyboard for a daytime dance with one of his bands. They were expecting hundreds of participants and I was admiring the enthusiasm with which the over 70-year-old was packing his car with sound equipment. Even in my childhood I was outright envious of the pleasure my elder brother got out of playing and performing music. The fact that he never did it for living didn’t hurt. I “retired” from studying the piano at 7 or 8 (I actually used this expression to notify my teacher) mainly because I felt I could never reach the level of my sibling who was eight years older than I. The Chopin Etudes seemed too difficult ever to master for a little tyke and I listened with amazement to the skilled improvisations that came directly from my brother’s heart. So, I concentrated on the violin, teaching myself and soon others. The fiddle was my father’s instrument and I knew he would be thrilled by my rapid progress. However, I must admit that I probably never got the kind of satisfaction out of performing my brother did and still does. I can play very well, no doubt, but the love and enjoyment doesn’t reach the level of my brother. I should have followed my mother's advice and have had a career outside of music: that way I could still love it. The wise French said that one should never work in a field what they love most as it was too close to one’s heart. They also claimed one shouldn’t marry the person they loved above everyone else: that one I can’t quite agree with.

It was interesting to hear again complaints about young people losing interest in classical instruments, in spite of Finland’s generally excellent and widely available music education. In particular violin has suffered in popularity, probably because there is no way one can get instant satisfaction from it. No matter how good one’s ear is, learning the instrument takes a lot of hard work. Edison said that a genius is composed of 95% sweat. With a string instrument, particularly the violin, the percentage must be closer to 99. There are really no shortcuts, no magic bullets. My country, even during these globally hard economic times, invests a lot of public funds in classical arts, annoying the larger part of music lovers who prefer a lighter fare. Helsinki is finally getting a decent concert hall which should be ready any day now. Probably it will be packed for many years like new auditoriums tend to be, even when their acoustics leave a lot to be desired. How my country (and the rest of Europe) will be able to finance classical arts in the long run is of course a big question mark, but at least people assume the funding will come from the government or big cultural foundations which are large in number. Music there is not for the wealthy by the wealthy, a much healthier approach that we have on this side of the Atlantic.

This plane is approaching Seattle and I’m eager to see my loving family again after a week. Without them there would be very little to keep me here; add to that our gorgeous nature, a lush version of Scandinavia. My values differ too much from the American norm. Money is nice to have but it shouldn’t become an obsession. I like a system where people are taken care of, whether they are well off or less so. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of wonderful people here; they just don’t make much noise. And we have more than our share of ignorant fruitcakes: anti-science, anti-women, anti-progress but pro-guns, pro-war and pro-greed. After witnessing the care every person in my dad’s home gets makes me realize what a primitive society we in so many ways have.

Happy Midsummer to all!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Midnight Sun over Canadian Arctic

I have flown over this frozen tundra almost every middle of June for 45 years. Having been a geography buff all my life the landscape is oddly familiar. I can name the larger lakes and tell by the occasional mountains exactly where we are. For the first time I see open water where ice still should cover the sea. Lakes are frozen but the salty water isn’t. Of course floating sheets of ice are still visible but the amount of melt water is shocking. I feel sorry for the polar bears. Yes, they are great swimmers but distances to solid ground from a shrinking ice float can be many miles long. Already there are numerous prizzlies or glolar bears as their formerly separated living areas have become mixed.

Clearly our climate is changing, although certain politicians claim otherwise. Seattle may have had the coldest spring in recorded history and back home in Finland past winter was extremely cold. Yet global warming doesn’t mean warmer temperatures everywhere but more of extreme weather. Storms have become more violent globally. Last summer’s long stretch of almost 100° F weather in Finland was highly unusual; we are on both sides of the Arctic Circle after all.

Now we are over coastal Greenland. Baffin Bay was filled with fishing boats, many of which have travelled great distances. One could see numerous icebergs but mainly the ocean water was ice-free. What is shocking to see are the freshwater lakes that have appeared on the snow and ice: they seem to be all over. One mustn’t forget, of course, that Greenland was tropical at some point. Perhaps we are heading in that direction again.

