Current Reading 5

The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

The Best American Essays 2007 as decided by DFW

Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams

Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard

 

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Promenade Into Heavy Rain

Realize the triumphal beauty of entering a new city, how each new site demands to be seen, like lightning time passes. Special notice is due to each detail, the clouds, the old and elegant mansions, the way the sun makes the water look like a cream, how the old people on a cruise ship either enjoy a laugh or sit fixedly on their own, how a storm in violet blue is garbed in the north and other ships big and small pass around the bay, how this group of four in their late 50’s enjoy a last round of cards, the young text, the announcer makes ETAs and information about the lost & found. Stockholm approaches. It feels like a European city. Good architectural choices in the mid-late 19th century were not levelled by modernization in the mid-late 20th. Believe-it-or-not there was even an aesthetically pleasing tower constructed in the early 90’s. Well done, Sweden!

The nation of Sweden, once an empire (but it lost all its wars), now a prospering northern nation with hardly a military. See the construction cranes, towers, apartments, hills, trees, and spires rise to meet you: blue, black, green, and yellow. “Welcome,” says the sun as it winks out into the storm clouds, “Good luck finding your hostel.”

Burt Reynolds on a Ship

I highly recommend the boat from Turku to Stockholm. It was only 18 euros. Blue waters and little isles pass by for hours and hours and hours. The food aboard ship is good, and the alcohol prices are competitive (but compared to mainland Finland, what isn’t?). I have spent the majority of my time writing in the smoking room. It looks out on the water nicely, and the coming and going of faces for the fix make it a kind of sanctuary, a vestige of proper ritual.

However when I assumed a position overlooking the water, I became more exposed. And sensing my anxiety, a Burt-Reynolds of a Finn sat down next to me and asked what I was writing. He was one of those good-natured guys who would never take a serious thing seriously. He refused to speak any English, and would only explain himself in more Finnish. I appreciated his humor. He bade me luck that the bulb go off in my mind, and he took for the buffet room.

Lunch was good; at first, I lamented the expense. Then seeing how there was an open tap of wine and beer, my spirit was relieved. I drank and toasted, and ate as much as possible, salmon and sauces, lox and mosses, salad, and cheese, and bread, and dessert. The conversational company could have been better. But such is drinking alone, you have to imagine your people around and have the recitation with yourself.

I saw the Burt-Reynolds Finn as he walked out. He stopped and asked skeptically if the food was any good. “It is good, good.” I was the last one in the dining room. They closed, but I still had more to eat and drink. This has been my lot since high school. To be the last one sitting at table, others cleaning up, I wonder, “Why has everyone left so soon? What’s all the rush? There is no where better to go! Yo-ho-ho-ho! Where is MY civilization? If I were king…”

I took the train from Rovaniemi last night. I have not taken an overnight train in many years. Now I remember what is so miserable about it. It is not the seats. The seats are bad; they are as bad as Amtrack (maybe worse). They leave a terrible crick in your back, and generally, unless you are totally beat already, sleep will be difficult. But the fundamental problem is that as soon as you fall asleep to the rhythmic rocking of the train, it stops. It sits motionless for 15 minutes, then moves 50 feet then sits again. It is like the terrible sensation of being at a traffic light which lasts too long. It is easy to sit for an hour doing nothing. It is hard to sit for 10 minutes waiting for the train to move so you can go back to sleep.

The train stopped at the dock station (30 minute time window) and I walked one block to the titanic Viking cruise ship. I didn’t realize I was taking a full blown cruise. I’ll take a hostel tonight (settled that ten minutes ago). My flight leaves early Wednesday morning. I’ll see how Stockholm is until then. If my return journey somehow included swimming, cycling, and canoeing it would be better. Turku by train, Stockholm by boat, Chicago through some bizarrely complicated flight pattern, and I have a return ticket to Stockholm for September 11th which I do not plan on using. The cheapest flight just happened to require I buy a return journey.

