Thursday, March 23, 2017

Wake Me Up When Spring Is Here

Spring grows,
summer sways,
autumn blows,
but winter stays
and stays
and stays.

A good coat triumphs
over gales and gusts alike,
and a candle in the window sill
forbears the endless night.
But for the grays,
those absent days,
what medicine is there?
The season's palette,
like a mallet,
softly hammers out despair.

I can live with the cold.
I can even live with the darkness that goes along with residing this far north. But this Georgia boy was raised on sunshine, and it's sorely missed during the Finnish winter. We were lucky if we got a just a few hours of the good stuff in a week's time.
Frozen fingers claw toward the ground, but their reach exceeds their grasp.

The snow, when it comes, does help by reflecting light back upwards.

Also appreciated are the brightly colored facades of rural homes and out-buildings, as well as the beautiful and unpredictable - if inconvenient - gifts that are unique to the season, like this ice-locked chain (left and below). 

It's easy to romanticize about idyllic country living when you're traipsing through snowy woods on your way to retrieve water from a spring-fed well...but easier still to mentally gloss over the hardships that inevitably accompanied such a lifestyle.
This ice is off the chain.

During the winter, it's easy to make excuses for not going outdoors. 

"It's too cold." 
"The ground is too slippery." 
"I don't want us to get sick." 

The reality is that it's just a perceived hassle to get a little guy all bundled up, gloves secured, ears covered, and shoes strapped on, just to go outside and have your face insistently gnawed at by the wind. 

Ten minutes later you're wondering which will more likely result from staying out; collapsing under the weight of six layers of clothing, or catching your death of a cold. 

A toddler, on the other hand - well, at least one that I know of - just doesn't care. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Witty Fall-Themed Title

I'm told 
Finland hasn't traditionally had much of an autumn. 

According to the local news, though, the month of September has been warmer every year for 8 years running. I'm not complaining.

These two trees outside our window make watching a slow death surprisingly pleasant.

I don't know what to call the area in the middle of our block. Court? Courtyard? Commons? When the sun is out it's a beautiful area.

Arbitrary photo of downtown facades.

Same, but with   extra 
autumn colors. 

Our "backyard."

In the panorama below, this tree is fourth from the right...because you totally care.

We live in the middle building. Unless you're thinking of stalking us, in which case this is just a random picture I copied from Google images.

A gorgeous day deserves a gorgeous photographer.

On a walk, we discovered what might be Helsinki's most captivating apartment complex.

This pool, home to birds and a spectacular view, cascades downward until it reaches the bay.

Just a picture. That is all.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Five Surprising Facts About Living With a Sauna

Spoiler alert: there are no five facts. I just thought you might visit this page if you thought there were. That's right; I baited your click. 

Well, the least I can do is give you one surprising fact about having a sauna: you almost definitely won't use it as much as you think you will. 

Hmm. Is that a fact? 

Probably not. I digress. 

Fact or not, it's the truth.

See, a sauna sounds great. You think it will be awesome. 

It will be like having your own Jacuzzi, or even a hyperbaric chamber. You'll use it all the time (maybe as part of your morning ritual) and it will become one of the many ways in which you embody that elusive blend of old-school tradition and new-age wisdom.  

Yeah, about that...chances are, you'll use your sauna a few times per month.

It's not that you mind it at all. I mean, who wouldn't enjoy the sensation of their insides boiling and their face tightening up as pores clog before erupting with huge drops of 

It's just that the sauna is, well, inconvenient. I mean, ours is all the way in the bathroom. Imagine if you built one outside the house! Not to mention that HUGE passive barrier of waiting for the darned thing to heat up

Okay, okay, I'm really kidding. All jokes aside, I did think that I would want to use it every day, but it's not uncommon for it to go unused for weeks. And it DOES cause some fierce face-tightening. 

But actually, it is great to have a sauna in the house, regardless of how often it gets used. 

Image result for finnish vasta
My favorite sauna experience so far was also the most uncomfortable. It was over Juhannus - Finland's annual mid-summer celebration. 

We were staying with Rita's relatives, and her two uncles (Ari and Jari) were extolling the virtues of Finnish sauna

Jari convinced me to let him heat up the sauna for me, and make me a vasta - a bundle of birch branches that you use to hit yourself while in the sauna. 

Yes,hit yourself. 

One bucket for water, one bucket for holding my vasta.
Well, Jari did the uniquely Finnish experience justice, heating up the wood-fired sauna to some incredibly hot temperature, closing the vent, and providing a very well-made vasta

In I went, courageous and excited. 

I sat for a while, not wanting to come out too soon, you know. I threw some water on the hot rocks atop the stove, beat myself with the vasta a few times (actually felt pretty good). 

And then, at least according to Ari, out I came - wide-eyed and white as a sheet. 