Out of nowhere the Icelandic coast appears and the Boeing 757-300 touches ground almost immediately. A bumpy landing in windy weather and we all rush to the terminal. Since we are going to continue to another Schengen country, we need to go through another security check point. There are signs saying that the American and Canadian methods are not thorough enough. Perhaps so, but annoying they are for sure. This time I had forgotten to remove my very ordinary belt and the SeaTac airport security went through each inch, bending it every which way. No wonder people avoid flying if they can. This sour looking fellow had to manually check the area of my pants that the belt had covered, perhaps looking for explosives. Next time I’ll ask to be hand searched. I know these people are just doing their job but clearly the profession attracts a certain type of a person, such as the police force has members who love the fact that they carry a gun and feel powerful. Often they could be on either side of the law. By being in the police force they can shoot legally without much fear of punishment. Of course, on the other side they make much more money but there is always a risk of being caught.

Finally we are on our way to Finland. The plane’s auxiliary turbine malfunctions so an extra hour is spend on the plane. Finally a truck is able to start the engines and off we take. Three hours later we land in Helsinki. It seems like all flights are coming in at the same time so another hour is spent waiting for luggage. I see my brother and his wife and off we drive to the Finnish beautiful countryside.

The reason for this quick trip is to be present when my dad turns a 100 years old. I’ll also see some other family and friends. Then I return to my brand new grandchild Ellen and the rest of my American family. It is amazing to think that the infant and her great-grandfather are almost exactly a century apart. The world for sure is a very different place from when my father was born, with more than twice the amount of people and ever increasing number of problems. I shall also return to a liberated place. I love Lucy but despise Lucifer. The Devil has returned to his own territory: there is hope in the air. But more about that later.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Death Plays the Violin
We make fun of Al Gore having invented the internet, yet a major paper gives credit to a violinist for discovering subharmonics, as she calls them. Musicians are not usually the brightest of the bunch, but any string player with curiosity and extra free time surely has bumped into this phenomena. I used to drive my father nuts by playing these "undertones" five decades ago. Gut or gut-core strings, the only ones used then, made achieving such impossible-to-explain low pitches quite easy. I would play them as a joke or a curiosity without even thinking of using them in any musical context. Especially a gut D-string would accidentally go into this register if played too far over the fingerboard with the bow pressed too forcefully. It is the kind of opposite of making an open E-string whistle on demand. Yes, I was able play various scales with my undertones, but as the sound was rather ridiculous (the small size of the violin doesn't allow for much amplification for such low notes), never saw any practical use for it, other than driving people with sensitive ears crazy. Having heard Ms. Kimura's recordings I still feel the same about the value of these bizarre tones. I just returned from trying them out again in my studio and the only reaction was that of our cat running for cover. Perhaps with an electric violin which amplifies the sound artificially, such sounds could be utilized, but I'll leave that to a younger generation to discover.

It was wonderful to be young and approach any subject with an open mind, music included. It gave me great pleasure to amaze my dad. Before starting elementary school, I was explaining the concept of negative numbers to him, something he never forgot. A grown-up son of his cousin came over when I was still three years old and my dear proud father made me read news articles from the front page of a Helsinki newspaper to him. My second cousin insisted that my father had made me memorize the text and to prove his point wrote a difficult word down, asking me to read it. Correctly I said Äkäslompolo but rushed to add not knowing what it meant. I soon learned it was the name of a village on Ylläs, a low-lying mountain or fell in very sparsly populated Finnish Lapland. My relative instantly gained new respect for the little tyke and my dad was beaming.

So, early on I also discovered a new way of producing harmonics on the violin. I have never seen this being discussed, so I'm not going to reveal it here either. This technique can actually be successfully used in certain virtuoso passages and the result sounds like harmonics should. I'm sure that there are others aware of the principle and don't want to claim it is my creation, but don't want to read about this "invention" in a paper or online and someone taking credit for it. Perhaps I'll teach it to my youngest before my time is up. Interestingly, the famed pedagogue Carl Flesch came up with a harmonic invention of his own and used it in many of his editions. He claimed that while playing a fast scale down on the E-string, the violinist can simply omit the octave E from the run, going from first finger on an F or F-sharp in seventh position to fourth finger D in third, and the missing note sounds on its own. I have tried this frequently: sometimes it seems to work but more often not. Perhaps Mr. Flesch had a unique instrument that made this trick possible.