Take The Hidden Paths That Run

Aside

Two days in Oulu were as grey as expected. The first day was not so bad because I had to walk in the rain for a few kilometers with my stuff. The rain felt great, it cooled me down, and made me feel refreshed and alive. But overcast days without rain start to wear on a person, no matter how much one likes a place.

Today I started to feel crummy. Sitting in the arctic town of Rovaniemi and watching the grey river, a faint shimmer of blue was in the distance. “I have to get there.” I walked out of the town up paths paved and unpaved to a large hill. I went up eating blueberries and conversing with them and the pines. The sun finally broke, and I pulled the pistachios out of my pocket and sat on a stump. Troop morale was improving. 26 kilometers and a bit of blue sky does a lot for the mind.

 

No Loyal Friend Was Ever There For Me

There was an echo from my songs.

Between Your Aunts: A Suite

The house was built outside of Kajaani by Joona’s dad and grandpa in ’97. It was light blue, white trim, beautiful wooden interior. A type of duplex, the grandparents lived on one side and Joona’s family on the other. A corridor with a washing machine, main bathroom, and sauna separated the two sections. A traveler had arrived. Joona invited him to extend his stay in the Kainuu region. This was the first time Joona met someone who knew as much about American politics as him.

His grandfather was eager to meet this traveler as well. They greeted each other warmly. First they went back and forth with Basic English greetings, then Finnish. Aarne was surprised that the traveler got barely, but somewhat beyond basic greetings. Joona saw his grandfather continue conversation without pause, and jumped in to translate. And so they sat straight up in their chairs, interrogating calmly and with keen interest. Joona translated.

The traveler had met his grandson the night before over some drinks, and now would stay for a day or so. He had payed his own way to Finland, was not a student, had plans to study but they fell through, knew some languages, was somewhat educated. Aarne was relaxed and was bemused that the traveler had arrived by chance. Then he asked questions about the traveler’s home country. What were his thoughts of the president and other American policies? The grandfather had run a wood manufacturing business in Russia in the 90’s. Chechans and Russians were good workers, but fought when they got drunk. Still. Good workers.

Joona and the traveler sat on the couch and listened to music and read the news. People would arrive in the evening to play Texas Hold ‘Em. They played a brutal round of cards that ended with Joona dominating the group. Grandpa interrupted the game briefly to hash out plans for travelling to the summer cottage. The dealer had to go; Joona fell asleep while the other guests conversed at the table a bit longer. Joona would have to collect his winnings in the morning.

Joona’s parents returned from the summer home.And after coffee and munkki (which is a nice word for jelly doughnut) and rye bread with butter, they prepared to go. Grandpa came into that side of house, grinning, his blue equipment vest and hat on, excited for a day in the countryside. They drove out 40 minutes to the small town of Vuolijoki, population 3,000, Aarne’s hometown.

They passed the local church. They went to visit it. It is impressive how even tiny towns once constructed such beautiful structures. The church was thickly shaped by stones and wood and plasters. In back was a grave site to those who died in the Winter War. The three read quietly reflected, read the names, and ages at which young guys died. When they came to the Civil War memorial, Grandpa looked at the traveler and said, “We did the same once, the same that Ukraine is doing now. Man is a beast.”

They drove a few seconds more and came to the cemetery. Aarne showed them the spots of his parents and two siblings who died young. That section of the cemetery was not as well kept as the other sections. This was noted. The calm air rustled the trees and swept small white mountains around the face of the sun.

The group arrived at a location near the lake with oddly place houses and patios, and statues. The statues were made by Aarne’s friend who passed away. A giant brown statue of President Urho Kekkonen stood 20 feet tall. Mozart, Verdi, Sibelius, and the sculptor were depicted as beautiful white busts. Aarne was in the process of cleaning them up and preparing his departed friend’s work for exhibition.

—–

After removing their shoes they entered cottage. It smelt of aged wood and relaxation, the type of symphonic odor that children find strange for its restfulness, but older people find comforting for its vivaciousness. Country side homes that have accommodated a generation or two all possess this homegrown smell. When they entered the kitchen, Aarne’s brother Hannu was stirring a stove pot filled with blueberries. He was making jam, and behind him was 10 or so mason jars that he had already completed. The scent was subtle, yet sweet.