An authentic wood-fired sauna. 

Later that night, I fell asleep on the floor of the front porch. Not sure if it was the crazy-hot sauna or the drinks that Jari kept passing me. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

Helsinki Script - Part Two

Image result for savoy theatre helsinkiMore than 500 guests packed into Savoy Theater for the first annual Helsinki Script, which seemed to be a great success overall. 

I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn from people who helped created some of the best TV of this decade, and the chance to do a little networking in the process. I promised some people I would take notes, so here are a few things I took away from the day:

Image result for FireflyTatjana Andersson discussed in detail the important elements of long-running and critically acclaimed television series like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Deadwood. She also edged in a mention of Firefly, one of my favorite shows, and credited its creator Joss Whedon as one of her inspirations for becoming a screenwriter (I'm a big fan of Whedon's other work as well, especially Doctor Horrible's Sing-along Blog). 

Tatjana talked about how long-running TV series differ from other types and from novels by being founded on a sort of fractal pattern of theme and conflict rather than a beginning, middle, and end. She shed light on the fact that such a pattern may emerge as the focus of a single episode, a string of episodes, or of an entire season, but isn't necessarily the work of planning. Rather, like all true fractals, it is organic in nature. 

Image result for yin yang bearShe referred to the deepest elements of a story's theme as its "source conflict," an eternal, internal, paradox; a simple conflict that is impossible to solve. She called it "thesis vs. antithesis," using yin and yang as an example. 

Finally, and most profoundly to this listener, Tatjana deemed story-telling [read screenwriting] an exercise in exploration, not explanation, and quoted Niels Bohr's timeless reminder that "The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth."

Image result for dexter

James Manos, Jr. told the audience that his work on shows like The Sopranos, The Shield, and Dexter weren't the result of formal screenwriting training or education. However, he studied acting for two years in the past, and spent time becoming intimately familiar with other aspects of theatrical production. 

He emphasized the value of these types of knowledge over a trained ability to write for television. On the subject of creating enduring anti-heroes with public favor, "Jim" said that he believed we "all have an anti-hero in us," so it's not hard to do. Among many other interesting and insightful tidbits, he reminded aspiring screenwriters at the seminar that "you have to have fun." 

Image result for trapped icelandLater on, Sigurjón Kjartansson, creator of Trapped, echoed the feelings and experience of other screenwriters present who had not exactly set out to embody that role when he said that he became a "writer" simply because, well, someone in the tiny Icelandic population of 340,000 had to do it. 

He also said quite memorably that "Writing is 70% discussing, thinking, walking around, and having a swim," but only 30% actually writing. He also reminded us that a good concept and pitch are not enough to get a show produced, which also requires commitment, hard work, and sometimes many years. 

Image result for the bridge bronPiv Bernth, a network executive who had a big hand in producing a couple of my favorite series (and excellent examples of "Nordic noir") in The Killing and The Bridge, talked about writers' rooms and how their success relies more on chemistry than on pure talent. She also told us that screenwriters should "forget about consensus."

In strong support of that sentiment was Lars Detlefsen, who explained how everything going smoothly often means the "death of a show," and that conflict in writing and between writers' ideas should be embraced. Referencing James Manos, Jr.'s stipulation for having fun, Lars said that "the fun is in the fighting," because art means "working for ideas." 

There were many other good insights provided at Helsinki Script, but these were among the most poignant. There was something else I took away from the program, something that came to me when we heard that the average consumption of television among viewers in developed countries is 3-4 hours per day. 

Some, of course, would argue that we should simply take our eyes off the screen. More realistically, though, this statistic highlights the need for television to be of the highest possible quality in terms of intellectual stimulation and social criticism. 

For 3-4 hours per day, we let other people's ideas infiltrate our subconscious directly. Maybe, then, screenwriters have something of a responsibility to hold their messages to a certain standard, one that promotes a degree of self-improvement on an individual and societal level

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Helsinki Script - Part One

Image result for dexterOne great thing about living in Helsinki is easy access to tons of fresh, exciting events.I'm going to one tomorrow called Helsinki Script - basically a gathering of television writers and producers who will be sharing some of their firsthand knowledge about the processes of script and series writing. 
Just a few of the people on the program are James Manos, Jr., creator of the TV adaptation of Dexter, Piv Bernth, producer of The Killing and The Bridge, and Sigurjón Kjartansson, producer of Trapped

A friend told me several years ago that in her opinion, it would be a shame to not watch any television since it's the medium of choice for many of the best writers of our time. I tend to agree, and in an age where attention spans are markedly low and screens have all but replaced books, TV shows also provide one of the better mediums for offering social commentary and criticism, something we really can't afford to do without. 