This time of the year many students are performing with school orchestras or in their own recitals. Playing from memory is an issue for many. Granted, one can feel terrified in front of an audience, even if the composition has gone fine during a lesson or in privacy. Nobody likes the idea of making a fool of him/herself and if the memory issue would make the performer sound worse, I usually let them keep the music at hand. How many times would these young instrumentalists have to play by heart in real life, even if they became respected professionals? In an orchestra or a chamber group one always uses music; it used to be a sacrilege to perform a sonata from memory unless both partners did so. The book would be on the stand, often not even opened, sort of like the Bible at hand while quoting Scripture. On the other hand, I don't think one really knows a piece of music unless it is memorized. By memorization I mean knowing the work well enough to play the notes with completely different set of bowings and fingerings, or even on a keyboard. Everyone learns memorizing differently. Some have to close their eyes, others depend on the harmony of the accompaniment. Personally I see the written music in front of me, measure by measure, enabling me to finger and bow it as I see fit at the moment. Perfect pitch comes in handy with this method. If the composition is very fast, all of us rely on muscle memory. Granted, my way will not work for everyone and often I have ask the student for help in deciding how the problem should be tackled. 

Having witnessed many great artists getting lost I know that the issue is not if one makes a mistake but when. A soloist needs a Plan B at any given time (and Plan C, D etc.). Solo Bach is notoriously difficult: Casals got stuck in a movement of one of the cello suites and instead of reaching the end, wound up at the repeat. Finally he apologized, left the stage and returned with the music. This was after playing through the music probably thousands of times! Heifetz took a wrong turn in the final coda of the Prokofiev's second concerto in 1968. As there was no conductor, it was scary going for a while. As I have written before, Oistrakh had eight major memory lapses in Vienna in his Beethoven concerto in 1967. I thought it was a freak accident but recently saw a video of another concert where he also got lost in the same work. Although I, as a listener, felt uneasy at the time, did the mishaps really matter? Of course not: the audiences were shown the human side of their superstars and they loved it.

Time for some rich, nice overtones. I leave the undertones for musical morticians, to be buried six feet under.

Saturday, April 30, 2011


We can argue over whether change is good or bad, but it is inevitable. Who could have seen the collapse of the Soviet Union or the recent events in the Arab world? The uneasy balance between Israel and her neighbors is about to collapse now that we so eagerly wanted to "liberate" Egypt and other countries. Our memory is astonishingly short when it comes to previous "freedom" and "democracy" campaigns. To our unpleasant surprise Egyptians want to discontinue their peace agreement with the Jewish State, and worse yet, want to become friends with Hamas and Iran. I don't think too many freedom advocates saw that development coming. The Libyans are killing each other, Yemen and Syria are in a messy situation which will most likely benefit militant radicals. In Marrakesh, Morocco, the bombing of a popular tourist cafe has all the trademarks of Al-Qaeda. Germany just arrested three bomb makers trained by the same organization. I can see bloody times ahead. Is another global war in the works? Nature has her ways of shrinking any unsustainable overpopulation, even in seemingly cruel ways.

There are many colleagues of mine who stubbornly expect the world of the classical arts to remain the same as it has been for a number of decades. Yet this is but a fantasy, based on their dreams, not on facts. My father will reach the milestone of a 100 years in a few weeks. In his youth he found a popular area of making music: playing for silent movies. He was the violinist in a piano trio, performing in the shallow pit in front of the screen. Movies were becoming very popular and the field seemed like a great way of expressing one's musical talent and making money at the same time. In America, improvising a live "soundtrack" was usually left to an organist, some of whom were incredible in their skills. Well, the talkies arrived and the seemingly lucrative careers for these musicians came to a screeching halt. My dad kept up his playing but started to conduct an orchestra instead, just for the love of music. 

I myself grew up in the time of reel-to-reel tape recorders and became quite good in recording not only my own performances but others as well. This was the pre-transistor era and changing a vacuum tube was a common event. Microphones were rather large and connecting cables had to be double-shielded to eliminate any electronic noise. Soldering wires to the tight spaces of a European three- or five-prong DIN plugs made me burn my fingertips more times than I can count. Editing recordings required skill and I became quick with splicing the tape at a 45-degree angle and attaching it to another piece with special white tape. This all seems old-fashioned now, but it is a part of the past I miss today. If someone had told me all this knowledge was going to be obsolete in a few years, I would have laughed.

Not long ago I was reading an article in the leading Helsinki daily, lamenting the fact that orchestras in my native country have trouble attracting qualified Finnish instrumentalists and have to hire foreigners instead. It isn't that there is a shortage of music education as just about every town has a publicly sponsored music school. On the college or professional level schooling is completely free and at least until now student are actually given a stipend for their living expenses. Playing in an orchestra is not thought of as a glamorous occupation, and unlike here, the musicians think of themselves as musical civic employees, not artists. As salary is tied to the common pay scale structure system, it usually makes no difference if one teaches or plays in an orchestra. At least when I was younger, I couldn't call myself a "violin artist" unless I performed regularly as a soloist or recitalist. The country has its own "soloist association" which I think I'm still a member of.