While they sat and chatted, Kaarina came in. Her smile was broad as the brim of her hat. Her hands were uplifted and she shouted, “Hyvää Paivää, Tervetuloa, Welcome, A wonderful day! I was just picking more blueberries in the garden.” Her eyes were blue and warm. She shot the traveler a hand and sat down, ready to hear the news and happenings. She had lived in Sweden for 20 years doing banking of some sort, but now lived in Helsinki. And here she was now, enjoying the end days of her vacation. The traveler was heartened to see the glee of such a fine person, and though still in his youth, envied her energy. And he remembered George MacDonald, “Old age means strength and beauty and mirth and courage and clear eyes.”

Joona and the traveler left the others and went out to drive to some choice locations: a riverside where horses still drank and Joona used to fish. A country museum of old buildings from the region’s past. A dock where a boat was once stolen. A sharp bend in the road where a winter crash caused a terrible death. A regular grocery store, but the traveler had never stepped into this particular candy aisle before.

—–

The most important of the stops was to Joona’s aunts’ house. Aunt Paula was staying her vacation from Helsinki with Aunt Sirpa. When Joona and the traveler pulled up the two of them were sitting on the porch rocking back and forth. At their feet were two five-gallon jugs of blueberries. “We picked those; you can eat some,” they said. Conversation coursed through current affairs in each person’s life. The aunts invited the boys inside. They asked the traveler to show them his home city on the map; they talked about his home politics and war. Then they talked more about Finnish. Easy parts of conversation switched languages back and forth depending on how much the traveler could grasp. Joona translated for the traveler and for Aunt Sirpa. Discussion turned to Aunt Paula’s many excellent travels past and future.

They retreated from the living room to the dining room for coffee, a slice of blueberry pie, and a little scoop of ice cream. The traveler sat between the aunts who started to imitate the Savo dialect of Finnish. They contorted their faces and sounded like yokels. As they laughed the traveler thought about how the aunts may have been in their youth, when they live and act as happy youth even now, now in their summer vacation.

The savory blueberry pie broke apart in the mouth, the berries danced on the taste buds, and the ice cream turned around and around with the coffee in a harmonious Yin and Yang.

—–

The two young men returned to the cottage and threw an American football for a while. They ran routes, became tired, and the traveler kicked back in a hammock while Joona played basketball. Dinner time came. And a beautiful spread it was. Pea soup, salad, and ruisleipää. Desert would be pancake from the oven, topped with blueberry jam and mallow.

As the five of them ate desert, they watched the European summer sport championships. A Finnish girl, a favorite going in to the race, did not win a medal. She was very broken up. “Sorry Finland,” she said. But Finland came back with glory in the javelin throws. They dominated the competition, taking first, second, and fourth place. For a minute it looked like Finland would win all three medals, and so when they won just the two, disappointment lingered in the air momentarily. The first place winner sensed the situation and pumped his fists, reminding everyone that it was still a big and most excellent victory.

Aarne wanted to know if the traveler knew any good jokes. Unfortunately story jokes were not the traveler’s strength. He only came up with two jokes. However, grandpa brought out a few jokes he learned in Russia. The guys then prepared for sauna. They equipped their feet with crocks and walked toward the lakeside. They placed sausages in a pan over the hot sauna rocks and added a little more wood to the stove. They sat in the heat and grandpa then told more jokes. These ones were Finnish jokes about Russians. Funny, lewd, and short, they were hilarious.

They went out into the cool lake water. It was formerly the third largest lake in Finland, but it shrank. The sky was bursting with clouds of different sorts, struck by the lingering sun from a thousand different angles; light split into a thousand different shades. Knee deep in the cool water the traveler stood looking out. Then he turned, took the soap and shampoo from Hannu and cleaned himself. And thus he took the most peaceful bath in the world before returning to the sauna.