Dexter, for example, despite having become (in its later years) more of a vehicle for profit than for moral inquisition, is much more than a cop show. It's a story that requires viewers to take a hard look at how "right" and "wrong" are defined, and encourages them to consider the intrinsic relativism of morality and the language we use to describe it

The Bridge is another show that goes miles deeper than simple entertainment. Using the characteristic hyper-realism of so-called Nordic noir, the series' first season asks complicated questions about the nature and usefulness of both written and unwritten rules. The fact that it still manages to entertain while accomplishing these things is what makes it endure - what makes it least in my opinion. 

Anyway, tomorrow should be interesting, and I'll include some things I learn in part two of this post. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Pedaling Paradise

In Helsinki, riding a bike is a way of life. 
I love it. 

Between the 1,200 kilometers of dedicated bike paths and the affordable, user-friendly public transit system (of which bicycles are a part), I've barely noticed that I don't have a car. Of course, I can't deny that knowing some people who do have a car has come in very handy on several occasions. 

It took me a couple of months in the city to get used to seeing bicycles everywhere. 

Back home in Athens, Georgia, public officials and city planners seem to think that posting a few "Share The Road" signs makes a town bicycle-friendly, but the people in Athens who actually pedal for transportation know it's not true. 

The bicycle culture here is a far cry from that. Rarely is there a need to bike on the road within the city, and when there is it's almost always within a clearly marked, safely wide bicycle lane. There's plenty of room for bicycling on most sidewalks, which typically feature one designated side for cyclists and one for pedestrians. 

There seems to be a bicycle for every person in the city, if not two. 

Every apartment building has its own storage shed or room for bikes, and it's rare to walk 100 meters between bike racks. 

The coolest thing is that here, it doesn't matter if your bike is "cool" or "fancy" or anything else. 

And another thing? 

Custom bikes are all the rage... this one, specially designed for a person with extremely short arms.

Sweet dog cart, bro.

In fact, I rarely see high-dollar bikes around town. Most people are riding simple machines with 7 or fewer gears, scratched paint, goofy bells, and makeshift accessories. Once or twice a week I'll get passed by a senior citizen on a single-speed, 1970's looking city bike, which is always fun. 

I've still got a lot of bicycle-related things to look forward to here in Finland, like biking in the winter, riding in a summer bicycle parade, and grinding it out in the Tour de Helsinki. 

By the way, is this what bicycling in the snow will look like? 


Sunday, August 7, 2016

How Do You Like Finland So Far?

Almost every single Finnish person that I meet takes up the same line of conversation. 

First, they say "How do you like Finland so far?" in those exact words. Not "What do you think of Finland," or "How is Finland treating you," but always "How do you like Finland so far?" 
Why is it significant that they choose those specific words? I have no idea,  I just think it's interesting. 

I usually reply to that question with "Great," which, of course, doesn't make any grammatical sense, but how would I know that? I never claimed to know English, I just speak it. In fact, my wife is easily twice as familiar with English grammar as I am, and she's Finnish! 
But that's how it goes...

I usually amend my automatic one-word reply with some specific thing I like about Finland, (which in turn is usually ignored), making way for the second act of these seemingly scripted conversations.

So, it goes 

Finnish person: "How do you like Finland so far?"

Person that is me: "Great! Blah blah blah..."

Finnish person [laughing*]: "Just wait until the winter."

Person that is me: "Wow! Never expected you to bring that up - what a surprise!"

Okay, so I don't say that. That would be mean and totally unnecessary. But does it make me a bad person to admit that it's pretty close to what I'm thinking? (Hint: that's rhetorical.) 

* - Finnish people don't laugh that much - so when I say laugh, I mean laugh on the inside, which shows in their eyes

I mean, they have a completely valid point - winters in Finland are long, cooold and dark. But it's also a pretty obvious point. I mean, who moves across the world without knowing at least some basic facts about where they are going? Yes, we can agree; winters in Finland are not winters in Athens, Georgia. But will they make me "dislike" Finland? Nah. No chance. They might make me wish I was wealthy enough to winter in Spain, but not dislike Finland. 

Don't get me wrong, though - I'm not trying to be contemptuous or anything of the like. Au contraire, I appreciate the effort at conversation from people who have a reputation as non-conversationalists, and more than anything, I find the pattern funny. It's almost like it's in the Finnish genes. 

Speaking of genes, I recently ran across some information that made Rita's choice to pursue a master's degree in genetics-related biology seem like a twist of fate. The population of Finland, it turns out, has such a homogeneous genetic code that its rate of rare genetic disorders is disproportionately high. 

Naturally, this makes Finland a breeding ground (if you will) for genetic scientists and genetic research. Quite a few of the most respected genetics researchers Earth-wide are actually from Finland, and the University of Helsinki is widely regarded as one of the best research institutions on the planet. How interesting is that? Super interesting, Ryan, super interesting...