In the U.S. orchestral playing wasn't that greatly valued either as it seldom gave a musician enough of an income. Seasons were short and working hours lousy. Perhaps in certain large cities with a long tradition of orchestral music matters were better, but those would have been few. Then something happened after WWII and with the country's increased wealth it became fashionable to donate large sums of money to education and arts institutions. Cities felt a need to build mega-halls and have large orchestras to fill the stages. At the same time interest in smaller groups, chamber music and recitals waned. As the donors aged and became increasingly hard of hearing, perhaps a deafening level of brass and percussion was needed to prevent their hearing aids from whistling. Musicians' appetite for larger and larger salaries grew and soon the financial balance became impossible to sustain; the orchestra bubble began to burst, something we are witnessing now. Philanthropy continues, of course, but instead of entertainment, it is focused on global health and such issues.

Glancing through online reader comments, musicians seem to receive little sympathy for their salary and other demands. It is quite easy to discover which opinions were written by the orchestral musicians themselves or their friends. The ordinary people are far more concerned about their own employment or lack of, not to mention health care and education. State universities are increasingly taking in out-of-state students because they can be milked for full private school level tuition, no matter how low they have scored. In Seattle straight A students, even class valedictorians, haven't been admitted to our #1 school, University of Washington. The school openly admits that it prefers outsiders as it sorely lacks funds. If we as a society expect every high school graduate to continue in college, we have to make it accessible and financially realistic. Of course, one could make an argument that attending college should be a privilege for the deserving, not an automatic right.

Back home a rather significant event took place. In the recent parliamentary election a formerly small party known as True Finns scored a tremendous victory. Many of my countrymen have been horrified as they see this relatively anti-EU party as a big step back. Even foreign media calls the election a major shift to the extreme right. I'm not so sure about it. Young voters, usually uninterested in politics, perceive them as a worker's party (wouldn't that qualify them as extreme left?) which wants to preserve Finnish values and not bail out other EU countries that are on the brink of collapse because of fiscal corruption. My brother, an astute observer whose political views hardly match those of the country's conservatives, says it is a good thing for the country to have so many new faces in the new Parliament, most belonging to ordinary men and women who campaigned with ideas, not with big budgets. People have spoken and now we must listen to what they have to say, whether we agree with the message or not. 

It must be spring as I smell all kinds of changes in the air.

Friday, April 01, 2011

I'm a Fool

The phone rang and my youngest daughter, a college freshman, was on the line. We talked a bit about school but then she became very serious and told me she was going to become a vegetarian. Since all three of her sisters had gone through a similar period, I wasn't exactly surprised, especially since I knew her room mate and close friend is strictly vegetarian, or even vegan. I started giving Sarah a lecture about the pros and cons and explained that it was hard to get all the nutrients from that diet since our digestive tract is that of an omnivore. She listened to me carefully and said she had given it a lot of thought and this was going to be a long term decision. Then she cracked up and laughed out loud "April's Fools". I wanted to be upset but could only laugh at myself. My little one knows my way of thinking better than I do myself (we even share similar dreams) and she knew exactly how to get me.

A different kind of April Fool's trick was performed by our house, namely its ancient gas furnace. Last night I realized that it was getting colder inside. It was too late to call for help and I brought a space heater to our bedroom. I'm battling with rather nasty bronchitis and hacking cough; shivering unnecessarily didn't seem like a good idea. This morning a big truck pulled in front of the house and two men came for a look. They stood there looking extremely puzzled. It turned out that they had never seen a 50-year-old Lennox and didn't even recognize how the different components worked. A new one is being put in place and before nightfall the men (now there are three) are going to be finished. This new unit looks Lilliputian but is supposed to be much more effective than the old one and pay for itself over the years in the form of lower gas bills. Let's hope so, as this month is expensive with various tax payments (real estate, estimated tax, a lump  sum to be sent with our extension request) not to mention college payments (tuition plus Room and Board) for the last quarter. Our little one is doing beautifully and working hard, so every penny is worth it. She even took a violin with her to school.

I decided to get a tablet. Twice I went to an Apple store right when they opened, just to find a long line, just like at an airport security and before I could get in, an announcement was made that the day's allotment was sold out. So I started doing research or Motorola's Xoom and its WiFi version. We have two portable hotspots and I wasn't going to pay for an extra data plan. Besides, at home we have a fast wireless network. Every place was taking pre-orders for the Xoom, but Staples actually had them available for purchase on their website. A couple days later a big box arrived. I was kind of puzzled because a 10.1" tablet is small. A smaller box was inside and when I opened it, there were five tablets, not just one. The American voice in my head said "keep them, keep them" but the Finn protested very loudly. So, I was going to wait for Staples to find their mistake.

The following morning the phone rang (I was already teaching) and a woman from Staples somewhere on the East Coast left me a message, sheepishly asking if I could call her back. I did so early in the afternoon and talked with an African-American man. He checked my order number and put me on hold. Finally he came back and told about the mistake. I said that they are more than welcome to get their units back and he sounded surprised. A little later he called back and asked if I was really going to return the extra units without a fight and I said "Of course." He then told that his supervisor had authorized a sizable gift check since I was so honest about the matter. I thanked him and hung up. Sure enough, in about a half hour Staples called again and my wife answered. It was the woman who first called, and she kept thanking us. My feeling is that the company sent out quite a few of those boxes before realizing their error and customers felt entitled to all the merchandise. The unit runs on Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) and is remarkably fast. It also has Flash support. Selling those four extra Xooms would have helped with the furnace cost but my conscience would have prevented it. Honesty is not a virtue in America but I live by different standards.

If you use Gmail, don't forget to check out their Gmail Motion (Beta). It is a great idea. Happy April 1st!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Here We Go Again

Of the close to four decades I've lived in the United States, this country has been involved in armed conflicts much of the time. During my teens there was the Vietnam War. It was impossible to get objective, truthful news. Propaganda was at work: night after night we the people learned about amazing victories against the Vietcong. Someone finally tallied up the number of enemy casualties as we had posted them and they exceeded the population of North Vietnam. This all happened before our Information Age and the Internet; I got quite a different picture by listening to my shortwave radio and reading the Finnish newspaper mailed to me daily.

After Saigon collapsed, involvement in Nicaragua, Grenada, former Yugoslavia, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan followed (am I forgetting something?). Now we are playing World Police with certain Arab countries (but not all) where people are unhappy and restless. Egypt's Mubarak was corrupt but so is every other despot. We lost a partner and Israel a neighbor leader they could live with. Libya's Gaddafi is in our cross-hairs: much of this has to do with the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. Never mind that we shot down an Iranian passenger jet a few months before with many more dead. This was toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war where we took the side of Saddam Hussein, then considered our good friend.

Restlessness in Arab nations seems to be spreading although we are very selective with our involvement. Even in Saudi Arabia there have been demonstrations. The Saudis, too, have reasons to demand more freedoms. Western feminists should be screaming but I don't hear them; it would be nice to let a Saudi woman drive a car and have a life. But hell will freeze over before we take the side of their people over the reigning royalty. We ought to be fair: every country has to be treated in an equal fashion. Of course the real issue is our hunger for oil; the people may demand democracy without the slightest idea of what it is. One should be careful what one wishes for: it was important to the U.S. that the Palestinians vote. Now we (and Israel) have Hamas to cope with as the result, something we should have foreseen as a likely outcome in the Gaza Strip.

The Druze Star
The Middle East (or Near East, a term I prefer) is no closer to peace between Israel and its neighbors than many decades ago. Various times there have been negotiations but if they seemed to be heading toward a solutions, extremists on either side have taken care of the matter with violent acts. Perhaps the formula, using America as the mediator, is fundamentally quite flawed. Palestinians and their neighbors don't trust us and see us as Israel's partner (which we of course are). A new neutral party should be found, something both sides could respect. 

I am surprised that no one has thought of using the Druze in this role. Although their religion is based on Islam, Muslims don't consider them their own. For one thing, they are perhaps the most pro-women society on Earth. Also, they are not allowed to convert outsiders: nobody can enter or leave the fold. Though they represent just a small percentage of Israel's population, they willingly serve serve in the armed forces, many having reached high positions in the military. Of the neighboring countries, there are sizable populations in Syria and Lebanon. As the Druze are respected by both Israel and her adversaries, wouldn't that make them an ideal mediator? They should have no trouble seeing issues from both sides. 

Perhaps we have left the Druze out of the picture on purpose, fearing that peace just might happen. A scary thought indeed.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Then and Now

Opening this morning's New York Times was uneventful. There were the usual bad news about our involvement in other countries' affairs. Often I wonder if certain foreign problems purposely get so much attention so that we the people wouldn't notice our domestic mess. Perhaps we should be more careful about encouraging other nations to pursue democracy, a concept they have little or no understanding of. Why is it it so important for us to remove the leaders of Egypt and Libya and yet be quiet about North Korea?  If the restlessness spreads to Saudi Arabia and the price of crude oil triples, would we be equally eager to support to end the friendly monarchy's rule there? We seem to have forgotten about our demands for an election in the Gaza Strip: against our expectations the Hamas won and we, along with Israel, were most upset by their victory. One should be careful with what one wishes for.

Of course I had read all those news a day before and not just from an American perspective. One of the greatest things about the internet is the ability to follow what's happening globally as seen through very different eyes. I'm comfortable in reading enough languages and when I'm not, Google's Translator comes in handy. Naturally the latter requires that said translations be reinterpreted, but with a bit of logic that isn't usually a problem. Pages from Mandarin to Hindi to Arabic open with ease.

It was a short night as we had to get up very early after working late last night. I had set the coffee maker's timer and by the time I got to the breakfast table my wife Marjorie had finished reading the paper, in addition to consuming a respectable amount of high quality java. The Arts section was open, and a review and picture of a string quartet caught my attention. I'm certain that the Takacs Quartet played their Schubert program beautifully, but the photo was disturbing. Are such exaggerated physical motions needed for this great and heavenly music? Shostakovich or Ginastera might have been more understandable, but lovely Schubert? I have seen almost identical pictures of other groups regularly and wonder if all that circus is truly necessary. In the picture underneath I have placed photos of the Joachim Quartet, the true founder of this art form, and Takacs group, next to each other. Joachim made violin playing and chamber music a very serious affair. Thanks to him recital and solo repertoire changed greatly and a virtuoso's encores no longer consisted of imitating animal sounds.

Joachim Quartet (top), Takacs Quartet (©B Harkin/NY Times)

I am fascinated by early performance practices, especially when we have some actual proof of how music was interpreted. Old photographs are more truthful than paintings. The artists made Mozart look pleasant and even charming, yet books tell how homely and unattractive he was in real life with his pox marks and other facial features. Naturally in early photographs action shots were not possible as exposure took time and people had to look very proper. The famous Joachim Quartet looks almost stern in photographs, and based on listeners' accounts their performances were very serious business indeed. From early recordings we know how Joachim himself played: his interpretation of solo Bach seems almost contemporary and is certainly not covered under a coating of constant vibrato or other trademarks of Romantic playing.. We can easily imagine what his quartet must have sounded like. Joachim was revered in continental Europe: his funeral in Berlin was like that of a Kaiser. All that respect and admiration without any gimmicks on stage!

Naturally resorting to showmanship and cheap tricks is nothing new. Being a musician was for a long time comparable to that of a circus member.  We seem to have gone back in time, as nowadays we unfortunately enjoy our musical encounters more with our eyes than with our ears, as if concerts were intended for deaf people. Everyone should enjoy a blind person's experience: bouncing around and madly waving bows or batons obviously would be of no use.

Interestingly, the same New York Times issue had a picture of Emanuel Ax at the piano, playing another all-Schubert  recital at Alice Tully Hall. He looked like a serious musician, an old-timer. Joseph Joachim would have approved.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Brave New World

The drama in Detroit with the symphony will soon come to a head. What it will be is anyone's guess. This is a no-win situation: by striking for this long (half the subscription season), the musicians have made sure that even if matters return to "normal", it will be next to impossible for the institution to market 2011-12 season as if nothing had happened. Will the present subscribers be given a refund? Why would anyone bother to invest in entertainment that may or may not take place? Management has greatly upset the lives of the musicians. First there was anger and outrage, now desperation. If there were plenty of available well-paying orchestra jobs available elsewhere, only a fool wouldn't try to leave the ship that's taking in water faster than the pumps can get rid of. Unfortunately, a long-time orchestra tutti musician is not going to have an easy time winning an audition. Yes, he or she may have all the routine in the world, but the decreased quality and accuracy of playing is no match to a young person fresh out of one of the top schools. At least with string players, orchestras don't want to hire artists, no matter what they claim. They are after worker bees who are able to play most correctly and who don't possess strong musical ideas of their own, i.e. musical robots. Youth is a big plus as the new hire's health will most likely remain good for many years to come.

But let's move to a much happier topic. Florida's New World Symphony is an anomaly in America's music scene. For over twenty years, it has been a unique place for those who really want to play in an orchestra, a sort or post-graduate school where you get paid something for your work. Since similar institutions are hard to find, the New World can be very selective: the acceptance rate in about 3%, based on the figures available. What makes the orchestra unique is that hardly any other musical group has managed to flourish in Florida. There are plenty of concert halls, one fancier than the next, but they all depend on visitors. As it is common, people rather donate large amounts for a building than for operating costs of an organization. Who needs local entertainment when long-distance groups are waiting to fly in, away from the snow and cold to the balmy beaches of Miami and surrounding areas?

New World Center,  photo by Michael McElroy for the NY Times

Until this point, the New World Symphony hasn't created enough of a local following to warrant using one of the mega-barns. Now matters are quite different: a few days ago they got to open the new New World Center, created by Frank Gehry–Yasuhisa Toyota team. It has a supposedly excellent 750-seat concert hall, small in today's standards but one that brings intimacy between the musicians and their audience. There are excellent auditoriums for a 1000 or fewer listeners all over Europe. America, believing that bigger is better, is sorely lacking in these. Based on initial reports of the venue and its acoustics, I would be surprised if it didn't become a very tempting destination for chamber and other smaller orchestras and well as chamber music groups and recitalists (if there are any left). Clearly not an ideal place to listen to bombastic orchestral works, it might be exactly that for most of the real musical treasures that seldom get performed today, being "cost-ineffective" for a 100+-member group. If I loved alligators, snakes and hurricanes, I could see myself living nearby and becoming a regular visitor to the place, as little as I like the idea of going to concerts.

With a maximum three years allowed in the group, the New World Symphony doesn't have to cope with other orchestras' often unpleasant issues, from union negotiations to tenure. Everyone there is eager to give their best and there is genuine joy and excitement in music-making. I have to think back many decades to remember what that was like. Top music schools have often good orchestras but the students play in them because they have to, a very different setup from the New World. The founder of the institution, Michael Tilson Thomas, is perhaps the best person to train these young orchestra musicians. Mr. Thomas still manages to be true dynamo in spite of his 66 years of age, and is probably a better fit than anyone else in the country for the orchestra transplanted in Miami Beach. Granted, Gustavo Dudamel is exciting to watch, but Michael Tilson Thomas knows better what it is like to be a true American musician.

A new concert hall is always a gamble. Surprisingly few architects and acousticians truly understand the difference between great and adequate. As a large amount of money is spent constructing an auditorium, it is usually praised to high heaven by the media, brainwashing the would-be audience. Sometimes it take a few decades for a child to declare that the emperor has no clothes. Criticism is generally not allowed as long as one of the creators is alive. Sometimes we wish the white elephants, such as the Philharmonic a.k.a. Avery Fisher Hall, would simply go away. This smaller newcomer will probably be treated kindly by future generations. The hall seems to be ready for new directions in music presentation with its built-in multimedia equipment, something that today seems mandatory and inevitable.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

All's Heimers

We all start forgetting as we age. Many become victims of various forms of dementia. The scarlet letter"A" refers to the dreaded Alzheimer's disease these days although there are other causes for dementia, some of which are just signs of aging. I don't yet greet my image in the mirror but just this morning realized that I had forgotten to pay our real estate tax a month ago. As my mother and her younger brother both suffered from Alzheimer's, I know there is a genetic possibility that I'll suffer the same fate, but hopefully I have succumbed to another illness by then. And on my father's side people stayed unaffected for much longer.

One of dementia's first signs is disappearing short term memory. Often I feel like our society as a whole is becoming demented. We seem to have forgotten the reasons for the economic scandal which started the recession and our country's downhill slide just three years ago. Initially there was a lot of anger against the bankers' greed and resulting enormous financial compensations even when the financial institutions themselves had to be rescued with taxpayer money. This recent article on is one of the increasingly few attempts to show how much political clout Wall Street has, and how it managed to weather scary times and end up with bigger bonuses and profits than ever before.

Our government rushed to the rescue of the very rich, yet left the victims of the banks' greed, the homeowners with their mortgages, fend for themselves, in most cases unsuccessfully. Even I know several people who have lost their homes or are at default due to their inability, or sometimes reluctance, of paying for a loan that is far greater than the property is worth. Many of these people suffered a terrible blow when their jobs disappeared and with that their health insurances and pension investments. The way we count the number of unemployed gives a completely false, overly optimistic picture of destitute people. Even with the extended jobless benefits there are millions that don't show in the statistics. They haven't been able to find a new job, many of them in the 50+ year age group, and have given up hope. As I personally know, threatening to discontinue health coverage is used by companies and organizations as a way of blackmailing an employee to accept an illegal demotion. Few have the brains and means to fight back. America being the capitalist dream country, many people prefer to have their own business. When that doesn't survive, there is no public safety net.

As long as a person has employment and benefits, in our society he or she is not going to worry about his neighbor. With our short attention span and "me here now" focal point, most of us refuse to think that a disaster might strike us next. People don't want to pay for taxes that might benefit the unfortunate. But people get sick and lose their jobs, even those who eagerly have voted for tax cuts and against universal health care coverage. I hope they will remember their ideology when they are faced with hard times. Rising health care costs, together with the insane amount of money we spend on education, will quickly result in a bubble that inevitably leads to bursting. At this rate we are rapidly becoming another India with its super-rich and untouchables. Already our society shows increasing intolerance to different faiths and our caste system is alive and well. One of the principal reasons parents rush to make their offspring apply to the most prestigious colleges for undergraduate studies is hoping that they will meet a partner from an upper class. Basic education is pretty much the same in hundreds of colleges, both public and private, yet big money is spent in hopes of a successful U-Harmony dating service.

It strikes me as odd that this country of ours thinks of itself as perhaps the most Christian country on the planet. Our founding fathers decided in their wisdom to keep religion and state separate. Yet politicians today increasingly speak about bringing prayer and faith to public life. If we really thought along the teachings of our Judeo-Christian heritage, we would all be socialists and care about the well-being and safety of our brothers and sisters before our own. This hardly is the case: the Christ in which so many believe is actually the Antichrist. Our favorite preacher promises everyone wealth and new luxury cars if we pray for them. If 40% of people take the biblical story of Creation as a fact, what is the point of trying to teach them science or history in schools and colleges? Since my wife and youngest daughter played on two violas for the local Finnish Lutheran Church on Xmas morning, I was present there, too. The visiting pastor spoke about the first Christmas in her sermon and how the message of the birth of Jesus was first given to the poor untouchables of that time. She then went on to ask the rhetorical question of if the Messiah was born today, who would be informed first? Being a Finn, she obviously thinks differently of life's true values from most of us here. I thought her logic was perfect.

Back to dementia. After losing one's short term memory, sooner or later the patient forgets about present time altogether and starts living in the past. My father will turn 100 this coming summer unless he is taken from us before then. Living in a care facility he has become "institutionalized" and doesn't really follow today's events. His thoughts and dreams are most often back many decades when he was much younger. People long gone are still alive in his world which is a much simpler place from today. When an old person has little to look forward to, it is a blessing to be able to live in the past.

In our society we also like to pretend often that nothing has changed. A prime example is the world of fine arts. For instance, orchestra musicians have a hard time accepting the possibility that today's younger people may not find their trade as valuable as did the generation and two before. Of course classical music is still important, as are other art forms. Times have changed, however. Do we still have the need to spend an entire evening and small fortune to attend a concert when a better performance of the interesting composition is a few keystrokes or a compact disc away? A painting is easier to study on a large monitor screen than trekking to an art museum. How many of us would think of doing research today using nothing but a library as a resource? Who would be willing to give up the cell phone which many people seem to have practically glued to their ear? How many still take the time to write thoughtful personal letters and send them via snail mail? Even that qualifies as an art. People's writing skills have disappeared with texting and electronic messaging on social websites. Grammatic rules don't matter any longer for most: reading postings and emails is often painful. The younger generation prefers electronic shorthand and resulting short utterances to speaking; many don't even check their voice messages.

So, with the New Year, let us look at ourselves and our lives objectively and not allow any kind of dementia affect our thinking. Past is important, but it is history and we have to make sure the future will be tolerable for our children and grandchildren. Spend an afternoon at the library, unless it has been closed for lack of funds, and another one taking a walk in the nature. Just leave your cell phone and iPod at home. Enjoy life the way it was meant to be.